Heed the Humble, Evade the Exalted
I went to Baptist Bible Camp, donated to missionaries, attended the Catalyst and Exponential evangelical conferences, led worship to Hillsong in the early 2000s, had DC Talk’s, “Jesus Freak” on cassette, and completed a Bible pledge in high school and college that meant I read a chapter every single night, even after coming home from a frat party.
In seminary, I learned the word evangelical was simply taken from the New Testament Greek word for share the gospel. Later I learned that during the Reformation, followers of Martin Luther were called Evangelische, and the word is still used there today to refer to Lutherans, Calvinists, and Protestants regardless of their political affiliation or position on social issues.
Evangelical as a political category is a recent phenomenon, and one I find generally unhelpful, as it has led Christians to be categorized in ways that have little to do with the gospel itself.
Some of my peers in ministry refuse to even say “E”vangelical anymore, opting for the more academic sounding “Ehv”angelical. They want to signal their dismay with cable news evangelicals who back President Donald Trump for the sole sake of political power.
Me, I still say “E”vangelical in much the same way I say JEsus, with the long e. So much of American evangelicalism has shaped me for the better. I went to Baptist Bible Camp and youth group at the evangelical church because I recognized early on how early evangelicals I met in the ’80s and ’90sweren’t wishy-washy. They were proud to be “all-in” for Jesus.
Later, as a sportswriter in Florida, surrounded by the Bible-thumping coaches of the gridiron, I appreciated the commitment and the single-mindedness with which American evangelicals approached their faith. Later still, tasked with traveling the country and researching Christians who had voted for Trump, most couldn’t fathom a Christian who wasn’t Republican. In my liberal urban neighborhood of Minneapolis, I heard the opposite. People couldn’t fathom a Christian who wasn’t a Democrat.
Lines had gotten blurred. Evangelicals who had learned the lessons of the Cold War against an atheist Soviet Union taught a version of Christianity steeped in patriotism, a strong America, and support for veterans and active military members. Others, specifically evangelicals of color, descendants of slaves and daughters of migrant workers, stressed freedom from oppression, economic justice, and the corrosive effects of wealth and power.
For me, a white evangelical eager to safeguard the label, it’s essential I heed messages resounding from churches that have never enjoyed center stage among American Christians, but nonetheless have changed our country through civil rights and workers’ rights and community support of families. The marginalized, poor, and suffering preach an evangelical gospel independent of power or dollars or television air time.
Our chief devotion must be to the voice of Jesus, even as we engage in American politics in 2020. Christ’s clarion call is not to partisanship but to personhood, to love, and to truth.
A cursory reading of Luke’s Gospel features Jesus tempted by satanic lures of power and wealth in chapter 4, but who then takes on the mantle of prophetic power on behalf of the poor.
What might it look like to support a government that “proclaims release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind”— that works to let the oppressed go free?
Jesus goes on in Luke to proclaim the poor and the hungry and the mournful as blessed.
In Luke 6, Jesus warns that those who are rich, full, and laughing now will suffer woe. In chapter 9, Jesus demands that his followers first deny themselves and take up their crosses; that there is no profit to gaining the whole world if they lose themselves and their integrity.
In Luke 14, Jesus describes a banquet where the righteous should aspire to the lowest seat, for whoever exalts themselves will be humbled and the humbled exalted. What would it look like to govern according to Kingdom principles, instead of governing to protect what’s “ours” until the Kingdom comes?
This is just the beginning. In Luke 18, Jesus exalts a lowly widow over an outwardly pious Pharisee, who gives great sums of money and follows all the religious rules. In Luke 20, spies sent by the religious leaders try to trap Jesus, asking him if it was right to pay taxes to the emperor.
Jesus responds with their trickery in mind. He says taxes belong to the emperor and not to God. You can follow the law without making money and taxes into gods.
In Luke 22 the disciples argue over who is the greatest. Jesus responds by declaring himself to be servant of all. What would it look like to elect political officials who see themselves as public servants?
In Luke 23, as Jesus carries his Cross, he speaks to the women who have followed him and served as disciples. On Calvary, he promises the criminal next to him that he will be with Jesus in paradise. With his last breath, Jesus dwelt with those whom society rejected and incarcerated. Lastly, in Luke 24, women go to the tomb, despite being mocked by the men. They tell the disciples what the angel told them, that Jesus had risen.
The women had the message of resurrection, but like many marginalized preachers, they were ignored. Still they were evangelicals in that moment, and their witness to the gospel gave birth to a movement.
I believe faithful Christians can read all of these passages from Luke and determine how we ought to conduct ourselves as political citizens and members of the public square—despite our party affiliation and presidential preference. Both Democrats and Republicans can be public servants, can seek an America where Jesus’ witness is proclaimed and his message of love, freedom, justice, and truth is not ignored.
Angela Denker is an ELCA pastor, journalist, and author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump.
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