Elizabeth Warren,  American Evangelist

“Donald Trump has named his most likely challenger in the 2020 presidential election,” the Guardian’s David Smith reported this morning, “It is Elizabeth Warren.” The president called Warren out during his speech to the NRA on Friday (referring to her as “Pocahantas”) and urged his supporters to be ready to oppose her in the runup to 2020.

And while the senator from Massachusetts still insists she does not have her sights on the presidency, she is on the interview circuit talking about the subject of newest book, This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Classwith what we might well call “evangelical” zeal. Hence this reflection, from Peter Laarman, on the many uses of the term.

–The Eds.

In our ongoing conversations these days about an increasingly fractured American Evangelicalism, I beg us all to remember that evangelism and evangelical zeal aren’t always a bad thing.

American Evangelical Christians call themselves that because they are committed to spreading the Good News—the Gospel—euangelion in New Testament Greek. American Evangelical Christianity is a religious phenomenon. But small-e evangelism is more of an unconfined quiddity, a way of operating or performing in public that  “works” in a cultural way among Americans who  aren’t especially interested in religion per se.

For example, it would be entirely accurate to say that the notorious Robert G. Ingersoll, often demonized as the American Infidel in his time, and his much- better-known contemporary, William Jennings  Bryan, a passionate Christian, were equally evangelical in their effective use of the techniques of public persuasion.

It is likewise appropriate to say that leading social and labor reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries–figures with names like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Henry George,  Louis Brandeis, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Lillian Wald, and Eugene V . Debs–were each and all powerfully evangelical in their  indefatigable campaigning for an ethical secular order

Some of these  agitators borrowed freely from what they were able to see Evangelical Christian preachers accomplish in wave after wave of “awakenings.” They learned, both on the stump and in print, how to speak to the heart and to push hard rhetorically for what are always any good evangelist’s Big Three: repentance, conversion, and finally sanctification ( growing in faithfulness within the community of the redeemed).

Please note that I slipped the names of a couple of non-Christians into my honor roll of historical figures imbued with evangelical zeal. I am well aware that I write as a Christian minister who is highly attuned to the tropes and techniques of actual preachers. I am equally conscious of the danger of projecting a Christian frame on social agitation and social agitators who might well reject any connection to a particular religious inheritance. But we blind ourselves if we ignore the huge overhanging influence of revivalism within the wider culture of social reform. I have no interest in colonizing this culture; I am simply pointing out that it is already colonized, especially when it comes to perfervid political rhetoric.

With this latter and broader sense of evangelical in mind, I invite you to listen to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick  and tell me whether or now you hear the  traces of effective evangelism in her voice and in her overall pitch.

For myself, I must say that I heard these familiar evangelical/revivalist elements in Warren’s appeal:

  • I am not here for myself, I am only here as the servant of Something Much Greater  ( this isn’t my choice, it’s my calling )
  • A new spirit is loose in the land – the spirit of rebellion and liberation and deliverance from our common bondage
  • In Organized Money we face a Satan who is wily and unrelenting and who must be resisted at each and every turn
  • Acting together in resistance actually changes reality, creates community,  and helps break the chains of oppression
  • Together we can forge a righteous army capable of advancing the Compassionate Commonwealth we need
  • Our required daily devotion is to do just one thing each day that advances the in – breaking of that peaceable and just kingdom.

None of this is meant to be dismissive or derisive.  Sen. Warren is not playing politics here (we could smell it if she were). Her stock is rising–and rising fast–because lots and lots of people understand that she is the real deal: a different and fresh American prophet who vividly evokes not an imaginary El Dorado of impossible happiness but a simple return to an older order of decency and fairness and neighborliness.

But (she adds), in order to achieve that desperately longed-for  day of restoration, we must be born again into the redemptive new space of shared struggle.

Count me in.  I’m walking to the altar now.