A couple of weeks ago I shared what I had learned about Social Media and about Education in the past 2 years. I was scheduled to post this reflection about Evangelicals when a big story broke about a famous pastor and I decided to see what became of it before I waded in.
Yesterday there was a terrifying comic in the Sunday papers that compelled me to finally publish this reflection.
In 2016, I got an amazing opportunity to move back to Portland (from LA) and take an appointment as Visiting Professor of Theology at the seminary I had graduated from in 2010. I also taught a week-long intensive at the seminary in NY that is a part of my former denomination. I preached at Evangelical churches in 3 states and attended numerous churches. It was quite a year.
I was born and raised Evangelical. I was trained and ordained Evangelical. I love Evangelicals and I talk weekly to Evangelical pastors around the country. While my faith journey has emerged into quite a different expression, I am still conversant with and sympathetic to my former-tribe.
Here are some observations for your consideration:
- They are really into the Bible.
- They use coded language.
- LGBTQ issues both terrify and annoy them.
- Membership is a moving target.
- They focus on the Supreme Court.
- They can smell danger.
- They don’t get Critical Theory.
- They struggle with Identity Politics.
Evangelicals are really into the Bible. If you are not a part of this tribe then you may not realize just HOW into the Bible Evangelicals are. It’s not just that they like quoting the Bible, the actually think in the Bible. There is a joke that ‘versification is verification’ – which basically means that if you can put a Bible verse behind a point (Romans 12:1-2) that will validate it.
I’m not sure that non-evangelicals understand HOW big a deal the Bible is inside the Evangelical sub-culture. If you don’t give this point its proper weight, you might not understand much of what else follows.
[Side note: I prefer the Wesleyan Quad which has scripture first but not alone. Prima scriptura not Sola scriptura. That is followed by Tradition, Reason, and Experience in that order.]
Evangelicals use coded language. Due to its nature as a bounded set, evangelism can use words and phrases as a sort of short-hand or insider linguistic. I noticed it back when I was an insider but it became quite obvious that I had been out of it for 6 years.
It can be little things like “I just feel like God said …” to vouching for someone who “loves the Lord”. It can also be big things that require a double-coding. It turns out that ‘liberal’ is really a code for not believing in ‘biblical authority’ which is actually code for being open and affirming of LGBTQ issues.
LGBTQ issues both terrify and annoy Evangelicals. I cannot overstate how many conversations I had about same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues. It is a massive deal in every corner of Evangelicalism.
Homosexuality terrifies them because they want to be seen as loving but the way that they read the Bible makes them seem hateful (quoting here – not my words). I can’t tell you how many members and pastors of Evangelical churches I heard say either “we want to be open but not affirming” or “I just wish this wasn’t such a big issue – it comes up all time but I just want to preach the gospel and not talk about this. Sexuality is just one aspect of our life that has gotten blown out of proportion and is now the biggest or ONLY thing people want to talk about.”
[Side note: I too find it sad that this is such a big issue to my Evangelical friends. It is really not that hard to read the Bible in a way that is inclusive and open. I figured out how to be open and affirming even as an Evangelical. If anyone wants it, email AnEverydayTheology@gmail.com and I will send you the essay ‘An Evangelical Defense of Same-Sex Marriage’.]
Membership is a moving target. Very few people can tell me what it means to be an Evangelical. There is no sure litmus test or doctrinal statement. There is very little agreement. Evangelical academics try to utilize Bebbington’s (historic & British) definition but it does not fit the American context nor the 21st century. Somebody quipped that it basically means that you liked Billy Graham.
Here is the danger that most people are missing though! Evangelicalism is not a process – it is a conclusion. Unlike Presbyterians who can say ‘I am Presbyterian and I disagree about this XYZ’ … Evangelicalism IS the agreement.
It would be like saying, “I am a New Yorker who lives in Oregon” and New Yorkers saying, “then you are not a New Yorker”. You try to defend yourself by saying, “I was raised in NY, it is in my blood, I have the accent, I carry all the values … I just migrated to Oregon.” Nope. That is not how membership works. You can’t say “I am an Evangelical who just believes XYZ…” without being told, “then you are not Evangelical”. Membership is about territory and current residency.
Evangelicals focus on the Supreme Court. I was teaching during the election year. Thank God I was not on social media that year. One thing I constantly have to convince my non-evangelical friends is that most Evangelicals don’t actually support this man in the Oval Office and his terrible behavior … he is just a means to an end.
The Supreme Court is the end game. Many Evangelicals are nearly blind in their obsession with it. You have to understand: in their mind, they are just 1 judicial appointment from a 40-year plan to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is all about Supreme Court Justices. This is why when non-evangelicals pull their hair out and yell about his immoral behavior and hypocrisy of the Religious Right … they are screaming at the wind. That punch will never land – you are swinging at shadows. There is no there-there. You have missed the bigger end game.
You don’t have to agree with me but I hope that you believe me. It has nothing to do with the President. Politics are corrupt anyway. This is about something much deeper. I talk to my friends who voted for him and this is about the Supreme Court.
Evangelicals can smell danger. When I spoke of ‘coded language’ above, I noticed an interesting inverse as well. It is not just what you say .. but more what you don’t say. Look, I don’t listen to Christian radio or shop at Christian bookstores. I don’t go to churches where we sing Hillsong and Matt Redmond worship choruses … and it shows.
I am not exactly sure how it is so obvious that I am progressive but I might as well be a smoker who thinks that spraying cologne on will cover the smell. I stink. I was on my best behavior – I wanted a full-time position. I watched what I said at every encounter. I bit my lip when I needed to … but there was a glaring absence in the sort of things that were missing.
It’s not that I did anything wrong per se … If you have never been in an isolated community or closed environment then you may not know what I am talking about.
The phrase ‘guilty by association’ or ‘your reputation proceeding you’ comes to mind. The reason I include this point is that, of course, they were right. I just don’t know how they knew they were right. Like garlic leaking out of my pores … I smelled liberal.
Evangelicals don’t get Critical Theory. Systemic analysis is not built in to Evangelical thought. In fact, because they are so focused on personal piety and individual experience, systemic issues are often outside their scope of concern.
Admittedly, Critical Theory is rooted in some pretty secular and post-modern philosophies. Since Evangelicals think in the Bible (see earlier) they are grounded in a religious language-game and pre-modern worldview that seems incompatible (to them) with systemic analysis. Evangelicals prioritize personal sin and issues of the heart. They have not developed tools to explore the thing-behind-the-thing that Critical Theory is based on.
I only bring this up because …
Evangelicals struggle with Identity Politics. I did my PhD course-work at a school that has been addressing issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality for over 40 years. It is baked into the very essence of the place. It saturates every aspect of the institution.
For Evangelicals, it is a recent add-on that is causing some compatibility problems. For a group that is in the midst of figuring out women-in-ministry, colonial missions, capitalist prosperity and disparity, personal responsibility, and marriage roles … adding racial diversity to the mix can seem overwhelming (at worst) and clumsy (at best). How do you add gender and racial diversity without it being tokenism and at the same time ensure that you come to the previous historical conclusions that determine membership and belonging?
Those are my reflections. I would to hear your thoughts, questions, and concerns. I know that this is a rough season for Evangelicalism but I am hoping for a fruitful conversation about a group of people I love very much but no longer camp with. I am like the brother who comes home from journeys abroad with trinkets and treasures.