Michelle Bachmann. Republican presidential hopeful. Representative of Minnesota’s 6th congressional district. Federal tax lawyer. Mother to 28 children, five of her own and 23 through the foster-care system. And—most importantly—evangelical Christian.
The term makes even the mildest liberal cringe in disdain. Critics of Bachmann and the entire Tea Party movement see evangelicals as bigoted, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic radicals who have hijacked America and seek to limit our freedoms and propagate hate. Growing up in an evangelical household, I can say that this hardly represents the majority of evangelicals.
The word evangelical comes from the Greek words “eu,” meaning “good,” and “angelion,” meaning “message.” This “good news” as understood by the religious establishment is the exclusive revelation of the Bible, particularly the gospels, the first four books of the New Testament. Originally, the term “evangelical” applied to anyone who truly believed in the Biblical message that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the messiah, the son of God. Beginning during the Protestant religious awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and North America, however, the term began to assume a new meaning. As liberalism and, as a reactionary result, fundamentalism, began to divide Protestant denominations and ideologies at the poles of the theological spectrum, the evangelical camp sought to find middle ground by emphasizing the commonalities of the Christian tradition.
Evangelicals are practicing Christians who seek to share their eschatological beliefs with others. While it’s true that they are inherently activists, seeking to affect others’ spiritual beliefs, so are supporters of any ideology, such as feminism or socialism. Granted, religion is a personal choice, as is political affiliation or what you wear, but in our free society, no one will dispute that activism whose aim is to affect your personal choices is both appropriate and, to an extent, encouraged. Just ask Keith Olbermann, or Nike.
This is hardly radical. Unfortunately, modern connotations of the word “evangelical” imply just that. The media portrays evangelicals as the crazies that protest the funerals of soldiers because of America’s growing tolerance of homosexuality. They’re the scientific skeptics that petition school boards to remove evolution and global warming from public education. They’re the lunatics who bomb abortion clinics and murder doctors who perform abortions. They’re also my parents and practically my entire high school.
As a child I didn’t know I was being raised in an evangelical household. I took rigid church attendance, weekly Bible studies, Christian summer camps, nightly devotionals, and the general ingraining of conservative ideology as the norm. In middle school, in order to avoid the complications of a secular education on my development, my parents sent me to a non-denominational Christian school. I adjusted well to the white-washed and wealthy pedigree of my pious peers, and made a good number of friends—I had been raised to fit in, I suppose. Sure, it bothered me that the school was openly homophobic (our student handbook forbid “coming out”). I was unnerved when our AP Biology professor refused to teach evolution, which was a major component of the AP test. And I was downright disgusted when our ethics teacher claimed that domestic violence was not a morally appropriate justification for divorce.
It wasn’t all bad. I witnessed students standing up for a kid being bullied for his sexuality. Families banded together around a female student who had an unplanned pregnancy after a less-than-celibate prom night. I give this praise not to justify or somehow negate the fundamentalist nature of my education. Hate is inexcusable, in all circumstances. But in the same way that terrorism is not the ideology that defines Islam, backwards thinking, bigotry, and hate are not representative of evangelicals as a whole, nor do they typify the evangelical experience.
As in any large demographic group, evangelicals share more differences than similarities. Sure, some evangelicals are racists. But others, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., are staunch supporters of racial equality. Some evangelicals are xenophobic, and others, like my parents, believe that immigrants from all countries and of all legal status are deserving of respect and protection under American law.
Evangelicalism means a lot of things to a lot of people, but when we use the term in a haphazard and pejorative way, casting broad generalizations across a religious group, that’s not called rationalism or liberalism. It’s called prejudice.