Remembering “My” Evangelicalism

Remembering “My” Evangelicalism May 10, 2022

Remembering “My” Evangelicalism

I grew up in the “thick” of white American evangelicalism in the 1950s through the 1970s. It did NOT include Southern Baptists who, although geographically present, generally declined to participate in evangelical cooperative programs or events. I grew up in the Upper Midwest but knew many evangelicals from around the country, especially the Eastern Central, Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and West Coast regions of the country. (Not many from the Northeast, East Coast, or Southern regions.)

Only later did I come to realize the enormous influence of the Southern Baptist Convention on conservative white American Protestantism and on the American political landscape.

None of that is to say we didn’t KNOW of some Southern Baptists who were “us.” For example, we knew that Billy Graham emerged from Baptists in the South, but he graduated from Wheaton College and was briefly president of a northern evangelical college. It seemed to us that he had left “that religion” (Southern Baptist fundamentalism) and joined “us.” So with some others.

But I well remember our general dismay at southern Baptists’ “stand offishness” in relation to us. We were multi-denominational, transdenominational, and non-fundamentalist in ethos. Yes, to be sure, we had fundamentalist traits (e.g., as literal an interpretation of the Bible as possible), but we stood apart from Southern Baptists and Independent Baptist fundamentalists and our “crazy” conservative “cousins” the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). Some of them even protested a Billy Graham event in our city!

So who were “we?” We were a loose coalition, alliance, of non-liberal, non-fundamentalist evangelical Protestants mostly affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals (the NAE). It was founded in the 1940s to bring together non-liberal, non-fundamentalist (or post-fundamentalist) evangelical Protestants, mostly relatively small denominations, schools, organizations.

What denominations? About fifty of them but NOT the Southern Baptist Convention which refused to join us. My memory is that the SBC churches in our towns and cities were noted by “us” as having a “holier-than-thou” attitude toward themselves and us and actively stealing our “sheep.” And they were noted for being rabidly anti-Pentecostal whereas our loose coalition included some Pentecostals such as the Assemblies of God.

Some of our denominations were: the Christian Reformed Churches, the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Evangelical Free churches, Evangelical Covenant churches, various Churches of God (Anderson, Indiana and Cleveland, Tennessee), Free Methodists, Wesleyans, and many more, but not Southern Baptists. The main Baptist groups among “us” were the Baptist General Conference (now called Converge), the Conservative Baptists of America (now called CBA), the North American Baptist Conference, and some (not all) American Baptists. The organization Youth for Christ grew up in the middle of this milieu and, as I recall, in the cities where I grew up, Southern Baptists stayed aloof from YFC.

What is my point? For all its flaws and faults, nothing I can remember of that mostly “northern” evangelicalism prepared the way for Trumpism. Except POSSIBLY fear of communism. I do not recall any of US burning rock music records although no doubt we did look askance at especially sexually-explicit or sexually oriented secular music. We did not home school; we all went to public schools.

When I get into the “time machine” of my memory (which everyone who knows me says functions very well) and go back to that “my evangelicalism” I do not see or hear anything that would have prepared us to support Trump or today’s Republican Party. Yes, many of “us” were Republicans, but not all of us were. And the Republican Party of that time was radically different from the Republican Party of today. We, almost without exception, embraced Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

We, us, “my evangelicalism” was not saturated in toxic masculinity. I have now asked several women who grew up in “my evangelicalism” and they also do not remember any emphasis on what is today called “toxic masculinity” in “our evangelicalism.” Sure, there was a kind of default patriarchy, but male abuse of females, male violence against women or men, male dominance over women, none of that was emphasized THEN and THERE.

I struggle a great deal to understand what happened to “my evangelicalism” during the second half of the 1970s. Some of it remained as it was, but much of it mutated under influences like Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, et al. Southern Baptists and other extremely conservative Protestants began calling themselves evangelicals and the media jumped on board that change of terminology and identity.

“My evangelicalism” was largely ignored by the media and, admittedly, many of “us” got swept up in neo-fundamentalism under the influences mentioned above. But not all of us. The magazine Christianity Today remained our primary publication, magazine, and the NAE by-and-large spoke for us.

But what appears to have happened is that a much larger contingent of right-wing, ultra-conservative, neo-fundamentalists arose in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and hijacked “my evangelicalism” in terms of evangelical identity. They were a “sleeping giant” that WE largely ignored, just as THEY largely ignored us. There were more of them than we ever imagined—mostly but not only in the South of the United States.

I once tried to join a Southern Baptist church—in Munich, Germany. It was one of only two English speaking churches in that city where my wife and daughter and I lived for a year. The deacons (all white American Southern Baptists) declined to let me join the church because I had “alien immersion.” That is, I was baptized in a non-Baptist church. They asked my wife about her baptism and she responded that she was baptized in a Conservative Baptist church (CBA). They almost reluctantly agreed to let her join because it sounded okay although they had never heard of it. We did not join but attended regularly for that one year. They (the Southern Baptists who ran the church) were nice enough people, but they were not “us.”

My point is that for anyone to project backwards onto “my evangelicalism” the seeds of Trumpism is, in my informed opinion, an opinion shaped by my experience and research, a mistake. I have here speculated about one possible “seed” that MAY have prepared some of “us” for Trumpism and that is pervasive fear of persecution of “us” by some future, probably communist, government led by the “Antichrist.” I’m not going to repeat that here. But it was and remains sheer speculation.

As I look back on “my evangelicalism” now I can identify ONE extremely divisive person who MIGHT have prepared many of “us” for Trumpism—Bill Gothard. For some strange reason that I still cannot comprehend, many of “us” got swept up in his “God’s chain of command” doctrine and teaching that was extremely toxic to both men and women (to say nothing of children!). But many of “us” went against him and it.

Now what is left of “my evangelicalism?” Well, Christianity Today, the NAE, the Christian College Consortium (and somewhat, perhaps, the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities), small denominations such as I mentioned above (although SOME of them have been heavily infiltrated by Trumpism and neo-fundamentalism), and…me. Am I the last dinosaur left of that tribe? Seriously, I know that is not the case. But we are disorganized, have almost no public voice, have largely dropped the label “evangelical,” and live under the dark shadow of Trumpism.

When I recently moved from the South (where I never consorted with Southern Baptists except once when I was invited to speak at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) to the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. I spent months making a list of potential churches for my wife and me to visit. I left off the list Southern Baptist churches which means most of the Baptist churches were not on it. The list included an Evangelical Covenant church which we would have joined except it is far, far away from our residence. There appear to be three congregations of that denomination here in this metro area. On the list I included Evangelical Presbyterians, Conservative Baptists (CBS), Converge (Baptist General Conference), Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), Free Methodist and Wesleyan churches, a couple of independent evangelical churches, and an evangelical Mennonite church. During Covid we visited them all online and I examined their web sites carefully. I spoke with or emailed with many of their pastors. We finally settled on an evangelical Mennonite church near our residence. There is no American flag in the worship space (which makes me happy) and we have never heard Trump mentioned or even hinted at in worship or Sunday School. There is public prayer for “our government leaders”—whoever they may be and for world events, but no mention of any political party. But the congregation is clearly, without doubt or question, an extension of “my evangelicalism” in terms of its ethos. Not once have my wife or I detected any hint of toxic masculinity. Most of the worship is led by women and many of the elders are women. And yet, again (!) the ethos is that of “my evangelicalism.”

Notice that almost always, when documentary makers and the mass media reporters and journalists feature “today’s American evangelicalism” they focus on the South of the United States and its churches. I feel excluded by that; I don’t identify myself with what they show or talk about by “American evangelicalism.” But I know that “my evangelicalism” still exists, but admittedly weakly compared with the numeric power of neo-fundamentalism and Trumpism that goes under the label “evangelicalism.” It sort of breaks my heart.

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