Four Changes Evangelicals Must Make

Just before the presidential election, I was invited to speak in Berlin at the annual meeting of the German Baptists’ theological society. The theme was the “social gospel,” a topic on which I, as a historian, am reasonably well-informed, and the opportunity was a welcome interruption from the incessant bombardment of election propaganda and the absurd claims so-called Christian politicians were then making. Once again, in the U.S. election campaign, our evangelicals—including among them many of “my” Baptists—were promoting a slew of “social issues,” but precious little “gospel.”    

Self-proclaimed and media-designated evangelicals had done everything they could to defeat President Obama, and in the process they discredited the evangelical message and reduced it to a mere political gospel. From where I’m sitting, it’s obvious that they need to engage in the kind of soul-searching that results in genuine repentance—but of course that is not likely to happen. But I will go out on a limb and suggest some places where they might begin.    

1) The Southern Baptists need to get rid of the discredited Dr. Richard Land immediately, not wait for his announced retirement as President of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which won’t be effective until October 2013. Dr. Frank Page, the President and CEO of the Executive Committee, needs to act summarily and forcefully. He certainly must understand that Land’s (and by implication the Southern Baptist Convention’s) endorsement of Mitt Romney undermined the Southern Baptist witness. He and his office are an embarrassment to the convention, attract unnecessary criticism, and contribute to the public image problem that hinders the ministry of the SBC.

The convention could channel the money expended on its tarnished reputation to the International Mission Board where it could do some real good in reaching men and women for Christ. Proclaiming a political gospel will never achieve this noble goal. Also, there’s no need to jump aboard the “religious freedom” bandwagon when Southern Baptists could contribute funds to aid in the task of fostering religious freedom around the world through the respected and well-managed Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty.

2) A change must take place in the Billy Graham organization. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has done much to sully the reputation of the eminent 94-year-old evangelist in the twilight years of his rich and full life. In North Carolina, Franklin has been widely criticized for engineering a de facto Billy Graham endorsement of Romney as well as support for last spring’s referendum to amend the North Carolina state constitution to permanently ban homosexual marriage. 

Also questionable was the manner in which the younger Graham brought Sarah Palin and her entourage to Asheville and then up the mountain for an audience and photo op with the world’s most famous evangelist. The BGEA board of directors needs to oust Franklin and tell him to go spend his time managing the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, which has done much good work in non-Western lands. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to put a really big lock on the gate to Graham’s mountain home just to keep Franklin away.  

3) Next, evangelicals have to rein in the conservative editorial policies of their flagship magazine, Christianity Today. It really ought to have some staffers who are free not to parrot the old shibboleths of evangelical political and social ethics, and who are more in tune with the values of centrist liberals. Currently they do little more than uphold knee-jerk Republican positions. The lack of serious political and theological diversity in the magazine’s treatment of current issues is well known, and it certainly is no friend of President Obama. A goodly number of its educated and thoughtful readers have jumped ship for its more liberal rival, The Christian Century, which has begun to open its pages to evangelical contributors, news, and books, while its circulation figures have held firm. Christianity Today remains a rich source of information about all things evangelical, but it needs to be more balanced and to give space to the voices of younger critics of evangelicalism and the older figures who stand behind them.

4) Finally, evangelicals have to get off the abortion issue. The electoral defeat of several hard-liners should be a wake-up call that people are getting weary of the increasingly extreme positions that the more vocally Christian politicians are taking on the issue. The attempts to secure the enactment of “personhood” measures, and the rejection of abortion in cases of rape or to save the life of the mother, are examples of the latest moves in this direction. Besides, who takes seriously their stress on the “right to life” while they reject gun control for assault weapons, the very real threat of global climate change, and support the death penalty and ongoing war in Afghanistan?  

The evangelical crowd will be doing a lot of breast-beating over the next few months, as will Republicans in general. But this period can provide a learning experience for evangelicals if they choose to accept it. I hope they do, and thereby take advantage of the opportunity to return to their central calling of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.