The Battle For The Heart Of American Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism, as a movement, is officially divided.
09/30/2016 12:20 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2016

This election has revealed the existence of deep fissures throughout the fabric of our nation in a way that has shocked us all. While we have know for years that the political polarization in America has only continued to increase, few have realized just how tense the environment in many of America’s leading religious institutions have grown. And perhaps no religious demographic has faced more tension than evangelical Christians.

For evangelicals, this election is not only a battle for the future of our nation, but also for the future of our validity as a religious movement. And this week, the tension has reached it’s pinnacle and an “official” schism has occurred that will forever change the face of American Christianity.

On Tuesday, a newly formed organization called the “American Association of Evangelicals” released a scathing letter criticizing the “progressive evangelical” movement, calling those who identify as Christian and embrace so-called “progressive” values as “anti-Christian.” The letter critiques Hillary Clinton at length for her ties to George Soros, the liberal philanthropist whose Open Society Foundation funds many progressive, faith-based public policy organizations such as Sojourners, the New Evangelical Partnership, and Faith In Public Life. The letter uses ruthless language to condemn any and all evangelicals who do not identify as conservatives, heaping tired accusations of “murder,” defending “hate-speech,” and literally calling for American Christians to fight to “capture” our nation like the early Christians “captured the Roman empire for Christ.”

And though the letter refrains from officially endorsing Donald Trump (most likely to protect the fledgling new organizations pending tax exempt status), the letter unabashedly espouses values of the alt religious right, calling for the “Christianization” of America and warning about impending “persecution” from the anti-Christian progressives, all extreme language that many Trump surrogates have embraced to play upon the fears of many American evangelicals. The letter is signed by dozens of leading neo-fundamentalists such as Wayne Grudem, Jerry Boykin, Eric Metaxas, and Steve Strang.

But what’s more shocking is what’s not written in the actual text of the letter. What is clear only to those who are within the evangelical fold is that this new organization has been formed in opposition to many other prominent evangelical leaders and organizations. For instance, the leading conservative evangelical organization in America is the National Association of Evangelicals, a coalition formed in 1942 that has always maintained a fairly conservative social and theological bent, but has been open to working with the wide array of American evangelicals, including those whom the AAE’s letter explicitly condemns, such as Sojourners and The New Evangelical Partnership. This new group has covertly fired shots at the NAE, suggesting that this historic association of evangelicals is no longer the true steward of the evangelical faith.

Another group whom this letter stands as a direct affront to is the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and organization whose leader, Russell Moore, has been outspoken in his condemnation of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president. Over the past five years, the Southern Baptist Convention itself has been ground zero of the battle for the heart of evangelicalism. Many Southern Baptists (and former Southern Baptists) have grown increasingly convicted that much of what their denomination has come to represent is far too politically motivated than driven by Biblical conviction. In the midst of this, a group of intellectual power brokers within the denomination have clearly mapped out a plan to make the denomination more relevant to the so-called “progressive values” of our nation.

In the past five years, the ERLC of the Southern Baptist Convention has taken a stand for “creation care” and animal welfare, has supported the removal of the confederate flag in South Carolina, and has taken a bold, progressive stance on immigration reform. These stances have been seen as a “liberal” departure from “Biblical values” by many within the denomination who have repeatedly criticized Russell Moore, saying that “he doesn’t represent the views of Southern Baptists.”

What’s become increasingly clear in recent years is that evangelicalism, as a movement, is officially divided. There are those who are working hard to embrace the middle-ground values that American evangelicalism was created to embrace, and there are those who are fighting to maintain the hyper-politicized, power-driven values of the fundamentalist “Religious Right” movement that has shaped so much of American public life over the last half-century. One group, it seems, is allowing their faith in Jesus Christ to guide them in their social and political positions, another is allowing their thirst for power to manipulate their faith and the faith of American conservatives to maintain influence over American politics.

As a post-evangelical millennial, I can say that neither group accurately represents my values or the values of my peers. Both groups have been poisoned by a long history of mingling politics and religion that has blinded them to the new work that God is doing in our midst. Both groups are united on their opposition to LGBT+ equality, their support of the oppression of women, and their unabashed participation in the structures of systemic racism in our nation, and that must not remained unacknowledged. But it is clear to me that at least one side of this schism is doing their best to respond to the growing awareness of these injustices and the new challenges that our nation faces. One group has proven, albeit in small ways, that they are willing to consider forfeiting their political power in order to be obedient to the Gospel of Jesus.

And it is not the American Association of Evangelicals.

This election season is truly sifting the sheep from the goats. It is revealing the ugliness and prejudice that exists just beneath the surface of so many Americans and our leaders. As we move closer and closer to election day, the curtains will continued to be pulled back revealing our true motivations and intentions. Will we be found moving from a place of ethically rooted conviction or from a place of fear and self-preservation? Will we be found trying to preserve our privilege or seeking the good of our neighbors? These are the crucial questions at the center of the battle for the heart of evangelicalism, and indeed at the center of the battle for America’s future.

I am not convinced that either group of evangelicals will fall on the right side of this coin, but I find myself holding out just a little hope that the faith tradition that I was once so deeply a part of still has at least an ounce of Christian conviction left that could put it on a truly redemptive trajectory.

Only time will tell.

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