I think I’ve an inkling of how many Muslims feel after a terrorist attack. I’ve heard Islamic scholars and faith leaders say, “We’re not all like those who pervert our religious teachings.” They are right. Those who commit heinous acts of terror against innocent civilians are not representative of a whole religion possessing various forms of expression and practice. It is wrong to paint an entire faith with a broad brush of hate and discrimination. Yet, time and again, this pattern has repeated itself since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. We see the evidence in violence against mosques and hate crimes. Our Muslim sisters and brothers must be tired of disavowing and condemning those who’ve hijacked their faith.
Now, the tables have turned. It is mainstream and mainline Christianity on the defensive. Mainline Protestantism is under assault from Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians, sometimes from within our own denominations. After a season of faith based conferences where Jesus is hardly mentioned and the nomination of candidates with religious views the Puritans would have rejected; I find myself regularly disavowing those who have hijacked Christianity. Even with all of the semantic yoga and fancy hair splitting I can muster, I will never again refer to myself as an “evangelical”. Some days, after I’ve heard senate candidate Roy Moore and listened to calls for a return to “Judeo-Christian” values, it takes everything I have to identify myself as a “Christian”. Although I have served congregations for nearly twenty years and in three countries, I do not want to be described with the same words used to categorize a faith which, when presented as the dominant strain of Protestant Christianity, is unrecognizable from anything I’ve ever encountered. In short, I’m embarrassed and ashamed.
I’m not the first person to feel that something central to the idea of being Christian has changed. Our common moral currency was devalued. Spiritual inflation set in and what we thought possessed of worth will no longer meet what we’ve been told are our new needs. The Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ ministry are being displaced by other emotive and manipulative ideologies. More than requiring believers assent to a historic creed, America’s dominant strain of Protestant Christianity is now a “litmus test” faith. Are you pro-life (with no exceptions), pro-death penalty, favor no limits on any form of gun ownership, and pro-government to the extent you believe the Judeo-Christian deity foreordained America’s dominance in the world? Do you believe that anything in American society which threatens your view of scripture is a threat to the fabric of society as well as the practice of Christianity? Are selected laws laid down over two thousand years ago to determine the communal life of post-exilic Israelites crucial to understanding Christianity in 21st America?
You know the answers as well as I do. Evangelicals, as the most visible and politically active brand of American Christianity, answer yes to these questions. There are exceptions who would love to be painted as the rule but we’re too far gone to believe the lie of the liberal evangelical. I’m identifying a core set of beliefs which I’ve encountered in evangelicals across nearly twenty years of ministry. These are our neighbors, friends, and relatives. Their gospel isn’t the same as the Good News I was ordained to spread. In their eyes, most United Methodists aren’t Christian. For me, calling out commonalities isn’t painting with a broad brush. I’m speaking from my own life experiences.
These basic evangelical ideas are the building blocks of other varieties of fundamentalism. This is where the divergence occurs. Not every evangelical believes, like Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, that Minnesota representative Keith Ellison should be excluded from sitting in the US House of Representatives because he is a Muslim. What’s disconcerting is this: the distance of the theological fine line separating the basic “litmus” test evangelical and a “Roy Moore” evangelical is growing shorter by the hour. The waters are so muddied it’s harder for anyone to hear United Methodists and other mainline groups asking, “Why have you lost sight of Jesus, grace, and love?”
Because the current evangelical distortion is more prevalent throughout the culture, it impacts the ability of the local church to evangelize and witness. “Aren’t you all like the gun toting man on television who says the Muslims are going to hell?” someone recently asked. No, I said, we’re not. It’s hard for the unchurched, those who are looking for a place of safety and sanctuary in a violence soaked world to ferret out the difference between churches like ours and the evangelicals they see praying before a presidential rally. After all, we use the same language, well-worn clichés, pray to the same God, and generally appear to be indistinguishable from one another. The world perceives us very differently than how we see ourselves. Surely, they know we’re not all like “that”. That’s what 1.8 billion Muslims have been saying to no avail for sixteen years. Unless the world meets people of faith who practice radical hospitality and Christ centered compassion; we are entrusting the essence of Christianity to people who appear to have missed the point about Jesus’ ministry.
When public Christianity, in the most general sense of the term, advances the idea of unchecked moral decay, imagined systematic persecution by the government, and weaponizes scripture; it ceases to be Christian. When God’s grace is an afterthought, love is a dividend, and forgiveness unheard of; those following “God” are not followers of Christ. Like a white dwarf tearing itself apart, Christianity collapses inward. The survivors of this supernova’s destruction are then left to decide: when the name of Christ is sufficiently damaged beyond repair, does the label mean what it once meant? No, it does not. If Christianity is a zero sum game; only what the culture, media, government, and the evangelical church itself deems to be Christian, what am I?
I am not an evangelical. I no longer want to argue etymologies and debate what someone who spreads the Good News should be called. We know how the word is used and by whom. This isn’t a fight worth having. There are bigger fish to fry. The longer we spend trying to convince others we’re the “good” evangelicals; we’ve given away the farm. We’ve allowed form priority over substance. In other words, the hand basket is well on it’s way to Hell. While others argue about language, I’m for turning the thing around.
So by these evangelical standards, I am not a Christian. I do, however, remain a follower of Jesus Christ.
Richard Lowell Bryant