Well, I'm an evangelical and I'm not upset. Indeed, I think its time for evangelicals to reclaim evangelicalism from the Religious Right.
First, allow me to explain why I call myself an "evangelical." The word comes from "evangel," which means "Gospel." In the most basic sense, then, anyone who is serious about believing the Gospel is an evangelical. In recent times, however, the term has come to refer more specifically to those Christian people, both within and outside of the mainline denominations, who have given a specific "spin" to what it means to believe the Gospel.
While we distance ourselves from the fundamentalists, who take a literalist approach to "creation science" and who think the Catholic Church is a tool of Satan, we do take the Bible's authority very seriously, and we believe that the way to be right with God is to be "born again"-- to experience the new life that comes from knowing Jesus personally. We are actively committed to Billy Graham's kind of evangelism: we believe that God wants us to encourage all people to come to know Jesus as their personal Savior.
In those ways, I am a committed evangelical. And that means I believe things that are not very popular in our culture. Many people today are offended when they find out that people like me believe that Jesus is the only true Savior, and that we need to guide our lives by what the Bible teaches, even when it goes against the grain of "enlightened" human thought. I am currently President of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the most influential evangelical schools in the country, which is dedicated to this view.
And this means that on many issues I do agree with the folks on the Religious Right. I can't get excited about liberal candidates who, for example, try to outdo each in their zeal for abortion rights and the political agenda of gay activist groups. And I worry about how the entertainment industry is undermining traditional family values. Indeed, these days I consider myself a "cultural conservative," and I vote for candidates that I would not have imagined supporting back in my earlier days, when I actually joined a group called "Evangelicals for McGovern."
But neither can I simply endorse the program of the Religious Right. The Christian Coalition and the now-defunct Moral Majority have focused on specific practices that they disapprove of -- abortion, homosexual lifestyles, pornography. But they have been insensitive to many of the more basic patterns of injustice in our society. What about the ways in which women have been discriminated against? What about the desperately poor? What about the industries that have contributed to the global warming that is wreaking havoc in our environment?
I find the Religious Right to be wrong on some of the issues I care about. In the not-too-distant past, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gave encouragement to those who were committed to preserving South African apartheid. When George W. Bush recently visited Bob Jones University, he was on a campus that not only promotes a racist ideology, but that has also welcomed Ian Paisley, the chief anti-Catholic opponent of a peaceful resolution to the Northern Ireland troubles. And Religious Rightists have aggressively pursued their anti-gay agenda without showing a willingness to repent of their often inexcusable cruelty to homosexuals.
The Religious Rightists also seem confused about what they are aiming for in the public arena. We evangelicals tend to think that we have only two choices when it comes to political action: stay out of politics altogether, or try to take over the system and "Christianize" it.
For many decades in the twentieth century, evangelicals chose the first option. We shunned political activism as too "worldly." Our task, we were convinced, was to limit ourselves to evangelistic activity. We concentrated on getting people "saved" in order to get ready for heaven. This is the sort of religious outlook that Jerry Falwell advocated in the early days of his ministry. He now tells the story about how, back in the days of the civil rights movement, he preached a sermon criticizing Martin Luther King on the grounds that preachers had no business speaking out about political issues.
When we get into this take-over mode, we say and do a lot of things that make non-evangelicals nervous. The truth is that the "great" America of the past was not a very friendly place for, say, native Americans, blacks, Jews--or even Irish Catholics.