We’ve hit that point in the election cycle where I’ve become sorely tired of campaign commercials. Most of my voting decisions are, I’ll admit, this year being made based on superficial factors: no to the guy who had his own theme song written, no to the guy who does a bad Obama impression, yes to the guy who doesn’t stand a chance. (Apparently women in my district don’t run for political office.) But one thing I’ve come to appreciate this year is that people seem to be laying off the evangelicals.
In Chicago, church affiliation is not a disqualifier for public office; a prominent pastor is a serious contender for Chicago mayor, for example, and every Sunday I hear a sound bite or two from sermons by gubernatorial candidates and aspirants to the state senate. These church appearances tend to be on the liberal side of the divide, but it’s telling that no one is raising significant protest against what, in other days, might have been considered a serious breach of the division of church and state.
Meanwhile, on the right, candidates who in previous years might have pandered to the conservative church seem to be leaving it alone: no loud professions of faith, no “Jesus is my favorite philosopher” blindsides, no voter’s guide tucked under my windshield wiper during worship (yet). There’s been private pandering, I’m sure, at fundraisers and the like. And once or twice candidates have been set up to admit, however awkwardly, that they would separate their faith from their politics a little less than their opponent. But by and large, it seems that in this election, we’ve forgotten that personal faith exists: in this cycle, it’s the issues, stupid.
Maybe we should credit President Obama, who two years ago successfully negotiated a controversy involving his home church pastor and helped the country put personal faith in a new political context. Maybe we should credit Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, who stumped for then-candidate Obama and changed public perceptions about the monolithic political nature of evangelical faith. Maybe we should credit political activist James Dobson for stepping down as president of Focus on the Family (or credit the Focus board for giving him a little push). Maybe Jimmy Carter, whose Our Endangered Values is unabashedly Baptist and unapologetically progressive. Or maybe we should credit the Tea Party, whose sympathies clearly lie with conservative evangelicals but who have found better traction by identifying with the economically frustrated.
In any case, I’m relieved. Evangelical has been far too weighted an identifier for me to be comfortable with for, really, most of my adulthood, so the less press it gets, I suppose, the better. And yet it’s still an identifier, and in other parts of the world being evangelical can still get you into trouble, as Chinese delegates to the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown, South Africa, recently discovered. So particularly when it doesn’t hurt me but does hurt others, I find it helpful to revisit the term: what does it mean to be evangelical?
For some, evangelicals are equated with “Bible-banging homophobes,” as a friend of mine puts it. For others, evangelicals are driven by family values like gun rights and low taxes. For still others evangelicals believe the world is flat and was created, like, a thousand years ago for human beings to trash. For many, quite frankly, evangelicals are better bearers than Muslims of the term jihad.
There are more technical definitions of evangelicalism; Wikipedia assigns it four distinctives, based on the analytical work of David Bebbington:
• The need for personal conversion (or being "born again")
• Actively expressing and sharing the gospel
• A high regard for biblical authority, especially biblical inerrancy
• An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus
I’d like to return to this idea of jihad, however, because I think it’s helpful for defining the starting point of evangelicalism (its “genesis”—ha ha) and what might be considered its guiding ethic. Jihad, according again to Wikipedia, translates as “struggle” or “striving in the way of Allah.” The idea of faith and piety of any kind, Islamic or otherwise, as a struggle is as compelling as it is self-evident: the rational mind, the self-interested mind, the passions, the primal urges all might pull us in any number of directions; the mind of jihad stubbornly declares “But wait.” This internal jihad often extrapolates culturally, even politically and militarily, as the stubborn jihadist seeks strength in numbers to offset the power of the passions, the cool reasonableness of rationalism, the clarion cry of “collective self-interest.” But at its heart, jihad is primal, an impulse of the person (and by extension, the people) aiding the complicated process of making our way through the world. We stifle this interior struggle at our peril.
Evangelical jihad, however, adds a wrinkle to the term. The evangelical, I’d like to submit, doesn’t merely wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12—pretty sexy verse, eh?); the evangelical wrestles against him- or herself, all the while wrestling with none other than the God of the universe.
We see it throughout the Scriptures, from Adam and Eve protesting their innocence, to Abraham negotiating for the salvation of a city, to Moses pleading for his people, to David on a hunger strike for the life of his child, to Job lamenting his sad condition, to Jesus crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We see it carry through the formative years of the church, where Peter resisted the instructions of God before finally giving in and “actively expressing and sharing the gospel” to non-Jews, where Paul hears the voice of Jesus remind him that to fight the will of God is as effective as “to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Personal conversion, submission to the authority of Scripture, belief in and proclamation of Jesus’ unbelievable saving actions on the cross and at the resurrection—these are preceded by, supported by, and indeed sustained by, struggle.
Three things keep the struggle alive for evangelicals (there are probably others):
• God is with us. We don’t struggle in a void or suffer in silence.
• God always wins. God is sovereign over all creation, after all.
• God is love. However bitter the struggle, however abandoned we feel in it, we are told that the author and perfecter of our faith, our jihad, is whatever love is.
That love, it’s worth noting, extends beyond ourselves, so that our interior struggle is not just our own private experience but our part to play on behalf of the whole. Paul helpfully reminds us in Ephesians 6 that, for all that our struggle is, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Our neighbor—next door or far off—is not our enemy. If God is love, then, part of our jihad is to become love ourselves. That’s no walk in the park, but it’s God’s desire for us, and God always wins.