My Pavlovian response to the word “evangelical”

There’s a good chance I’m about to get incredibly soap-boxy, but I’m going to try my best to fight that tendency.

Do you remember the WABAC (“way-back”) machine on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show? You know, the segment with the professorial dog and the red-headed kid who asked inane questions. If I could join Peabody and Sherman for a jaunt in their time machine, I would go back to the very hour that the word “evangelical” started being synonymous with “conservative” and attempt to stop the connection. I would fail, of course, like the guy in the movie version of The Time Machine who tries to save his wife’s life because of the temporal paradox. (i.e. If I succeed peabodyand sever the connection between “evangelical” and “conservative” I’d never have to go back in time to make the attempt, thus the words would be connected, thus I’d go back in time and sever them, thus I’d not need to go back in time…you get the point. I’ve said it before — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the only book I’ve ever read with a truly well-reasoned time travel plot.)

Okay, I apologize for that stunning example of my ability to digress. I could delete it, but then I’d have no reason to use the picture of Sherman and Peabody. Let’s begin again.

You know how some people say “taxi,” some say “cab” and some say “taxi-cab,” but they all mean those yellow cars that you have to pay to ride in? The same thing has happened with the words “evangelical” and “conservative.” The media combine these two words in various permutations when discussing moral, ethical, or religious issues, and they bank on quickly instilling in your mind the vague image of a bellowing reactionary picketing an abortion clinic with a sign that says “Jesus hates gays.” Some media outlets do this so you will know to disagree with such “evangelicals”; others do it so you’ll know to agree. I’m not sure about you, but the image of the sign-wielding picketer has reached Pavlovian proportions in my mind. The fact that the image is a caricatured worst-case scenario is lost on a population conditioned to react strongly (one way or the other) to the word “evangelical.”

The current connotations of the word “evangelical” could not be further from what the word once meant. Peabody and Sherman could jump into the WABAC machine and travel to Mark’s house in about the year 65 and find the word in the fresh ink of the first line of Mark’s account of the Gospel. “The beginning of the euangelion of Jesus Christ.” Euangelion — one etymological hop and a few millennia brings us to “Evangelical.” Do you see the word “angel” in the middle there? That’s the Greek word for news or message. And the “ev-” at the beginning used to be “eu-” as in “eulogy” (good word/speech) or “[e]utopia” (good place/land).  This beautiful word — this word that has been co-opted, dragged through the mud of bigotry, and associated with narrow-mindedness and hate — used to mean “good news.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Not “The beginning of the reactionary bigotry of Jesus Christ.” Not “The beginning of the messy-ideology-of-hate of Jesus Christ.” Good News. Gospel.

I want the word “evangelical” back. I wish I could call myself an “evangelical” without being handed a “Jesus hates gays” sign in someone else’s mind. Of course, I am not saying that everyone who self-identifies as an “evangelical” hates gay people or thinks Harry Potter is the most inherently evil thing since evolution. These are facile characterizations that discount the good that “evangelicals” do in the world. But, as I see it, there is a latent schizophrenia in the “evangelical movement” that leads to simultaneous digging of wells in African villages and campaigning for Prop 8. Mix in the media’s fostering of the image of the sign-wielding picketer and the blustering of certain conservative demagogues, and the rebranding of “evangelical” is complete.

I have no illusion that the word “evangelical” will ever mean what it once did.  Words are collections of sounds and signs by which we signify objects, thoughts, and feelings, and these significations can change over time. Did you know that “happy” used to mean “lucky?” Juliet’s line “O happy dagger” (as in “O lucky weapon that I happened to find lying next to me”) makes more sense that way, right?

But this is a cautionary tale. If “evangelical” can take on such a twisted meaning, what’s next?


* You may wonder what spurred me to write this today. Well, to be honest, I’m a little bummed that Barack Obama picked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration. (I know that The Purpose Driven Life has sold millions of copies and helped a lot of people. But I can get on board with very little that Warren preaches or stands for.) Because of this announcement, the word “evangelical” has been on the news about 917 since yesterday.

** I edited out several very snarky pieces of this entry before publishing it. I still think I got too soap-boxy, but what can ya do?