The most important religion story of 2017, according to the Religion News Association, was “Trumpvangelicals.” Until a couple of years ago, no one could have imagined such a discordant blend. Yet now the word tops a chart of newsmakers — and, for more than a few Christians, ruins the second half by association with the first.
It’s not the word, specifically, that’s the problem but the fact that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and remain his most reliable base of support. To other evangelicals, that’s a profound embarrassment and enough to prompt a mass exodus from the label.
“The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” Jen Hatmaker, an author with a large evangelical following, told the Washington Post.
“Evangelical” used to mean someone who occupied a middle ground between mainline Protestantism and fundamentalism. But it has become synonymous with loyalty to the Republican Party and President Trump. Many of its adherents appear to value culture-war victories above all else, sacrificing their ethical credibility by rationalizing the sins of their own and abandoning the principle that character matters.
Is “evangelical” damaged beyond repair? Christian author David P. Gushee thinks so. “White evangelicalism and me? We’re through,” he writes in Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.
Mennonite scholar Richard G. Kyle, an emeritus professor at Tabor College, critiques evangelicals in his new book, Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture. In his view, evangelicals may think they’ve influenced American culture, but in fact the opposite has happened. Rather than making America more Christian, they’ve let their faith become thoroughly Americanized. They worship American greatness and imagine a pre-1960s version of U.S. culture represents the ideal Christian life.
For all of these reasons, it’s tempting to join Gushee, Hatmaker and others on their way out the door of evangelicalism. But here’s another option: Take inspiration from Menno Simons.
“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant,” the Dutch Anabaptist leader wrote in 1539. He went on to describe what an evangelist ought to do. The list included acts of mercy — feeding the hungry, consoling the oppressed — as well as teaching the Word of God, praying for persecutors, returning good for evil and seeking “that which is lost.”
Stripped of 21st-century baggage, “evangelical” means gospel, or good news. Menno was right to describe a good-news faith as one that feeds both body and soul. Works of love and words of truth are both evangelical. It’s a wonderful, inclusive term. Some Mennonites today claim it more avidly than ever, describing themselves as evangelical Anabaptists. The emerging Evana Network merges the two words in its name. Canada’s Evangelical Mennonite Conference embraces it.
Menno Simons claimed an evangelical identity. His spiritual descendants should, too, while making clear how we differ from current assumptions about it. Whether or not we like the word itself is unimportant compared to whether we live by Menno Simons’ definition. Mennonites should stand out as a different breed of evangelical and reaffirm what a true evangelical faith means to us.