In the wake of World Vision’s reversal of their short-lived policy to hire employees who are in married gay relationships, many progressives are swearing off evangelicalism. Perhaps the most public of these vows was a piece that Rachel Held Evans wrote for CNN wherein she professes, “I, for one, am tired of arguing. I’m tired of trying to defend evangelicalism when its leaders behave indefensibly.” (In a later post on her blog, she seemed less certain of this decision.)

“What has become evident in the recent World Vision debacle is that many who wish to identify as post-evangelical continue to function within profoundly evangelical paradigms.”Evans is not the only progressive distancing herself from the evangelical label though. Some like Nish Weiseth and Micah J. Murray are resolving to quit evangelicalism altogether while others, like Zach Hoag, are committing to reinventing it (a “Newer New Evangelicalism” perhaps?).  Despite these resolutions — and the accompanying slew of tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates –progressives may have a harder time leaving evangelicalism than they think. In fact, many are perpetuating the very things about evangelicalism that they profess to deplore. Post-evangelicals are still operating within evangelical paradigms.

A Brief History

Millennials tend to associate evangelicalism with an odd collection of American religiosity, traditional mores, and a “God-said-it-I-believe-it” reductionism. In many ways, their understanding has been shaped by growing up in the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, and has been exacerbated by a religious consumerism unique to capitalism.

Step back a generation or two and you’ll find an evangelicalism less defined by politics and more defined by a commitment to the relevancy and authority of Scripture. Step back yet one more generation and evangelicalism is embodied in cross-denominational cooperation, the global missions movement, and social reform. Step back again and you’ll discover an evangelicalism that was birthed in the revivals of the Great Awakening.

Just as our DNA is the product of the generations before us, today’s evangelicals carry traits, not only of their mothers and fathers, but of their grandmothers and grandfathers and great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers. What many millennials understand to be evangelicalism—some kind of quasi-Protestant, flag-waving, gun-toting, ‘mericanism–simply isn’t.

Evangelicalism is a movement less defined by a specific set of churches and political allegiances than it is by a disposition toward the gospel. In Religion in America, historians Winthrop S. Hudson and John Corrigan describe evangelicalism as:

a mood and an emphasis [more] than a theological system. Its stress was upon the importance of personal religious experience… it was a revolt against the notion that the Christian life involved little more than observing the outward formalities of religion.” (99)

Central to this identity is a strong emphasis on personal conversion in order to effect societal change. This naturally exhibits itself as an evangelistic zeal and a form of argumentation that is rooted in clear definitions of right and wrong and the need to convert others to the right.

More of the Same

What has become evident in the recent World Vision debacle is that many who wish to identify as post-evangelical continue to function within profoundly evangelical (and at times, fundamentalist) paradigms. Their objectives may have shifted, but their rhetoric has not. Read any number of World Vision-themed posts and you’ll quickly spot some if not all of these features:

  1. Clear demarcations of right and wrong  (“Jesus & all the prophets were seen as disturbers of the peace… [they] did not leave things open-ended.”)

  2. Confidence in stated position (“I don’t care about the counter-arguments. It’s the principle of the thing.”)

  3. A need to convert others to said position  (“There’s a better Gospel… I’m leaving to go find it. Do you want to come with me?”)

  4. Use of shame to effect change (“10,000 kids… Not only do a lot of Christians wage war against flesh and blood, they’re willing to use child sponsorship as their weapons… like little ransom notes…)

  5. Appeal to emotions (“ I implore you, beg you, ask you to please reconsider.”)

  6. Call for specific commitment (“So what do we do now? Well, a few things come to mind…”)

  7. Separation from those who disagree (“Today is the last day I’ll identify as an evangelical.”)

Post-evangelicals may believe they are leaving the mores of the previous generation, but they are, in many ways, more like them than they realize.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues that we are formed not only by the propositions we learn but by how we learn them. Post-evangelicals may want to abandon the culture wars of their parent’s generation, but they cannot so easily free themselves of how those wars taught them to fight. This is not to say that rhetorical structures alone constitute evangelical identity, but they are a key component, a component post-evangelicals inherited directly from the structures they are now decrying.

The debates of the last few weeks have reminded that evangelicalism is less a specific set of boundaries and more a way of engaging the world. It is not, as some suggest, whatever you make of it, but neither can it be reduced to creedal commitments or denominational allegiances. It is also not the Church or the sum total of Christianity. Evangelicalism is a disposition that so profoundly shaped the American religious experience that leaving it behind may be well nigh impossible.

photo credit: pamhule via photopin cc


  1. Hannah, I’m having a little bit of a “so what” moment. What moral/theological point are you trying to make in ascribing evangelical “features” to post-evangelicals & progressives? Are you merely trying to dismiss their perspective on the World Vision situation?

    And if so, what is your solution?

    At any rate, thanks for engaging with some of my stuff here. :)

    1. Zach, my application of this fact has been something like this: “Post-evangelicals” need to have a “Luke looks at his hand” moment — as in the finale of Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker finally loses it and starts beating the heck of out Darth Vader, then stops and looks at his own hand. Clear from the story: He is realizing that he is, or could become, just like his father. Luke himself is vulnerable to the Dark Side. It’s in his past and could be in his future. I’m just like you, father.

      This will lead to some humility — which is much-needed among some “post-evangelical” activists. They need to realize: I’m just like you, evangelical ancestors.

    2. Thank you for interacting with the piece here, Zach. I’m not sure that I’m making a specific “moral/theological point” other than the fact that history has a way of giving us perspective on ourselves and our movements. I’m sure some will find this piece supportive of their frustrations with post-evangelicals. Others will find it supportive of big-tent evangelicalism. My goal is to simply lend perspective to the entire conversation.

    3. Zach, the way I see it is this has the ironic effect of “unfarewelling” progressives with the way that “evangelical” ‘is being defined here. If the intent is to say haha you hypocrites, it undermines itself. But I’ve decided to read it as I accept you as a fellow evangelical who’s passionate about your faith and the Bible and your personal walk with Christ even if your evangelicalism has different litmus tests than mine does.

    4. You can’t really say that being anti-gay is a “gospel issue” while also making the argument that the proclivities of today’s evangelicalism are only a generation or two old, the latter of which is a true statement.

    5. Zach–

      I’m not sure that there’s anything to be “for” or “against” here. However I can’t help but point out that your insistence on framing this question as a debate does underscore the thesis of the piece nicely. I suppose if it’s offensive to progressives to be associated with evangelicalism, then it would make sense that I need to reveal my real “intention.”

      Honestly, my only interest is adding depth to the conversation which, biased as I am, I believe this piece does. File it under “Something To Consider.”

    6. Oh gosh, not offensive at all. I am evangelical, though there are those who’s farewell me or claim I’m reinventing the whole thing ;).

      I’m not insisting on framing this as a debate anymore than you’ve already framed it, albeit implicitly. If you’d like to make your bias on the World Vision situation explicit, that would be great.

      It’s obvious here that the target are “progressives,” with the desire to equate them with fundamentalist evangelicalism in their tone, etc. Lots of folks say the same thing you are saying. What I’m interested in is *why* you are saying it.

    7. [It’s obvious here…]

      The only thing that’s “obvious here” is that you’re missing the point. The fact is that people, in general, have a hard time not making hypocrites of themselves when they’re busy moralizing and condemning others. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Do not condemn”. :^D

      The point of this article is a good one: Even though these people are claiming to distance themselves from “Evangelicalism”, they’re doing the same exact things that Evangelicals do. Her position on World Vision is irrelevant. The argument would be the exact same even if she was talking about some other hot-button issue.

      In this case, (as with most hot-button social issues), nothing has changed except which side is in the socially-approved position to issue condemnations. You still have a side which thinks it has the “moral high ground” and which looks down upon the other side. The rhetorical tactics are the same. The temptation (and succumbing) to self-righteousness is the same. It’s all the same. The only difference is that a few decades ago, the anti-[insert position here] folks would have been the ones moralizing and preening, and now the pro-[insert position here] folks are the ones moralizing and preening.


  2. I think this hits on some important points – I know one of my biggest struggles as a recovering fundamentalist is that ever-present impulse to still draw the “us vs. them” lines, just with myself on the other side.

    “Leaving Evangelicalism” is, in my opinion, a deeply personal journey and will necessarily look different for each person – both the reasons for the leaving and the nature of the leaving.

    For me, I’ve tried to pretty clearly enunciate the reasons for my growing distance from contemporary American Evangelicalism – the afterlife-focused gospel, obsession with sexual morality, and the Right’s insistence that it’s their word (see: the Gospel Coalition).

    I don’t feel like my leaving of Evangelicalism is about “taking my ball and going home” because I don’t want to play with the other kids, but rather the acceptance that what the word is evolving to mean no longer really describes my approach to spirituality.

    1. Here’s a chance for me to get some clarity, anyway.

      the afterlife-focused gospel

      What do you mean by this, I wonder? Do you mean that evangelicals are so focused on an un-Biblical view of “heaven” that they ignore Earth? But I’ve seen plenty of work being done to fix that, even within “evangelicalism”: the solution is not a less-Biblical emphasis on Earth but an anticipation of the physical New Heavens and New Earth.

      obsession with sexual morality

      I’m not sure popular-level evangelicalism would be as “obsessed” with this topic if so many folks outside of evangelicalism chose to make such a broad cultural attempt to redefine the morality of some other sin: say, embezzling, or hitting people on the heads with two-by-fours. Somewhere out there in a parallel universe, hordes of parallel-universe non-evangelicals (presumably all in goatees) who have spent decades forming special-interest groups and cultural memes defending two-by-four hitting are critical of that universe’s Christians for only ever talking about two-by-fours.

  3. I think this is really insightful and actually ironically comforting perhaps against your intended purpose. As an evangelical partly in exile in a partly mainlinish denomination (United Methodism), I would say that what makes me evangelical is that things MATTER to me that make some of my mainlinish brethren roll their eyes. I’m not willing to just be “open-minded” and keep quiet about offensive topics. I agonize over atonement theories. I’m never going to be okay with any gospel that isn’t “robust” enough. I don’t want blithe reassurance; I want deliverance and resurrection. The fact that I’m also scandalized by the way that evangelicalism has been colonized by suburban white cultural values is actually an expression of my evangelical sensibilities. I see the anti-gay thing as ideologically entangled with the idolatry of suburban nuclear family-ness and the need for the white picket fence lifestyle to be reified as normative Christian discipleship. If somehow it becomes okay for families come in all shapes and sizes, that threatens the sacred doctrine that suburbia is God’s plan for the elect. So yeah, there’s nothing post about it for me at all. I’m just evangelical with my own quirky set of moralistic presumptions and things I get fired up about. Maybe after a generation where things swing more my direction, I’ll be the cranky old “culture warrior” my kids are rebelling against.

    1. Like I mentioned to Zach, I’m not sure that my “intended purpose” is anything other than to lend historical perspective to the current debate. There’s a “looseness” about evangelicalism that neither conservatives or progressives fully recognize. In someways, one could argue that this naturally makes space for the possibility of progressive expressions. Regardless, post-evangelicals are being guided by evangelicalism–as you said, certain things “MATTER” tremendously to them while those of more mainline disposition have simply moved on and formed their own structures and organizations.

  4. Some solid insights here, Hannah. I recently tweeted about how progressives love to boycott. Sounds a lot like the Southern Baptist Convention to me. I’m sure they would hate that comparison, but there it is.

  5. I was just talking about this with someone recently — (post)evangelicals like to think we can simply choose to shift our paradigm, but it’s more difficult than that. I see (post)evangelicals often using scripture the same way an evangelical would, proof-texting, trying to convince and convert, trying to reform culture…how we are raised to approach our spirituality is fossilized within our deepest brain functions, I think. It’s something we will always wrestle with, even if we do choose to distance ourselves outwardly from the culture. I like how you are parsing this issue here.

    1. yes! it’s like family of origin or ethnic heritage. we may leave home and grow apart and change radically, but we’re still shaped irrevocably by the cultures that birthed and nurtured–or hurt–us. i’m not sure what exactly about that’s offensive (unless this conversation is really about defining ourselves against each other…).

  6. I started this article thinking, “if she’s right, I need to rethink some of what I’ve blogged about recently…” but wasn’t convinced. This is the same line of reasoning that religious people often use against atheists. It’s true that you can’t discuss atheism, or not being religious, outside of the terms of religion. That doesn’t mean atheists are using the same paradigm and are, therefore, religious. In the same way, you can’t say post-evangelicals are still in an evangelical paradigm, and are, therefore, another wave of evangelism. Criticism is necessarily within the paradigm of the thing being criticized, but that doesn’t mean the critic identifies within that paradigm, too.

    On another note, the definition given here doesn’t line up with the “more of the same” section. If evangelicalism indeed emphasizes personal experience over outward formalities, the post-evangelicals are more evangelical than the last four or five generations of evangelicals. That would be fascinating to explore, but the “more of the same” goes into the posts being not postmodern or relativistic enough. These post-evangelicals don’t claim to be relativists. If you must set up a straw man, set it up. Don’t give a definition and then switch to a straw man that has nothing to do with the given definition.

  7. @Zach My “bias” in WV debate is one long sigh. It’s all so profoundly evangelical. It’s a conflict that can only happen in a milieu that lacks clear doctrinal parameters and yet desires to work across across denominational lines. The issue isn’t simply what you think about ssm; it’s the whole parachurch/organized church tension. Also, I find it remarkable to me that you must understand “why” I’m writing a piece in order to decide whether you can hear it or not.

    @suzannah Yes! We gain a great deal of self-awareness by learning where we come from and what shapes us. My attempt is not to pit conservative evangelicals against progressive evangelicals but to provide context for the entire “what is an evangelical” conversation. If anything, evangelicals need to understand themselves in context of other church traditions–to recognize where they fit in context of Church and American history. And progressives, for all their disavowals of evangelicalism, are still profoundly shaped by it.

    1. Ah, yes. The sigh of superiority. So much for neutrality and objectivity. Well, the next time you are passionate or vulnerable about a theological or moral issue, I’ll be sure to accuse you of being a black and white, conversion-demanding evangelical and then add my sigh.

      Oh, and Hannah – your “why” affects your entire perspective. It bleeds through. As it does with all of us. That’s why it matters.

    1. Appreciated your piece as well. The question of privilege is, of course, the other significant elephant in the room of the WV debate.

  8. I agree with the basic premise that people carry the trappings of the moral and philosophical culture they grew up in even after they leave their belief systems behind.

    We see that all of the time: a belligerent atheist will likely become a belligerent Christian, because the common theme is a deep certainty in their worldview and a desire to win arguments. A soft-spoken Catholic will likely become a soft-spoken Mormon if they converted.

    However, it seems to me that your characteristics of evangelical argumentation are far too generic. What you’re describing isn’t a mentality unique to evangelical thinking, but rather a mentality we find in anyone with strong convictions about their beliefs and a desire to acquire allies and converts. You could just as easily be describing libertarians, environmentalists, Catholics, or hipsters.

  9. We all move within a shifting framework of tradition. All reactions against tradition will in some way carry that tradition with them. I think it’s unhelpful to try and categorise too strongly. I identify with much post-evangelical, while often seeing much that is good within those who I don’t necessarily identify most strongly with.
    The point is that we’re never exclusively in one camp. I think we need to figure out what the gospel and its implications mean to us.

    I must also say that I feel it is imperative to speak out against perceived evil in the church (This post specifically relating to world vision):

  10. There’s nothing *uniquely* Evangelical about the set of characteristics you’ve laid out here, but for your argument to work, it seems like they should be (individually, or at least in concert). But they’re not. And frankly, they seem to have less to do with Evangelicalism per se and much more to do with the cultural context within which Evangelicalism was forged and is subsequently replicated across generations.

    We see these same characteristics displayed in any number of philosophical systems in the West (as one commenter already pointed out) Christian or not, Evangelical or not. While the expressions across systems may be different in degree, they are not different in kind. So, what we end up with is a false equivalency that tries to erase the distinction between a lobster and a fish because they both live in water. It just doesn’t work.

    1. i agree, these characteristics are not wholly unique to evangelicalism, but within the rhetoric of leaving, there’s been plenty about distancing ourselves from the emotional manipulation, shaming, and rigid boundary definition of evangelicalism. we profess to embrace mystery and diversity and making more room at the proverbial table, but these sorts of tendencies are still the air we breathe and any sort of real change will require time and more than a bit of unlearning.

    2. @Suzannah I don’t disagree. I’m just not sure the framing of this post (a sort of pseudo-objective “them vs them” narrative) is all that helpful. Instead of erasing difference, let’s just be honest about it, maybe even celebrate it. But let’s not erase it where it suits us for the sake of argument, which is what this post seems to do.

      I’m with you that there have been some [ahem] mixed signals coming from folks leaving Evangelicalism. And yes, let’s talk about the broader cultural contexts within which *all* of our traditions are situated. Let’s talk about the ways in which a crappy modernist epistemology (and the certainty it engenders) affect the way we treat one another. But let’s come by it honestly, not by pretending to be above/outside it. (I think that’s what struck me wrong about the tone of this post.)

    3. i’m still not seeing this pseudo-objectivity/dishonesty folks are decrying. she’s offering her perspective, and some don’t like it. in my experience, the tone bit is a game that can’t be won by a woman, so it’s not worth playing. her tone doesn’t particularly matter, as it’s generally something that is inferred by the reader.

      readers often want writers to have written something else entirely, and i guess that’s a critique i don’t particularly understand. this framing isn’t helpful to you–which is certainly allowed/understandable–but her thesis, that leavers take with us a host of residual assumptions and tendencies when we go, makes a lot of sense to me. i don’t see that as an indictment as much as an inevitability worth examining.

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