Growing up in the South, there was one phrase that could always strike terror in my heart: evangelical Christian.
My town was overrun with Christians who claimed the label of "evangelical". For them, this did not mean spreading the good news of God's grace. It meant promoting a political agenda that was anti-gay, anti-choice, and anti-Semitic. Their witness to the faith was far different from the loving God presented to me in the Gospels and in my encounters with mainline Christianity. Yet their voices spoke the loudest, and came to be associated for most of my friends with what it meant to be not just an evangelical, but a Christian.
I went off to college and came out, and my faith deepened. When questioned by friends about how I could remain in a religion that preached such hate my response was often the same: "Oh, I'm not one of those evangelical Christians."
And then I went to seminary. And in my fairly progressive seminary, filled with professors who advocated for LGBTQ equality, I came to a stunning realization about evangelical Christians: I was one.
Yesterday Bil Browning shared part of an interview with a fundamentalist Christian preacher on this blog. Bil's article was entitled, "How Will Evangelical Christians Deal With It?" In it, Baptist fundamentalist Albert Mohler talks about evangelical Christians with the assumption that to be evangelical is to believe exactly as he does regarding same-gender marriage. This is just not true. That was enough to get me fired up.
But, what really got me about Mohler's words, was how those of us who are progressives have begun to accept the co-opting of the term "evangelical" by the Christian right.
The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek word transliterated as "euangelion" which means "good news". For centuries "evangelical" meant not a certain set of political beliefs, but rather the deep faith conviction that God loved us beyond measure and with certain grace.
It's the reason why the relatively progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America claims the word in its name. It's why one of the predecessor denominations of my very progressive United Church of Christ was called the Evangelical and Reformed Church. It's the history that allows many historic theologians to claim the word "evangelical" in their work as a message of hope and transcendence. Historically, it has nothing to do with hitting people over the head with a Bible. It has nothing to do with denouncing gay rights.
When I realized I was a progressive evangelical, I was surprised. I was an outspoken advocate of equality. I was used to separating myself from the scores of fundamentalists and Biblical literalists in the South by stating that I was "not an evangelical". But, the reality that I really was someone for whom the good news of the Gospel was transforming was too convincing to hide. I was an evangelical. A true evangelical. And they, the people who would use that liberating word to spread hatred, couldn't have it anymore. Not without being challenged on it.
I now know many other liberal or progressive Christians who consider themselves to be evangelicals. For us that word does not just mean that we do not condemn LGBTQ persons. It means that we have a Gospel command to defend and protect them. It means that the good news of God's grace is so strong that we cannot allow anyone who is created in God's good image to be treated as less than anymore. It means that we fight for equality because our faith tells us we can do no other.
To claim our name is a struggle on two fronts. First, Christian fundamentalists and Biblical literalists will try to deny our right to claim an evangelical identity. Fortunately, they do not own the Gospel (despite their convictions otherwise). Those of us who are progressive in the church are used to having to hang on tight to our faith while others try to push us out.
But the bigger question is when the LGBTQ movement will fully accept the presence and work of progressive Christians. Believe me, more than most I understand that pain that has been inflicted on LGBTQ persons in the name of Christianity. I was a queer seminarian in a church that wanted me to decide between a life of celibacy or ordination. I get it. We have a lot of repentance to do.
But we also have a lot of work. And some of us, driven not just by civic responsibility but by the convictions of our faith, are ready to do that work for equality. But we need help.
I have often found greater acceptance as a queer person in my churches than I have as a Christian in the queer community. If we truly want to be as diverse as we claim to be in the queer community, it means we have to accept people with their faith convictions and not ask them to leave them at the door.
Second, it means that we need to allow progressive Christians to tell the story of their own experiences with the church. Instead of projecting preconceptions of what it means to be a Christian or an evangelical on the person who walks through the door of your activist organization, allow them to represent their own reality. Do not allow the Christian right to shape your perception of someone else's identity. They do enough of that already.
And finally, help us to reclaim that word. Help us to reshape the understanding of what it means to be a person of faith in this country. Help us to claim our identity publicly as the true face of evangelical Christianity. Because I still have no doubt; if Jesus was here he would not stand with those who oppress us.
He would stand with the gay teenager who is being bullied. He would stand with the transwoman who is fighting for her job. He would stand with the activist who is being beaten to death in Uganda. And he would stand with you and me.
Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.