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Richard Mouw: Despite Trumpism, I’m not quitting evangelicalism

Richard Mouw is a professor of faith and public life and the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Image courtesy of Richard Mouw

This is a guest post by Richard Mouw:

(RNS) Some of my friends have been talking about giving up the “evangelical” label because of what it has come to be associated with in this year’s political campaign. I’m not ready to make that move. I spent a good part of the 1960s trying hard not to be an evangelical, but without success.

When I marched for civil rights during my graduate school years, I helped to organize “ban the bomb” marches and protested the Vietnam War. I was clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of the day.

When one key evangelical leader suggested that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was being used by the Communists to undercut American values, I came close to resigning from the movement. But when I realized I had nowhere else to go theologically and spiritually, I simply hung on and hoped for better days.

Image courtesy of Brazos Press

Richard Mouw is a professor of faith and public life and the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Image courtesy of Brazos Press

And the better days did come in the early 1970s, as many of us who had survived the previous decades as politically lonely evangelicals on secular campuses began to search each other out.

We finally had an evangelical homecoming experience in 1973, when 40 of us — including some of the older evangelical leaders who wanted to encourage us younger ones — gathered on the weekend of Thanksgiving of 1973 in the YMCA in downtown Chicago, to produce “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.”

Our call for a new evangelical commitment to justice and peacemaking received much publicity. Time magazine observed, for example, that this was the first time American evangelicals ever spent a whole weekend talking about social justice issues.

The evangelical activism that we called for in Chicago soon took a different direction with the emergence of the Moral Majority in 1980, and various manifestations of the religious right since then.

The recent campaign, where key evangelical leaders compared to King David a candidate who boasted of sexual immorality, mimicked disabled persons, and encouraged racist and anti-immigrant expressions, was a serious setback for those of us who had promoted an evangelical commitment to justice and peacemaking in the early 1970s.

Thus the conviction of many of my friends that “evangelical” is no longer a label they can own.

But I am not giving up.

Good things have also been happening during this past year. In January, 15,000 evangelical college students attending a major gathering sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship enthusiastically applauded a call by an African-American speaker to work diligently against racial injustice.

This past summer, two evangelical denominations — the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America — issued declarations repenting of their racism, past and present. For those of us who remember evangelicalism in the 1950s and ‘60s, these are important signs — even in the midst of our present post-election despondency — that we have come a long way.

But it goes deeper for me.

I regularly spend time as a guest speaker on evangelical undergraduate campuses, and the students I meet are an inspiration. They care about the integrity of God’s creation. They want to put an end to homelessness, sex trafficking, the horrors of warfare. They are inspired by the marvelous growth of the Christian churches — often under very difficult conditions — in the Global South.

They reject the mean-spiritedness of some of the older generation of evangelicals —witness the case of the large number of students at Liberty University who protested the enthusiastic support that their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., offered to Donald Trump.

The seminary I serve is the largest accredited theological school in North America, with students from about 70 nations. I recently met a new international student from a tribal culture and I asked her why she had chosen to study at Fuller Seminary. Her answer: “Because I want my people to come to know Jesus!”  That response was a good reminder for me about why — try as I may sometimes — I cannot give up on being an evangelical.

(Richard Mouw served as president of Fuller Theological Seminary in California for 20 years. Today, he remains at the school as professor of faith and public life. He is author of many books, including “Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Good“)

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

22 Comments

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  • “””For those of us who remember evangelicalism in the 1950s and ‘60s”””

    An important note – the number of people who remember that declines by the minute. A Historical Meaning defense of Evangelicalism misses the point – that the label is no longer useful, so why keep it? Loyalty to a mere label, for which a defense must be mounted?

    “””Her answer: “Because I want my people to come to know Jesus!””””

    Yes; she did not say – because I am an Evangelical. The very reason those who are abandoning the label would give for doing so.

  • “Loyalty to a mere label”

    That’s all of human history, my friend. It’s tribalism all the way down.

  • Basar can mean either meat or proclaiming good news. (The Hebrew words are slightly different.) Why these two different meanings? “Proclaiming good news” is the original meaning. Apparently, one of the results of giving good news was the preparation of sheep or lamb (“flesh”) to eat as celebration.

  • Ultimately, “evangelical” is an English word. Yes, it happens to be *derived* from the Greek, but it is what it is. There is no equivalent English word derived from the Hebrew, and to try to coin one now… honestly, it would be an enterprise doomed to failure.

  • Labels are often confusing and not always agreed upon. Evangelicals feel the overwhelming need to vigorously foist their ideas and beliefs on their fellow Americans (including legislation) and the rest of the world. This is how I view them. How much they differ in how literally they accept the bible, I’m not sure of.

  • From the time of the Apostles missionaries have faced great difficulties and dangers, it is part of the baggage that comes with the journey and is to be expected from a world both hungry for the Gospel and hostile to it.

  • ok got it. Well there are several reasons why evangelicals don’t use the form of this Hebrew word. For one thing, it refers to news or “tidings,” not necessarily good ones. For example, in I Samuel 4:17, where it says, “Vaya’an hamvaser,” the one who reported the news, it is not good news: Israel was fleeing the Philistines, two of Eli’s sons died, and the Ark of the Covenant was stolen.
    “Euangelion,” on the other hand, literally means good news and the word is found in the New Testament itself. Why use Greek instead of Hebrew? It is a question that goes beyond this particular issue. Ultimately it is a function of the Jesus movement moving from a Jewish sect to a mostly non-Jewish Christian religion. There are theories about possible gospels written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but the ones we have and that were canonized are of course in Greek.

  • Just add the adjective “tovah”. “Besorah [news] tovah [good]” would be the Hebrew equivalent of “euangelion”.
    If “evangelical Christian” has too many negative connotations in American culture, then, “besorah tovah Christian” would be an alternative term.

  • There are many evangelicals who with their pastors and churches, have “stuck to their knitting” and put their time and energies into spiritual growth, instead of political action. This gentleman would do well to go looking for one of those!

    When God chooses to raise up a Martin Luther King to challenge that era’s political expediency of racial discrimination through political as well as moral means, then that’s God’s business. We haven’t had a Martin Luther King in our midst in quite a long time. Most of the “pretenders” like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, have simply used the movement to feather their own nests!

  • It is ironic I spoke recently with my Orthodox Rabbi Counselor about good news and I said I thought Isaiah 40-55 speaks of the return from Babylon as “good news.” I looked it up and indeed these chapters do include the word basar, which I just learned.

  • No more so than it has been throughout the age of the Church, at least until we reach the culmination of time, whenever that will be. Of course many Christians have a different view of how the Church Age will end. As to the gathering of alms, the primary purpose of such is to first aid the dissemination of the Gospel, secondly and importantly, care for widows and orphans, and other distressed members of the community, and finally provide some assistance to pastors in their livelihood, though many argue that pastors and teaches should provide for themselves via another professional trade and that it is not properly the responsibility of the Church to aid them in this manner. I hold no opinion on that question though Paul worked as a tentmaker even as he proclaimed the Gospel.

  • I just looked it up in Hebrew and it seems that basar by itself can mean either good or bad news. For instance, Isaiah 40:9 uses the word basar to mean good news without including the word tovah. This verse states that Zion and Jerusalem are heralds of good news. We know it is *good* news because Isaiah 40-55 announces the return from Babylon, which of course would be understood as Good News or tidings. 1 Samuel 4:17 uses basar but we know it means bad news by the context. No word for bad is used in conjunction with basar in that verse.

  • I believe I addressed Matt. 25:35 in the context of widows and orphans and other distressed members of the church community. While charity to all is to be embraced, the Bible is fairly clear that the community of believers should receive the first dispensation of aid when required. As to mega churches, as a past church treasurer, without having examined their books I can’t speak authoritatively to their measure of giving.

  • I’ve seen many arguments that Trump is not the candidate that Evangelicals should be supporting. Most of which I agree with.

    What I’ve yet to see is any compelling argument that Hillary Clinton represented a more appealing candidate for Evangelicals to support. And, of course, it was a binary – one of the two was going to be President. As a non-Trump supporter, I’m much, much happier with the people around Trump than I would be with the people around Clinton, and while justices are a crap-shoot with a Republican, they’ve been universally awful when appointed by a Democrat for the last 40 years.

  • ” Most of the “pretenders” like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, have simply used the movement to feather their own nests!”

    That’s a pretty serious slander. Evidence? You have none because there is none.

    -dlj.

  • No slander here. Tell me DL, where does Jackson’s and Sharpton’s money come from? They are not pastors of megachurches, or famous traveling evangelists! Jesse Jackson had this very profitable habit of poking around with Fortune 50 companies, building a case for the inequal number of blacks in management, or serving as board members. Those Fortune 50 companies wrote Jessee and his Rainbow Coalition big checks in the millions, so he would go away. Sharpton is liable for millions in back taxes because he considered
    ALL the take as being his. Short of a signed affadavit that each of these had skimmed the bucks for themselves, this is likely the best evidence you’ll ever encounter.

    I’m open to any counter evidence you’d like to present!

  • Donors, churches, foundations. And you have your picture out of a wonderland mirror: these guys support their movements. Not like Trump, taking donor and Federal dollars to spend on Trump commercial operations.

    -dlj.

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