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:
Clear demarcations of right and wrong (“Jesus & all the prophets were seen as disturbers of the peace… [they] did not leave things open-ended.”)
Confidence in stated position (“I don’t care about the counter-arguments. It’s the principle of the thing.”)
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?”)
Appeal to emotions (“ I implore you, beg you, ask you to please reconsider.”)
Call for specific commitment (“So what do we do now? Well, a few things come to mind…”)
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.