Evading Evangelicalism (Jul-Oct 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ron Holifield
July – October, 2008

I might be an evangelical.

At least George Barna says I am. Here’s his definition of an evangelical people:

  1. Have made a personal commitment to Jesus
  2. Believe they will go to heaven because of their confession of sins and accepting of Christ as savior
  3. Say their faith is very important
  4. Believe they have a personal responsibility to share the good news of Jesus
  5. Believe Satan exists and salvation comes through grace
  6. Believe that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth and that the Bible is true
  7. Describe God as the all-knowing, all–powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today

I am not ashamed of Jesus, and I am not ashamed for anyone to know that I would consider myself described in the terms Barna uses to define an evangelical.

Unfortunately, the world that doesn’t know Jesus doesn’t read Barna. And I must confess I am growing increasingly ashamed and embarrassed to be associated with the politicized definition of evangelicalism being conveyed to a world that doesn’t know Jesus. It seems that evangelicalism has become more about power than persuasion, more about money than manifestation, and more about holier than thou than healing the hurting.

In the eyes of unbelievers, evangelicals are defined by those who most loudly proclaim to speak for Christians . . . by those who claim to represent me. I recently spent several days surfing the “religious” channels and the “political” channels on cable TV to understand evangelicalism through the eyes of an unbeliever who has never read Barna, and who can only define evangelicals by what they are exposed to in the mainstream.

It is important to note that in my “church and state tour” of cable TV, I only gave credence to what was said by someone who openly proclaimed to be a Christian, and represented themselves as a Christian voice. I did not include any critic of the religious right or any talking head offered up to counter a pundit from the religious right. Nor did I include comedians even though they often are the greatest truth tellers of all. And I did not include the intentionally incendiary comments of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who both frequently claim to speak on behalf of a Christian perspective (often in amazingly un-Christ-like ways), though I’ve never actually heard them claim to be devoted Christ followers (they may very well claim such, but I have not heard it).

I tried to embrace the perspective of an unbeliever who is truly curious about Christians and politics and is figuratively asking the question “who do you say that you are?” to those who claim to represent the evangelical perspective, and listen to their responses via my “church and state tour” of cable TV. Through the eyes of an unbeliever seeking understanding I discovered:

You might be an evangelical if . . .

  • You believe global warming is a hoax.
  • You believe the best way to help the poor is make sure the very richest get more–lots more.
  • You believe we should have prayer in schools.
  • You believe the world is ours to dominate and that we should not be worrying about environmental issues because it is all going to burn up soon anyway.
  • You believe it is appropriate foreign policy to assassinate world leaders who give us problems.
  • You believe it is appropriate to have a taxation system in which a secretary making $40,000 a year pays a higher proportion of her salary in taxes than a corporate CEO making millions of dollars a month.
  • You believe abortion is wrong under any circumstances, including rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger.
  • You believe the evils of taxing corporations and the rich outweigh the evils of millions of children receiving substandard or no healthcare.
  • You believe science is just another word for secular humanism.
  • You believe God wants you to be rich, and the fastest way to get rich is to send money to a televangelist.
  • You believe the earth is only 6,000 years old and that carbon dating is false, and that dinosaurs were on the earth during man’s recorded history.
  • You believe human torture is justified if it makes us safer.
  • You believe it is appropriate for prodigious amounts of money to be spent on behalf of candidates and issues through secret political action committees that keep the one influencing an election secret.
  • You believe it is appropriate for the federal government to take control of end of life decisions of your terminally ill family members regardless of what the closest family and doctors think.
  • You believe we need to create aggressive and harsh policies to make illegal aliens want to go home.
  • You believe that many of America’s problems are the results of our embracing the homosexual agenda.

The first reaction of many readers will be that I have portrayed a narrow and extreme view of evangelical perspectives, as well as a very limited view of evangelical belief, which creates an unduly negative perspective. I plead guilty but with the caveat that I have portrayed such a narrow edged definition of evangelicals because that is exactly the image that a seeking unbeliever is left with from watching evangelical voices advocate their own positions on cable TV. During my “church and state” tour of cable TV I did not hear a single evangelical voice advocating for the poor . . . I did not hear a single evangelical voice cautioning against love of money . . . I did not hear a single evangelical voice advocating control of the tongue . . . I did not hear a single evangelical voice advocating a loving spirit . . . All of which are consistent and major themes of Jesus’s teaching.

My “church and state tour” of cable TV, was neither scientific nor statistically precise, just as an unbeliever who is seeking to understand evangelicalism would not have been scientific on his or her journey. Indeed, many of the self appointed voices of evangelicalism who portrayed the individual perspectives detailed above would not agree with many other of the comments. The point is not preciseness, but perspective.

And from the perspective of the unbeliever who seeks understanding of evangelical views, mere inconsistency of politicized evangelical talking points with the Bible (how we are to treat aliens and the poor, what it means to be stewards of God’s earth, shouting about the homosexual agenda, while distributing misinformation via the internet about those we disagree with when gossip and homosexual behavior are literally condemned in the same biblical sentence), melds into hypocrisy and sometimes morphs into such bizarre perspectives that comedians who fail to ridicule the theatre of absurd theology would be committing professional malpractice.

One self appointed voice made headlines for his claim that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for America’s embracing of the homosexual agenda, presumably because New Orleans is known for its sexual debauchery. I was actually on the ground in New Orleans in the months following Katrina, and one of the most dramatic contrasts was the almost total destruction in parts of town previously comprised of very small frame houses occupied by the deeply poverty stricken, with the debauchery of Bourbon Street still shamelessly open for business, almost untouched by the devastation.

To actually embrace the theology that Katrina was punishment for the homosexual agenda in America demands a God who is too incompetent to aim straight, or a God who says to those who are profiting greatly from debauchery, “I will show you . . . I am going to drown hundreds and hundreds of those too poor to live anywhere else, I am going to make parents helplessly watch as their children are washed away screaming for help, I am going to traumatize children as they watch their parents drown in front of them as I make them orphans, I am going to make those who struggle week to week just to survive jobless, I am going to make homeless and take every worldly possession from tens of thousands of the poorest of the poor . . . I am going to show you how angry I am by punishing those whom you prey upon.” And the God demanded by this theology would do all of this while leaving untouched the presumed target of His wrath–Bourbon Street. Only ignorance of the facts on the ground in New Orleans, combined with a distorted theology of a God who is willing to punish the innocent in horrific ways to make His point to targets of his wrath without inconveniencing them too much can you embrace such theology of the absurd.

This theology of the absurd also made headlines this year when yet another self appointed voice proclaimed that the Holocaust was simply part of God’s plan to bring the Jews home to Israel . . . that God had planned, designed and executed on his agenda to create a home for Israel by causing the horrific torture and execution of Jews in the most ghastly ways imaginable during the Holocaust. It would take hours to describe all of the satanically inspired ways that Jews were tortured. Some of the most famous and well documented were the experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele. Dozens of different experiments were conducted on twins including squirting various chemicals into their eyes to see if they could be made to change color, and even literally sewing twin children together to artificially create conjoined twins to see what would happen over time.

The suggestion that such actions were planned by God and were the best way He could figure out to accomplish His plan, demands a theology of a God who is so inept that He could not accomplish His end in ways that were consistent with His nature, or a God whose nature is not what the Bible says it is.

In the world of political evangelicalism, the broad tendency of conservative white Christians is to become indignant over black Democratic pastors who make inflammatory comments absent the spirit of Christ, while being nonchalant about white Republican pastors who make inflammatory comments absent the spirit of Christ. But if our calling as Christians is to bring the Good News of Jesus to a hurting world, and to demonstrate to them the reality of God’s love in physical form, politicized evangelicalism is hurting the cause, not advancing it – regardless of the skin color of the evangelical power broker involved.

If we take seriously our call to bring Good News to a broken and hurting world, we must take seriously the damage being done by the politicization of Jesus. In the eyes of those we want to reach, Christianity is becoming increasingly marginalized, not just because of secular humanists who are trying to force God away from us, but also because of evangelical power brokers who are trying to force God onto us. The evangelical power brokers are leading us away from a faith defined movement that truly believes we need to become more like Jesus and towards becoming just another political interest group fighting for our share of the power pie . . . while constantly spewing enough inflammatory rhetoric to ensure their political power base will keep sending checks in.

The reality is that Christians who feel called to authentic evangelical outreach to a hurting world are increasingly embarrassed by those who are shouting loudest that they represent evangelicalism. Is it any coincidence that some of the most embarrassing situations for both Obama and McCain have come from evangelical power brokers who carry the title of reverend or minister or pastor? Instead of prompting the candidates to be more caring, more loving, more compassionate (more like Jesus) . . . too many of these evangelical power brokers have tended towards arrogance and self importance, with a willingness to distort the core message of the Bible to attain power and prestige and money.

Jesus said that the entire law could be summed up by “love God and love each other.” If evangelicals believe the Bible is true . . . shouldn’t the clear and unmistakable hallmark of Christians who are engaged in politics be a loving spirit regardless of their position on a given issue?

James said that pure religion was caring for the widows and orphans. If evangelicals believe the Bible is true, shouldn’t Christians who are engaged in politics be known for advancing pure religion instead of advocating for the rich and the powerful?

In Leviticus we are told “when an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God . . . You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.” If evangelicals believe the Bible is true, shouldn’t Christians who are engaged in politics be known for their compassion and concern for illegal aliens and immigrants?

Do we see the Jesus of the New Testament when we see evangelical power brokers in action?

The explicit biblical benchmark for how the world will know we are true disciples of Jesus is “how we treat each other.” If evangelicals believe the Bible is true, does this mean that the corollary is true as well . . . that the world will know who are not true disciples by “how we treat each other” as well?

Unfortunately, our tendency is to justify forwarding gossip laden nasty emails about candidates we don’t like, or taking joy in the winning strategy of a candidate who starts false rumors about another candidate (as Bush did to McCain and his adopted daughter in the South Carolina primary during the 2004 election cycle), or cheering on Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter in their most un Christ like diatribes about the other side, by explaining how bad the target of our ire is. Instead of situational ethics we embrace situational faith… we believe the Bible is true except when it gets in the way of advancing our political position because the “stakes are so high”.

We forget when Peter wrote that we should submit ourselves to the authority of government, and “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering”, that Nero was the emperor and incredible atrocities were being committed against Christians. It is hard to imagine anything on the current political landscape that could be compared to how high the stakes were for Christians during the time of Nero (the Holocaust may be the closest thing we can compare to in the modern world). And yet, Peter wrote that despite an environment of incredible governmental cruelty and misdeeds, Christians should submit to authority because “it is God’s will that by doing good you should silent the ignorant talk of foolish men.”

In other words Peter was explicitly addressing the specific way that Christians should combat government officials (and candidates) who are advancing causes which are even literally violent in their opposition to the cause of Christ – we are told to do combat BY DOING GOOD. When we embrace gossip and innuendo and mean spiritedness and engage in symmetrical political warfare… we ignore the explicit teachings of the Bible about how we are to respond to such situations.

Evangelical power brokers shout about how much they believe the Bible is true, when it comes to the “homosexual agenda”, while ignoring far more extensive discussions in the Bible of our call to demonstrate a loving spirit, to control our tongue, and to demonstrate to the world the reality of our discipleship by how we treat each other. In so doing, they actually embrace the real “homosexual agenda” which they claim to abhor.

The real “homosexual agenda” has nothing to do with sex. The real homosexual agenda and the real agenda of the evangelical power brokers is identical – to selectively interpret the Bible in ways that reinforce their personal views and wishes and desires and allow them the freedom to decide for themselves, on their terms, what is right and what is wrong.

And I am prepared to stand up against the misinterpretation of the Bible by the evangelical power brokers. I am prepared to make a stand anywhere and anytime for the cause of Christ. I am prepared to provide an alternative viewpoint that will shed real light on where they are wrong. I am prepared to show them the error of their ways. I am prepared to call their hand on their misdeeds. I am prepared to do battle with the evangelical power brokers. I am prepared to stand in the gap and let the world know what hypocrites they are. I am prepared to take up a sword if necessary to defend the Holy Word of God!

And Jesus quietly whispers into my ear… “Satan, get behind me.” He whispers to me that I have just embraced the real homosexual agenda – making it all about me and my interpretation and my views and my values. He gently suggests that if I will just focus all of my heart… all of my energy… all of my wealth… on loving others by doing good He will take care of the other stuff.

“Do you see Jesus in the actions of the evangelical power brokers?” is an important question.

But it fades in comparison to the question of whether others see Jesus in my actions. Do others see Jesus in what I forward via the internet? Do others see Jesus in the political jokes I tell? Do others see Jesus in what I cheer for in candidates I oppose and what I condemn in candidates I support? Do others truly see the radically counter cultural, irrationally gentle and loving spirit of Jesus in me, or do they just see me mindlessly taking sides in a political power struggle because I think I am on the “right” side?

I don’t think I want to be called an evangelical anymore. Not because I am not evangelical… but because I AM evangelical.

Paul said he would become anything he needed to be to reach people for Jesus. Maybe it is time for me to quit being something that keeps me from reaching people for Jesus.

If I will become more of a devoted Christ follower and less of an evangelical… maybe I will spend less time watching all the special interest power groups shouting at each other on cable TV, and spend more time actually doing good to those Jesus calls me to touch. Maybe I will become more humble and less of a hypocrite. Maybe I will become less confident I have all the answers and more loving. Maybe I will become more willing to be judged, and less willing to judge.

Maybe I will become more like Jesus.New Wineskins

You can start or join a thread about this article in the discussion forums for this issue, At the Intersection of Church and State.

Ron HolifieldDuring a two decade career in city management, Ron Holifield was known as a change management specialist who dramatically transformed the organizations he led. Honored by Texas Business Magazine as leading one of the ten best managed cities in Texas, D Magazine profiled him as “the music man’ for transforming the way an entire community saw itself.

In 1999, Ron launched Strategic Government Resources. Clients include over 160 cities, as well as numerous Fortune 500 companies. In 2001, Ron also launched Good Stewards, a non profit collaborative effort among churches and non profit organizations to lower their costs for goods and services, including electricity, by aggregating demand and leveraging their combined buying power.

A 1980 graduate of Abilene Christian University, Ron took a leave of absence from SGR to serve as Executive Minister during a period of transition at his family’s church. In 2005 he assisted the team that launched the Church Administrators Network. Ron also continues as part of the leadership team who launched the Christian Leaders Benefits Alliance in 2006, an effort to create a collaborative effort among restoration heritage churches to offer high quality but reasonable cost health insurance.

Ron returned to the full time helm of SGR in January and is now exploring ways to create collaborative initiatives with other independently owned businesses to find appropriate and effective ways to “become Jesus” in the marketplace. Ron is married to Cynthia who spent her career as a Children’s Minister for Richland Hills Church of Christ, Rolling Hills Church of Christ, and Southlake Boulevard Church. His daughter Lauren is a senior Art Major at ACU, and his son Austin is a 9th grader at Liberty Christian.

The website for SGR is [www.GovernmentResource.com], while the website for the Christian Leaders Benefits Alliance is [www.CLBA.org]. Ron can be reached at [Ron@GovernmentResource.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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