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“Evangelical”: A Busted Brand

By January 30, 2016 18 Comments

I’ve had branding on the brain since last summer when my college went through a process of changing its logo. After focus groups and consultants and what-not, they came up with a shield-kind-of-thingy that a cigarette packager or long-distance trucking company would die for. I went away less impressed.

But then along comes the Republican primary season, making me take the question of branding more seriously. Specifically, the reflex association of the “evangelical” vote with the most extreme and obnoxious of the candidates on offer makes me wonder whether the “evangelical” brand has been tarnished beyond redemption. Now redemption is something that evangelicals used to care about, but the Jesus sort that they once majored in is so far from anything on offer from the “evangelicals’” current darlings in Iowa, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, that you have to ponder whether we’re not witnessing one of the biggest bait-and-switch scams in American religious history. There is simply nothing recognizably Christian in their agendas. “Pro-life,” their defenders will say, but the life in question is in utero only. Once that tot is born, who cares? Here’s hoping you were born to parents with ample resources, kid. Hold on to that trapeze cuz we’re not fixing the safety net. For the rest, pro-militarism, pro-wars of choice, pro-bombing and droning and torturing and unlimited gun sales at home and abroad—“evangelicals” are at the head of every one of these parades.

And we don’t have to even start on the tone of our two heroes, do we? Perhaps only Donald Trump can outpace Ted Cruz for arrogance, vehemence, and scalding denunciation of their opponents (enemies, actually, either “stupid” or malign), whether in the primary chase or in the world. For my money Trump is to be preferred in this contest since his gestures toward religiosity are so transparently bogus, while Cruz might well and truly believe that he’s God chosen son. Maybe that’s why that paragon of orthodoxy, Jerry Falwell, Jr, president of the world’s largest “Christian” university, endorsed Trump instead. There’s only enough room for one godly man at a time on this stage.

Still, we are left with the problem of replacing “evangelical” with a more honest label, one that insulates the authentic gospel a bit from the current disgrace being conducted in its name. One nominee surely ought to be “Amerikanische Christen,” in memory of those good Germans who soldered the faith so fast to fascist ideology in the 2310s that the church there has never recovered. Plus people who care about real Christianity have an epochal  answer ready for use from Karl Barth.

How about “Christiany,” in the spirit of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”—in this case denoting a hyper-nationalistic, xenophobic, patriarchal rage that nonetheless hums along fondly to those good ol’ gospel tunes that Mama used to sing. (So sweet, isn’t it, that a family gospel band hied itself over from Kansas to provide spiritual solace to the vigilantes occupying the federal wildlife sanctuary in Oregon.)

Consider also “Christianist,” á la “Islamist” (see also “terrorist;” “jihadist, militant”), designating people who have colonized the terminology of a world religion while acting in diametric opposition to its core message and values. As in: welcome not the stranger, it’s not the Christianist thing to do. Or: I’ll carpet-bomb those jihadis wherever they are and turn the desert sands into a sea of glass; it is the Christianist thing to do. Oh, there might be some innocent civilians in the area? Well of course, the bombs won’t kill them. (See: ignorance, innate or incorrigible. See also Ben Carson, erstwhile “evangelical” favorite, deemed ineducable in these matters by his own foreign policy advisers.)

You get the drift, gentle reader. We need a new name. Evangelical means of the gospel; “evangelical” has nothing of the gospel about it. Be the first on your block to send in a suggestion and we’ll enter it in our big drawing come Super Tuesday, when all the thickly “evangelical” states of the South hold their primaries. Winners get an evening with their choice of Trump or Cruz. “Losers” will gather in a room for a detox chanting session with the spirit of Mark Twain: “Take heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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