An American (evangelical) affair
What are 2-in-10's like me supposed to call ourselves?
I’m writing a book called Orphaned Believers to understand what happened to a generation of kids who grew up in the Church and are now adults weary and wandering from culture wars and nationalism. I spend 1:45 talking about it here.
Jesus and John Wayne author Kristin Du Mez was recently interviewed for Anne Helen Petersen’s excellent Culture Study Substack. Petersen says of the Du Mez book:
“If you grew up in and around Christian churches or in spaces shadowed by evangelical culture, it will connect a whole lot of dots. If you didn’t, it will connect a different set of dots about how white evangelical culture has explicitly and implicitly shaped the dominant ideologies we wade through, no matter our own belief systems, every day. Ideals of masculinity and femininity, of course, but also of purity and nationhood, of power and dominance.”
Whether you are or were evangelical, there is little denying the enormous impact the movement had on the last forty years of American history. If you’re like me— seeking to follow Jesus even while the Church is tainted with Nationalism and every-other-ism—you probably have both a hunger to use common language to describe your faith tradition and a hesitancy because, beyond “evangelical,” even words like “Church” and “Christian” now carry cultural baggage.
But what about “evangelical”?
Evangelicalism caught fire in America. Today, its reach is global. 750 million people identify as evangelical. Embarrassingly, even more people began to self-identify as evangelical during the Trump presidency.
Stateside, a lot of folks say the evangelical ship has sailed. That anyone calling themselves an evangelical is also, with certainty, white and Republican. Plus, Du Mez asserted in a recent NPR Politics podcast that most evangelicals have little actual understanding or interest in theology.
Following that line of reasoning, to legitimately define evangelicalism as a theological tradition is a mute point when everyone else in the world sees it by its other, dominant distinctive: a cultural movement that has been co-opted by white folks who propagate a militant masculinity.
Here is the central question I am turning over: Do I change the language I use to describe myself when one person has a partially informed understanding of a word? What if a million people have a misunderstanding of the word? And what if some who have an incomplete understanding of the word actually self-identify by it? Does it then become time to describe my belief system with different language? Where is the line?
I take the term evangelical to mean a protestant that is not of the Schleiermacher tradition: A protestant who believes that Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water to wine, and raised from the dead instead of those things being mythology or symbol. That, as a Christian, helps define the terms of my faith. And until 2016 or so, the word “evangelical” was the closest thing I could find to reflect what I believe.
My theological tradition is also evangelical. It’s how I came up and feels most familiar, even though I’ve been a Presbyterian with a preference for liturgy for the past 17 years.
Yet, I am estranged from the dominant culture of modern evangelicalism in most every way. I believe whiteness has blinded the Church to our racism. That sexism has suppressed the gifts of women and propagated a culture of sexual abuse and a club of celeb pastors. That consumerism has stripped away the Church’s posture towards radical simplicity. And that culture wars have severely damaged our credibility because, instead of spiritual formation, we have sought political posturing for power.
Christian Nationalism and culture wars have split American Christians in half. Or maybe it’s more like American Christianity is a peeled orange, and two wedges are portioned out to folks like me who identify as theologically evangelical. The folks who voted against Trump, the two-in-tens.
Do those of us holding two orange slices while the rest of our evangelical peers hold two handfuls of wedges still use the same language to describe ourselves?
A commenter in the Culture Study piece referenced above says she deconstructed because evangelicalism is rotten to the core. Still, I choose to hold onto hope. Maybe it’s stupid hope. Or pure hope. I believe in the restoration of all things, including our fine messes.
Has the term evangelical irrevocably become synonymous with racism, nationalism, and Republicanism? Because if evangelicalism is synonymous with white dominant culture, then there is little point trying to salvage it. If the core is rotten, when we’re likely better off charting a new course.
At this point, you might be like duh. Toss the apple core out the car window and keep driving. My grip on the word evangelical is loose, it’s a question mark.
But those of us who are invested in the future of the Church must continue to reckon with what language we use to talk about faith. And eventually, we have to agree on something.
It’s exhausting to have to explain what you mean by being a Christian, but not-that-kind-of-Christian. But I am committed to using established, common language. For two reasons.
First, when we use the same language to talk about Christian belief, we join with a 2,000-year-old tradition that clearly defines where we’ve come from, and can chart a course for where we’re headed. Second, because common language defines who we are not. And I’m not interested in handing over the word Christian to Nationalists or others who distort our beautiful historic faith.
In the Gospel, Jesus asked his friends, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
It’s clear, and plain. If we believe Jesus is the son of the living God, we are Christians. “Christian” simply means Christ-follower. If that’s who we say that Christ is, let’s confess it plainly and wholly.
Read & watch
“…the youth have gone ‘trad.’ And in the end, they are much, much happier than any of Rooney’s previous creations have been.” [WaPo]
Are you a 1, 2, 3 or 4? [Mere Orthodoxy]
WATCH: The facts, falsehoods, and theological implications of critical race theory—and the way forward for the church. [CT]
Instagram is a powerful engine for “social comparison” — when one judges one’s own value, attractiveness, and success based on comparisons with others. [The Verge]
What happens when people reject the church because they think we reject Jesus and the gospel? [Plough]