December 1, 2017
Evangelicals and the death of Christianity in the U.S.
To the editor:
This essay is inspired by Miguel De La Torre’s article, “The death of Christianity in the U.S.” This is not a response to Professor De La Torre’s article. It, however, brought to my attention two points that I would like to address: the statement about the death of Christianity and its connection with evangelical Christianity.
Since evangelical Christianity in America has died, according to Professor De La Torre, American Christianity has died, too. But this cannot be true, for three reasons. First, Professor De La Torre writes as if evangelical Christianity were the only Christianity in America. Second, since there are other Christians denominations and groups in America, Christianity has not died in the U.S. Third, there is a crisis in the U.S., but it is a crisis that is affecting Christianity in general, not only evangelical Christianity.
Who are evangelical Christians in the U.S.? The most known and generally accepted definitions of evangelical Christianity — those of David Bebington, Douglas Sweeney, Allister McGrath and Timothy George — are broad and do not explicitly speak of justice, peace, love and fraternity, which the author mentions as characteristics of evangelical Christianity (For these definitions, see Douglas Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story, pp. 17-25.). It does not mean that these characteristics are not important and evangelical; they are evangelical indeed — related to the good news of Jesus and God’s word — and fundamental characteristics of Christianity, but they are not the only words which define evangelical Christianity.
Although the words love, peace, and justice are essential to any form of Christianity, evangelical Christianity — and all other Christian traditions — should be understood in the larger context of the gospel and Christian tradition. For example, love, justice and peace are not helpful to, say, an adulterer or a thief. Also, justice is not justice if it takes sides, if it neglects intentionally, or if it seeks favors.
“Evangelical Christianity” is not a term which includes certain Christian groups and exclude others. Are not all the Christians evangelicals? Evangelical Christianity is fundamentally related to orthodox Christianity, which has at its core the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. Are Catholic Christians not evangelical Christians? In a discussion I had with a very respectable Catholic theologian, he clearly emphasized the evangelical (the good news of Jesus and God’s Word) character of Catholic Christianity. I do agree. Who are the evangelical Christians in the U.S.? Are they exclusively associated with the political status quo? Are they all haters who oppose peace and do not love? Are they all not following Jesus’ teachings?
In fact, it does not matter because the world “evangelical” is not a magical word miraculously leading to the knowledge of God and salvation. Many Christians who call themselves “evangelical” may have not much in common with the gospel of Jesus and its message. Also, there certainly are many Christians who do not call themselves “evangelicals” but strive to live the gospel honorably and faithfully. The label “evangelical,” as labels in general, is not relevant because it cannot be clearly associated with a certain group of Christians. In other words, those labeled “evangelical” Christians do not clearly distinguish themselves from other Christians theologically and ethically. I am an “evangelical” Christian because my denomination is usually associated with the term “evangelical,” but I have always had questions about the artificial and discriminatory application of the term.
Did Christianity in the U.S. die? Of course, the response depends on how one defines Christianity. The most pertinent response would be that Christianity has not died. First, even if evangelical Christianity died, which is not true, are there no other Christian groups in the U.S that preach and teach the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ? Second, Christianity has always been, especially from the fourth and fifth centuries, a movement which has associated its members with the gradually accepted infant baptism. Since baptism is still the observance which qualifies a person as a Christian, Christianity has not died. True, Christianity is in a period of decline, but there are no clear indications that Christianity has died.
From a different perspective, although Christians care about Christianity, they do not care about God. Christianity is a movement which is a part of the structure of society, a tradition with many traditions, and people do care about traditions because they are part of their daily lives. All Christians — Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, etc. — care about their own traditions, which is admirable indeed. God is “dead,” not Christianity. How and why? On the one hand, God is not dead because God does not die. On the other hand, God is dead because people neglect Him. That is the problem, not the evangelicals; they are just a part of a problem that troubles Christianity.
God is holy and love and not a tyrant who imposes his will indiscriminately on people. Certain contexts and personal interests have created Christian theologies and movements, and contemporary Christianity is divided according to certain traditions with certain values and priorities: some emphasize tradition more than others, some emphasize the authority of the Bible more than others, some are more liberal than others ethically. It is also no less true that all forms of Christianity try, some more than others, to fit Christianity within the progressive and liberal structures of society, which cause differences between the different forms of Christianity, disputes and questions as to the nature of Christianity.
All Christians, very likely without discrimination, are blaming other Christians and use defamatory language: the more conservative Christians are considered “haters” by more liberal Christians for not being more open and receptive to culture, and vice versa. This certainly is very sad and troubling, considering that all Christians profess to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, who urged his disciples to seek love, peace and unity. Moreover, in my view, the hostile language and discussions are more related to traditions, ideologies and personal or common interests than to honest and unbiased reflections on the Bible. Christianity is a tradition/system which consists of many systems/traditions. Since the Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of his disciples and commanded them to love one another, hate language is not a language that the Lord condones, regardless of who is right or wrong.
Professor De La Torre rightly emphasizes love, justice, peace and fraternity as essential characteristics of Christianity: Christianity is, in my opinion, a matter of relationship. No one loves God who does not love his neighbor and enemy.
However, these characteristics are related to the main message of Jesus, which are repentance and God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is not inclusive; it is not a place where people will get in indiscriminately. It is related to repentance, which means the change of mind and way of life. How do I know that the kingdom of God is not inclusive? Simple. Since not all who claim to be Christians repent and change their mind and way of life, the kingdom of God cannot be inclusive. There are some who repent and try to live according to their commitment, and there are some who do not repent and change. The identity of Christianity is not defined by its inclusive attitude, because inclusive usually means no clear principles, but by being in Christ, which means repentance and a life according to the principles of the kingdom.
Gavril Andreicut, Elmhurst, Ill.
The writer is lecturer in history at Oakton College in Des Plaines, Ill., and teaches Christianity and historical and systematic theology at Elmhurst College and Liberty University. He also is a visiting professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Bucharest, Romania.