A Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage, Part I

evangelical TimeBy Tommy Airey

*The first in a three-part series exploring more compelling ways to follow Jesus.

…the essence of Christianity is itself an essentially contested concept.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1992)

I was inducted into North American Evangelical Christianity in 1983 while attending the Christian elementary school where my mom got a job teaching 5th grade. I was in the 4th grade and my teacher, whom I loved, rhythmically proclaimed:

God said it, I believe it and that settles it.

This was after daily prayer and Bible readings in class. End of conversation. No debate or diversity. It’s settled. Period. I remember the rush of certainty and triumph that would flood my heart and mind.

I also remember the popular male teacher who would pass us in the hallways with his patented greeting: “Good morning, young Republicans” (I shit you not: this really happened). 15 years after King was crucified in America, Jesus Christ was Lord and Ronald Reagan was President. For two decades, I claimed this uniquely American faith, devoted to an almighty GOD and His aggressive GOP.

The word “Evangelical” itself comes from the Greek word euangelion, translated roughly as “gospel” or “good news.” Their message is focused on the dualistic realities of God & sin, heaven & hell, believer & non-believer, the Bible & everything else there is. Life is about making a decision for Jesus that leads to heaven by the grace of God, leaving dogmatics to the hard-core fundamentalists and denominations to, well, the mainline denominations. Discipleship is suspect because, after all, “you can’t work your way to heaven.”

In 1989, the British historian David Bebbington wrote the book on what an “Evangelical” looks like. He homed in on four pillars summed up here:

-Activism in the world centers on evangelism—a recruitment drive!
-Biblical Authority: God’s perfect Word that is “inerrant” or “infallible”
-Cross of Jesus: an atoning sacrifice that allows believers to go to heaven when they die
-Decision-making: a prayerful, pietistic conversion experience is the prerequisite to salvation

To be fair, this is a definition of white Evangelicalism. It thrives in the suburbs and crowds the halls of corporations, college fraternities, country music concerts, the military and national & state legislatures. It is famous, powerful and well resourced. It is by-and-large both a “belief system” and an “emotional experience.” It is a checklist of proper ideas about God and the world. It is also a personal relationship with Jesus.

When it comes to “politics,” Evangelicals support the status quo by often claiming neutrality. They are famous, though, for their passionate struggles against abortion and gay rights. These are “moral” or “biblical” issues, they say: not “political.” Some of this is shifting with younger Evangelicals. Slowly.

Sure enough, Evangelicals pour time, energy and financial resources into “charitable causes.” They fight against sex trafficking, world hunger and the invisible children of Uganda. But despite Jesus’ revolutionary call to love our enemies and scores of prophetic biblical passages denouncing the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, only a very small percentage of Evangelical leaders (and the congregations that follow them) will openly condemn war and economic policies that devastate poor and working people.

Evangelical pastors & professors, by and large, do not understand white privilege, nor do they find the time, energy or, really, any reason to name and resist racism, sexism and homophobia. Their power, privilege and prestige, I believe, hold them back from taking a stand against unjust and violent systems that order our world. These serve as blinders. As Upton Sinclair once wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

A decade ago, I had to clock out of the Evangelical movement. I was no longer compelled by their firmly-embedded claims: about the Bible, heaven-and-hell, the meaning of Jesus’ death, the destiny of people of other faiths, war, wealth, gays-and-lesbians, people of color, women, the benefits of capitalism, American patriotism as unquestioned allegiance and more.

Recently, I happened upon bell hooks’ concise summary of our crises as a litmus test of accountability when assessing competing understandings of what it means to follow Jesus: imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She names what we, ultimately, need saving from: the hellish ideologies that deal death and destruction to billions on the globe.

The United States continues to gain wealth and might through the violent interventions of militaries and markets. American society remains in a death grip of racism—bad news of people of color when it comes to jobs, schools, housing, criminal justice, bank loans and more. Wealth is earned through massive resource extraction and labor exploitation. Women remain subject to unchecked abuse, discrimination, hatred, objectification, neglect and interpersonal oppression.

Evangelicalism, by and large, either supports or is silent about all four of these destructive systems. The irony is that this is the opposite of “The Gospel.” This is bad news for the good news people. And the rest of the world.
*We need not fret. Next week, we will begin to move from critical to constructive by exploring a more compelling alternative. Until then, I leave you with this simple confession of faith from the leaflets handed out on Holy Saturday 1983 after a band of radical disciples snuck on to the Wurtsmith Air Force Base to spray paint “Christ is Risen! Disarm!” at the foot of sixteen B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons:

We believe there is hope. Many people have yielded to despair. They can already hear the terrible sound of the door slamming shut on human history. But we are here to say otherwise. Someone is hidden at the heart of things, breaking in to break out, on behalf of human life.

4 thoughts on “A Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage, Part I

  1. Tom, I’m thankful to hear more specifics about your journey. It stretches me since I’m a white, suburban, evangelical, pastor. There are a couple things I’d like to comment on:
    1. Referring to the evangelical belief system as “white” seems odd to me. The majority of Evangelicals do not live in the United States or Europe (57% live elsewhere according to the Center for Global Christianity). The largest evangelical churches in the world are in South Korea, Chile, India and Nigeria. Most evangelicals are non-white and still hold to the “proper ideas about God and the world” and the “relationship” with Jesus that you describe. That’s a far cry from suburbs, corporations, frat houses, country concerts, and legislative chambers. Your generalizing does not fit the majority of evangelicals, they aren’t white or products of white privilege.
    2. Jesus prayed that His followers would unified. I’m not sure why you need to criticize the way followers of Jesus express their faith in order to present your view of it. It’s hard to read some of the phrases about views on the poor, race and women’s issues knowing that so many American evangelicals are accomplishing great things on these fronts. It was Southern Baptists that were serving 300,000 meals a day after Hurricane Katrina. The American Red Cross provided the meals, but called on evangelicals to serve them. Many of these volunteers leave their families and jobs to go and help those in need. To say that Evangelicals support or are in silence regarding the objectification of women is false. Fighting sex trafficking and pornography are a part of the battle against objectification of women. Evangelicals are freeing women and children from slavery in America and many places elsewhere through partnerships with groups like A21 and giving young people a healthy view of women through organizations like Pure Hope and xxx church. American Evangelical churches like the Dream Center in Los Angeles are processing over a million pounds of food a month for the poor in their community, providing housing and drug rehab, providing safety for women enslaved in sex trafficking and housing for foster kids who aged out and were left homeless. There are also thousands of churches just like the one I am a part of that are providing ESL classes in their community, housing homeless families and providing job resources to people of any color, helping schools in their community, and doing it together with other churches. Organizations like the Salvation Army gladly describe themselves as Evangelical and are helping the poor all over the globe. I hope that you would take your enormous passion to help the disadvantaged and help followers of Jesus do more instead of criticize them unfairly. Evangelicals aren’t all bad.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Joel. All of what you write here is true and would mostly pertain to the paragraph that I wrote:

    “Sure enough, Evangelicals pour time, energy and financial resources into “charitable causes.” They fight against sex trafficking, world hunger and the invisible children of Uganda. But despite Jesus’ revolutionary call to love our enemies and scores of prophetic biblical passages denouncing the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, only a very small percentage of Evangelical leaders (and the congregations that follow them) will openly condemn war and economic policies that devastate poor and working people.”

    Your points detail my argument that Evangelicals make much to do about charity (and very rarely struggle against economic injustice…i.e., The System). Evangelicals do MUCH to address symptoms (which is needed), but very little to get to the social, economic and political roots of poverty and violence (which is needed even more). This post is particularly aimed at the North American Evangelicalism which has birthed global Evangelicalism through “missions.”

    I appreciate your comments about “unity” and I see that this post has unsettled you. My prayer is the same as Dr. King’s: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” These are obviously serious matters that I bring to the table, matters that deeply concern so many of the young people that I’ve gotten to journey with over the past two decades. So many young Evangelicals are leaving the movement and even the faith as a result.

    Again, all of what you say about the generosity of Evangelicals is true. And, indeed, “Evangelicals aren’t all bad,” as you proclaimed at the end of your comments. It is vital, though, to identify some of the harmful and destructive convictions embedded within the Evangelical movement. So many younger jaded Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals desperately want a real dialogue about the claims of Evangelicals concerning (as I wrote) “the Bible, heaven-and-hell, the meaning of Jesus’ death, the destiny of people of other faiths, war, wealth, gays-and-lesbians, people of color, women, the benefits of capitalism, American patriotism as unquestioned allegiance and more.” Although I didn’t mention the scholarship in my post, much of the history of these Evangelical positions have been chronicled nicely by Mark Noll and George Marsden (both Evangelicals)…among others.

    Joel, in the past, you and I have emailed back and forth, dialoguing our differences over gays-and-lesbians and white privilege/supremacy. Our differences, theologically expressed, nicely highlight some of the key contrasts between North American Evangelicalism (you) and the radical discipleship movement (me). There are many more differences between the two Christian traditions. A big part of my own current vocation, as a privileged white male who grew up in suburban Evangelicalism, is to speak up and speak out about these differences, inviting people into a different way of following Jesus. To not speak out would be to violate my own conscience. You and I can still be unified in the Love of Christ at the end of the Day, despite our many differences of conviction about what it means to follow Jesus.


    • Tom, thanks for the clarification. I appreciate the thoughtfulness in your response. It seemed a bit more than “speaking up about the differences” to say that Evangelicals action and inaction mean bad news for the world. That was certainly the unsettling part. To say that Evangelicals are accomplishing the opposite of the goal Jesus laid out is a tough pill to swallow and I think, based on my previous comments and your response, that it is unfounded. The world is a much better place because of God’s people actively living out their faith. The world has better water sources (oneattatime.org), food and economic resources (World Vision), less violence (Rwanda), more medicine, more vaccinations, lower infant mortality rates, less suicides, more education (Compassion International educates over 1.5 million kids currently), more unwanted children with loving families on every continent, less slavery, less drug cartel dominance (Cali, Columbia) and more future hope and meaning found in knowing Jesus, because of the global family of Evangelicals (I hate camping on that word, but its what you were addressing). You can call that stuff symptomatic or not, but I’m pumped about God’s people doing great stuff in His name and I’m excited to have people like you exploring ways to impact “the systems” as a means to obey the call of Jesus and bring hope and help to those who haven’t been given enough of a voice in our communities.

      I would also say Evangelicals are the not the same as the aggressive GOP. Leaving one is not leaving the other. There are many left wing and no wing evangelicals who would find your assertion about the GOP and evangelicalism outdated. Every democratic president in my lifetime has also been a devoted evangelical. I’m not naive, I know there are a lot of people who still hold to the views of your elementary school that equate political parties and religion, but I think some people might be more prone to listen closely if the issue was the intersection of faith and policy and less about the political and religious labels.

      Sorry to be long winded again. I look forward to reading your future posts, to see how God has called you to use your voice to help others. I’m thankful that unity doesn’t necessitate total agreement and I stand in unity with you as a follower of Jesus and CVHS grad.

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