April 19 2018

A group of 60 evangelical leaders met on Monday, April 17 and Tuesday, April 18 in the Billy Graham Center to discuss the future of American evangelicalism in the context of the term’s current political associations.

“I do think the name [Evangelical] has never been held in lower public esteem. And since we can’t really avoid it, we do need to reclaim the name if we can,” said well-known pastor and author Timothy Keller, who attended the gathering. “The name is tied to the behavior of visible churches and institutions and leaders who represent evangelicalism to the world.” The name can be reclaimed, Keller said, if the behavior of many of these representatives changes.

Associate Professor Politics and Law and Director of the Center for Faith, Politics and Economics David Iglesias attended the evangelical consultation. He told the Record about the political factors that made the evangelical consultation necessary and its political importance today.

According to Iglesias, Christians overseas now wonder if the American church focuses so extensively on political involvement that the involvement is detrimental to the Christian mission of sharing the good news of the Gospel. He said it is important to show them “there is a large remnant of American evangelicals who have not lost sight of their primary spiritual obligation of sharing our faith.”

The meetings took place Monday afternoon until evening and Tuesday morning in the Wilson Suite on the fourth floor of the Billy Graham Center, and many of the people in attendance were the leaders Keller spoke about.

According to the program, the attendees included Governor of Ohio John Kasich, author and pastor John Ortberg, pastor Charlie E. Dates, historian and professor Mark Noll and editor and writer Katelyn Beaty. The sessions opened with “Framing the Issue Before Us: ‘Still Evangelical?’” Eight different “issue groups” were discussed in session four, including “‘Islam, Public Virtue — Beyond Abortion and LGBTQ’ and ‘Who Leads? Partisan Media or Pastors?’”

Chaplain Timothy Blackmon told the Record that evangelicals in attendance included leaders from National Latino Evangelical Association, Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and Christianity Today. Presidents of CCCU schools, pastors, authors, denominational leaders and public theologians also attended, coming from a diverse range of nations such as Croatia, Slovenia, Malaysia, China and Brazil.

No official organizing body convened the meeting and those gathering were not united by an official affiliation, club or consortium. Blackmon told the Record that the meeting was meant to be private but not a secret. A “public spectacle” was not the intent, he said.

Iglesias defined the term “evangelical” in an interview with the Record.

“To the secular person, an evangelical would be a political conservative who bases his or her beliefs on the Bible,” said Iglesias. The political definition, he said, has now eclipsed the religious definition of the term.

Wheaton College alumnus Doug Birdsall, an organizer of the meeting and honorary chair of Lausanne, told the Washington Post in an article published April 16 that President Trump would be the “elephant in the room,” though the gathering would not focus on him.

“When you Google evangelicals, you get Trump,” he told the Washington Post. “When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel. There’s a grotesque caricature of what it means to be an evangelical.”

In an interview with the Record, Beaty said that the consultation did not meet to oppose Trump but to understand what his election means for Christian communities and churches. She said the focus of the gathering was about the evangelical movement and how it can be recovered. While she believes the word Evangelical, which is rooted in “evangel,” or “good news,” is beautiful, she said the label has only secondary importance.

“The most important thing is that we’re living out the gospel,” Beaty said. “The central thing is whether we’re actually living up to the name that we profess, which is Christ.”

Department Chair of Politics and International Relations and Associate Professor of Politics Bryan McGraw, who did not attend the evangelical consultation, told the Record that evangelicalism has always had political implications.

“We need to recover (or discover) a way of talking about politics that emphasizes what politics is for, the restraint of wrongdoing and the provision of justice, rather than (as we do too often these days) as merely a means of protecting ‘us’ and ‘ours,’” McGraw told the Record. He said that evangelicals today should then be willing to “call out [Trump’s] intemperance, vulgarity, lack of decency and places where he errs.”

President Philip Ryken also commented on the role of politics in the evangelical community.

“The mission of the church is to bear witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed. One arena for Christian witness and service is politics,” Ryken told the Record. “History proves that it is always a mistake for Christians to seek political power as a means for advancing the gospel.”

Michael Wear, author and founder of a consulting firm, also told the Record about the role of witness that evangelicals can extend through politics. He said that he wishes to remind millennial and younger evangelicals that withdrawing from politics will not eliminate “the same bad actors that have turned you off from politics.”

Wear encouraged Christians in his interview with the Record “to provide a different kind of witness, a faithful witness, not putting their hope in politics but understanding that politics is an essential form in which we can love our neighbor.” Political decisions, Wear said, greatly impact these neighbors, making political involvement essential in being an American Christian in this age.

Blackmon described the evangelical consultation as “encouraging” because of the shared commitment to Jesus Christ, his “good news” and the dignity of all people among the group.

Blackmon also encountered challenges. The meeting was challenging, Blackmon said, because of the complex problems discussed: racism, the objectification of women, public virtue, media, character in leadership, poverty, the President’s Council and immigration were just a few of the issues discussed. He also found it challenging to remember that the problems Evangelicals face today are not two years old. Blackmon believes the deepest problems are “two to three to four and 500 years old.”

Beaty actively tweeted about the evangelical consultation. On Monday, April 16 she quoted Tim Keller in a tweet from the gathering: “‘As the country has become more polarized the church has become more polarized, and that’s because the church is not different enough from America or from modernity. There’s now a red and blue evangelicalism.’”

On the same day, Beaty also tweeted a quote from Dates: “‘American evangelicalism has not been able to separate itself from the perks of white supremacy.’”

When asked about the goals of the meeting, Blackmon told the Record the time was well-spent. He sensed the goal as “to talk and to listen — to assess where the evangelical church has been, where it is now, where it is has been. To pray, lament and repent.”