For all the hype about “evangelicals” being a powerful voting block in American elections, there remains a nagging question: What exactly is an evangelical? Religion columnist Terry Mattingly asked proto-evangelical pastor, the Rev. Billy Graham, that same question 20 years ago. “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” was Graham’s response. In 2005, historian D.G. Hart dedicated a book to trying to answer that question, Deconstructing Evangelicals, and ultimately came to the conclusion that neither sociologists or theologians could convincingly answer the question.
So, while they’ll probably resent the comparison, in that sense evangelicals are a bit like pornographers — we know them when we see them. Whenever you find a large crowd of people with arms upraised listening to an uplifting facsimile of rock music, chances are you’re among evangelicals. For the tourists visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this past Saturday, where thousands of people gathered around a stage at the foot of Capitol Hill, it probably took a while to figure out that they were witnessing a worship service, and not a concert.
Such was the scene this weekend at “TheCall
,” the latest in a series of regular evangelical gatherings around the country. Originally envisioned as a youthful, co-ed version of Promise Keepers, the revival series is described by organizers as “a divinely initiated, multi-racial, multi -generational, and cross-denominational gathering to corporate prayer and fasting” that “embraces . . .
various expressions of the Body of Christ whether Pentecostal or Evangelical.”
Upon arriving on scene, I’ll be, er, darned if I can discern a common thread among the believers present. It is the Breakfast Club of religious gatherings — young, old, black, white, Hispanic, punks, hipsters, jocks, you name it. Christian pop star Eddie James has the crowd bouncing along with his song “Freedom.” James’s hit is really a high-energy chorus in search of a verse. It begins, “I want to lift my hands higher than before” and so the crowd obliges, before crashing into the circular refrain “No more shackles, and no more chains, no more bondage, I am freeeee, come on and lift your hands to the father and say, No more shackles. . . .”
TheCall has held similar gatherings all over the country, so why Washington, D.C., and why now? That was the question I put to Lou Engle, founder and organizer of the Call, earlier this week. Engle has a hushed, gravelly voice that makes him sound like a very cheerful version of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
“It’s the 43rd anniversary month of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and we are declaring that God has a dream for this nation, and the dream can’t live as long as we are aborting our babies and wounding millions of women who are going through post-abortion trauma,” Engle told National Review Online. “We’re calling the nation, just like they dealt with the issues of slavery and segregation, we have a defining issue that can’t be swept under the rug in these elections.”
Engle doesn’t just want to send a message to political leaders. There’s been a lot of ink-spilled about how evangelicals, traditionally, a core part of the GOP voting base, are turning to the left politically — especially younger evangelicals.
Engle is concerned that abortion isn’t as high a priority among evangelicals as it should be. He was also clear that the fact the TheCall’s D.C. gathering coincided with the presidential forum held by evangelical superstar Rick Warren — where abortion proved to be an important topic of discussion — wasn’t just a happy accident, it was an opportunity to send a message to evangelical leaders, and to politicians.