Liberal Evangelicalism is not a contradiction in terms. The fact that it might appear so at first is due to the peculiar unfolding of Evangelical history during the last century. Now that we are more familiar with some of that history, we are better able to see the living possibility of reuniting Evangelicalism and Liberalism. As this final chapter argues, Liberal Evangelicals have never disappeared. Rather, the term “evangelical” was claimed as the exclusive moniker of conservative evangelicals by conservatives and traditionalists. Contemporary Liberal Evangelicalism is poised to reclaim the term and to assert our place in Evangelical history. One of the key components to this reclamation project is learning to recognize our Liberal Evangelical forbearers. In this chapter we learn about some Liberal Evangelical heroes and look for ways of using their witness as a source of current strength.
In the culture wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, one of the standard claims made by Conservatives against Liberals is that Liberals are engaged in “rewriting” history. In one sense, the charge is correct. We are always rewriting history as we learn more and come to understand the past better. In another sense, the charge is false because it suggests that received history is already accurate and that any “rewriting” represents a distortion of the inherited truth. This charge is brought by conservatives and traditionalists who are content with history as it stands, the stories it tells, the experiences it prioritizes, and the values it represents. Because history as a retelling of the past is always fraught with values, rewriting history is frequently perceived as an attack on the established order. Rewriting history to include stories that have been left out and values that have gone unrepresented can be threatening. In other words, retelling a more inclusive history of anything, including Evangelicalism, can be scary to some.
The word “Evangelical” itself is frequently claimed as the exclusive moniker of Conservatives, but its history is much more complex. That history, which was discussed in chapters 12 and 13, is a precious one, so the word is worth fighting for.
Sojourner Truth was an ex-slave, an abolitionist, a feminist, and a suffragette. But the basic title that she had to fight hardest for, at least rhetorically, was “woman.” In the mid-1800s when the abolitionists were pushing for the freedom of slaves and women were agitating for the vote Sojourner Truth represented a problem for the women’s suffrage movement. As they portrayed the plight of women, it was genteel ladies who read books and kept house that ought to be permitted to exercise a civilizing influence on the country through voting. This would, they argued, have an ameliorative effect on the political culture. The story they told had no room in it for a tall, strong, commanding figure like Truth. In effect, she was too strong, too dark, and too unladylike to fit their definition of deserving femininity. And so in 1851 in Akron, Ohio at a women’s rights convention she delivered a powerful speech that included the rhetorical question that has since been used to title the speech: “Ain’t I a woman”? She understood the necessity of reclaiming the term, and of retelling the story of women to include those like her who did not fit neatly into that era’s connotations of the word “woman.”
The same is true for the word “Evangelical”: some liberals are evangelical and they are entitled to the word every bit as much as conservatives are. And Liberal Evangelicals have a wonderful history that is all their own.
Chapter 14 of Lost asserts that the word “Evangelical” has been subjected to “aggressive semantic theft.” Conservative Evangelicals have tried to claim the word as belonging solely to them. This conservative move has been largely successful. As we have already noted, however, the move is unfair, and the actual history of Evangelicalism demonstrates a more complex story. Some Liberals never gave up on the Evangelical label. Many Evangelicals sought to keep the label as they moved leftwards and embraced a Christ-centered, radically inclusive gospel message. Liberal Evangelicals are alive and well and they have a rich heritage.
Let’s return to a labeling exercise from an earlier study chapter. Take a few moments to go through the following list of terms. Next to the terms that you would apply to yourself put a small check. If you are not sure, place a small question mark. If you do not think that a term applies to you, briefly write out an explanation of why you think it is do not.
Now that we are at the end of Lost most of these terms should be very familiar to you, though it is unlikely that all of them would be applicable to a single person. Take some time as a group to discuss some of the questions below.
- Which terms were simple either to claim or to reject? Why do you think these were easier?
- What terms caused you to think for a moment about how applicable they were to you?
- Which terms generated questions for you?
- Did you feel at all hesitant to claim the term “Evangelical”?
- Have you ever been hesitant to call yourself “Christian,” ‘Born-again,” or “Bible-believing” because of the cultural connotations that those terms might have?
- Are you ever worried that other Christians or Evangelicals might think that you aren’t “really Christian” or “really Evangelical” because you are not traditional enough, are not concerned enough with doctrine, or are not Conservative enough?
- What might it take to help you to overcome these kinds of fears?
- Has your sense for these labels become more subtle and rich in the course of studying Lost?
Some terms have relatively straightforward definitions and history, but others are much more complex. Terms like Orthodox, Bible-believing, Born-again, Christ-centered, Evangelical, and even Christian are frequently used to specify tightly circumscribed groups, when in fact their histories are much more inclusive. Commonly this is due to one group wanting to claim for itself exclusive rights to a label that has a much broader historical range.
For example, some Evangelical Christian groups actively work to convert Eastern Orthodox Christians and do so with the knowledge that the people they are working to convert are already Christian. When pressed, these groups often argue that Eastern Orthodox Christians have only a “historical knowledge of Jesus” rather than a personal relationship. In other words, they are claiming that the Eastern Orthodox Christians are not “real Christians.”
This is similar to the kind of “semantic theft” that has taken place with the term “Evangelical.” Non-Conservative Evangelicals are not thought to be “real Evangelicals.” As we have been arguing, however, Liberal Evangelicals need not, and should not, submit to this exclusion.
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
Visit the Liberal-Evangelical Project’s Web presence at www.liberalevangelical.org. Explore the site, especially the news items on the home page, Le Blog, and LE Commentary. Browse the news feeds for the denominations you know best. Visit the Reviews page, where you can learn about Liberal Evangelical Classics and Recent and Relevant books. You can learn a lot about the meaning and message of Christian moderates with both liberal and evangelical instincts from this site.
If you have not already become a member of the site (it is free), consider doing so in order to access the Member Resources pages. Once you are logged in as a member, you can join or start discussions on LE Forum, and see what resources people are posting for other liberal-evangelical churches to use.
Your homework for this week is to come up with one or two new insights about the historic heritage of moderate Christianity, gleaned from LiberalEvangelical.org. Write those couple of insights down along with a sentence or two for each one explaining why the new insight is significant for you. Remember to bring your notes with you to the study group meeting.
Religion Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
If you have ever investigated your family tree, you will probably have made some discoveries that you are proud to share with others, and some that you might not share with anyone except close friends. It is said, if you go enough generations into the past, everyone is related both to nobility and to criminals. It is hard to picture the lifestyles and personalities of our ancestors. It would be wonderful to know more about their lives.
Thankfully, historical study has preserved a lot of information about the Christian family, the Evangelical family more specifically, and even the Liberal wing of the Evangelical family. This information about the past is not all flattering, of course. There have been many internal differences that led to unattractive fighting, and sometimes outright injustice and persecution. Church families fight like all families. If we fight with other Christians today, the fighting should be loving. How is this possible? We should recognize that we share a common heritage and ultimately the same name – Christians.
Take a few minutes to share some of the new insights you gleaned from reading the reviews of Liberal Evangelical Classics on the LiberalEvangelical.org Web site.
- Were there any surprises?
- Were there any disappointments?
- What do you wish you knew more about?
Bible Reading: Psalm 30
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
We don’t often notice our condition until it changes and we have something with which to contrast it. We would not know the darkness had we not known the light. We might not appreciate the thrill of victory had we never known the agony of defeat. It is worthwhile to note, therefore, that many who feel at home in their churches may notice that they fit; they may not grasp that they are found. However, for those of us who know what it feels like to have been lost, the feeling of being found is an unmistakable and welcome contrast.
Many of the Psalms are written from the perspective of a shepherd, someone whose job it was to watch over a flock for weeks on end in the wilderness and bring them back home at the end of the season. It is no wonder, then, that the Psalmist is able to envision God as a shepherd and himself as a wandering sheep that has been found. Jesus favored this imagery as well, stressing God’s intimate concern with bringing each of us home. This short Psalm is one of the most frequently cited sections of scripture in part because it packs so much imagery into a short six verses. In these few lines it tells a brief story of feeling lost and being found, but of being watched over all the while.
Knowing that we have a home in Christ can be a source of tremendous comfort, but also a place from which we can launch out into the world with courage and compassion. It is a shame that many of us are not able to feel the same way about our churches and about our tradition, but it need not be that way. Liberals and Moderates do have a home within the Evangelical fold, though we may need help finding our way to it. The search for that home and that tradition may sometimes feel like walking through a dark and dangerous valley, but we can take comfort in knowing that others have and are walking through the same valley with the guidance of the same shepherd.
There is a reason that etiquette columnists always tell us never to discuss politics or religion in polite company; conversations might not remain polite. Stephen and Cheryl learned this the hard way at a recent engagement party for the daughter of some friends. As the young couple ate cake and went around the room greeting people, they introduced people to one another and tried to help their guests find people with similar interests. Stephen and Cheryl were known for spending a lot of time at their church working in the soup kitchen, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, and serving as deacons. When they met Tom and Silvia they expected that they would have a lot in common. “Oh you four should chat,” the hosts said as they introduced the couples. “You both do so much in your churches.”
Tom and Silvia were also active in their church. Tom was a Deacon, Silvia worked in the nursery, and they both serve on the Missions and Outreach committee. As first the conversation between the couples was enjoyable. They both had young children and talked about the joys of teaching Bible stories to the kids and singing “Jesus Loves Me” over and over again. “It’s just such a shame,” Silvia added, “that they have to go into these horrible public schools and be subjected to so much Godlessness and Liberalism. We’d home school ours if we could afford it.”
Stephen and Cheryl were both a bit confused at that comment. Cheryl taught high school biology and Stephen was an elementary school music teacher. Both of them were dedicated to their profession and thought that their local school district was excellent. “Well,” Cheryl began, “getting used to the classroom can be tough at first. Honestly, Stephen and I really think of our work in the schools as a kind of ministry. We don’t proselytize but we do try to share the love of Jesus with all of our students.”
Now it was Silvia and Tom’s turn to be taken aback. “You mean you work in the school system?” Tom asked. “How can you be a part of that system and call yourselves Christians?”
Now Stephen stepped forward, “We’re Evangelicals, so we don’t think that we can stay out of the world and have the kind of effect that Jesus taught his disciples to seek. So we try to be as active in local government and activities for the kids as we can be. We push for reduced price breakfast and lunch programs and try to support summer care programs for families who can’t afford daycare. We’ve found that the local schools actually provide a lot of opportunities to serve.”
“Well,” Silvia scoffed, “if you can support a system that pushes condoms and evolution on our kids, but doesn’t allow them to pray before class, then you aren’t any kind of Evangelical.”
At that Silvia and Tom turned away and headed toward the refreshment table. Stephen and Cheryl were glad for the respite. Their feelings were not terribly hurt. They had encountered this sort of reaction before. Stephen’s parents were often scandalized by the associations he and Cheryl maintained and the organizations they supported, but young couple felt they were doing their best to follow Jesus’s example and teachings both in raising their children and working in the community. They had even come up with a phrase for the conservations they frequently had with much more conservative Evangelicals. They called it “reverse evangelism,” and it meant sharing with Conservative Evangelicals the full story of Evangelicalism.
Consider for a moment Stephen and Cheryl’s encounter with Silvia and Tom. Have you ever had a similar encounter with Conservative Evangelicals where you felt as if your Evangelical credentials or even your Christian identity was begin questioned?
- What might cause Conservative Evangelicals to act in such a manner? What do they fear?
- What particular issues or actions might cause them to question your faith or Evangelical identity?
- Are these kinds of encounters best avoided or might they serve a purpose?
- Do you have any strategies for “reverse evangelism?”
- How might you defend Liberal Evangelicalism as a legitimate form of Evangelical Christianity?
- There may not have been anything that Stephen or Cheryl might have said to salvage the conversation with Tom and Silvia or to change their attitudes. But can you think of anything you might have said or done differently.
If you have ever had a similar encounter then share it with the group. It may help others to know that they are not alone in their experiences of being made to feel like outsiders by other Evangelicals. Take some time to talk through these experiences and think about possible forms of “reverse evangelism.”
For Further Thought
Evangelicalism is a living and changing tradition. It is not an entity that is wholly set in stone or reducible to a list of litmus tests. It is difficult to describe, as is Liberal Evangelicalism, but we may hazard a closing analogy. Evangelicalism is a big sprawling family. Like any family it has its internal disagreements and fights. There are regional, ethnic, linguistic, and denominational differences that provide color and texture to the various different branches of the Evangelical family. Many of us have distant relatives that we do not often see, and when we come together by chance at weddings, funerals, or family reunions we sometimes find those distant relatives somewhat strange or foreign. Can we really be related to them? Can you believe we have the same great-grandparents?
When we are gracious, however, we often find ways of getting past our differences and our sense of unease. Making the effort to celebrate children and marriages together and to mourn the common loss of a beloved family member is a good framework for such graciousness. There are many strong families that have cousins and great-aunts, step-sisters and third cousins who have little in common but manage to share barbeque and potato salad at the reunion. We come together in families that include Republicans and Democrats, Celtics and Lakers fans, young and old, black and white. Families that work at civility and generosity find ways of loving one another, even if that love is only ever expressed in the form of mutual respect.
Evangelicalism, in many ways, is like such a family. And Liberal Evangelicals are discovering their lost heritage as full members of the Evangelical family with every right to take up the family name. We are learning that we belong in the Evangelical family, that we have always had a place there. Conservative and Fundamentalist Evangelicals may not recognize us at first. They may work to deny us our birthright and fight to preserve a privileged claim to act and speak as the sole legitimate descendants of the great Evangelicals of the first two “Great Awakenings” and the Abolitionist movement. But that heritage is ours as well.
As Liberal Evangelicals, how then should we act toward our newly recognized sisters and brothers? How might we take up the name Evangelical without denying it to those with whom we disagree? How might we take up the Gospel of Jesus Christ and evangelize without putting down our Conservative and Traditionalist siblings as we do so? Now that we know that we belong as Evangelicals, how might we make the tradition more inclusive so that the Good News of Christ might be made known?
For the final prayer in this series of studies, we invite you to pray from your own hearts using your own words for the church, for the unity of its witness and worship, and for the vibrancy of its faith and work. Pray for one another that you find effective ways of claiming your Liberal Evangelical Christian heritage as a meaningful home with a noble and honorable history. Give thanks for one another and for the privilege of manifesting the power of God’s love through Christ-centered and Christ-inspired radical inclusiveness of Christian community and Christian proclamation.