The subculture of American evangelicalism has shaped me deeply. My most formative spiritual experiences through my college years came through evangelical parachurch organizations and in an evangelical congregation that belongs to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Like many Americans, I was born again several times. I first made a public commitment to Christ at what passed for a revival in a Presbyterian context. At the end of a weekend of meetings focused on the Bible and conversion, I came forward. I came forward again at a Billy Graham crusade in my home city of Rochester, New York. As the years passed, I rededicated my life to Christ several times at Young Life summer camps, church retreats, and other venues.
The basic evangelical message of conviction, repentance, assurance, and discipleship resonated with me, stirred me, and formed me. It was so simple and so true. Of course, I was – and am – a sinner who falls short of the glory of God. My sins crucified Christ, who died for me to save me from them. And because of Christ’s sacrifice, I was forgiven and could live a life full of love for God and others. I stress the “born again and again” aspect of this spiritual journey not to cast doubt on the evangelical model of conversion, but simply because it is how I lived it. “Restore me the joy of your salvation,” Psalm 51 became my favorite.
This basic theological message has been so durable – within and beyond American Protestantism – because it speaks truth to human beings and offers them hope and healing in this earthly life and for eternity.
The theology appealed to me, but the social context was even more attractive. Church youth group, Young Life, and InterVarsity were not just safe places, but, especially for someone introverted and socially awkward, marvelous. They weren’t my only social outlets, but they were the most important from high school through college.
When I entered these spaces, both adults and older kids reached out to be and befriended me. I didn’t know it at first, but they were discipling me, calling me into a life of deeper devotion to Jesus. As a teenager, I was desperate to be liked, and suddenly people acted as if they liked me. One Young Life leader took me for a ride on his motor cycle. Others had us over to their homes or played sports with us and came to our high school sporting events. These were down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth folks.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about these years of my life. Since 2000, I’ve spent far more time in mainline, progressive Protestant contexts than in evangelical settings. I read evangelical outlets, but I haven’t been living within its subculture.
At least in the American imagination, evangelicalism – always a suspect phenomenon – has gone off the rails over the last five years. What else would explain 81% of white American evangelicals voting for Donald Trump?
Even before Donald Trump, many Americans associated evangelicals with conservative politics. That association goes back (at least) to Billy Graham’s affair with Richard Nixon and the emergence of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. But in the non-evangelical American mind, evangelicals are increasingly associated with the paranoid, Trumpist faction within the Republican Party.
Evangelicalism is also associated with a particularly irresponsible and sometimes nasty strain of patriarchy, which my co-blogger Kristin Du Mez has analyzed so effectively in her Jesus and John Wayne.
When I read about American evangelicalism today, at least in major media outlets, I read about a religious movement I do not recognize. That’s not because the halcyon evangelical days of my youth were free of the wider forces that shaped evangelicalism. My evangelical spaces were overwhelmingly white and led by men. I’m sure most of those leaders were voting for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole. In other words, evangelicalism was white, patriarchal, and Republican. I’m sure non-evangelicals in my hometown didn’t appreciate our sometimes zealous attempts at evangelicalism or the fact that Young Life was a significant presence in my high school. I can readily imagine that people from different backgrounds would not have felt as safe and welcome in those spaces as I did. But the evangelical subculture of my youth was also not dominated by politics or toxic masculinity.
If where people spend their money reflects their hearts, evangelicals care a lot more about evangelism, discipleship, and humanitarianism than they do about politics. “The faithful,” reports David King in his God’s Internationalists, “invested twelve dollars toward foreign missions and international aid for every one dollar they spent on political organizations.”
Evangelicals, such as Billy Graham, have rightly been criticized at times for privileging individual conversion to the point of ignoring social injustices. At the same time, many Americans loathe the way that some evangelical leaders have mixed religion and partisan politics. And evangelicals rightly have been criticized for favoring some truly unsavory policies (such as the separation of children from their parents at the border) and for a relative blindness toward racial injustice in America. In short, other Americans have criticized evangelicals for being apolitical, too political, and wrongly political. There will be plenty of recriminations, reformations, and calls for change in the months and years ahead.
What I want to know is whether the evangelicalism I loved and love is still out there. Obviously, the organizations I mentioned above are still significant, and there are countless others. Most evangelicals care first and foremost about the spiritual vitality and health of their local congregation or parachurch groups. Those are the places where we have the most influence. They are the only places where most of us have any influence. I was fortunate to live in faithful and at least mostly healthy and vital evangelical communities.
What’s the relative importance of this spiritual core of evangelicalism? I hope it’s still the heart of the matter for most evangelicals who are active in congregations or in parachurch settings. Is it?