The Last Evangelical in America

“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.

Read the rest.

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.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Collin Brendemuehl

    A good number of our Brands have become pejoratives. “Evangelical”, “Fundamentalist”, even “Christian”, both originally and today in the public world, especially if it seen to imply anything orthodox.

  • Daniel Briggs

    Why not “evangelical Christian”? Or, in the way you have described the Christian-Protest-Lutheran family-genus-species chain, would that be redundant?
    Brief aside: Did Wilberforce refer to himself as an evangelical or was that even a label back then?

  • Daniel Briggs

    Why not “evangelical Christian”? Or, in the way you have described the Christian-Protestant-Lutheran family-genus-species chain, would that be redundant?
    Brief aside: Did Wilberforce refer to himself as an evangelical or was that even a label back then?

  • Sarah Flashing

    Like fundamentalists, evangelicals have allowed the term to be hijacked, necessitating a new term. Today even the term baptist is being eliminated from baptist denominational vocabulary.I’m tired of capitulating to the whims of culture so I think you should help correct things and rename your blog “Fundamentalist Outpost.” :)

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    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.
    Ditto. I’m a conservative Bible-believing evangelical to the end. I’m plagued with certainty about Absolute Truth, manifested in both the Living Truth and the Written Truth.

  • Jay D

    If you aren’t going to use “evangelical” anymore, can we use it?

  • Jay D

    FYI: comment on your website page layout.
    The “blogroll” window actually overlaps parts of your actual blog, making the parts underneath unreadable. It is, in fact, partially overlapping this combox.

  • George 2

    I dunno. Calling oneself a Christian does not define one’s doctrine, but it does define one’s allegiance and suggest at least some sort of unity with believers. Is it more important to define doctrine or allegiance?
    Looking at many evangelical churches’ mission statements, I see a first priority given to biblicism and a lower priority given to God and Christ. That’s not me. However, I feel most at home in non-denom evangelical churches, yet I prefer to regard myself as sola Christian.

  • Baus

    I’d rather call myself a Calvinist or even an orthodox Presbyterian than “just a Christian”.
    Aren’t you, Joe, actually a Reformed (or Calvinistic) Baptist?
    And the funny thing is, the reason I totally shun the label “Evangelical” as applying to myself is that I mostly define the term (in contemporary American usage) as referring to “those who erroneously believe that there is such a thing as ‘generic’ Christianity” or “those who prefer to call themselves ‘just a Christian'”.

  • JohnW

    I think it really doesn’t matter so much what you call yourself. It’s more important what guides your life, what principles you defend, your personal integrity and honesty, and how you treat others.
    The original meaning of the word, Evangelical, is having to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ or the Gospel (see Luke Chapter 4). As such, evangelical is a wonderful word. Unfortunately, even though it may be a mischaracterization, in today’s popular culture, evangelical has been associated with a lot of attitudes and beliefs that are decidedly un-Christlike (for example, intolerance, american exceptionalism, war-mongering, and far right politics). Therefore, I avoid using the word evangelical when talking about my faith.

  • Paul

    I just go by Christ-follower. That pretty much covers a lot of ground for me, without the baggage that some of the other terms bring (in the minds of others, that is).

  • ucfengr

    for example, intolerance, american exceptionalism, war-mongering, and far right politics
    Can you be a little more specific here? I want to make sure I am supporting the right “far right policies”.

  • Mike O

    I just refer to myself as one of those scarey Christians who believe that the only way to be right with God and get to heaven is through Jesus and that the Bible is the revealed word of God. Saves me wondering if the other person understands the label.

  • JohnW

    Sorry, I won’t be able to help you with what far right policies or presidential candidate to support. It’s kind of a confusing time right now-Dobson and Perkins aren’t sure McCain is far right enough, so I don’t know what to tell you.
    It seems McCain is not “pro-family” enough and they are not quite sure he is serious about teh “Global War on Terror/Islamofascism”. Plus he doesn’t condone torture and has some concerns about protecting the enviroment. Oh, and He problably won’t support a constitutional amendment concerning gay marriage.
    I suppose McCain is not an evangelical….

  • Robert Duquette

    I ask why sophisticate post-evangelicals elide their faith and you can guess the responses:
    -my career
    -fear of rejection
    -so I can make a contribution that would otherwise be excluded
    -to make the case that we’re not all like (fill in the blank with an evangelical leader)
    -so I can feed my family
    I’m sensing a martyr complex here. Are we really to believe that being an evangelical in America makes one unemployable? Please stop with the violins!
    The problem is that you want to have your cake and eat it too. Derogatory comments like “just a Christian” show you evangelicals to be a self-selecting elite with a lowly opinion of your fellow believers which you take great pains to separate yourselves from, yet you simultaneously want said generic Christians to accept and approve of you unconditionally. If the heat of sainthood is too much to bear, get out of the theological kitchen!

  • Jack

    Number one reason to not call yourself an evangelical: “evangelical” media spokesmen/political operatives James Dobson and Tony Perkins.

  • Britt Gillette

    Part of this phenomenon is attributable to the act of “trying to fit in” or signaling to others around them that they are not “judgmental” (as the media has effectively labeled all evangelicals as intolerant and judgmental social outcasts). The other part is just a general rejection of labels in general. Most people see themselves as unique individuals and they want the world to see them that way to. Group identity labels tend to counteract the individual’s attempts to define his/her uniqueness.

  • ucfengr

    Sorry, I won’t be able to help you with what far right policies or presidential candidate to support.
    Actually I was trying to get a little more specificity from you on what constitutes the “far right policies” that evangelicals ostensibly support.
    I suppose McCain is not an evangelical….
    I haven’t the foggiest idea what McCain’s religious beliefs are and I don’t care enough to research it.

  • Ken

    “to bend and blur their beliefs and practices in order to fit in.”
    Actually the reason I might quibble with being called Evangelical despite my broad agreement with the fundamentals of the faith is the shallow but broad “churchianity” that prevails instead of an authentic and Biblical Christianity.
    Crass commercialism that mislabels merchandising as ministry, (we evangelize with bumper stickers and edify the body with “What Would Jesus Eat Cookbooks!?) and a sloppy gnosticism that undermines Christian doctrine with bad formulizations such as “If you died today, do you know if you would go to heaven to live with God in eternity?” that ignores the Biblical teaching of an eternal physical resurrection following a vague intermediate state, a view of family that confuses the post-industrialized era’s isolated nuclear family where a father works away from home with the more culturally universal extended family enterprises more approximate to Biblical models are all prevalent enough within American evangelicalism to invite the serious Christian to seek some distance.
    Stripped of its illusions that portions of western culture (that might in fact be expressions of Christian living) are normative and synonymous with Chrisitanity itself, Evangelicalism still has much to offer and I am not about to abandon it.
    Reformed, and eternally reforming is the way to go.

  • Tim Aldred

    Can the account of Genesis be possibly words of the cosmos creator?
    I purport that even a cursory read of the Old Testament Genesis narrative will not support the idea of a wise creator who made the heaven and the earth. Because the narrative has portrayed a character that is not systematically astute, without foresight and is unforgiving. Operate even less than human who makes errors then become filled with regret over what they have done.
    If anyone disagrees with my view of it then I’ll be presenting specific areas in the book that should prove what I have alleged.

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  • Brandon

    Evangelicals do not follow Christ they are in Christ and a person in Christ will unapologetically admit thisto whomever they encounter. To be hated by the world is to be loved by God.