I’ve had the strange experience recently of reading pages from my own autobiography as written by a trio of people I’ve never met.
None of these people set out to write my story. Two of them were, rather, simply intending to tell their own stories — their own personal testimonies. But it turns out there’s a great deal of overlap between their testimonies and my own. The other writer also shares a similar story, even though that’s not the story he’s telling in this case. What he’s trying to do, instead, is to share a bit of the story of our people — of my people — and in doing so he manages to cover the first half of my résumé in eerily specific detail.
It shouldn’t be strange that so many such personal testimonies wind up sounding so much alike. That’s a byproduct of the standard and standardizing form of such testimonies, and an expectation of the audience for them. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life,” so little variation should be expected in the personal testimonies of the few there be that find it.
Let’s start with the most recent of these three overlapping testimonies, Adam Kotsko’s n+1 essay “The Evangelical Mind.” Kotsko was, like me, born into and raised in American-style white evangelical Christianity. And so, like me, he was urged to compose and to share his own “personal testimony” of conversion — of becoming “born again.”
The problem for all of us who are second- or third-generation white evangelicals is that we do not have a personal testimony. We cannot tell the story of the lives we led before we were born again because we were born again as very young children. Whatever lives we had before that were not lives we “led,” but lives that were shaped for us by our parents and families and church communities.
I’ve described this before as like being second- or third-generation immigrants who are asked to stand up and recite the story of our arrival at Ellis Island. That was our parents’ story, or our grandparents’ story, not ours. This is the only place we’ve ever lived and the only life we’ve ever known.
Kotsko discusses this insightfully:
Children represent a special problem for a movement centered on conversion. The evangelicals of my parents’ generation came to it as adults, for the simple reason that evangelicalism as we know it did not exist before the late ’70s. Most underwent some kind of conversion experience, and most were reacting to the religious formations of other sects of Christianity. Especially for those who walked away from the highly structured and impersonal atmosphere of the Catholic Church, like my father, the simplicity and immediacy of evangelicalism was a breath of fresh air. Now that they had found the authentic, unmediated Christian experience, they naturally wanted the same for their children.
But for a child raised in the evangelical community from birth, the formative experiences of modern evangelicalism are absent. Evangelical children have no artificial tradition to reject, because they are already growing up in the unmediated, correct form of Christianity. With the important exception of sex and sexuality, they have no occasion to struggle with sin, as they have been imbued with righteousness from a young age. Yet they can’t simply go with the flow, because the core conviction of evangelicalism is that faith and salvation are things they must choose to surrender to on their own. Still, evangelical parents are confident that they know what the end result of a genuine salvation experience looks like (i.e., themselves). Every evangelical child must somehow be induced to undergo—authentically, spontaneously, individually—the exact same fundamental experience that their parents underwent.
He goes on to tie that to the stunted, circumscribed political imagination of white evangelicalism. And that’s just one part of a wide-ranging essay that covers everything from the defining role of the religious right to a deep reading of a deep cut off of Age to Age. (That’s Amy Grant’s fourth album, the one with “El Shaddai.” And if you already knew that, then I’m sure there’s a great deal in Kotsko’s essay that will also be eerily familiar for you.) Read the whole thing.
Here’s another thread from Kotsko’s essay that reflects the point at which our personal testimonies diverge. This is the part we share almost completely:
My experience in the evangelical movement was damaging. I have spent a lot of time wishing things had gone differently — that my parents had never been “called” to our church, that I had found the courage to quit youth group earlier, that I hadn’t chosen an evangelical college. But at this point, asking to undo all that damage would mean asking to become a different person. I have always had and will always have an evangelical mind, even if I have found a new and unanticipated use for it. Evangelicalism gave me my desire for integrity and authenticity, my sense that my life should be filled with mission and purpose, even my intellectual curiosity. It gave me all the desires that continue to shape my life, even if the movement itself systematically refused to fulfill any of them.
The people I remember most fondly from my evangelical years … [were] an embodiment of everything that is most attractive about Christianity. I think of the assistant pastor who spent most of his days visiting the sick and elderly and was one of the few people in the church who took racial reconciliation seriously, or the new youth pastor who was tasked with “straightening me out” after I’d been asking too many questions, but instead simply met with me to have coffee and talk as a friend. Many of the professors at my evangelical college were heroically devoted to their students, putting up with low pay and pressure from anti-intellectual leaders in order to fulfill a calling to serve young people.
In the end these people helped me find my way out of the movement, but had they been the norm rather than the exception, I would have remained.
Unlike Kotsko, I have remained, sort of. I mean, I haven’t been allowed to remain — the club has strict rules against permitting pro-gay Satanic baby-killers as members — but getting kicked out is different than choosing to leave. And while Kotsko sees little hope for white evangelicals’ redemption or conversion, I still retain the kind of evangelical mind that makes me believe that God’s amazing grace means anyone can be saved — even born-again white evangelicals. Even the 81 percent.
But I’m struck by his observation about “had they been the norm rather than the exception.” It’s quite possible that Kotsko found his way out of evangelicalism because he went to Olivet Nazarene while I found my way to cling to it because I went to Eastern.
My alma mater(s) feature prominently in one of those other recent articles, Randall Balmer’s column on “The Other Evangelicals.” Balmer includes short survey of the so-called “progressive evangelicals” — with weirdly specific emphasis on everybody I wrote for in the 1990s. We’ll have to come back to that one for a closer look.
The other piece of uncannily familiar personal testimony comes from Alex Morris’ recent Rolling Stone article, “False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.” That piece has some terrific insights into the demons that drive the court evangelicals of Trumpism, so we’ll have to return to discuss that a bit more as well.
Let me finish here with one more chunk of Kotsko’s essay. This is his discussion of “the morally nihilistic aspect” of evangelical Christianity — their contention that “Christ did not live a perfect life so that we could follow in his footsteps, but precisely so we wouldn’t have to.”
To this day, the attitude I associate most with evangelicals is a sneering contempt for moral striving. A stock phrase among evangelicals is that “there will be a lot of good people in hell,” which I heard continually in sermons, in radio broadcasts, and in casual conversations about those poor, naive liberals. This sentiment was presumably intended as a sobering reminder of the magnitude of human sin and the profundity of our need for Christ’s forgiveness, but some people treated this dark theological truth as a positive good. From the way they spat out the phrase good people, I imagined that these believers were looking forward to seeing the “good people” burn. While some secular liberals hope to find common ground with evangelicals of goodwill on certain issues, the ones who have descended to this point of malice and disdain are probably unreachable. After all, they reject in advance any standard of moral judgment other than a nihilistic scorn for “good people.” The end result of their Christian faith is the unshakable conviction that nothing could be stupider than expecting people to live by the teachings of Christ.