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.

The church my family attended in the 1990s was affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene. My parents did not regard the Nazarenes as their authority. They attended because they believed, after extensive “church shopping,” that God was calling them to that particular church. Judging by the pattern of their interventions in the church’s life, their goal was to make it more evangelical, with little concern for the distinctive faith traditions of the Nazarenes. Though their missionary intention was perhaps unusual, their indifference to established church authority was very typical. Despite the outer uniformity of its representatives, evangelicalism is a movement of self-styled individualists who shape their own form of Christianity to suit their own needs.

There was, and is, no definitive “canonical” set of evangelical leaders or denominations.1 The movement is more like a network, and each individual believer or household chooses the figures and charismatic personalities that seem most relevant or helpful to them out of a whole constellation of preachers, authors, and musicians who share a similar outlook or style. Outsiders often view the television host Pat Robertson or the late preacher and university president Jerry Falwell Sr. as major spokesmen for the evangelical movement, but in my family, Robertson was viewed with suspicion and Falwell was totally irrelevant. My mother in particular disliked some Christian commentators so deeply that she attributed their prominence to a liberal media conspiracy to discredit Christians by showing them in the worst possible light.

My family’s evangelical “canon” was defined by the local Christian radio station, which was playing at all times—in the bathroom as we got ready for school, in the kitchen, and in the car as we drove thirty minutes each way to fulfill my parents’ divine calling at a strangely distant church. Key authorities were the Nixon conspirator turned prison evangelist and Christian memoirist Chuck Colson (who did more than anyone to popularize the term born-again with his autobiography of that title) and the family psychologist James Dobson (known affectionately as “Dr. Dobson” among evangelicals, for whom he plays the role of personal therapist). Perhaps the most omnipresent voice was that of the radio preacher Chuck Swindoll. Though I don’t remember anything in particular that he preached, his deep baritone voice and the cadences of his sermons remain imprinted on my mind. Most of his sermons were made up of present-day stories that started out fun or humorous, to which the congregation laughed along. Eventually, things took a serious turn. Swindoll would pause dramatically, waiting for the involuntary cough that signaled that the audience was spellbound. Finally we got our action item, allowing us to apply the lesson in our own lives.

My parents’ sole complaint about the programming was the music, which was dull and conservative, an outpost of the vision of “Christian contemporary” modeled directly on the “adult contemporary” of the ’80s and early ’90s. Pushing the boundaries of Christian music, both in church and on the radio, was a passion of my parents—especially my father, a talented guitarist and songwriter. But for many more than just my parents, the ethos and style of the Christian contemporary of the ’90s was the true revolutionary vanguard of American evangelicalism. Few individual leaders and preachers (with the possible exception of Dr. Dobson) figured prominently in the childhoods of the majority of those raised evangelical, but musical acts like Amy Grant, Carman, and DC Talk were omnipresent in our world. They articulated, in a simple yet powerful way, a worldview in which Christianity was a deeply personal matter, and yet part of a collective struggle of authentic Christians against secular opponents and lukewarm pseudo-Christians alike.

Especially in the early ’90s, these Christian musicians taught us that we were part of a battle for the soul of our nation. Carman’s free concerts, which combined singing with spoken-word sections meant to approximate rapping, made him a favorite of youth groups across the country. He declared that “the only hope for America is Jesus” and warned us against those who would claim that the founders, who “knew the Bible chapter and verse,” intended America to be a secular country. In one interview, included in a VHS collection of music videos from his album Addicted to Jesus, Carman described himself facing a choice early in his career: “Did I want to be some rinky-dink Christian artist, or did I want to be a musical terrorist?” Clearly he chose the latter.

Not all Christian artists were so radical. Now known for a handful of adult contemporary hits in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Amy Grant was one of the first true superstars of contemporary Christian music—in part because she was one of the first to appeal to younger listeners while also pleasing the gatekeepers at Christian radio stations. Many of her best-known songs explore the personal side of Christian faith, such as when “Breath of Heaven” imagines—from a first-person perspective—the strange situation in which the Virgin Mary finds herself when the angel announces her role as the mother of Christ. This trend culminated in her 1988 album Lead Me On, whose searching lyrics, filled with doubt and questioning, alienated many of her Christian fans and ultimately led her to “go secular” (i.e., sign with a non-Christian label) for her next album. Heart in Motion, from 1991, is best known for the anodyne and inoffensive single “Baby Baby.”

Grant’s journey from youthful evangelical superstar to ambiguously post-Christian artist has always struck me as prefiguring the experience of people like me who were raised evangelical but departed from the faith as adults. Grant has maintained a closer relationship with the evangelical movement than I have, collaborating on collections of worship music and releasing recordings of classic hymns, and the movement itself has attempted to mend fences with its one-time poster child. (In 2001, CCM Magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian music, even anointed Lead Me On the greatest Christian album of all time.) Yet the break was real, and all the more painful for resulting from Grant’s fidelity to evangelical values.

Returning to her music for the first time in decades, I was shocked at the radicalism of some of her early songs. One of the most forceful is “I Have Decided,” from her 1982 album Age to Age, which opens with the following bold declaration:

I have decided,
I’m gonna live like a believer,
Turn my back on the deceiver,
I’m gonna live what I believe.

The vocals are brash and confident, with the first line—“I have decided”—sung in a cappella harmonies. A restrained instrumental track joins in halfway through the line, but serves primarily as a kind of punctuation; the emphasis here is on the chorus of voices. All are presumably making their own individual decisions, though they produce a forceful harmony. Everything is focused on a clear and simple message, and even at this late date I can feel the pull of the song.

In the second stanza, however, things get a little more complicated. New instruments join in as the chorus of militant evangelicals continues:

I have decided
Being good is just a fable
I just can’t ’cause I’m not able
I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.

To the average listener, this stanza seems to contradict the first. What does it mean to “live like a believer” if not to be “good”? How can a believer dismiss “being good” as a “fable”? How can someone who is “not able” to be good possibly “turn [her] back on the deceiver”? And how can someone passively “leave it to the Lord” after declaring that she is going to change her life completely?

For a devoted evangelical, however, these apparent contradictions are not contradictions at all. Nor are they something to be overcome. Instead, the song is an invitation to inhabit a world where living in the tension between these contradictions is the whole point. In addition to being a catchy pop song, “I Have Decided” is a unique window into the evangelical mind.

The tension between the two verses in Grant’s song points to a dynamic in the Christian religious experience that goes back at least to Augustine’s Confessions. Written around 400 CE, the book describes the process by which Augustine gradually became convinced, after trying a number of other options, that Christianity was the most cohesive and satisfying system of belief. No doubt remained—yet Augustine found himself unable to take the final step of committing to the beliefs and moral standards he fervently wished to espouse. In one of the most famous scenes in all of Christian literature, he describes himself as being in the throes of agony and indecision when out of nowhere he overhears children chanting, as if for a game, tolle lege, “take and read.” Interpreting this as a divine commandment, Augustine opens up a nearby Bible, flips to a random page, and reads the following exhortation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

 . . . not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:13 – 14)

His hesitation dissolved. Instead of making a willful decision to embrace a set of beliefs and way of life, Augustine found himself surrendering to God’s grace.

More than a millennium later, Martin Luther faced a very different problem: a perceived inability to live up to the exacting standards of the Catholic Church and an overwhelming anxiety about the fate of his soul. He found deliverance in a similar way, surrendering to God’s grace with a little help from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. To the extent that Amy Grant’s song expresses a “decision” to serve God and “live what I believe,” while paradoxically admitting to an inability to do so, it is deeply “evangelical” in the sense of being “Protestant.”

Yet few contemporary evangelicals embrace the logical conclusion that both Augustine and Luther drew from their experience: that God predestines those he chooses for salvation and abandons the rest to damnation. Evangelicals instead prefer to dwell on the experience of internal struggle—the conflict between the desire for perfect belief and the inability to wholly commit to it—which never really settles into a state of certainty or stability. To the extent that they reflect on the experience of other people, their good old-fashioned American egalitarianism leads them to believe that salvation is accessible to everyone who is open to it.

This basic intuition is expressed in the first of the Four Spiritual Laws, formulated by the evangelical leader Bill Bright in the mid-1960s: “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.” The second and third laws express, respectively, the belief that human sinfulness is an insuperable obstacle to knowing and fulfilling that plan, and that only Jesus Christ can remove that obstacle for us. The fourth law declares, “We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.” This final law captures the evangelical dilemma in two words: “individually receive.” On the one hand, our salvation is personal—no one can do it for us, whether a parent or a priest or anyone else. Each of us, individually, is on the hook. Yet we are on the hook for something that exceeds our abilities, and hence we can ultimately only “receive” it.

This means that from the evangelical perspective, there is no contradiction in the song “I Have Decided.” The way you decide to “live like a believer” is to recognize that you’re “not able.” You decide to surrender, or you surrender your decision, or—to use a more recent evangelical truism—you “let go and let God.” The same sentiment is expressed in another cliché, once a common sight on bumper stickers: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” Evangelicals do not actually claim to be better than anyone else in any straightforward way. Their one advantage is that they know the full depths of their unworthiness. Much as an alcoholic in a twelve-step program continues to identify as an alcoholic even after years of sobriety, so too does a born-again evangelical know that they are, and always will remain, a sinner.

This aspect of the evangelical worldview produces the greatest obstacles to understanding for outsiders. While evangelicals often appear as the very quintessence of self-righteousness, they believe that they are actually the only people who—by God’s grace—manage to escape the ever present temptation of self-righteousness. In their mind, by contrast, secular liberals are the dangerously self-righteous ones, asserting their own all-too-human vision of morality without realizing that their sinfulness renders even their best-intentioned actions “splendid vices” (to use a phrase often attributed to Augustine). This is also why evangelicals are so singularly invulnerable to attacks that point out their failure to follow the teachings of Christ. This critique is knocking at an open door: the very core of the evangelical spiritual experience is their deep, gut-level awareness of their inability to reach Christ’s high standards. In their view, Christ did not live a perfect life so that we could follow in his footsteps, but precisely so we wouldn’t have to.

This strangely amoral view of morality does at times produce positive results: personal humility, a forgiving attitude toward others’ failings, an appealing sense of serenity. The people I remember most fondly from my evangelical years displayed all these traits, which made them 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. Unfortunately, many evangelicals around me took things in a less appealing direction. 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.

The morally nihilistic aspect of the evangelical experience produced some tension within my church’s denomination. The Church of the Nazarene exists above all to preserve the most radical teaching of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement: the doctrine of entire sanctification. A staunch opponent of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, Wesley taught that Christians could reach a point where they were no longer sinners. Like salvation itself, the experience of entire sanctification was a gift from God, but it opened up the way to radical change in the believer’s life, in which the believer would enter a new phase where temptation was no longer a serious problem; perfectly following the teachings of Christ would become possible. While the sellouts in the mainstream Methodist denominations had quietly set this aspect of Wesley’s preaching aside, the Nazarenes held true to it. During my teenage years, there were still some hardcore Nazarenes in our church who believed this experience of moral perfection was required for salvation. But my church’s overall acceptance of the evangelical ethos wound up attracting Baptists—which is to say, Calvinists, which is to say, the mortal enemies of everything John Wesley stood for. One particularly zealous member of the church board even called for an inquiry into whether some of the volunteer Sunday school teachers were promulgating Calvinist doctrines.

When they learned of the danger of creeping Calvinism among the Sunday school teachers, my parents were mostly amused. Who could possibly care about such things? They were, however, concerned that this conflict between arcane doctrines was repelling newcomers. What if someone came to our church one Sunday only to hear a sermon about the dispute between Wesleyans and Calvinists? Surely they would be bored and alienated, and possibly miss out on salvation as a result. The same went for old hymns and organ music and boring sermons and even rituals like communion and baptism. We were encouraged to imagine the likely response of some curious soul who wandered into our church at random: namely, boredom and alienation. The way to avoid that outcome was to be “seeker-sensitive,” meaning that, ideally, everything about the church would be designed to compel that proverbial curious soul off the street to begin participating immediately.

The seeker-sensitive model is taken to its logical extreme at megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church, where Sunday services feature professional-quality pop music, dramatic skits illustrating Christian themes, and sermons that prioritize applicable life lessons over theology and biblical exegesis—all in a building that feels more like a sports arena or an auditorium than a traditional worship space. Crucially, megachurches are normally not affiliated with any particular denomination. They are free to preach to what they believe to be the heart of the Christian message, without all that irrelevant historical baggage.

This seeker-sensitive ethos fits with the evangelical experience of freedom and surrender. It reflects the belief that the key to salvation is letting go of everything that stands in the way of an unmediated encounter with Christ. On the personal level, that means letting go of your own delusions of righteousness and worthiness. It follows that the church works best when it gets out of the way and lets people encounter God (and themselves) as directly as possible. Any further demands the church makes on you—forcing you to take positions on antiquated theological questions, or making you sit through a boring and outdated musical performance—only complicate the already difficult process of letting go and letting God.

The ultimate goal is to produce a form of Christianity that does not require new believers to “convert” to a new culture. Aside from things that are intrinsically sinful, seeker-sensitive evangelicals believe people should be able to enjoy all the things they have always enjoyed and live the way they have always lived—as long as they do so in a Christian way. This is why the Christian music industry has produced a Christian version of every conceivable “secular” musical style, including usually anti-Christian genres like heavy metal or industrial. The evangelical convert can enter into an entire parallel world filled with Christian music, Christian feature films, Christian novels, Christian parenting advice, and Christian self-help books, and they can attend a Christian Pilates class at the Christian gym on the way to the Christian coffee shop, among the other amenities that are becoming increasingly common on evangelical church “campuses.” This emphasis on immediate accessibility has even affected the style of preaching. As I reflect on the Chuck Swindoll radio sermons I listened to as a child, I recognize now how they imitated the rhythm of a typical sitcom: hilarious hijinks reach a point of seriousness, and after a moment of tension and dramatic silence, a healing joke allows everything to resume course. Swindoll was preaching the gospel message in the key of Cheers (which, bizarrely enough, we were allowed to watch as kids).

Hence my emphasis on Amy Grant. For an evangelical, the pop song is the perfect vehicle for gospel: it delivers a simple message in a memorable way, purportedly meeting the listener where they are. This basic attitude also accounts for the proliferation of evangelical slogans, like the Four Spiritual Laws, which are most often passed around as self-evident truths, with no attribution. I never associated the laws—the first of which every evangelical surely knows by heart—with the name of Bill Bright or any other author before sitting down to write this essay. Like neoliberal “best practices,” these evangelical truisms were somehow always already known. Who cared where they came from? They worked, providing members with tools to turn every friendship, every work relationship, even every interaction with service staff into an opportunity to spread the gospel.

One might therefore think of evangelicalism as a kind of overlay to the traditional Christian denominations. Though particular churches like Willow Creek or para-church organizations like Focus on the Family exercise a certain influence over the movement, evangelicalism is ultimately a style of doing church—a set of seeker-sensitive best practices that every church must embrace in order to remain “relevant” and avoid losing members. In this triumph of style over substance, evangelicalism reveals itself to be the perfect form of Christianity for our era, pressuring traditional Protestant churches to retool along evangelical lines in order to maximize church growth.

Despite the constant reference to the “unchurched” person who is approaching Christianity from a position of total ignorance, however, the quest for church growth is ultimately a zero-sum competition for the loyalties of a declining number of Christians. Most researchers agree that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation, often referred to as “nones” in the literature, has been growing in recent decades. Even if evangelicals really are reaching the unchurched to some degree, their efforts have been swamped by broader trends toward secularism.

And yet, against all odds, evangelicals continue to exercise a profound influence in culture and politics. They have been a crucial part of the Republican coalition that has controlled the political terms of debate for the better part of a generation. Discussion of moral issues (and around what counts as a moral issue in the first place) has been carried out overwhelmingly on evangelical turf. Even though most Americans support abortion rights and oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the evangelical polemic against abortion has set the parameters of the conversation. Pro-choice politicians and commentators feel obligated to express their respect for the deep moral convictions of their opponents and to present abortion as something that is always painful or regrettable, even as evangelicals paint abortion as tantamount to genocide. As a result of this determined activism, Roe v. Wade has been steadily whittled away in recent decades and may be overturned altogether if the harsh anti-abortion laws in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Ohio find their way to the Supreme Court.

Evangelical Christians nevertheless regard themselves as a persecuted and misunderstood minority, surrounded by a hostile secular culture that is actively seeking to deceive and corrupt their children. Religious groups with similar views, such as the Amish, choose isolationism, but this option is not available to evangelicals, who are opposed on principle to creating a distinctive Christian subculture. But whereas an outsider would view evangelical subculture as an imitation of the surrounding world, evangelicals view themselves as the most authentic Americans, living an ideal American life against which the rest of the country is rebelling.

When evangelicals attempt to understand the motives of outsiders’ rebellion, their egalitarianism shows its dark side, because they tend to view everyone as a reluctant convert: some reject the gospel because they do not understand it, because of cultural obstacles, bad experiences with self-professed Christians, or simple ignorance. These are people who have not yet had a chance to embrace Christ, and they are regarded with sympathy. Others, however, understand the gospel message well but persist in rejecting it. Since their failure to convert cannot be explained through external circumstances, the only possible explanation is a desire to continue in sin.

Evangelicals believe that some members of this group even take it upon themselves to discredit the gospel—while knowing in their heart that it is true—in order to legitimate their sinful lifestyle. Hence, for example, the idea that the theory of evolution was designed from the ground up to shake people’s faith in God, or that equating human beings with animals is a way to justify animalistic lusts. The principles of secularism are not an attempt to maintain peace and equality in a pluralistic society, but an evil agenda devised by those who resent America’s heritage as an authentically Christian nation. Gay activists are not well-meaning people who want only to avoid discrimination and stigma, but are members of a wicked cabal determined to advance the “gay agenda”—which includes corrupting naive young people by confusing them about their own sexual identity.

In other words, evangelicals imagine their opponents as evangelicals-in-reverse. Instead of surrendering to God and spreading his message, they have surrendered to the power of sin and seek to spread its message. The field of struggle is the mass of confused and misinformed souls who have not yet been offered the chance to accept Christ. In neither case is there any possibility of legitimate disagreement—anyone who is not a member of the evangelical community is either a fool or a demon.

On the political level, this means that there is no reason to respect the democratic will of the people. Thus it is no coincidence that our last two Presidents to enjoy overwhelming evangelical support were also initially installed despite losing the popular vote. Nor is the evangelical focus on the Supreme Court merely a strategic political decision. Evangelicals’ reliance on the antidemocratic aspects of the American constitutional system fits perfectly with their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the choices and values of anyone outside the evangelical community. After all, those choices and values represent only ignorance and sin. To the extent that they can impose their religious standards on others, evangelicals are saving these people from themselves—and depriving them of their ability to corrupt evangelical children.

And here we come to the true crux of the matter, because 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.2 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.

Everything evangelicals do is geared toward achieving this paradoxical goal of clone-like reproduction of an individual encounter with God. It is the rationale behind all their political interventions, which center overwhelmingly on issues of physical and social reproduction, from abortion to family structure to education. The sole political task of the evangelical community is to reproduce itself. They have no quarrel with economic inequality, with racial and gender hierarchy, with nationalism and torture and war, with environmental destruction. To the extent that those realities are harmful, evangelicals blame the sinful motives of individuals. Trying to change large, divinely ordained systems of power would represent an illegitimate attempt to usurp the place of God—and in any case, more and more evangelicals and their allies are occupying those systems all the time.

Yet because of the movement’s own internal contradictions, the evangelical goal of perfect replication has proven impossible. As parents, evangelicals incite their children to take personal ownership of Christianity, but demand that their children conform to their own understanding of the faith. They claim to want us to have an authentic, spontaneous religious experience, yet relentlessly manipulate our emotions. In my case, they also sparked my intellectual curiosity by encouraging me to reflect on the Bible and theology—a task to which I ultimately dedicated my life—but tried to shut me up or shout me down whenever I came up with an idea that didn’t sound familiar.

Growing up evangelical was an experience of constant failure, and I heard again and again that this failure was always and only mine, a result of my own resistance, pride, or overthinking. Seldom was this dynamic of entrapment more clear than in the evangelical approach to sexuality. Though the evangelical movement loudly bemoaned the sexualization of American culture, in practice it relied on adolescent sexuality to fuel our conversion narratives—to “hook” us with guilt and shame that only the church could relieve. We were enjoined to think of ourselves as already married to our future spouse, such that having sex outside of marriage would be a betrayal of that future partner. When we actually paired up (and there was ample opportunity amid all the youth group events, summer camps, and mission trips), every aspect of our relationships was practice for marriage, with one important exception: the act of sex itself. Deprived of that outlet, we took a perverse personal ownership of our faith by becoming experts in parsing “how far is too far” and maintaining “technical virginity,” all based on standards we made up as we went along. Inevitably, we crossed each newly drawn boundary, prompting a further round of repentance, fleeting self-control, and renewed transgression. Even when evangelical couples managed to avoid a shotgun wedding, their shared sexual sins often drove them into ill-advised early marriages.

After many years, during which I felt angry and unhappy most of the time, I came to see that the only thing connecting me to the evangelical experience was the guilt and shame that it generated while claiming to solve. That is enough to keep many members of my generation inside the movement. They are driven by the promise that this time, if they try hard enough, they will find the sense of serenity and belonging they have been promised all their life.

It was not enough for me. I found my way out into the secular world, and I discovered that I still had a lot of growing up to do. I needed to find ways to relate to the women I dated without feeling desperately possessive. I needed to learn that the evangelical pose of brutal honesty is both unkind and untruthful. Perhaps saddest of all, I needed to learn that some people are genuinely nice and friendly, that not every smile is a veiled demand for my soul.

All of those lessons were difficult, but the hardest part of my journey outside the evangelical circle was realizing that the evangelicals were ultimately offering me nothing. For all their countercultural posturing, the end result of the evangelical experience is a self-satisfied conformism—a world in which they can live exactly like their white suburban neighbors, enjoying a Christian version of their consumerism, a Christian version of their apolitical self-absorption, and a Christian version of the stereotyped family life they saw on television growing up. That is what all the manipulation and paranoia and guilt and shame was aiming at: a life that, for me, would have felt like a prison. Far from offering transcendence, evangelicalism offered nothing but a divine mandate for the most limiting version of the American dream—with no alternative or appeal.

From a certain perspective, you could say that 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.

It is difficult for me to be so sanguine about politics. We are living in an increasingly evangelical country, even as the absolute number of self-identified Christians falls. The “best practices” of evangelical church growth continue to spread. Evangelical values are shaping Supreme Court decisions and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Can we find a new use for this political heritage? I would argue we are already trying, but in self-undermining ways. Any number of social justice causes have become lifestyle brands on the model of the evangelical parallel culture, a trend that corporate “wokeness” is only accelerating. And what could be a more seeker-sensitive model of political mobilization than online slacktivism? More generally, the moralism that pervades much political debate today—reducing everything to a question of individual motives—is deeply in tune with the extreme individualism of evangelical culture.

Evangelicalism is, in many ways, the most successful social movement of our generation, but its achievement has been to shut down the possibility of the political changes we most need. Much as leftists or liberals might wish to exercise the same hegemony as evangelicals, our profoundly unjust and self-destructive society won’t be changed by using the playbook of those who believe Jesus died on the cross so they could be good suburban consumers. We must not imitate them, and we cannot convert them, because their contempt for moral striving and their relentless self-obsession provide few openings for persuasion from without. We can only seek to defeat them, not only by using the existing levers of democratic self-rule but by reforming our system to prevent a determined minority from entrenching its preferences in defiance of a popular will they regard as sinful and illegitimate. And in the long run, we can wait in joyful hope for the culmination of evangelicalism’s slow collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. As the man says: let the dead bury their own dead.

  1. The one apparent exception is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is closely identified with evangelicalism. In my experience, though, evangelicals don’t look toward the SBC as a source of authority—they are simply pleased to note that the SBC so often agrees with them. 

  2. This claim may seem extreme. On the level of substance, however, it is impossible to understand contemporary evangelicalism as anything but a reaction to the counterculture of the 1960s. And on the level of style, it was only in the 1970s that the idea of a Christian counterculture—led, as always, by Christian music—really began to take off. 

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