American Evangelicals, it’s time to tell a better story

Famous white Evangelicals: Jonathan Edwards, Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Sr., Ronald Reagan, Jake Angeli

By Brad Hicks

What once to me was a badge of honor, the name Evangelical has become an embarrassment. I see no need to call myself an Evangelical any longer. The moniker served its purpose in the mid-20th century through the 1970s, but for the last forty years the label has been culturally and, I believe, irreparably redefined in American society. I’m saddened that identifying one’s self as an Evangelical today invites derision and division, because the term has become something that it was never intended to be by its well-intentioned originators in the 1940s and 50s.

By its original definition and usage (which I’ll explain), the way I interpret the teachings of scripture are, for the most part, evangelical theologically. Unfortunately, over the last few years, when I’ve said that I’m an Evangelical publicly or that the type of church I attend is evangelical, eyebrows raise on peoples’ foreheads, and I realize that I have some explaining to do. Today, acknowledging my evangelicalism is the same as giving permission for new social acquaintances, readers of my writing, and potential friends to pigeonhole me into a category of Christianity that is associated with being Republican, capitalist, white with racist tendencies (never admitted but nearly always true), a conspiracy theorist, homophobic, an anti-abortionist, an advocate of guns, and a narrow-thinking, stubborn Bible literalist unwilling to merge scriptural truth with some good science and history.

Certainly, my Christian faith informs what I believe about these things, how I dialogue with people about these matters, and how I vote. I’m still figuring out so much about the world and how it integrates with my faith and scripture. But my tipping point runneth over when I hear or read — and this has been disturbingly frequent — Evangelical Christians claiming with utmost judgmental conviction that I am not a Christian if I don’t agree with, and vote for political representatives who espouse, the political, economic, social, and theological agendas I mentioned in the last paragraph!

So, if there were a hill called Evangelical, I see no need to defend it. But the hill called Christian, I certainly do. The moniker Christian, meaning “of Christ’s,” is the name by which we’ve been known since a few of the first followers of Jesus Christ (or followers of the Way, as they were called then) established a church in a local home or possibly a Jewish synagogue in the city of Antioch, located in present-day Turkey. St. Luke recorded that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26), which was likely around 42 AD. Since then, Christians have been made martyrs, countless faithful have endured all manner of suffering and persecution, missionaries have ventured to the uttermost regions of the world in obscurity, without glory or recognition for their ministry — some for the rest of their lives — to share the Christian message, and our identification as Christians has endured and withstood nearly 2,000 years of human weathering, abuse of all kinds, spiritual attacks, and even our own pride, hypocrisy, and bad theology.

By realizing there’s no need to call myself an Evangelical, I am in no way trying to suggest that any other Evangelical should do the same, and I’m certainly not saying that I have any regrets or criticisms of my affiliation with persons or churches that call themselves Evangelical. Good Lord, no! Most of my friends, my (non-political, non-partisan) church to which I belong and love, my mentors and professors from years back, and some of my favorite authors and writers — their worldviews, like mine, are all rooted in evangelical belief. I’m committed to friendship with all of these, and to Evangelical friends yet unmet.

The roots of American Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is a movement that encompasses the majority of Protestant Christian denominations. It’s estimated that there are 80 million Evangelicals in the United States, which is about 25% of the entire population (recent Gallop polls suggest it may be considerably higher). In a very general sense, the only Protestant denominations that are not evangelical are often called Ecumenical or Mainline Protestant denominations. Yet, many of these denominations also have offshoot churches or movements that adhere to evangelical beliefs and practices. Though the worship and working out of daily Christian living might vary among evangelical denominations, Evangelicals tend to agree on four core tenets, which are: 1. Believing that the essence of the Gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, solely through faith in Jesus’s atonement, 2. Receiving such a salvation through a “born again” experience, 3. Accepting the authority and historicity of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity, and 4. Spreading the Christian message. The word evangelical has its etymological roots in the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news”: euangelion, from eu “good”, angel, the stem of, among other words, angelos “messenger, angel”, and the neuter suffix -ion.1

Along with a handful of other Protestant leaders, respected author, theologian and minister, Harold Ockenga, is considered the father and founder of the 1940s evangelical movement, from which modern-day evangelicalism was birthed. Ockenga also helped found Christianity Today magazine, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the National Association of Evangelicals. Almost two centuries before Ockenga came onto the scene the term evangelical was used as an adjective to describe a series of spiritual revivals — called the Great Awakenings or the Evangelical Revivals — that swept Great Britain and America during a period of about 180 years between the mid-18th century through the early-20th century. The writings and sermons by the personalities who led these evangelical revivals and movements — such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, and Aimee Semple McPherson — continue to be published, revered, and quoted by many of today’s evangelical preachers, teachers, and students.

By the early 20th century, as a result of the evangelical revivals in the United States, new evangelical Protestant churches and denominations were spawned. During the first half of the century, as denominations normally do, the evangelical Protestant denominations were split between conservative fundamentalist churches and liberal modernist churches. Then, in the late 1940s and into the 50s, Ockenga and his associates (among them Billy Graham, Charles E. Fuller, and Carl F. H. Henry) organized a distinct movement from within the fundamentalist churches called Neo-Evangelicalism, forming a new generation of evangelical Christian adherents set on moving away from their fundamentalist brethren’s separatism and militant Bible stance toward a more relational theological stance, which would include engaging in dialogue with opponents, encouraging an intellectual approach to theological issues, and practicing tolerance and peaceful means to resolving differences. At first, members of the new group were known by Ockenga’s term, Neo-Evangelicals, but soon they were to be called simply Evangelicals. They would be more socially conscious while increasing the application of biblical truths to their social, political, and economic activism, and within a few years their sharp commitment to world missions would spread the tenets of the evangelical movement to every continent on Earth. In 2016, there were an estimated 619 million Evangelicals in the world, meaning that one in four Christians would be classified as evangelical.2

My 40-year experience with Evangelicalism

America’s political and social problems in the 1960s and early-70s were, in my opinion, more tumultuous than the upheaval that we’re experiencing now. These were the years of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, civil rights and war protests, race riots in Harlem, Watts, and Detroit, the Kent State shootings, Watergate, and President Richard Nixon’s forced resignation. But what is more tumultuous today than in any other time that I can remember is the identity of the American Evangelical movement. What began with Ockenga in the 40s and 50s with intellectual integrity, a spirit of toleration, ecumenism, concerned social activism, and gospel outreach, I believe, is currently in the midst, and in desperate need, of radical reform or some kind of formal disassociation from the current right-wing, politically aligned evangelicalism. Media psychologist and assistant professor at Biola University’s School of Cinema and Media Arts, Dr. Lisa Swain, goes as far as to suggest, “Rather than asking what needs to be reformed in evangelicalism, perhaps the better question is what needs to die?”3

Born in 1961, I was too young to understand all of the turmoil of the 60s and early-70s. I was simply enjoying the all-day carefree play of a small-town kid. I do, however, remember that two days after the murder of Dr. King, on April 6, 1968, there was a horrific explosion in the downtown area of my hometown, Richmond, Indiana, in which 41 people were killed. At first, we thought it may have been in retaliation to King’s assassination, but it wasn’t; it was the result of a natural gas leak in a sporting goods store that ignited a large supply of gunpowder in the store.

But I digress. In the 60s and early-70s …

I also wasn’t yet a Christian. My family had nothing to do with church or Christianity until the late-70s, so I knew nothing about the problems that the American Christian church may have been facing in those days. My parents and my two brothers and I started going to an evangelical church in 1977. After graduating high school in 1979, over the next six years I attended two Evangelical Christian colleges, finishing in 1986, and for the next 34 years, to this day, the four churches I’ve attended have all been evangelical — non-denominational, Presbyterian, Friends (Quaker), and, currently, an Evangelical Covenant church. It was in college that I first heard of and learned about evangelicalism and that I might even be an Evangelical Christian. (Oh my, and I thought up until then that I was just a Christian, but I now had a first and a last name!) I faintly remember that at one, if not both, of the colleges I attended, various Harold Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry books were required reading.

Before I started taking classes full-time at Rockmont/CCU I worked for a local Evangelical Christian publication called New Life Magazine, which was politically right-wing and ultra-conservative. Before I started working at New Life, I knew very little about what those terms meant, I just thought that it was all Christian, and that other views were held by, well, non-Christians or, even more pagan, the liberals (aaa!), as I was taught. I started at New Life in September 1983. America was in its seventh consecutive year of experiencing Evangelical Christian presidents — Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-81) and Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-89) — and Jerry Falwell, Sr., and his Moral Majority were at the peak of their powers and their right-wing, conservative, Evangelical Christian political agenda.

Let’s pause right here for a moment.

Friends, if you want to know when today’s conservative Evangelical Christian character began to be infamously redefined in American culture, you just read it — it was when the Moral Majority propagandists, from about 1979 through the end of Reagan’s presidency in 1989, successfully persuaded Evangelicals that their Christian identity should be defined by a conservative political agenda, and they at long last were able to taste significant political power. From that time until now, to be a conservative Evangelical Christian meant to be white, Republican, pro-family, pro-life, anti-gay, anti-feminist, pro-defense, pro-guns, and pro-Israel; and at the same time, most of the same conservative Evangelical Christians added to their agenda a religious witch-hunt element, denouncing as “New Age” (and, thus, demonic) many movements, philosophies, and causes that they didn’t agree with or understand, especially if they originated in Asia or with American Indians. It was a successful merging of religion and politics, of church and state. And look where it’s gotten us in 2021, after four years that in many ways has reverted American society back sixty years to the problematic days of the 1960s and early-70s.

Decide for yourself

The storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2020, cemented for me that my long-held instincts were correct about the underlying intents of a frightening number of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, influenced by politically-driven preaching and teaching in their churches and schools, in the media, and by internet conspiracy theories such as Qanon. Of course, there are still millions of intelligent, discerning Evangelicals who don’t align themselves with the Evangelical Christian nationalist ideologues who were among those that overtook the Capitol. Yes, there are still plenty of compassionate Evangelicals who hold that scripture passages in the gospels like the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ injunction to care for the “least of these” are more our Christian mandate than gaining political power in our human governments. But the gauntlet has been thrown down. We live in an age in which the internet, social media, and television are the media by which culture and popular opinion are swayed. And the media — except for Fox News, a proliferator of a whole other false narrative about the American political and religious landscapes — has chosen the behavior and political agenda of the extremists and violent fringes of the Evangelical movement by which to label all Evangelicals. This narrative will be trending for a long while, and I believe it will worsen.

So, I see no need to call myself an Evangelical any longer. My heroes, whose lives I’ve either been a part of or studied, each in their unique and flawed (nix Jesus as flawed) ways have taught and keep teaching me how to be human, how to be courageous, how to embrace my weaknesses and sorrow, how to receive and offer grace, and/or how to show up as an authentic Christian in the world. None of these felt the need to call themselves an Evangelical.

Michael Hicks (my brother)
Chuck Orwiler
Mary Heathman
Jim May
Muhammed Ali
Elton Trueblood
Jesse Edward Hicks (my grandfather)
Flora Rodgers (my grandmother)
Martin Luther King, Jr.
C.S. Lewis
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Abraham Lincoln
St. Paul
Jesus

If Evangelicals and all Christians hope to change the narrative of the guardians of American public opinion about us, or (to give it a biblical spin) if we hope to be read as a New Testament epistle by a world watching and by some even hoping that what we say we possess is real — that is, Christ himself, the hope of glory — then we must tell a better story. An atheist philosopher once wrote, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.”4

So, what story do we want to tell? What sort of epistle can we write that Christ might be made known to the world as its savior and deserving of all praise, honor, and glory? How about this one?

We won! We made America great again. We kept our guns. We reversed Roe v. Wade, so women can now only get illegal abortions. We built walls and kept the Mexicans, Latinos, Hispanics, Muslims, and Asians out. We kept Blacks in their place and away from our jobs, as God commanded in Genesis 9:24. We shut the mouths of all Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and Globalists and kept them out of office. And we demolished all our enemies by the sovereign hand of Almighty God. Praise you for helping us, Jesus!

Do you think this is hyperbole, friends? Watch the video below. Scroll to the 7:55 mark. Watch and listen to the 1 minute, 25 second very Evangelical Christian prayer said by the man who took the dais during the storming of the Capitol, you know, the wild guy we’ve seen a million times on the news and YouTube wearing a fur hat topped with buffalo horns and wielding a spear. If you don’t want to view it, here’s what he says:

Jesus Christ, we invoke your name! (Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space.) Thank you, heavenly father, for gracing us with this opportunity. Thanks to our heavenly father for this opportunity to stand up for our God-given unalienable rights. Thank you, heavenly father, for being the inspiration needed to these police officers to allow us into this building, to allow us to exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists, and the globalists, that this is our nation, not theirs, that we will not allow the America, the American way of the United States of America, to go down. Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God, for filling this chamber with your white light and love, with your white light of harmony. Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you and love Christ. Thank you, divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God for blessing each and every one of us here and now. Thank you, divine creator God, for surrounding each one of us with the divine omnipresent white light of love and protection, peace and harmony. Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you, in Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.

What I’m saying is not hyperbole. These people may be the extreme and on the fringes of today’s evangelicalism, but I want us to see that this is the logical end to what the Moral Majority’s political agenda started forty years ago. More importantly, I want us to understand that it is this evangelical milieu by which the world increasingly defines us.

I know a better story that we can tell, told by those who observe the world and themselves with Christ’s eyes, who’ve been granted an empathetic glimpse of its and our own need. May an epistle like this be read when the world watches and hopes in us.

We saw the world’s poverty and, thus, we saw our own impoverished spirit. We mourned from a place of shared sorrow over our common helplessness. We became meek, not because we’re inherently meek, but through realizing our shared longing to be known. We blanketed ourselves in Christ’s righteousness, because we knew we had none. We practiced mercy, not because it came naturally to us — as we were, by nature, hateful, unforgiving, and vengeful — but because the Merciful One forgave us.

We didn’t kid ourselves, our motives were never pure; but Christ made his home in our hearts and, somehow, unexplainably, we began engaging from a place of life rather than from shame and death. We tried to resolve our quarrels peacefully, when it was in our power to do so, because peace is a hallmark of the kingdom of God, our true country. We expected to be mocked, hated, and rejected by some when we retold truth, because Christ, the embodiment of truth, was mocked, hated, and rejected; and we resolved that truth cannot die — it always resurrects.

This is the story of our healing and of God healing the world. Today, with joy, we show up in the world and feed it, quench its thirst, welcome it inside our borders, clothe it, heal its wounds and diseases, thaw its frozen, and brighten its shadow. We do all this because we awoke to the reality that each of us is enjoined in the company of the least.


1 William Danker, Frederick A. (1957). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.). The University of Chicago Press.

2 How Many Evangelicals Are There? (January 30, 2016) Wheaton College: Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.

3 Swain, Lisa, PhD (Dec. 29, 2019). “What Galli May Not Get: Evangelicalism Doesn’t Need Another Reformation — It Needs to Die.” Medium.com

4 Girrier, Bill (2011). Citing Friedrich Nietzsche in Fruition – Reflections on a Life Grafted-In. WestBow Press.

Published by Louder For Malchus

Hi! Brad here. Avid learner, nature nerd, sports-stats geek, publisher, writer, editor, and a Christian. I try to pay attention ... for a word that God might be saying to me. I keep my inner sense attuned for something "prophetic" or "numinous" in good writing, film, music, art of any kind, in all created nature, in spirited conversation, in prayer, or simply in my quiet thoughts. "Louder For Malchus" is about paying attention so we might truly hear. I believe that we only really live "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God," wrote the Deuteronomist whom Jesus quoted. Then, once heard, obey, become, and do. He doesn't speak to amuse and entertain.

2 thoughts on “American Evangelicals, it’s time to tell a better story

  1. Brad, my old friend, I have one word to say about your piece, Bullshit.
    I have not read such a condescending moralization to justify one’s personal opinion in all my life.
    There no link between being a Christian, a flawed sinful person only redeemed by his faith that God will fulfill his promise of redemption, and political opinions and actions of free men in a country that believes we have God given inalienable rights. Those rights include believing and worshiping God as we are convicted to do. They include freedom of thought and speech, and association. You condemn these gifts from God in your tripe about organized religion and politics.
    The fact that you even mention White Supremacy shows ignorance. To the left White Supremacy means western Christian based values, opinions and ideals. There is no surge of racism, fascism or any other hate in the church. In fact it is quite the opposite. Hiweve the church has been infiltrated by the left with anti intellectualism, fascism, dogma, virtue signaling and self justification.
    The church in America has been on a steep decline, as has reason and understanding of the God we serve. Your piece illustrates this perfectly.
    Brother, I am sorry to be so harsh but the church is being divided similarly to the culture, and drivel like this only driving this divide. We require unity and openness, not dogma.

    Like

    1. I’m glad I got you thinking, Jeff, even if your conclusion was that all I wrote was bullshit. I heard something similar from Greg, your brother, only he mixed a lot of Qanon “truth” in with his rant against me. If you’re not of the brand of evangelicalism that I was writing about, then great. Millions of others are, and they’re holding up to the world a false Christ and are tarnishing the gospel. In John 18, Jesus told Pilate that the reason he was born and came into the world was to testify to the truth and that everyone on the side of truth listens to him. I pray that we both are doing our best to listen to him.

      Liked by 1 person

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