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Defining Evangelicalism Down

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Religious Left is successfully redefining what it means to be a conservative evangelical by misrepresenting what it means to be a conservative evangelical. In a recent conference call hosted by Faith in Public Life, one of the emerging voices of the Religious Left, Dr. Joel Hunter, said:


There’s also a change in the voices that are defining what is conservative now, and what is evangelical. In the past couple of decades you’ve had some very loud voices on both sides – hard right, hard left – and when those were the only choices, then of course many evangelicals are going to go with the hard right because, well, that’s kind of where we mostly are. Now there are many more voices that are expanding the agenda, and so those people that have always had kind of a holistic approach, rather than just a one or two issue approach, are now feeling permission and given permission to be more nuanced and more sophisticated in their approach, rather than just going in a very bifurcated system. And so, what you’re hearing now is that the old voices that appointed themselves as the definers of what was evangelical or what was conservative are not holding sway with the majority of evangelicals anymore.

By convincing America that conservative evangelicals are concerned only with two issues, stopping abortion and preserving traditional marriage, these new voices of evangelicalism are effectively making the case that conservative evangelicals ignore poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the environment. The history of evangelicalism tells a different story.

Evangelicals have set the standard throughout history for social action which continues into the present through numerous humanitarian relief organizations. The Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations claim 64 such organizations as members, including World Vision, Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, and Mercy Ships.


One of the largest humanitarian relief organizations in the world is the Salvation Army. It defines its commitment to social services as “…an outward visible expression of the Army's strong religious principles.” Those social services include disaster relief, services for the aging, AIDS education, medical facilities, and shelters for battered women. The Salvation Army impacts 30 million people a year in the United States alone. The founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, was a Methodist minister. On its website the Salvation Army defines itself as an “evangelical group.”

To these readily recognizable evangelical organizations add the innumerable evangelical churches across America that in very quiet and unrecognized ways minister to the needs of the poor and suffering every day. In my own community a local evangelical church runs the oldest and largest homeless shelter in our county. Grace Gospel Fellowship in Pontiac, Michigan serves 127,000 meals a year, provides rehabilitation services and housing for drug addicts and single mothers, and creates jobs. It accomplishes its mission without one dime of government funding, and is “dedicated to recovery through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Religious Left’s appeal for the Religious Right to “broaden its agenda” to include poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the environment ignores the fact that conservative evangelicals have always had a strong commitment to these issues. So if conservative evangelicals are already leading the efforts to relieve poverty and disease, what’s behind the call to “broaden the agenda”? Another agenda altogether.


What’s really happening here is an attempt by the Left to define evangelicalism down by moving it away from its emphasis on the power of the gospel to change lives. The church’s ability to affect social and cultural change, bringing relief to the poor and suffering, is rooted first and foremost in its commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and what the gospel says about the condition of man in sin which results in the symptoms of poverty and disease.

The Religious Left invalidates the conservative evangelical commitment to humanitarian relief because we are achieving our ends in the name of Jesus Christ through the gospel, without the assistance of government funding. The fundamental tenant of modern liberalism is that a government program funded by redistributed wealth is the preferred method of humanitarian relief rather than what the church is accomplishing by faith through compassionate hearts.

The new voices of the Religious Left – Rick Warren,  Joel Hunter, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, et al – are defining down what it means to be an evangelical by making the symptoms of man’s sin (poverty, disease, etc.) a priority rather than addressing the cause of those symptoms (sin) and the cure found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The argument for this reprioritizing is a convincing one, suggesting the new priorities for evangelicals ought to be determined by asking, “How would Jesus respond to (fill in your favorite social cause here)?” The implied answer is that Jesus would be more concerned about the treatment of the poor (especially illegal immigrants) and, at best, neutral on the questions of abortion and homosexual marriage because Jesus never spoke against abortion or homosexual marriage.


These new voices of evangelicalism wear the label “red letter Christians,” but they are in reality “white space Christians,” determining Jesus’ view of abortion and homosexual marriage by focusing on what he didn’t say rather than on what he did say. In Matthew 5 Jesus upholds the standard of the Mosaic Law, which is clear in its call for punishing anyone responsible for killing a child in the womb (Exodus 21:22-25). When Jesus wanted to illustrate true greatness, he set a child in the midst of the disciples and said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). In Matthew 19 Jesus clearly affirmed that marriage is between one man and one woman by validating the story of Adam and Eve, holding it up as the standard for marriage. As for the question of how Jesus would respond to illegal immigrants, I’m pretty sure he would tell them to obey the law (cf. Matthew 22:21).

The new voices of evangelicalism sound eerily similar to the old voices of the social gospel movement who moved their churches away from the priority of the gospel in the early 20th Century, focusing instead on positive thinking and welfare as a solution to social ills. The result was empty pews and even emptier hearts. I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution, then I’ll get down on my knees and pray we don’t get fooled again (with apologies to Pete Townshend).


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