What is an "Evangelical Christian"?
It’s an election year and no, we are not going to talk about specific political candidates in our blog. We like to lead people out their comfort zones, but there are limits! We mention it's an election year because of a word we hear on the news a lot during this time: evangelical. We hear "evangelicals" are voting for this or that candidate or we hear evangelicals are staying home this election cycle, etc, etc. We at Bethlehem are part of the ELCA which is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, so we are evangelical, at least in name. Is the news talking about us? The answer is both "no" and "possibly some of us".
The answer is "no" because the media refers to "evangelicals", they mean a voter block of Christians who correctly or incorrectly, are expected to vote one way or another or not vote at all in any given election. Self-identified evangelical voters make up 1 in 5 voters, and 8 in 10 of these self-identified voters have voted for Republicans in recent elections. (1) Politicians are expected to woo this block of voters to their side.
The self-identified voter block that the media refers to may not even regularly attend church regularly. Researchers have found that about 40% of those who describe themselves as "White Evangelical Christians" seldom or never attend church (2). Self-identified "Black Evangelical Christians" are not even considered "Evangelical" by the media when referring to this voting block, so clearly there are big differences between who the Church might describe as Evangelical and who the media defines as "Evangelical".
Historically, the voting block the media describes as "Evangelicals" have tended to coalesce around a specific set of positions that have changed over time. For instance in the late 60s and early 70s, the voting block described as 'evangelical' was once firmly in support of the right to legal abortions, in contrast to Roman Catholic voters of the time. To illustrate this: in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest denominations in the United States described as Evangelical) "passed a resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well" (3).
When we in the ELCA say we are "Evangelical" we are not describing a voting block or a set of positions on political issues. Evangelical, for ELCA Christians, means we trust we are loved by Jesus, we love Jesus, and we want to spread the love of Jesus to others. The word evangelical is rooted in the Greek word 'euangelion', which means “good message". It refers to all things connected to Jesus that give glory to God and comfort to the afflicted. For us, evangelical is more an adjective than a label. We are Christians who put the grace and love of Jesus Christ first in our talking about God and interpreting scripture. We believe first and foremost Jesus is present in our lives and that he comes to free us from sin, from hate, rage, and greed, from despair, cynicism, and complacency. This is good news to anyone in our day and age and we believe all should hear this good news of Jesus.
Being evangelical drives us to share this with anyone and everyone meet through our words and deeds. Being evangelical means we are missional: we know the good news Jesus Christ is not something to be quiet about but something to shared openly. As we understand the word evangelical in this manner, this is does not make us a unified block of voters. After all, at Bethlehem we have Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Independents and people who vote every election and people who rarely vote! So if the media says evangelicals are going for one candidate and not another, you may safely assume the media is not speaking about you.
So, regardless of who you plan to vote on this election season, we assume that all sisters and brothers at Bethlehem prayerfully go to the polls and vote as their consciences and faith in Christ prompts them, and we know that consciences and study of the issues and Scripture can lead faithful Christians to very different decisions. We, as pastors, reject all attempts to tell Christians that there is only one way they can vote and be faithful to Christ.
It is folly to be believe all evangelicals vote and should vote the same way, and it is not helpful for the church to be identified with one specific voting block or another. In truth the church may be one few places today our politics do not divide because Christ unites us. This does not mean we do not discuss politics. This does not mean we are all expected to agree on politics. It does mean we listen and learn from one another, respect the other, and at end of the day, center ourselves on what have in common: our faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior, and our desire to follow him faithfully on his way of sacrificial love.
Peace to you,
Pastors Eric and Rachel Wangen-Hoch