Am I an Evangelical?

Over the weekend, it seemed like virtually every Christian college professor in my social media feed was reading “The Evangelical Mind,” an essay by theologian Adam Kotsko, who

Adam Kotskowas 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.

I do think of myself as a committed evangelical, and so did listen very closely to what Kotsko had to say. I can see why it resonated with so many of my peers, both because Kotsko praised the many professors at his evangelical college who “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” and because they can’t be surprised that, in the end, “many evangelicals around me took things in a less appealing direction.”

Like Kotsko, I think of myself “not just an observer of the evangelical mind, but an example of it.” In the former respect, I found the essay thought-provoking. In the latter, I found myself mystified: the evangelical upbringing he described bears little resemblance to my own.

So out of that evangelical “habit of relentless self-examination,” I’m going to use Kotsko’s essay as a jumping-off point for some mostly autobiographical reflection on my relationship to evangelicalism.

That should start with the acknowledgment that if I’m mystified by much of what he wrote, it’s probably because my religious memoir is different from his in significant ways:

  • He grew up in a Nazarene church but with parents not especially committed to that tradition; I grew up in the Evangelical Covenant Church as a fifth-generation Covenanter. (Much more on this before we’re done…)
  • He makes much of contemporary Christian music and seeker-sensitive megachurches; I grew up singing older hymns in small congregations, the child of parents who listened to virtually no music made after the 19th century.
  • I certainly encountered suspicion of evolutionary biology and other scientific fields at church, but I attended a secular college prep school and even spent two summers working in my dad’s medical research lab.
  • Then instead of going to an evangelical college like the one Kotsko attended or the one where I teach, I went east to a public college.
Kotsko graduated from Olivet Nazarene University with a degree in English

So I’ve always known that there would be moments in my career in Christian higher ed when I’d realize the gap between my religious upbringing and that of students whose childhood and adolescence were more like Kotsko’s. For example, I’ll never forget the time, early in my tenure at Bethel, when a colleague told me that many of our evangelical students believed they “needed to sin to be saved.”

Huh? “Sin to be saved?”

I’m still flabbergasted by that idea. But it seems that Kotsko had a similar experience. “To this day,” he writes, “the attitude I associate most with evangelicals is a sneering contempt for moral striving.” Because they hold such a strong view of the need for sinners to experience the undeserved merit of grace, 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.”

I cannot possibly stress strongly enough how foreign this idea is to my experience of evangelicalism. On the contrary, a younger version of me would have been more likely to complain about other ethical problems I would have seen as inherent to evangelicalism: a legalistic expectation that my moral striving be constant, and constantly measured by my success or failures in following a set of rules; or a selective interpretation of Scripture that expects Jesus’ disciples to live by some of his teachings, but not those that challenged the values of a violent, materialistic society. As an adult called to teach history, I’m glad to be part of an evangelical learning community that strives “to develop whole and holy persons who will go into the world to serve others” because they are “dedicated to God with purity of thought and action” — knowing that “The Bible condemns legalistic rule-keeping” but “emphasizes loving relationships and pure motives in living out these rules.”

So I hope I don’t seem like an uncritical observer of evangelicalism, even as I continue to participate in it. Setting aside theological and ethical tensions for the moment…

No doubt many of my evangelical readers here and at The Anxious Bench are sick of me lamenting the dismal nature of evangelical political engagement — another major theme of Kotsko’s essay. But I despair in part because that phenomenon was so surprising to me. I had plenty of doubts about evangelical Christianity as an adolescent, but until I spent some college summers in rural Virginia, I’d never been part of an evangelical church that so openly supported Republicans and demonized Democrats. To a fault, the evangelical church I attended for my first fifteen years back in Minnesota avoided partisan politics of any sort.

So I’ve been wondering what to do with my (unusual?) response to Kotsko’s well-crafted essay. Am I an evangelical?, I keep asking myself. I’ve come to two potential answers:

#1: No, I’m not an evangelical

And if evangelicalism has truly become more a political than religious movement, then I absolutely need to remove myself from the category. I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and hope that he is removed from office for any one of his numerous, egregious violations of his oath as president. Even if Trump doesn’t run again in 2020, I will surely vote for any of the leading Democrats rather than anyone else that the Trump-enabling option in our two-party system would likely nominate.

But I don’t think that evangelical is simply a synonym for “Trump-supporting white religious Protestant.” And while my experience of evangelical belief and practice is different than Kotsko’s, I think it’s still recognizably evangelical by most definitions. At this stage in my life — and most before it — I would affirm each element of Thomas Kidd’s answer to the title of his most recent book:

Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I’m sure Tommy and I would debate several words in that sentence, but that itself is typical of evangelicalism. And perhaps points to the futility of the term, but I’m going to stick with it for the purposes of reflecting on Kotsko’s essay.

So that takes me to my second answer to the question, Am I an evangelical?

#2: Yes, I am an evangelical, but…

I think there are two key distinctions between my religious autobiography and Kotsko’s that help explain my odd response to his piece.

First, I grew up identifying more closely with my small denomination than with any larger evangelical movement.

Kotsko hints in this direction, by telling of his upbringing in a Nazarene church and alluding to his education in a Nazarene university. And he acknowledges the tension between the Nazarene commitment to Holiness theology and the “morally nihilistic aspect of the evangelical experience.” But he emphasizes that his parents “did not regard the Nazarenes as their authority”; instead, they relied on the teaching of figures like Chuck Colson and James Dobson. In fact, his parents seem to him to have picked their church in order “to make it more evangelical, with little concern for the distinctive faith traditions of the Nazarenes.” And as Calvinists began to attend that church, its memory of John Wesley and later Wesleyan notions of Christian perfection began to fade.

But in my case, the Evangelical Covenant Church mattered far more to my family — and to me, I discovered later in life — than evangelicalism writ large. It’s a denomination that any scholar would identify as evangelical but has always had a complicated relationship with mainstream evangelicalism — especially as that movement began to be identified less with Billy Graham and more with Religious Right figures like those named by Kotsko.

Centerville Evangelical Covenant Church
Older Covenant churches like this one in Centerville, Iowa were mostly founded by Swedish immigrants like my great-great-grandparents, but today a significant share of ECC congregations are intentionally multi-ethnic or among populations of color.

Now, I recognize that one reason I may be too stubborn to give up “evangelical” is that growing up part of a small denomination can feel insular and isolating. It’s easier to make yourself at home in a larger tradition, especially one canopied by the “big tent” that Roger Olson identifies with post-World War II evangelicalism. That’s why Bethel felt so right so quickly to me: it had clear ties to evangelicalism (e.g., the president who hired me had spent several years editing Christianity Today and his predecessor was a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals), but it shared some of the same historical, sociological, and theological background as the Covenant Church.

But all of that leaves me attached to evangelicalism primarily by connection to institutions — and both of those connections are fraying, to different degrees. I’ve already written about my painful decision to leave the Covenant, and I’m sure I’ll write more about my increasingly complicated relationship to Bethel as it enters a new season of painful cuts. But if I can’t couch my evangelical identity in the relatively distinctive, comfortable homes of that denomination or that university, then am I still part of a larger movement?

Perhaps not… but I’d still feel part of a larger religious tradition or (maybe better) a participant in an older religious story. And here we come to what — for me — is the most problematic feature of Kotsko’s thought experiment: imagining that “…evangelicalism as we know it did not exist before the late ’70s.”

“This claim may seem extreme,” he admits in a footnote. “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.” I could maybe grant the latter — knowing that my non-encounter with that kind of Christian music is so unusual for evangelicals of my age — but the former simply makes no sense to me.

On the level of substance, the evangelicalism that I knew had much deeper roots. No doubt it had responded to the 1960s in important ways, but it had also been shaped by crises in the 1860s and 1660s.

Dayton’s collection on evangelical history includes a chapter on Pietism by Covenant theologian John Weborg

I often go back to Don Dayton’s observation that there are three distinct but related evangelicalisms:

  1. The “evangelical” movement that arose around Martin Luther during the Reformations. This is still what “evangelical” means in continental Europe, and why this country’s largest Lutheran denomination is both part of the mainline and has evangelical in its name.
  2. The “evangelical” awakenings of 18th and 19th centuries, some of which were sparked by German Pietism and later versions of what Covenant pastor Mark Pattie and I have called “the Pietist option” for Christianity.
  3. The “evangelicalism” of 20th century America — which is conventionally identified as a third way between fundamentalism and liberalism, but also needs to account for innovations ranging from the birth of Pentecostalism to the rise of the Religious Right.

At least in my formative years, the Covenant Church as I knew it was shaped far more by the first two evangelicalisms than the third. “We are a Reformation church,” its Covenant Affirmations document still explains, “in that we see ourselves as standing in the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation, particularly with reference to the doctrine that justification is by faith alone.” But when it then turns to the statement, “We are an evangelical church,” the authors place the Covenant within Dayton’s second wave:

Five centuries have passed since the Reformation. New issues have arisen upon which Scripture has shed light. The Covenant Church, consistent with its background in Pietism, sees in the emergence of evangelicalism a movement that gives expression to several of its basic emphases.

Many have defined evangelicalism as Protestantism. It is more accurate, however, to view it as a religious awakening that flowered in Europe and America during the nineteenth century. Waves of spiritual revival have swept the Protestant West for more than two centuries. The Covenant Church has grown out of these awakenings, and Covenanters have enjoyed cooperating in mission at home and abroad with all who follow Christ. In this they are true to the spirit of the text expounded at the birth of the Covenant in 1885: “I am a companion of all who fear you” (Psalm 119:63).

They define evangelicalism in terms that would be familiar to someone like David Bebbington: “a strong insistence on biblical authority; the absolute necessity of new birth; Christ’s mandate to evangelize the world; the continuing need for education and formation in a Christian context; and responsibility for benevolence and the advancement of social justice.” But the Covenant has historically interpreted those evangelical distinctives with the assistance of older insights.

For example, the “new birth.” Kotsko finds the “true crux” of the problem with evangelicalism to be how children like him are raised in “a movement centered on conversion”:

…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.

I can understand the concern. I’ve occasionally felt embarrassed not to have a more remarkable conversion story to share: a break with the past, a sudden change in perspective. But the Covenant reassured me that conversions needn’t fit the framework Kotsko summarized. “You don’t remember your birth,” I’ve heard multiple Covenant pastors say, “but you know you’re alive.” So why would it be impossible to experience new life even if you can’t recall every detail of your new birth? Why (to reach back to our roots in Luther’s reformation) should we be surprised that God would give faith to an infant or child… then continue to walk with us during a life that will be full of turning points and epiphanies large and small — each moment an opportunity to respond freely and joyfully to God’s grace?

That’s just one example of how the churchly Pietism of Germans like Philipp Spener and Swedes like C.O. Rosenius has shaped Covenant evangelicalism. Another is the Covenant emphasis on evangelism, formation, and ministries of compassion and justice, all of which starts from the Pietist insistence that right belief only matters if that faith is “made active in love.” But in stressing missional cooperation with “all who fear” God, we add the Pietist conviction that evangelical “activism” (as Bebbington puts it) depends on Christian unity. (See ch. 6 of The Pietist Option for a fuller articulation of this idea.) Some Covenant theologians would even go so far as to say that Christian mission itself may boil down to “befriending” in the name of the one who befriended us.

Of course, it’s what I reluctantly interpret as the betrayal of that older evangelical heritage — for the sake of newer evangelical distinctives owing more to fundamentalism and the church growth movement than the Reformation or Pietism — that leaves me estranged from my home denomination. But I remain an evangelical because, at heart, I remain a Covenanter — a “missional Pietist.”