Is it time to let go?
Like it or not, words frequently change meaning as time goes by. My wife and I are fans of old movies and always get an unintended chuckle when the word “gay” comes up. It is a very well-done example of a group deliberately seizing a word and owning it. Other words simply change with time. “Awful” at one time mean “full of awe” but now it is a synonym of “terrible.”
In Christian circles Bible translators struggle with the morphing of word meanings. I read an article recently saying that scholars of classical Greek normally translate the words “dikaiosune” and “dikaios” as “justice” and “just” while English-language New Testament translators since the 1950s have translated them as “righteousness” and “right.” The author speculated that it was the antipathy to “social justice” proponents that influenced this and that perhaps we are losing some key Bible teaching on justice.
While that is food for thought there is another word that seems to be morphing in meaning and it is one I have been quite fond of – evangelical. A few months ago Russell Moore said that he no longer describes himself as an evangelical because “the word itself is subverting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It appears that he agrees with Thomas Kidd who said recently that “In American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.”
When I read that a higher percentage of evangelicals support Donald Trump than supported Mitt Romney I have to agree with Kidd. Like it or not, the term evangelical is now a political interest group largely associated with the Republican Party. I wonder if it is time to simply drop it.
To be sure, there never was a single definition to the word evangelical. We’ve always had Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and non-charismatics, dispensationalists and amillennians in the house. But now politics has fractured the word. Well-respected “evangelical” leaders have jumped in on both sides of the “endorse Trump” question and the debate is all but 100% political. I suspect that the politically active pro-Trump side will win this debate and that Kidd’s definition is the future.
The sad thing about this is that early evangelical leaders such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by the way we use the word “evangelical.” The core of their message was that the cultural “in name only” identity of our faith is exactly wrong. What really mattered was spiritual transformation through the “born again” experience. In contemporary culture that is no longer the case.
By the 1980s the evangelical political movement was in full swing and numbers counted more than actual faith. Pollsters aggravated this trend by deciding that “evangelical” was a group to be polled and simply letting people self-identify. I fear the name is beyond reclaiming. The question “Why are so many evangelicals Republican?” is now no more meaningful than “Why are so many Republicans evangelical?”
So I am thinking of dropping the word except when I am talking about people that fit Kidd’s definition. But I am not sure what to call us. Any suggestions?