The Last Evangelical in AmericaReligion — By Joe Carter on April 1, 2008 at 1:03 am
“That’s a cop-out,” I said mockingly, when a friend told me that he prefers to call himself “just a Christian” rather than an evangelical. My rude comment was out-of-place in our amiable discussion and I regret not apologizing at the time (in case he reads this: dude, sorry, really). The vehemence of my remark surprised me and caused me to wonder why I reacted as I did.
I realize now why I acted so irrationally: I’m afraid I’ll be the last person in America to embrace the term “evangelical.”
Naturally, I understand why some of my fellow evangelicals prefer not to be saddled with the label. The negative connotations imbued by both our friends and our enemies have weighted it down with unnecessary baggage. But I don’t think we should drop it altogether, especially for higher-level terms like “Christian.”
Of course to be an evangelical is to be Christian. Yet identifying oneself as a Christian is akin to saying you’re a North American. Globally speaking, North American can be a useful label for identifying the broad community in which you belong. But it is far too imprecise to be of much value if you’re talking to other norteamericanos. The term doesn’t specify whether you’re an American, a Canadian, or a Mexican. It doesn’t clarify if you live on the East Cost or in the Rocky Mountains or in big city or in a small village. It doesn’t give any clues to whether you might be offended by jokes about Newfies or snicker at quips about Aggies.
The reason we have labels like New Yorker or Alaskan or Puerto Rican is because geography often–though not always–says something about us, about our heritage, and about how we view the world. “Labels are useful only if they make legitimate distinctions,” says theologian Richard Mouw. “They serve us well when they are informative, when they tell us something important about the person who chooses a specific label.”
I agree, which is why I self-label with care. For instance, over the past four years I’ve lived in Illinois and Virginia, yet if you ask me where I’m from I’ll say I’m from Texas. Similarly, I go to a non-denominational Bible church and yet, while I haven’t stepped foot into a Baptist church in half a decade, I still consider myself a Southern Baptist (and, in typical SBC fashion, at least a dozen churches still count me on their roles as an “active member”).
Perhaps I cling to my geographic and denominational heritage out of a sense of rootlessness, a condition all-too-common among American evangelicals. I suspect what keeps me near is also what causes so many to leave evangelicalism altogether.
Related: Glenn Lucke has some insightful comments on grad students who reject the evangelical label
I am often baffled by the willingness of some of grad student believers to bend and blur their beliefs and practices in order to fit in. In countless scenarios, I’ve listened while formerly evangelical grad students engaged mightily in what sociologist Erving Goffman termed “impression management.” (See his Presentation of Self In Everyday Life.)
A part, but just a small part, of this pertains to the evangelical label. However, few of the specific ‘post-evangelical’ sophisticates that I’ve personally met call themselves “post-evangelical” because of the difficulties in determining the concept of evangelical. Probing conversation usually reveals that it’s a nervousness about being excluded in the academic environment in which the enculturated dispositions are fairly hostile to evangelicals.
More important than the label is the desire to adjust, bend, distort, and blur beliefs and practices in substantive ways, i.e. about matters of historic orthodoxy. Again, these friends and acquaintances seek to signal to the Powers that, “I’m in the club. I’m not radioactive. I’m not like those freaks.” Never mind that sometimes ‘those freaks’ are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, pastors and college buddies. More bizarrely, those freaks are sometimes people in the sophisticate’s current church, even small group.
While I don’t agree with their choices, I can empathize why my fellow (former) evangelicals who move to other theological communities. Some are attracted to Catholicism, the religious equivalent of a Boston or a Savannah, GA, because of its strong ties to tradition and community. Others prefer a faith that is strangely hip and exotic, like Eastern Orthodoxy–the Prague of Christendom. Still others decide to leave the hypocrisy of Hicksville for the urban uncertainty of emergent land.
I can relate for I too sometimes wish I could adopt another tradition. (Indeed, for several days after reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow I wanted to become a Jesuit priest–though I couldn’t get past the two biggest stumbling blocks: Catholic theology and celibacy.) But evangelicalism is my home. It’s the community where I belong. And–to get all Calvinistic–it’s where I believe God sovereignly chooses for me to live out my faith.
Mouw relates a story about the answer theologian Martin Marty gave when asked why he stayed with his particular denomination: He said that he is first and foremost a human being. And he finds being a Christian the best way for him to be a human being. And he finds being a Protestant the best way for him to be a Christian. And he finds being a Lutheran the best way for him to be a Protestant. And he finds being Missouri Synod the best way for him to be a Lutheran. On this last point, says Mouw, Marty added that, because he was raised as a Missouri Synod Lutheran, he knew all its jokes, and he would hate to have to learn how to laugh at some other denomination’s humor.
I think being an evangelical is the best way for me to be Christian; for better or worse, I’ll never abandon the tradition or the label. I’ll remain attached to the tradition that gave us Jonathan Edwards and Jim Bakker, William Wilberforce and the Wittenburg Door…and Francis Schaeffer.
In 1955, Schaeffer offered his home in Switzerland as a place where people might find satisfying answers to their questions facing modern man. His chalet was called L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” because it became a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular culture. As a form of homage to my intellectual hero, I named this blog “evangelical outpost,” intending for it to become an outpost of evangelical thought on the frontier of the blogosphere. Dr. Schaeffer helped me to see the beauty of evangelicalism and even if I’m the last American to self-identify with that term, I’ll continue to wear it proudly.