My friend Arnold called early one morning and asked if I had time to meet him for coffee. When we got to the diner, he asked if we could sit over in the corner where no one could hear us. So we did.
“Why all the secrecy?” I asked.
“I have some questions and I don’t want to offend anyone who might overhear us. You know I have this hearing problem and you always have to speak up so I can get it.”
“OK,” I said, “so what’s the issue?”
“Evangelicals,” Arnold said. “Maybe I’d better ask first if you classify yourself as an `evangelical,’ so are you one?”
“Yes and no, Arnold,” I said. “The word comes from `evangel,’ which means `gospel,’ so if you’re asking whether I believe in the gospel of Jesus, then the answer is `yes.’ But the word `evangelical’ has been taken over by the conservative wing of Christianity, and if you’re asking whether I belong to that wing, then the answer is `no.’”
“You see, Richard, that’s what makes religion so confusing. When people like me want a Christian answer to certain things, I have to ask a ton of people, because there’s the Catholic answer, the Episcopal answer, the Evangelical answer, the mainline answer, etc. And then who can say what answer is the `Christian’ one.”
“Wait until you ask someone who belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” I said, trying to be humorous.
“Is there such a thing?” Arnold asked. “I thought Lutherans were mainline, not evangelical.”
“Yes, they’re mainline. They’re just the only mainline church body that actually has the word `evangelical’ in its official name. But they’re not part of the religious right that calls itself `evangelical.’”
“OK. But what I really came to talk about is what the so-called evangelicals really stand for. My neighbor, who used to be my friend, considers himself to be an evangelical, and before the election told me he couldn’t vote for such an indecent man like Trump. When I asked him why, he said he couldn’t vote for a man who had been married three times, who boasted that he abused women, who stiffed his contractors, who built casinos with strip clubs in them, and who couldn’t quote the Bible correctly when asked to do so. So after the election I told him he must be pretty disappointed, and he said he was totally glad that Trump had won and that he had voted for him.
“But doesn’t that go against your religion?” I asked him. “And he just stared at me and turned around and walked away. And then I read that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, more than Bush ever got in either of his runs. So I’m confused, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you about what they really believe. I mean, they are Christians, aren’t they, like you?”
“I know, Arnold, it really can be confusing, can’t it?” I said.
“You got it. So is it just a matter of liberal versus conservative? They’re conservative and you’re liberal – is that it?”
“There’s really more to it than that,” I said.
“Like what? What makes you `mainline’ and them `evangelicals’”?
“OK. For starters, we’ve kept the ancient creeds of the church, its ancient liturgies, infant baptism, and emphasize Holy Communion, and they haven’t.”
“But that makes you `conservative’ and them `liberal,’ doesn’t it?”
“Historically and theologically, yes,” I said. But socially, they are opposed to women’s right to choose, to gay rights, and blame immigrants for taking away American jobs …”
“And Trump rode all those objections all the way to the White House,” Arnold interjected.
“It looks that way,” I said.
“So if they got rid of all those traditional Christian practices and adopted a sort of nationalistic populism, are they really Christians in your mind?”
“Well, they accept Jesus as their personal Savior,” I answered.
“So is that all there is to it?” Arnold asked, getting a bit upset. “They want to build walls, and the Pope said that’s not Christian. They want to stop welcoming refugees into the country and the Pope says that’s not what Jesus would do.”
“Maybe fear is a stronger motivation than we would expect,” I offered
“But didn’t you tell me once that faith in Christ overcomes fear?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So I’ll take faith any day,” Arnold said.
“So will I see you in church now?” I asked.
“Don’t pin me down, Richard. Waiter, I’ll take the check.”
-- Richard L. Jeske, Vicar