Over the last couple of decades the term "evangelical" has become a political term and is only marginally related to a description of an approach to Christian belief.
This has been particularly apparent in the days following the death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The news media and the talking heads have been doing this for years. For the last thirty years "The Religious Vote" was assumed to be an ideologically conservative vote, never mind that many people voted as they did--say for example for candidates who would work to get us out of Iraq and the invasion business--for deeply religious reasons.
This morning I read Chuck Blanchard over at A Guy in the Pew summarize the Washington Post article by Hannah Rosin about the "new generation of evangelicals." This is what caught my eye. He says that "Evangelicals will likely not a agree with a Democrat...."
That's true unless you are talking about Jim Wallis. Or Jimmy Carter. But they are only theologically evangelical. We are talking politics here.
This has been Falwell's (and his cohorts) biggest contribution, to turn what was once a general description of a certain kind of Christian into a description of a certain kind of political ideology. They have, I believe, succeeded in giving into to the penultimate temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness: to mingle and eventually equate mission with worldly power.
In many ways, I consider myself evangelical...or at least mindful of my evangelical roots...but the implications I take away from the Gospel differ dramatically from those who vote evangelical. I may or may not be an evangelical in the Christian sense, but I sure don't vote evangelical in the political sense.
The guys mentioned in the Post article are all softer-gentler evangelicals...the political kind. They know how to build consensus. They have taken on some issues that play well with the public but about which their mentors would disagree. But they still work towards the same basic political ends appealing the same political constituency.
This is what Christendom has become for many people: a political bloc, a constituency. The confusion of Evangelical belief with evangelical politics has allowed both the secular media, politicians, as well as ordinary folks--Christian believers or not--to think that to be Christian is to belong to an ideology. What the evangelicals now fight to hang on to is what Andrew Sullivan and others call "Christianism."
It is tempting, because it is much easier to belong to group of people that share outward trappings--and that includes how we vote--than it is to follow Christ whom we do not see with ordinary eyes but with the eyes of faith.
(If you want to see how this works in the current struggles within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, see Tobias Haller's post today called "Communionism and Adhocracy." It is certainly at work in the IRD's goals to turn the church into a kind of Christian nationalism.)
The persistence of reducing Christianity to an ideology and the Church into a political bloc is a drag on the Gospel mandate to go into the world and baptize and teach. The transformation of "evangelical" into a political term means that we who follow Christ and take seriously the call to take the Gospel into the world are burdened with having to describe what we are not before we can show who it is we follow.