Evangelical Identity in a Confused Culture
In December 2017, Christianity Today, published an article, “Today’s Evangelicals Face a Crisis of Confidence,” by Nathan Betts. One of the theses of this article was that “individual religiousness tends to be private and episodically intense.”
Indeed, according to Patricia O’Connell Killen in her book, Religion & Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, “many pursue a spiritual quest on their own, drawing from multiple traditions and practices on a journey of religious experimentation.”
Shortly before the Christianity Today article, Ross Douthat raised the question in the New York Times, November 25, 2017, as to whether there is an evangelical crisis. He based his argument, in part, on sociologist Christian Smith’s description of evangelical Christianity in a post-1960s United States as both “embattled and thriving.” According to Smith, writing 20 years ago, evangelicals were both fully part of American modernity and also living in tension with pluralistic and permissive values. More recently, Pastor Emeritus Tim Keller writing in the December 19, 2017, issue of The New Yorker “Can Evangelicals Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore,” raised a similar question about evangelical identity. In this case, the question is uniquely American. In it, he describes the history of the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” But, he also described how many were abandoning the identification of being evangelicals, in part because of the support for President Trump and Senate Candidate Roy Moore.
As Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer wrote in “Defining Evangelicals in an Election Year,” in the March 2, 2016 issue of Christianity Today, everyone wants to know what evangelicals believe, especially about political issues. “Many pollsters and journalists assume that evangelicals are white, suburban, American, Southern, and Republican, when millions of self-identifying evangelicals fit none of these descriptions.” It is natural to want to survey evangelicals to determine their political interests. This leads to two ideas that are not true. One is that “evangelical” means “white.” The other is that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics. For many Chinese, these two fallacies are accepted as true.
In early November 2016, I had just completed a series of lectures on worldview thinking in the history of the philosophy of law at one of the major universities in China, the Central University of Finance and Economics. My lectures were sponsored by the School of Law and by the School of Marxism. Following the conclusion of the series, the president of the university, the Party Secretary on its Board, the Deans, and a number of professors from the Schools of Law and of Marxism hosted a dinner for me with a time for questions and answers. The Dean of the School of Marxism asked me how Mike Pence, as an evangelical Christian, could run on the same ticket with Donald Trump and serve as his Vice President. Throughout the end of October and early weeks of November, there was a great deal of interest in China about the U.S. election, and in my philosophy of law classes about the role of evangelicals in the election of Donald Trump.
Rather than answer the Dean’s question directly, I responded with a series of questions. First, I asked about his conclusion regarding Vice President Pence’s religious identity and beliefs. He responded that he assumed that Mr. Pence was an evangelical because of his political positions on abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. I then asked him how he came to the conclusion that Mr. Trump was not evangelical and how he could invite Mr. Pence to be part of his ticket. His response basically followed the lines we read in the press regarding Mr. Trump’s character. Following some extended discussion, I asked him whether he though I was an evangelical and how he came to that conclusion since I had not mentioned the issues of abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage in my lectures. Pressing him further, he told me that he just assumed that I was an evangelical because I was an American.
In his blog of May 12, 2008, “An Evangelical Response to ‘An Evangelical Manifesto,’” Albert Mohler wrote of the elusive nature of the definition of evangelicalism and evangelical identity from the beginning of America. He recognized that the terms have been used politically, culturally, socially, and even for marketing demographics. There is much that I could say about Albert Mohler’s objections to the Evangelical Manifesto, much of which I could agree. But, space does not permit exploration of either the Manifesto or of Albert Mohler’s response to it.
My discussion at the dinner in Beijing, China in reply to the question raised by the Dean of the School of Marxism centered on the Gospel and what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ. By way of background, I was raised in what has been regarded as the Fundamentalist tradition, following The Fundamentals: A Testimony to Truth, edited by R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon, and others as part of the modernist and fundamentalist debates of the early 20thcentury. It was not until later at Wheaton College, and my reading Carl F. H. Henry’s Contemporary Evangelical Thought and Revelation and the Bible – Contemporary Evangelical Thought and later at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, in a class on the history of evangelicalism that I came to a better understanding of what it meant to be an evangelical. Essentially, I still held to the Fundamentals set forth in the early 20th century, but without the fortress mentality and with a motivation to engage the culture.
Later my reading of Professor David Bebbington’s writings, setting out what he understands to be the essentials in evangelicalism, especially cross-denominationally where there are diverse beliefs, I came to a more succinct way of expressing my understanding of what it meant to be an evangelical.
As David Bebbington argued, and as I explained to my Chinese hosts, the essentials of evangelicalism are: a high view of Scripture as the Word of God and the highest authority for what I believe; the absolute necessity for conversion experience where our lives are transformed through a “born again experience,” and life-long following of Jesus Christ; the stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only sacrifice for the removal of the penalty of sin; and presentation of Gospel to others and missionary and social reform. These were consistent with my understanding of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and a lifetime of family teaching and experience as a missionary kid in Latin America. It is these core theological convictions that identify us, not political, social, cultural, or demographic impulses.
The political calculus in China is that China should not import religious, cultural, or social trends, for example, from the West. The use of the evangelical identity is seldom heard, although China recognizes Christianity as one of the five recognized religions. However, it must be registered with the state. As a result, the major growth of the church in China is in the unregistered church which is not counted in government provided statistics and which discounts the actual growth.
I find a great deal of interest and curiosity about Christianity, but seldom hear the word evangelical used. Rather, more often it is the distinction between the registered and nonregistered church, and between those churches that are within the Reform tradition, which is generally in the major urban areas, and those that are not. However, it appears to me that the Reform tradition has spread in the major urban areas, I think, thanks to Stephen Tong and his ministry in China as well as in Indonesia and around the world
So back to the Dean of the School of Marxism and his questions about Vice President Pence. My final response to his question was that I believed that Vice President Pence was a follower of Jesus Christ, and I described what that meant in the same terms as describe by David Bebbington for his definition of evangelicalism. As a result, Vice President Pence was a student of the Bible, and that both his personal life and his public policy positions are based on his understanding of the Biblical teaching. I think that this is the essence of evangelical identity.
I am not prepared to give up my identity as an evangelical. It is not simply a position in response to political polling or demographic marketing, nor am I ashamed or embarrassed to be known as an evangelical, although my life may not always reflect what I believe and what the Bible teaches. Whether one is or is not an evangelical is not simply an academic question. Rather as I discovered in China, it opens the door to active evangelism and the building of relationships. We may have much about which we might argue, but our identity in Christ should not be part of that debate among those of us who claim to be His followers.
 Dr. Van Broekhoven (JD, LLM, DPhil, DLitt, DPS, LLD) has numerous significant credentials, of which the most notable are the following: Visiting Scholar, University of Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies; Fellow, American Friends of Oxford House (Oxford, UK and Alexandria, VA); and Legal & Cultural Consultant, Asian Center for Law and Culture (Beijing, China). As an attorney, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Texas, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the U.S. Court of Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals (Fed. Cir.), and the U.S. Supreme Court.
WRF Member Hon. Rollin Van Broekhoven
Former Chairman of the Board of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability