Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

I hate Evangelicalism. Or, at least, I think I do. Except that I’m pretty sure that I’m an Evangelical.

It’s complicated.

For anyone coming to BTS lunch this coming semester, we’ll probably be talking about what Evangelicalism is. Like most self-identifying Evangelicals, I’m unable to accurately define it. Is it a theological tradition? Well, yes and no: it’s not a denomination, and seems to draw from a wide variety of denominations and traditions, but its lineage can still be traced back to certain theological thinkers and groups. Is it a culture? Certainly, but it’s not a distinctly national culture, with there being Evangelicals around the world; and it’s not simply a subculture in each of the cultures it can be found, as those who claim it would often prioritize it over any other distinctives of their culture. Plus all of that theology stuff takes it beyond being merely cultural. Is it a political group? Sadly, yes; but not so sadly, it’s actually a major part of many different political groups on both sides of the spectrum. In short, it doesn’t fit any particular category very well.

So how can we define it? Theologically? As I said, its theological lineage can be traced to specific people and groups…but how many Evangelicals are even aware of this theological heritage? So do we define it by where it comes from (historically) if a very significant portion of those who claim the title are ignorant of its history and may even largely disagree with its founders? Perhaps. There are a lot of people (on all sides of the political spectrum) who claim to be American patriots and love to quote their constitution in ways that would make its writers shudder and weep, but that certainly doesn’t make them less American at heart, whether or not they actually live there.

So do we define it by those who claim it? Such a wide variety of people claim the title Evangelical, and they vary not just in culture (coming from around the world), politics (from across the political spectrum), or theology (Calvinists and Arminians and Open Theists; High church and Low church; just war theorists and pacifists; etc.), but also in their own definition of what Evangelical means. I’d wager that most Evangelicals have a very vague notion of what it means, and that most of us have always assumed the title uncritically. So the conventional wisdom of simply asking an Evangelical what Evangelicalism is might not get us very far.

These are some of the questions that we’ll be exploring this semester, but as I’ve been preparing for the discussion I must admit that I’ve gotten bogged down in frustration. I hate Evangelicalism (which is not to say I hate Evangelicals), not least because I don’t know what it is and because I am one. This is a bit of an identity crisis for me in that sense. It’s good to be self-critical, or critical of our own traditions, but I can never tell if I’m being self-critical or simply pissed off about bad theology, rotten politics, and regressive culture. All of those things are part of the label “Evangelical”, and the people I’m irritated with often do those irritating things in the name of Evangelicalism (sometimes not even in the name of God, though that’s bad enough!).

It’s kind of posh to be a disaffected Evangelical these days. It’s sort of a Christian hipster thing. Christian bloggers talk about their experience coming out of conservative Evangelicalism and its culture, politics, and theology, and how they rediscovered Jesus and connected with progressive churches and all sorts of genuinely awesome things. I’m not talking trash about them – I love them, read them, and sometimes try to emulate them – but I’m starting to get the impression that every Evangelical in my age category and younger is just like me and Rachel Held Evans. In fact, I assume this to be true, and I’m quite skeptical when I’m told that Evangelicalism is actually a theological tradition that is still alive today. I catch myself assuming that people who claim the title of Evangelical are either ignorantly snared into American fundamentalism (which exists here in Canada, too), or else they’re courageously trying to redeem the word by bringing some theological nuance and weight to it. And then I hate myself for hating Evangelicalism, because I recognize how badly I’m reacting to something. Something I can’t even define.

Do I really hate Evangelicalism? Not really. I don’t hate it as a theological tradition (though I’m not sure how much I agree with the distinctive views of its historical leaders). I hate it when bad theology is legitimized by having the term Evangelical slapped onto it though, and I hate the fact that the term itself legitimizes anything, and I hate the fact that so many people buy into bad theology because of it. Do I hate the culture? Well, it’s hardly a uniform culture, but there are certain aspects of the culture that I’m not a big fan of. I don’t like the so-called Evangelical approaches to sin (we tend to focus on it rather than on grace), sexuality (we tend to focus on shame and spiritual existence rather than on living in the fullness of the bodily existence for which we were created), art (we tend to have bare walls in our churches, and our cultural expression is usually limited to inane Christianized facsimiles of more original “secular” art), and so forth. But how much of those emphases are distinctly Evangelical, and how many of them are more narrowly Conservative or Fundamentalist or American?

Ultimately, I hate the way my religion is abused. I hate when the pretenders, the ignorant, and the misguided use my religion and my people as a shield for their own actions, views, and goals. I hate when something as important as an idea gets corrupted, and I hate it even more when that corrupted idea spreads faster than the truth it’s based upon. That’s folk religion: when what people believe and do differs from the actual religion they claim, and they don’t even know it. Evangelicalism, because of its varied and difficult-to-define nature, is the catch-all for all American folk religion. It’s the label for every non-denominational church that lacks affiliation as a way of lacking accountability; every church of the cult of nationalism; every health-and-wealth swindler (though they claim “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” too, but those also fall under the umbrella of Evangelicalism all too often); every cultural Christian who knows very little about what they believe but will enforce that belief on others with impunity (and often with disastrous consequences); every political group that wants to gain support from Christians of nearly every stripe (because nearly every type of Christian in North America can claim the title Evangelical for some reason or other); and so on. These types of Christianity often have very little to do with Christ, and they bear his name in vain. I hate that, very deeply. What I hate more is that most of the people involved in folk religion are completely ignorant of the fact, but that some of them know all too well, or should know better.

So, for a lot of reasons, I think we should get rid of the term Evangelical altogether. It’s nearly impossible to define, and the lack of a clear definition leaves it wide open for abuse. Let’s stop trying to renew it or reform it, because we’re only prolonging the life of numerous folk religions that do violence to more legitimate uses of the term, as well as to the people who follow them. If we absolutely must have a broad-reaching term for followers of Jesus, I propose we stick with the old classic: Christian. Let’s be Christians, and make it very clear who we’re named after. Once we have that down, we can identify particular theological traditions and cultural expressions and political affiliations. I have a feeling that not all of us will get that far, and that we’ll be much happier trying to look like Jesus rather than spending our time defining our niche.

If there are no Evangelicals, then we’re simply left with Christians. Those people aren’t hard to figure out, and pretty easy to identify with and love.

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4 thoughts on “Evangelicalism, or American Folk Religion?

  1. The smallest of caveats. I am wary about “hating”. I may try to separate between hating the abuse of a movement and hating the people in the movement, but I often fail. So I would rather not hate. A more substantive caveat: “The abuse does not abolish the use.” Evangelicalism is much more than the right wing of the Republican Party in the USA.

    • Thanks Daryl – yes, I would much rather not hate too. In fact, there are very few things that I do hate. I’m bothered by how much of a blind spot this is for me, and I’m still working to get past it. I find that I’m only capable of hating what I can’t understand, and despite Evangelicalism being my own heritage, I really don’t understand it.

      I’m with you that “abuse does not abolish the use,” and it’s why I’m still a Pentecostal (but that’s a rant for another day). However, I’ve yet to find a positive or helpful “use” of the term “Evangelical.” So far as I can tell, it serves no particular purpose other than to serve as a generic category. We have enough of those already, and they tend to provide as much harm as good.

  2. Evangelists are a hate cult. They cried about Romney being Mormon and that Romney could not separate his religion from office of the President (total bullshit). YET the Evangelicals are running the political arena, making sure they put into office people who think and believe religiously the same as them. HYPOCRITES. LIARS. BIGOTS. Every one of them. Because of the Evangelicals we have another four years of Obama. Ouch.
    Evangelicals have hijacked politics and Christianity. They are giving both a bad name. Washington is more divided now since the War Between the States because of Evangelicals. They have ruined the country with their narrow mindedness, anti intellectualism, spewing hate, twisting Scripture to fit their agenda and beliefs while at the same time crying and whining about being persecuted.
    They do nothing to bring people to Jesus. They lie about other religions that they hate. And they do it all in the name of God, just as the Catholics did when the New World was discovered and the Native inhabitants were forced into slavery, tortured, starved, gold stolen, way of life destroyed, all in the name of God. And people buy into their crap.

    • I hope it’s clear that this is not the kind of hate that I’m talking about. I was torn about whether or not to approve this comment, which flings a lot of accusations and insults from a place of rage and hurt. This is lashing out in hate. I don’t hate like that; I don’t hate Evangelicals as people. In comparison to this, I feel like I should rewrite the whole post and say that I don’t hate at all, but rather that I’m frustrated by abuses and misrepresentations, and that I feel sorry for those involved in them, most of whom are simply ignorant of the twisting of the faith.

      FETS, I hope you can turn your hate to the situation, and away from the people. I hope you can move past it, to a place where your frustration and hurt come from the fact that you actually love the people involved and hate their hurts, and ignorance, and subversion.

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