Evangelical Christian organizations with a global presence have distinct concerns when it comes to reconciling their “evangelical” label and engaging with national political issues.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a Madison-based Christian nonprofit that works on college campuses across the country and has partners in 19 countries around the world, says it deals with the repercussions of Donald Trump’s foreign policy and racial rhetoric directly.
More than 50 percent of the 40,000 students and faculty InterVarsity works with are non-white and 30 percent of its 1,341 staff are non-white, said Tom Lin, the group’s president. Although the group does not take explicitly partisan stances on policy issues, it has denounced some of Trump’s racial rhetoric and expressed support for those affected by his policies.
“When minorities in particular are hurting in this day and age, we hurt with them. When there are issues they are wrestling with, we need to wrestle with them,” Lin said.
When Trump equivocated after white nationalists rioted against protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, InterVarsity issued a statement condemning white nationalism, anti-semitism and racism as anti-Christian.
And when Trump announced a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries last year, InterVarsity advertised itself as a safe space for students through its campus chapters and put an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lin said.
“Many Muslim students on campus did not feel safe,” Lin said. “We wanted to share solidarity with the Muslim students who are hurting and (say)...we stand with you and want to be a safe space for you.”
The aim was to demonstrate care for marginalized students, Lin said, not take a specific political position.
“We weren’t necessarily taking a political stance on the issue, we were addressing those who are being hurt and marginalized,” he said.
That distinction between taking a stand on public issues that affect InterVarsity and endorsing specific political candidates is a key one, Lin said.
“We need to help students... think biblically about ideas. We need to train students to dialogue with the people they disagree with and have honest, authentic conversation engaging these issues,” Lin said.
InterVarsity has also wrestled with the term “evangelical” since the 2016 election. Its publishing arm released a book last month, “Still Evangelical?” The book is a compilation of 10 essays from authors who explore whether to shed the label, leave the tribe or try to reform it from within.
The debate over what evangelicalism stands for is “a healthy reality check on the authenticity of our witness,” Lin said.
Lin wrote the book’s concluding essay and emphasized that evangelicalism is a global fellowship, not an exclusively American one.
“It’s inaccurate for Americans to have ownership of the word (evangelical),” he said. “Evangelicalism is global. The church in Asia, Africa, Latin America, are growing significantly faster than the western church,” he said.
InterVarsity embodies the global nature of the church because of the diversity among its staff and the students it serves, Lin said.
It can be a challenge for some to discern what is and is not explicitly political, Lin said.
“Part of the problem is, what does ‘political’ mean? Is it political to talk about how to best lift African-Americans out of poverty and bring education to them? Is that a political issue or an issue of Biblical justice?” Lin said.
“That’s part of the challenge for some organizations that are struggling with this, is ‘what is political?’ If everything is political, than you don’t have much left that you can do. It is a challenge to figure that out.”