One of the main talking points in political news leading up to the Iowa Caucuses has been the “evangelical voter.” No doubt the evangelical right will continue to be a big part of the electoral story over the coming months.
Whether to the left on MSNBC or to the right on Fox News, evangelicals get lumped together into a singular voting block either to be criticized or to be cheered for a set of litmus test positions they are presumed to hold. A significant percentage of those who consider themselves evangelical have obliged by lining up in particular ways on a defined set of issues and by voting for a particular brand of candidate. Then candidates pander, sometimes quite shamelessly, to the hot buttons of the most politically motivated, and often most rigidly conservative, from among this voting block, who in turn tend to set the pace for much of the rest of this portion of the electorate.
The last two weeks in Iowa seemed to have been a contest in which Republican candidates vied to “out-conservative” and “out-evangelical” the other. The endorsement of one prominent pastor or another has been aggressively sought,
because landing such means the windfall of a host of other evangelicals who
will fall in line and vote for the candidate identified as the “true conservative” (meaning most in line with the evangelical litmus test).
What we have in the end is a situation in which political conservatism and evangelical are somewhat interchangeable terms. But what does it mean to be evangelical? This term has actually lost any significant meaning due to its misuse, overuse, and abuse. Its historic denotation has succumbed to a variety of unfortunate connotations, political and otherwise.
When we strip away the baggage of political philosophy, culture war, televangelism, and Christianized versions of pop culture, an evangelical is someone who holds a high view of Scripture and its authority in their life and believes in the necessity of personal conversion centered in the person and
work of Jesus Christ. Consequently, an evangelical will have an active rather
than passive faith, not only in sharing the gospel of Jesus with others but also
in living out the implications of following Jesus in social engagement.
I consider myself an evangelical, denotatively not connotatively. I do not consider myself a Republican or a Democrat; I’m an Independent that sees some value in the philosophy of each end of the political spectrum. It is entirely reasonable that some evangelicals would work out the implications of following Jesus and vote for a Republican. It is also equally reasonable that some evangelicals would work out the implications of following Jesus and vote for a Democrat. And neither vote proves or disproves a person’s evangelical bona fides.
It’s too bad evangelicalism has gotten to the place in which MSNBC’s left leaning commentators would assume I vote in block with the farthest right wing of Republicans and in which Fox News’ right leaning commentators would take it for granted that I should vote that way. It’s also too bad that the authenticity of my faith and of many other evangelicals is questioned by some of our fellow evangelicals not because we have abandoned Jesus but because we don’t hold their same political philosophy and vote the way they do.
Evangelicals are actually far more diverse than MSNBC or FOX News or even some evangelicals give us credit. We are conservative, we are liberal, we are libertarian, we are moderate. First and foremost, we are followers of Jesus Christ. Second, we are Americans. Third, and subordinately, we are Republican, Democrat, or neither.