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Sarah Lindsay

Still Evangelical?

Blanchard Hall, Wheaton College | © 2010 Teemu008 | via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY 2.5

This could be a very short blog post: my answer to the question of whether I am still an evangelical is that I’m really not sure. Probably not. But maybe.

I started drifting from evangelicalism so gradually that I hardly noticed at first. I grew up evangelical and I attended college at the evangelical Harvard (aka Wheaton College), but at Wheaton I began to understand that “Christian” and “evangelical” are not synonyms.

I became Anglican, and while some Anglicans consider themselves evangelical, others don’t — to be Anglican need not mean being evangelical.

And I started graduate school at a highly-ranked state university. I had already begun to sour on the culture war mentality that permeates much of evangelicalism, and as I lived and developed relationships outside the evangelical bubble I became completely disenchanted with the “us against the world” mentality of the evangelical culture wars.

To me, evangelicalism had become too tightly linked to conservative politics and to doctrines I no longer held, like complementarianism and creationism. Plus, I never felt particularly connected to evangelicalism, probably due to my uneasiness from a young age about conversionism. And so I simply let “evangelical” slip from my Christian identity — I had no reason to renounce it, but no reason to embrace it either.

And then 2016 happened.

I was angry at evangelicals. What happened to the values I had been taught growing up? How could the same people who (rightly) deplored Bill Clinton’s behavior turn around and justify similar, and worse, behavior by Trump? How could compassionate conservatism turn into dehumanizing rhetoric against people of color?1 How could evangelicals sell their souls for political gain?

But I was also, for the first time, a tiny bit hopeful for evangelicalism. A handful of prominent evangelicals vocally criticized Trump. They pointed out the hypocrisy of supporting Trump. They urged their fellow evangelicals not to support someone who bragged about assaulting women, who displayed breathtaking arrogance even about matters of faith, who lied continually.

Their words were clearly too little, too late; the soul of evangelicalism had become corrupted long before the 2016 election. But for the first time, I saw evangelical leaders waking up to the problems inherent in linking doctrine and political power.

I had no desire to identify as evangelical, though. I felt as if I was watching an old friend I had fallen out of touch with begin to grow a conscience — a good development, but no longer one that affected me.

And then, in April, I attended a panel at the Festival of Faith and Writing with essayists from the book Still Evanglical. The four women on the panel — Kathy Khang, Karen Swallow Prior, Deidra Riggs, and Sandra Maria Van Opstal — were heartbreakingly honest about the challenges of remaining evangelical. Three of these women are women of color, whose challenges as members of evangelical churches are even greater. All of them see themselves as prophetic voices calling evangelicals back to Jesus, back to love, away from the seductive call of political power and nationalism.

Part of me — if I’m honest, a large part — wants to wash my hands of evangelicalism. Evangelicals have made their bed, so to speak; let them reap the consequences of their actions. Let them fade into political irrelevance, let them be excoriated by the press, let them suffer for the hypocrisy that allows them to proclaim that families matter and then justify family separation as a deterrent for immigration, that allows them to fight against abortion and turn around to shame women in their churches who are unmarried and pregnant, that allows them to be incredibly sensitive about the smallest slight against themselves while ignoring the oppression of so many in America.

But those feelings are not particularly charitable. Much as I would like to dismiss evangelicals as power-hungry hypocrites, I know too many who are not. I do believe evangelicalism as a whole have lost its way, emphasizing moralism at the expense of love and never examining the painful racism and sexism embedded in the church.

But if they have lost their way, they can find it again.

I’m not sure that it’s my job to help evangelicals find their way. I’ve been on the edges for so long that I’m comfortable here, learning alongside others who love Jesus and respect the bible but who find that evangelicalism doesn’t help us do either well. I’m probably not still evangelical.

But I honor and admire the work of those who call evangelicals to repentance, to those who speak prophetically even when their audience responds with hostility. I pray for the healing of the evangelical church so that it can once again be light and salt, known for being Jesus in the world.

  1. Actually, that one shouldn’t have been surprising. But it was still shocking when the people who taught me to be colorblind turned out to be so easily swayed by stereotyping and dehumanizing rhetoric that centers white feelings of safety.