The Common Good
June 2005

Growing Up Evangelical

by Stacia Brown | June 2005

How does childhood faith influence political enagement? A conversation with seven people with conservative evangelical backgrounds.

When Gerald Liu followed his friend to the front of a Southern Baptist church during an altar call,

When Gerald Liu followed his friend to the front of a Southern Baptist church during an altar call, the then-12-year-old had an unusual motive. "He was my ride home," says Liu. "I didn’t want to get stranded." So began the now-26-year-old youth director’s journey into the Christian faith.

In this post-election year, pundits and politicians are weighing in on evangelical Christians and the "moral values" vote. But making sense of evangelicals in politics requires more than political commentary. It also requires theological sensitivity. Some of the best people to comment on conservative Protestant evangelicalism in American politics are young adults, because they have lived these traditions and reflected on them critically and compassionately.

Sojourners interviewed seven men and women, ages ranging from 24 to 40, who share this theological sensitivity. All come from - in their words - conservative and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. Several continue to call themselves evangelicals. Others have left for mainline denominations, and one has left the institutional church entirely. We asked them to talk about their early religious experiences and to assess the 2004 election in light of those experiences.

SAVED FOR SERVICE. Regardless of their current denominational affiliations, the seven agreed that growing up evangelical included learning that Christian conversion leads to engagement in the world. But this outlook came with a challenge: Be in the world, but not of it. Striking that balance wasn’t always easy.

Nancy Hightower, a 34-year-old college English instructor, grew up thinking Christian social action meant winning America back from the clutches of secularism. She describes her background in the Assemblies of God and in PTL Ministries as charismatic evangelical. There, engagement in the world necessitated a spiritual warfare mentality. "Victory was the key word," she says. "But when all you can talk about is victory, you forget how to handle those times when, for whatever reason, God doesn’t deliver people."

Janel Bakker, a doctoral student at the Catholic University of America, learned a similarly "triumphalist" outlook in her Christian Reformed congregation. Although her childhood church promoted civic engagement, sustained immersion in secular culture occurred infrequently. Consequently, Bakker grew up believing there were two kinds of people: evangelical Christians and everyone else - "the unsaved."

Graham Reside’s evangelical parents and his fundamentalist school training taught him that the world needed witnesses for Christ. Named after evangelist Billy Graham, Reside, 40, grew up with the expectation that he needed to become a leader in the evangelical world. As an undergraduate, he studied with evangelical theologian J. I. Packer. "My identity as an evangelical was supposed to be that of a godly, charismatic male leader," he says. But after college, Reside realized he no longer believed in the role he was performing. Now a Presbyterian and a father of two, Reside is a sociologist working at the Fund for Theological Education.

LEAVING - OR STAYING - HOME. Although they agree growing up "in the world, but not of it" was not always easy, the seven now view their religious upbringings in different ways.

For Lucy Suros, entering any church, let alone an evangelical one, is an unlikely event these days. Her departure from the "mainline evangelicalism" of her youth began at Westmont College, an evangelical liberal arts school. There she became aware of Christianity’s historical complicity in systematic oppressions. When she started asking hard questions, "the fissures in my belief system opened up."

Now the mother of a young daughter, the 33-year-old freelance writer remains disturbed by what she sees as the moral self-righteousness of many who call themselves conservative Christians. She no longer attends church. At the same time, Suros misses the communal ethos of religious gatherings. She has considered visiting a Quaker meeting or a Unitarian Universalist service. "I still have - and need - faith in God. But that faith will never look like evangelical or even orthodox Christianity."

Pharmacy student Matt Wilson is thankful for his religious upbringing. He has remained in his childhood denomination - he grew up in Florida’s Southern Baptist Association and now, at 24, attends a Southern Baptist church in metropolitan Atlanta. Staying within the Baptist tradition doesn’t mean he’s never critically examined his faith. It simply means, for him, that loving Christ and loving one’s neighbor fit well with conservative evangelical doctrine and practice.

UNDERSTANDING EVANGELICAL VOTERS. When it comes to political elections, voting for what you believe in is not always simple. Rarely does one candidate or party speak to all the values people of faith view as essential.

In 2004, Young Life area director Chris Theule-VanDam voted Republican. His wife did not. His Christian Republican friends talked about abortion and big government. His Christian Democrat friends talked about the environment and Iraq. A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary ordained to youth ministry by the Evangelical Church Alliance, Theule-VanDam, 34, found these parallel conversations disorienting. "It’s like we were talking about two different Americas. We couldn’t have a real conversation because we were never talking about the same issues."

Theule-VanDam voted for President Bush because he opposes abortion. He doesn’t like single-issue voting but says he had little choice. If a pro-life Democrat had run for president, he might have voted differently. In the absence of that option, he felt morally compelled to vote for Bush.

Reside, a Kerry supporter, says Democrats won’t win another election until they remove abortion on demand from their national platform. This is not, in Reside’s view, because Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, or because every abortion is morally problematic. It’s because a strident pro-choice stance is political suicide, he says. At the same time, "most people - and this includes evangelicals - also believe that you should be able to get an abortion if you absolutely need one," he says.

Bakker chose a different strategy: She voted for the director of a relief and development NGO as a write-in candidate. She didn’t feel like there was a place for her in the last election. And like Reside, she sees abortion as a stumbling block. "Democrats alienate most evangelicals on the abortion issue," Bakker says. And though the Democrats’ concern for social justice is admirable, party leaders sometimes fail to recognize the public consequences of individual moral choices. "Bedroom issues are still important," she says.

Suros agrees but says Republicans pose a greater threat to sexual morality than Democrats. Suros supports same-sex marriage, explaining her position as a human rights commitment. "It has to do with loving one’s neighbor and being compassionate."

But Suros, who voted for Kerry after initially supporting Dennis Kucinich, remains critical of Democratic campaign strategies, calling them "wishy-washy." The Democrats should try the same tactics Republicans use, she says. "Pick one or two issues everyone can agree on and then keep hammering away at them until the message gets across."

Liu agrees that a simplified message succeeds in politics. But he wonders if some conservative evangelicals prefer such simplicity for theological reasons. He recalls visiting a Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School during "Bible drill" games. The point of these games was to be the first on your team to memorize or locate a particular verse. Bible drills didn’t encourage interpretation; they encouraged speed and recall, Liu says. He wonders, accordingly, if conservative evangelicals sometimes privilege repetition, memorization, and "getting it right." If so, perhaps they are more comfortable with a political message of certainty than with a commitment to thoroughness.

"There’s a tension in the Christian faith between being certain and being thorough," Liu says. "Sometimes I think evangelicals voted for Bush because they are more at ease with assurances of certitude than with admissions that the world requires continual interpretation."

A simplified political message has both pros and cons, but our panel added a cautionary note: Evangelical voters are more intelligent and diverse than pundits and politicians acknowledge. They span the entire political and religious spectrum. Even those who self-identify as "conservative" comprise a multifaceted group.

Reside says politicians have forgotten that conservative evangelicals perceive themselves as oppressed. "Evangelicals like to think of themselves as an embattled minority, but they’re really not," he says. This "siege mentality" serves as an incentive to action. Conservative Christian media warn evangelicals that if they neglect to vote, they will forfeit the few religious freedoms they still possess to "activist" judges and a hostile secular society.

Hightower, who left PTL Ministries and the Assemblies of God years ago, says that Democrats underestimated the political muscle of evangelical groups in last fall’s election. "Democrats need to remember that evangelicals see themselves as armies of God. And what do armies do better than anyone else? They mobilize."

Now a member of the "emerging church" movement, Hightower became so disenchanted with both parties that she didn’t vote in the last election. And she disliked political appeals to "moral values," a phrase she finds unhelpful. "‘Moral values’ is like ‘American dream.’ Neither one means anything until you add a signifier."

THEOLOGICAL TRANSLATORS. For those who have moved away from the conservative faith of their youth, commenting on evangelicalism in politics can provoke ambivalence. When a current or former evangelical critically assesses the Religious Right, she is also speaking of communities of faith that formed and shaped her.

This can leave even well-adjusted theological emigrants feeling homeless. "Sometimes I feel like I’m living in two worlds," says Bakker. As a doctoral student at a mainline Catholic school, she "plays the gadfly" in liberal religious and academic circles - and also in conservative circles. She is not at home with many aspects of conservative theology. But when she is attending mainline churches, she misses the vibrancy of evangelical faith.

Theule-VanDam feels less homeless than hopeful. His years at a Christian nonprofit have taught him that building bridges between "conservative" and "liberal" Christians is possible, and he hopes those bridges can be extended into the larger political arena.

Wilson agrees that political dialogue among Christians who differ is something to shoot for. But he worries about dialogue between Christians and non-Christians. Some evangelicals have trouble forging alliances with those who don’t have a personal relationship with Christ, he says. The language and worldviews are too different. "It’s like Moses and the transfiguration," Wilson says. "Until they’ve encountered God for themselves, they won’t really understand us."

The temptation to proselytize only adds to the perceived rift. In a divided political landscape, each side - secular or religious - tries to "convert" the other to its own point of view. And no one likes to be proselytized, says Reside.

Liu agrees. Even those who have moved away from or expanded the definition of "conservative evangelicalism" have not lost the impulse to evangelize, he says. "It’s just that now we channel that motivation toward theologically informed social justice issues." Balancing the impulse to convert with the need for political dialogue is an ongoing challenge.

Liu’s observation points to a broader legacy of growing up evangelical. No matter where they wind up on the political or religious spectrum, those raised in conservative evangelical traditions rarely lose the initial impulse to serve - and change - the world. As children, they struggled to "be in the world, not of it"; as adults, they have transformed that struggle into a commitment to serving the least of these.

Three of the seven interviewed work in youth ministry, two in Christian nonprofits, one in education, and one in a governmental faith-based initiative. One is ordained and two are considering ordination. Most have pursued formal theological education and have applied that training to outreach in their communities.

The American political landscape needs people of faith who can communicate effectively across the ideological divide. The good news is that a growing number of these translators are taking on the challenge - in their workplaces, neighborhoods, and political communities. But are politicians and elected officials listening?

"It’s actually easier to make the case that Jesus cares more about minorities and prisoners than he does about repealing the estate tax," says Reside. "Look at the Sermon on the Mount." Someone in the upper levels of Congress could be making that argument explicit. "It’s not that hard to translate," he says. "But no one there has bothered to try it."

Stacia M. Brown is a freelance writer and a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Emory University.

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