Are evangelicals the ogres of the U.S. vote?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 27, 2004

Evangelical Christians are among the most dangerous people in the world today, if we are to believe much of what is said in the media.

Just look at what passes for intelligent commentary on this year's U.S. presidential election: You want to put a candidate down? Simply accuse him of being one of "those" evangelicals.

According to such critics, evangelicals are anti-intellectual, self-righteous, and lacking in compassion – fanatics out of touch with the real world and at odds with their historic Christian roots. And horrors, they actually pray!

Well, I for one am fed up with the hate-mongering and innuendo to which evangelical Christians are being subjected.

So, what really is an evangelical?

To start with, they are not some small breakaway sect. As conservative Protestants, they are a significant reminder of what most of Protestantism stood for prior to the rise of Modernism a century ago.

Ten per cent of Canadians regard themselves as "born again" evangelicals, while over 40 per cent of Americans so identify themselves.

They come from every race, educational background, and social stratum. And they may, or may not, belong to churches and denominations that use the word "evangelical" in their name. (Southern Baptists constitute the largest evangelical denomination in North America, while Pentecostals are the fastest growing worldwide.)

On many issues today they have more in common with post-Vatican II Roman Catholics than with Protestants of a more liberal bent. They share common ground with Catholics in such areas as medical ethics, the definition and value of human life, the promotion of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, and the use of the Alpha Course (an international introduction to basic Christianity jointly conducted in Cochrane by the Alliance, Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran churches).

All evangelicals have this in common: they hold to the inspiration and authority of the Bible and are convinced by the Spirit of God of its good news that Jesus Christ has come as Saviour and Light for a dysfunctional world adrift in darkness – i.e., they are personally "born again," or "persuaded from above" about the unique identity of Jesus, and are not ashamed to call Him Lord.

Evangelicals regard the sharing of this message – the "evangel" – and the story of the new life they have received through it as a great privilege and an act of love.

This love has its roots in God's love as recorded in the John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Evangelicals have celebrated the joyfulness of this love over the centuries in memorable Christmas carols such as Charles Wesley's: "Hark, the herald angels sing, 'Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!'"

They've expressed their gratitude by singing what is arguably the best-known hymn in the English language: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!"

Preachers like Billy Graham and groups like the Salvation Army have proclaimed this amazing grace in great crusades and on humble street corners. Writers like C.S. Lewis have plumbed its depths.

But is this all merely words? It was the 19th century member of the British Parliament William Wilberforce, an evangelical, who succeeded in abolishing slavery in England.

And what of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, also an evangelical, who works tirelessly on behalf of Habitat for Humanity building homes for those less fortunate?

The story is told about Karl Barth, widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most influential theologians, that gets to the very heart, I think, of what being an evangelical is truly all about.

A student of this brilliant scholar asked him one day what, in view of all the books he had written, was the most important thing he had learned.

He replied that it was contained in a simple children's song:

"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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