When describing my religious beliefs, I usually call myself an evangelical and a Pentecostal. But these terms, at least when appropriated by yours truly, tend to provoke consternation.
My fellow evangelicals and Pentecostals, having read my columns, often assume I’m a heretic. Those willing to admit I could, in theory, be one of Jesus’ sheep, think I’m a black sheep. They hesitate to claim me.
And people of other or no religious leanings shake their heads, too.
“But you’re so … so … reasonable,” they say. “You can’t be one of “-envision a pinching of the nostrils- “‘those’ people.”
Well, yes, friends, I am. Lock, stock and Billy Graham Fan Club button.
The confusion stems from a widespread misunderstanding of what “evangelical” and “Pentecostal” mean. Today, even evangelicals and Pentecostals themselves seem not to know the histories of their movements.
I spent my first 21 years among the Southern Baptists, a baptized member, from age 6, of the largest evangelical denomination. Almost from my arrival in the delivery room, I was indoctrinated with Baptist lore.
I received generous doses of Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist faith in America. Williams, zealous about his own beliefs, couldn’t figure why every straight-thinking person didn’t see it his way. (Sounds like my Baptist grandmother).
Yet he helped forge Rhode Island into the most tolerant colony on the continent, an oasis in a land of religious persecution. He shielded Jews, Quakers and Indians alike.
He preached “soul liberty,” the idea that every human has a right to seek God, or not, exactly as he or she sees fit, without interference.
He distrusted governmental involvement in religion, and religion’s involvement in government. It was Williams who, in 1644, coined the term “wall of separation” to describe his belief that state and church ought to studiously avoid each other.
Eventually, I left the Baptists, but I remain an evangelical.
By definition, an evangelical places the Bible’s authority above creeds or sacraments, believes in the salutary effects of a personal conversion and thinks it’s helpful to share the good news of Jesus’ mercy and grace with anyone who asks (or who is at least willing to listen to the speaker blather on).
Check. Check. Check.
The term evangelical shouldn’t be used as a synonym for “right-wing crank.” Many evangelicals today are conservative Republicans, which is fine. That’s not a synonym for right-wing crank, either.
But earlier evangelicals were extraordinarily liberal.
In his 1990 book Under God: Religion and American Politics, historian Garry Wills reminds us that William Jennings Bryan, the foremost evangelical of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was also the most progressive statesman of his era.
An ailing, aged, addled Bryan was nationally humiliated during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. He died days afterward of diabetes.
But in his prime he’d been a three-time Democratic nominee for president and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state. As Wills notes, “His campaigns were the most leftist mounted by a major party candidate in our entire history.”
Among other things, Bryan fought for women’s suffrage, strict regulation of big business and the abolition of capital punishment.
He apparently developed his views from having read-and believed-the New Testament, which tells us that men and women are equal in God’s eyes, that God favors the poor over the rich and that God’s children should treat prisoners compassionately.
Historically, then, the term evangelical has included myriad interpretations of the Gospel and its commandments.
Finally, I’m a Pentecostal. Scholars generally trace Pentecostalism to the Azusa Street revival that erupted in 1906 in Los Angeles.
In a time of brutal segregation, the three-year revival, led by a black preacher, W. J. Seymour, was amazing for its egalitarianism. White Southerners traveled to sit at Seymour’s feet. Women took the pulpit. People of all stations worshiped side-by-side.
Those early Pentecostals also believed God was restoring the gifts of the Holy Spirit recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, such as prophecy, healing and tongues.
I love the idea that God might break into any given church meeting and replace our agenda with something better.
I love the fervor of Pentecostal worship. I’m by nature emotionally constrained. It’s therapeutic for me to be freed to raise my hands in praise or even to cry. I’ve had a lot, good and bad, to cry about. It’s healthy to let it out.
Plus, Pentecostal music rocks.
My point is, we evangelicals and Pentecostals can be liberals, centrists or conservatives, all the while obeying God to the best of our abilities.
We’re allowed to interpret the scriptures by our own lights, even as our neighbors draw different meanings from the same passages.
We can share our faith with those who want to hear it, without feeling compelled to bludgeon into submission those who don’t.
It’s entirely possible to be an evangelical and a Pentecostal and yet be kind, tolerant and reasonable.