During the final weeks of this year of extreme partisan polarization, a few more of my friends told me that they have decided to leave evangelicalism because of politics. After an election in which approximately 80 percent of white evangelical voters once again cast their ballots for Donald Trump, perhaps it is not surprising that a number of progressive Christians who believe that misogyny, structural racism, and xenophobia are some of the greatest evils facing the nation finally decided that they could not tolerate a religious movement that they think is complicit in perpetuating and excusing these evils. I, too, believe that misogyny, structural racism, and xenophobia are great evils. Nearly every post I have written for the Anxious Bench this year has in some way criticized evangelical blind spots on issues of race and economic inequity. I, too, have always opposed Donald Trump’s presidency.
And yet I have not abandoned evangelicalism. After a recent conversation with a friend who is an ex-evangelical, I decided that I did not want to end this year without writing a post explaining why I am still an evangelical.
Explaining the reasons for personal theological choices does not come easily to historians. It seems much more natural, as an academic, to write a detached critical piece that explains and critiques the historical reasons for a particular theological point of view than it is to stake out a theological claim of one’s own and defend it. And, indeed, when defending theological positions, it may feel as though we are taking off our historian’s hats altogether and speaking entirely outside of our own areas of academic expertise. But the premise behind the Anxious Bench blog is that faith and historical inquiry are not disconnected activities. My choices of what to study as a historian have been profoundly shaped by my theological beliefs. And, in turn, what I have discovered in my historical study has influenced my theology.
It is the latter part of this symbiotic relationship between faith and learning that I want to explore in this post. I want to speak particularly to those who, like me, have encountered information (whether through historical study, contemporary news reports, or personal experience) that have created a cognitive dissonance between their moral commitments and their evangelical faith and are wondering whether they should perhaps abandon evangelicalism altogether.
The argument that a religion’s truth stands or falls on the practical results of its moral teaching has been widespread in the West since at least the early modern era. Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt argues that this was one of the driving factors in early modern skepticism about religion and the rise of deism. Christian apologists, in turn, defended their faith by casting their opponents as libertines who were bound by no moral code. And in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Christian apologists in the United States used Protestant morality as a trump card in their apologetic arsenal; the ultimate proof of Christianity’s truth, they said, was the superiority of the ethics of Jesus over all other religious or moral philosophies. For a while, that claim seemed to work, but in the 1960s, many liberal Christians decided that the white church was on the wrong side of the civil rights movement and the debate over the Vietnam War, and some of them abandoned organized Christianity as a result. Today the same thing is happening among evangelical millennials who view their tradition’s stances on LGBTQ issues and other culture war flashpoints as immoral. The survey data that David Campbell and Robert Putnam present in American Grace suggests that disagreements with evangelical churches’ views of homosexuality, followed by concerns about evangelicalism’s skepticism toward science, are the most common reasons that ex-evangelical millennials give for abandoning Christianity.
But while correct moral stances are important for Christians (the New Testament, after all, contains many warnings about the stumbling blocks that result from moral hypocrisy and even suggests that love for one another will be the primary identifying mark of Jesus’s disciples), neither the Bible nor the early Protestant confessions suggest that we can determine the truth of the Christian message by the effects that it has on a person’s life. We know Jesus’s voice because we are Jesus’s sheep. And if we are Jesus’s sheep, we follow Jesus, regardless of what he tells us to do. The horizontal relationships with other Christians follow only from a vertical relationship with God. My first question, therefore, in determining whether I should consider myself an evangelical is not how other evangelicals behave or how they vote, but rather whether what they believe about Jesus is true.
Because evangelicalism did not originate as a confessional or creedal movement, determining the precise contours of evangelical beliefs requires some historical research. Fortunately, there is a historian who has provided a four-point overview of evangelical belief: David Bebbington. And though Bebbington’s quadrilateral has been debated at length among historians during the thirty years it has been in existence, it has ultimately proved to be such a convincing description of evangelical beliefs that the National Association of Evangelicals has reproduced it on its own website under the heading “What Is an Evangelical?”
I believe in each of the four points that Bebbington lists as a shared belief among evangelicals: the reality of Jesus’s atoning death as the key to redemption, the necessity of personal conversion and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the authority of the Bible, and the importance of a transformed life that will manifest itself in evangelism and a quest for social justice. I believe in all of the points listed on the NAE’s statement of faith, which combines points from Bebbington’s quadrilateral with other broadly shared credal statements drawn from sources such as the Apostles Creed. Does a subscription to such statements make me an evangelical?
According to the NAE, it does. And according to Tommy Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical?, it does. This is why Kidd classifies Bible-believing Protestants who are not often included in the evangelical historical narrative – groups such as Black Protestants, as well as many Native American, Asian, and Hispanic Protestants – as evangelicals. On theological grounds, I would be inclined to agree. If by “evangelical” someone means adherence to historic evangelical beliefs, I have no wish to resign from evangelicalism.
But creeds do not exist in a historical vacuum; they exist within communities. To be an evangelical, therefore, is to accept all of the privileges and burdens of an evangelical community. And this is where things become problematic. According to recent opinion polls, white evangelicals are more likely than any other religious (or non-religious) group to deny the idea of current widespread systematic racial discrimination against Blacks. They have been President Trump’s most loyal supporters, and they have consistently placed party loyalty over any sense of decency – whether by supporting Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore (credibly accused of sexually assaulting teenaged girls) or by refusing to concede the 2020 presidential election. How can I identify with this crew? At what point can I say that enough is enough?
Here a traditional Christian theology of sin, combined with a little history, is helpful. If I have only a contemporary cultural understanding of sin, I will tend to see racism and the like as a non-negotiable red line that requires personal separation from the sinner. I will be fearful of tainting myself with guilt by association if I go to church with racists. But if I have a Christian theology of sin, I will realize that racism is only the manifestation of a deeper sin problem – the problem of despising the image of God and thus insulting the Creator – and that I have been cleansed of this same sin only through God’s grace. I will see myself as a sinner. And furthermore, I will not be surprised to find from historical study that deeply rooted sin – even, in most cases, the sin of racism – has affected denominations across the theological spectrum. If I reject evangelicalism for mainline Protestantism, I will likely find, if I dig very deeply into the history of these groups, evidence that in the early twentieth century the Social Gospel of liberal Protestantism was very closely tied to support for eugenics, as Melissa Wilde’s recent book Birth Control Battles documents. If I give up on Christianity altogether and turn to secularism, I will undoubtedly find that the institutions I likely embrace – whether my university (which, in my particular case, is built on the grounds of an antebellum plantation and has a slave cemetery on campus) or the Democratic Party (which, of course, was closely connected with a defense of white supremacy throughout the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th) – are tainted by the deeply rooted sin of racial injustice.
But furthermore, I cannot even escape this sin within myself. If I’m honest with myself, I will have to acknowledge that I have spent most of my life seeking and enjoying a privileged existence for myself while remaining largely blind and insensitive to the injustices that others experienced or even to the ways in which I brushed others aside. And once I acknowledge this, I’ll be less likely to seek a way to distance myself from being tainted by the sin of racism and more likely to seek a path to repentance in community.
Despite the impression that one might get from news reports on “patriot churches” and the like, there are actually a number of predominantly white evangelical churches that are genuinely engaging in collective repentance for the sin of complicity in racial injustice (as well as other sins) right now. To those who are tempted to leave evangelicalism because of politics, I would say this: If there is an evangelical church in your area that is engaged in this path to repentance, consider joining it instead. It is far better to engage in repentance in community than to resign from a community in disgust. The latter can easily become a path of self-righteousness; the former is a path of gospel-infused reconciliation.
Once we begin repenting in community with others, we may discover something surprising: genuine respect for people whose politics at first seemed so obnoxious. The church that I attend, in a small Georgia town only 25 miles from the Alabama state line, is filled with a lot of people who vote differently than I do. But the gospel infuses their lives. These are people who adopt kids across racial lines through the foster care system and give countless hours of their time to addiction recovery ministries or crisis pregnancy centers. These are people who have chosen to live in poorer neighborhoods so they can minister to people very different from themselves or who have sacrificed some https://religionnews.com/2020/12/13/evangelical-leader-beth-moore-trends-on-twitter-after-calling-trumpism-seductive-and-dangerous/comforts in order to donate more of their money to others. And as they have grown in their understanding of the gospel, a few have even rethought their attitudes toward race and politics, and have embraced a kingdom-focused view that offers a clear-eyed critique of partisan temptations.
If you’re disillusioned with evangelicalism because of its politics, you may have overlooked the numerous evangelical groups that eschew Christian nationalism, the Christian Right, or the Christian alliance with the Republican Party. If we define evangelicalism by Bebbington’s quadrilateral, it’s probably true that Liberty University and the Falwell family are evangelical – but so are Ron Sider and Thabiti Anyabwile. Today many of the leading figures of conservative white evangelicalism – figures such as Russell Moore, John Piper, Tim Keller, and Beth Moore – are sharply critical of the alliance between evangelicalism and Republican partisan politics, especially during the Trump era. And this list doesn’t even include progressive evangelicals who, of course, have been speaking out against this alliance for decades.
To those who are thinking about leaving evangelicalism because of the movement’s politics, I would say that no matter what you do, I hope that you’ll put the gospel first. Continue believing the gospel. Live out the implications of the gospel in your life. And find a community where you can grow in the gospel with others. If your experience is anything like mine, you may find that a community centered on the “evangelion” will be classified as “evangelical.” It will not be a perfect community. But it will be a community that will help you follow Jesus. Indeed, if there’s one important thing missing from Bebbington’s quadrilateral, it’s a reference to the evangelical church. Evangelicals have long emphasized the individual over the community, but perhaps now, at a time when our community is becoming more fractured than ever, we can see our need for each other more clearly. And our need for each other should prompt us to identify with each other – maybe even by refusing to leave evangelicalism, in spite of all the pressures to do so.