Name changes in American evangelicalism

The Southern Baptist Church now wants to be called “Great Commission Baptists” but none of the denomination’s seminaries will remove the word “Southern” from their names and churches have the right to reject the new name. Go figure. Sarah Pulliam Bailey has the story at The Washington Post. The suggested move is an attempt to separate from the South’s racist roots.

Evangelicals for Social Action is now “Christians for Social Action.” Kate Shellnut has the story at Christianity Today.

Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, recently addressed the name change at his blog:

I want to tell you about an important name change for Evangelicals for Social Action. For 40 years, I had the privilege of leading ESA. Although I retired in 2013, I continue to serve as co-chair of the board.

Today,  September 15, ESA launched  a new fabulous website and announced its new name. Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) is now Christians for Social Action (CSA).

Here is a short (well, relatively short!) explanation of the new name.

The most important thing to say is that the title I have given this blog makes the most important point: different name, same mission.

ESA began with the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern written over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1973. About 50 evangelical leaders – – elders like Carl Henry, Frank Gaebelein and Vernon Grounds and younger folk like Jim Wallis, Sharon Gallagher, John Perkins,  Richard Mouw, and myself – – spent two days wrestling with the widespread lack of evangelical engagement on social issues such as economic and racial justice, peace, and the dignity of women. Everyone at the conference, both young and old, agreed that biblical faith demanded that American evangelicals become much more engaged in issues of social justice.

The Chicago Declaration started with  our central foundation: “As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm… “  From there, the statement went on to call evangelicals to a vigorous commitment to struggle against personal and structural racism, economic injustice, “the misplaced trust of the nation in economic and military might,” and  men’s prideful domination of women.

The immediate response to the Chicago Declaration was stunning. There was massive coverage in both the religious and secular press. Almost everyone was surprised and many were delighted that evangelicals were ending a long silence and were now ready to launch a new movement of evangelical social action.

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) slowly emerged from this historical declaration. After  several years of only annual meetings, ESA became a membership organization with full-time staff in 1978. Our basic sense of mission was to develop biblically solid materials and meetings to help evangelical Christians become much more deeply engaged on issues of social justice. (We focused on evangelicals because we were evangelicals and that was where the need was greatest!)

In the next couple decades, ESA developed programs in many areas: working to end apartheid in South Africa; opposing our government’s support of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s; developing materials and workshops on global poverty; encouraging the emergence of Christians for Biblical Equality; launching an environmental program that became the Evangelical Environmental Network; working for racial justice. In the 1990s, when we began to fear that  some younger evangelical social activists might lose their passion for evangelism, ESA launched a program to help churches  combine word and deed. We hoped and prayed that vast numbers of American evangelicals would become part of a large movement that would work through both faith-based social service agencies and political engagement to make American society more just.

But ESA (and related organizations) were soon not the only ones urging theologically conservative Christians to reengage politics. In 1979, Jerry Falwell formed Moral Majority and led large numbers of fundamentalists into politics. In his run for the presidency in 1987-1988, Pat Robertson did the same for many charismatics and  Pentecostals. Their agenda was significantly different from that of  ESA. Whereas ESA believed biblical faith called us to a “completely pro-life “agenda, Falwell, Robertson and colleagues tended to focus on a much narrower range of issues ( especially abortion and  marriage). And they identified more and more with the politically conservative part of the Republican Party. Increasingly, the media equated evangelicals with the “Religious Right”. And in 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. And they have continued to support this twice divorced sexist, who had boosted of sexual affairs, stoked racism, promoted policies that largely benefit the richest 20%, ignored the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming and lied constantly, undermining democracy by dismissing anything he disliked as fake news.

Today the word evangelical in the popular mind has largely political connotations. For large numbers of people,  it signifies a right-wing political movement irrevocably committed to Donald Trump. Large numbers of young people raised in evangelical churches are turning away in disgust – – abandoning evangelical churches and even sometimes Christian faith itself. And the larger society thinks of evangelicals  not as people committed to Jesus Christ and  the biblical gospel but as pro-Trump political activists.

The result is that ESA increasingly found that our name failed to communicate who we really are. And it also led people to click off any message with that name before we had any opportunity to  explain that the word evangelical is a rich theological term that refers to historic Christian orthodoxy and a commitment to Jesus’ gospel (the word  evangelical comes from the Greek word for Gospel.) Because of a long history of white evangelical racism, the black church has long refused to use the term evangelical for itself even though its theology and piety are very close to what the word evangelical used to mean. And since 2016, there is even more resistance among African-American   Christians to the word evangelical.

So after careful thought and prayer, we have decided to change our name – – a little! Our new name is Christians for Social Action (CSA). We believe that will help us win a listening ear with more people – – not least with African-Americans. And it certainly will avoid people refusing to even take a minute to see who we are because they see a word that for many people immediately signals  “right-wing, pro-Trump” political folk.

Read the rest here.