Monday, January 27, 2020

Who is Born Again?

“Born again” is a term usually identified with evangelicals, but things are changing. When asked, “Have you been born again?” most active Christians today - regardless of denominational affiliation - respond, “Yes.” This includes a growing percentage of mainline Protestants and Catholics. This is according to a recent article in Christianity Today, the evangelical Christian magazine founded by Billy Graham, which was in the news recently for breaking ranks and calling for President Trump’s removal from office.

It seems that the term “born again” has undergone a transformation during the last three decades. The article analyzes data from the General Social Survey, which since 1988 has asked respondents, “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born again’ experience - that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?”

Talking about being “born again” used to be the unique vocabulary of conservative Christians. The term was unknown outside of this subset of Christianity until a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter won the White House and started using the phrase. Then the Moral Majority was born, evangelical leaders became political powerbrokers, and the phrase entered popular American parlance. Along the way more and more Christians adopted the term to describe themselves.

Today 95 percent of white Evangelicals and black Protestants who attend church activities more than once a week say they are born again. That is no surprise. What is surprising is that 81 percent of similarly active mainline Protestants say the same thing. Over half of mainline Protestants who attend church once a week say that they are born again. Even Catholics have adopted the term. 48% of Catholics who attend Mass more than once a week say they have had a born again experience.

It would appear that the term “born again” has been born again. What used to be the exclusive domain of evangelicals has become a generic term to describe devout believers of any theological or denominational persuasion. 

Personally I have questioned whether the term – as it is used in the New Testament – properly applies to Evangelicals. In my book Experiencing God Directly I write, “Evangelical Christians are not born again. That is my assessment from ministering among evangelicals for most of my life.” At the time I meant that evangelicals mean something very different than what the New Testament – and particularly Jesus – mean by the term. 

Today, seven years after writing those words, I would go even further. I think that white Evangelicalism’s uncritical embrace of right wing politics is an indication that they are not “born again” by Evangelicalism’s own historic use of the term. No God-fearing evangelical of 1956 (when Billy Graham founded Christianity Today) would have supported a man of questionable moral character like Donald Trump for president. Now such unquestioned support is the definition of evangelical.

According to Jesus, who originated the term according to the Gospel of John, to be born again means to “see the Kingdom of God.” It means to “enter the Kingdom” here and now. He did not see it as heavenly life insurance that guarantees a believer a slice of a “pie in the sky when you die by and by.” It is a spiritual awareness of the Presence of God in the present moment, not a conversion experience that ensures your entry through the pearly gates.

The term “born again” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Just like the term evangelical does not have the same connotation that it used to have. Evangelical used to be a purely religious term that described a person who had entered into a personal relationship with a heavenly Savior. Now it means believing that Donald Trump is God’s “chosen one.” How things have changed.

How would I answer the question, “Are you born again?” If it means (as the General Social Survey defines it) “a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ,” then I would answer affirmatively. Nearly a half century ago (Has it really been that long?) I made a decision to follow Jesus and have never stopped being a “Jesus follower.” If it means goose stepping behind Franklin Graham and his ilk, then I will pass.

Biblically speaking the phrase “born again” is as much theological as experiential. In the New Testament epistle of First Peter it is theologically connected to the resurrection of Jesus. The author (traditionally the apostle Peter) says we are "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." For Jesus it described a spiritual awakening to the Kingdom of God. I say “Amen” to both of those descriptions and gladly own the term to describe my Christian faith. How about you? Would you say that you are born again?

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