The Evangelical Mind

Will Rogan, Swans Through. 2005, C-print. 33 x 48
Will Rogan, Swans Through. 2005, C-print. 33 x 48". Courtesy of Altman Siegel.

What is an evangelical? On a superficial level, this should not be a difficult question. Evangelicals have played an outsize role in American public life for decades. They were at the forefront of the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, when self-appointed evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led the struggle against everything from video game violence and rap lyrics to gay marriage. They were crucial to the governing coalition of George W. Bush, himself a “born-again” Christian whose administration accelerated the trend toward delivering social services through faith-based nonprofits. Though their influence on Republican politics was briefly overshadowed in the Obama years by the less explicitly religious Tea Party movement, evangelicals have reemerged as the most loyal supporters of another popular vote–losing Republican President—this time, decidedly not one of their number, although Trump’s selection of the evangelical Mike Pence as his running mate nodded to the group’s kingmaking power.

Despite its apparent coordination and consistent program, evangelicalism seems to elude firm definition. Unlike with Catholics, for instance, there is no single figurehead to whom all evangelicals pledge allegiance. And although the term itself can mean simply “Protestant” in many European countries (most often those that are predominantly Catholic), it would be inaccurate to conflate American evangelicals with any particular Protestant denomination or group of denominations. Not only do many evangelicals attend nondenominational churches, but individual denominations are often split between an evangelical wing and a more traditionalist or more liberal wing (sometimes both).

Those outside the movement, especially secular liberals, have great difficulty grasping the evangelical experience. Even the most empathetic approaches tend to come across as patronizing, often expressing a wistful jealousy of the certainty evangelicals supposedly enjoy. Most external critiques of the movement attempt to catch evangelicals in hypocrisy—claiming they cannot be authentically “pro-life” while advocating the death penalty, for instance—without first asking about the principles they have supposedly violated.

I suggest that we should use the same tried-and-true method for identifying evangelicals as evangelical insiders do: “I know it when I see it.” I was raised in a conservative evangelical home, by parents who were in many ways at the vanguard of the movement. The more I have reflected on my experience in the evangelical movement, the more I realize that my evangelical upbringing planted the seeds of its own undoing.

I should be clear that I do not mean to present myself as a scholar of the evangelical movement, but as a primary source. I am not just an observer of the evangelical mind, but an example of it. While some may question my ability to speak from the evangelical perspective as an apostate, I would contend that I am an ideal representative of my generation of evangelicals. I lived through the inner contradictions of evangelicalism in a particularly intense way, and I believe that I ultimately found an evangelical way out of evangelicalism, through the habit of relentless self-examination that we were encouraged to cultivate—albeit not quite in the way they intended. I am not alone. Growing numbers of young evangelicals raised in the church are also finding their own paths out of the movement by following its core convictions. Even committed evangelicals who might resent my claim to speak on their behalf would therefore do well to let down their guard and listen to what I have to say.

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