A great op-ed in the Star Tribune
Herbert W. Chilstrom: What being evangelical means to me
By tacking on a political agenda, some have sullied and secularized what once was a revered term.
By HERBERT W. CHILSTROM
Last update: January 8, 2008 - 6:49 PM
Am I an "Evangelical Christian"? No, emphatically no. Am I an evangelical Christian? Yes, emphatically yes.
I became an evangelical Christian on Nov. 29, 1931, six weeks after I was born. My parents were farmers on the prairie of south central Minnesota.
Like Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Orthodox, Methodist and many other believers, my Lutheran parents made certain I was baptized. They believed "evangelical" meant that God takes the initiative when we become a Christian, even as an infant. First, foremost, and primarily, God makes the first move.
My parents and sponsors, as an act of faith, affirmed the beliefs of my church and promised to bring me up in a Christian environment. Along the way it became important for me to confirm what had happened on that Sunday in 1931. As a youth and on through the rest of my life I have continued to confess my faith in the presence of a Christian congregation. As an evangelical Christian I try to let that faith be seen in all I say and do. Yes, I fail all too often. But being an evangelical Christian means that I believe God forgives and helps me move on again. It's that simple.
So why am I so emphatic in saying that I am not an "Evangelical Christian"? It's because I now find myself living in a culture where some folks who call themselves "Evangelical Christians" are putting a very different twist on that old and revered term. They have sullied and secularized it by tacking on a political agenda. They tend to identify themselves not simply by what they believe, but by the stance they take on controversial issues. The majority of them are anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, anti-gay rights, pro-preemptive war, anti-immigration, pro-home schooling, anti-Palestinian rights, pro-Republican party, anti-Democratic party, pro-literal reading of the Bible, anti-higher taxes, and so on.
As I look over the list of things these "Evangelical Christians" espouse, I find that in some areas I agree with them. In most, I strongly disagree.
So when one applies all of this to our common life in the public square, what is the difference between being an evangelical Christian and an "Evangelical Christian"? In my opinion, it lies in the emphasis evangelical Christians put on the use of reason in relationship to their faith. A few examples:
• The best auto mechanic I have ever had is a devout Roman Catholic. He never fails to do the right thing. It makes common sense to go to him.
• The best diagnostic physicians I have ever had are a non-practicing Jew and an active Lutheran. Their keen minds have spared me many maladies. It seems reasonable to go to physicians like them.
• The best surgeons I have ever known are a probable agnostic and a practicing Jew. Each knows exactly what to do. It seems reasonable to trust them.
• The best mayor I have ever known was a Lutheran socialist. His city was one of the best-governed in the country. He was reasonable in everything he did.
• The best presidents of the United States, in my opinion, were a non-church member, an occasional Episcopalian, a cranky member of the Christian Church -- Disciples of Christ, and a Mennonite/Presbyterian. They served effectively in times of crisis. They did what was most reasonable. Two were Republicans; two were Democrats.
• In my judgment, the best former president we've ever had is a devout Southern Baptist.
In this election year I will be evaluating candidates, whether they are seeking local office or the presidency of the United States, on the basis of their qualifications as wise and reasonable women and men.
• Do they have compassion for the poor and vulnerable?
• Do they understand that politics at its best is practicing the art of the possible?
• Do they have the capacity to work for compromise on difficult issues?
• Do they have the intelligence to see all sides of a complex question?
• Do they have the physical stamina to endure the rigors of office?
• Do they know how to surround themselves with a capable staff, including people who will tell them the truth?
• In the presidential contest, does the candidate have the potential to become a respected statesperson in the community of nations? And will this person be likely to seek to resolve international conflict by dialogue and political negotiation, using military force only as a last resort?
If I sense that candidates for any office are dancing to the lock-step tune of the "Evangelical Christian" segment in our society, they will not get my vote. If they happen to be evangelical Christians, well and good. But that will not be a primary requirement.
An evangelical Christian? Yes. An "Evangelical Christian"? No. It's that simple.
Herbert W. Chilstrom, St. Peter, Minn., is the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
I'm biased, as Bishop Chilstrom and I happen to share the same demoninational heritage. That said, it's such a relief to hear an adult comment on this topic.