It’s an election year, and you know what that means: Pollsters and pundits are speculating about whom the “evangelical vote” is likely to support. But even with some sweeping declarations of “key endorsements” for various candidates, the conversation is falling flat.
In February, an op-ed in the Washington Post critiqued the quality of religion questions on exit polls. The few questions that included religion were vague, and only Republicans were asked if they identified as an evangelical.
So who exactly gets to be an evangelical? Only people associated with the GOP?
It’s a question award-winning journalist Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, has thought a lot about.
In headlines and in popular imagination, “evangelical” is often code for “white conservative,” and when someone talks about the “evangelical vote,” they’re likely talking about something to be won by a Republican candidate. The election cycle rhetoric treats evangelicals as if they all follow in line with what conservative leaders say.
But Lee points out that evangelicals shouldn’t be flattened into one group.
“People focus on a few self-appointed leaders of the evangelical world who say that they represent all of evangelicalism, and that’s just not true,” Lee told Sojourners.
“There is so much diversity in terms of theological diversity, political diversity, racial diversity. Because of that, the evangelical world is a lot more complex.”
That’s what Lee’s book, published in November 2015, does: It looks at the complex world of evangelicals who don’t fit the mold. Part narrative journalism, part personal story, Rescuing Jesus highlights the lives of people of color, women, and queer evangelicals who were told they didn’t fit in, but refused to give up on their tradition.
Among the people who Lee studies in Rescuing Jesus is Sojourners’ own Chief Church Engagement Officer Lisa Sharon Harper, who confronted the overwhelming whiteness of her evangelical campus ministry. Despite hearing otherwise from her religious leaders, she knew her whole identity as an African-American woman with a commitment to racial justice was an essential part of her faith.
And many other leaders are featured: Jennifer Crumpton, who grew up hearing conservative gender complementarian teachings, now challenges the patriarchal structures of evangelicalism through her ministry and call to lead. And there’s Will Haggerty and Tasha Magness and other LGBTQ students at Biola University, a private Christian college with explicitly anti-queer policies. Despite the threat of expulsion, these students founded an underground network of support and solidarity for LGBTQ Biolans.
These stories highlight the ways in which evangelicalism should be seen for its diversity rather than its supposed conformity. Each person interviewed in Rescuing Jesus is a testament to the reality of evangelicalism that rarely makes it into the headlines.
It’s easy to feel depressed by the discrepancy between the stories shared and the reality of the national rhetoric, but I’m grateful for the hope the book offers. According to Lee,
“The common ground that [the people in Rescuing Jesus] all share is that the Gospel is for everyone. No exceptions.”
It is not just one story of redemption and reclamation — it is the good news over and over again.
Perhaps some of the most hope-giving stories Lee shares are also the messiest. When queer children come out to their conservative parents, the fear of rejection is especially acute. When 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and the most frequent cause of LGBT youth homelessness is their family’s rejection of the sexual orientation, the fear of rejection is not just theoretical, but with real possible consequences.
Not every story included has a painful ending — many result in closer and stronger parent-child relationships. But even the most hopeful stories cannot be read without the anxiety that comes from knowing these statistics.
Lee is quick to mention the necessity of intersectionality in reclaiming evangelicalism. She tells the story of a black gay man who found it “challenging to look at the gay rights movement and see part of his identity excluded.”
Among the justice-oriented, she warns, we must make sure we are not just helping “the most privileged of the marginalized, but the most marginalized of the marginalized.”
Lee hopes Rescuing Jesus can be a starting conversation point for progressive communities. Partnering with Urban Village Church in Chicago, Lee is launching a program —“One Book, One Church” — for the summer of 2016, in which any small group, Bible study, or parachurch organization can read the book at a scheduled pace and participate in online discussions.
“Intersectional justice is so important, and the first step is to have the conversation about it,” said Lee.
Rescuing Jesus offers us an intimate look into the lives of people who, despite being told their whole selves do not belong, have chosen to stay. By reclaiming their faith from an evangelicalism that is “about boundaries and scarcity, as opposed to abundance and diversity,” these evangelicals are disrupting the status quo that says all evangelicals look the same or believe the same thing.
For those who talk about the election and voting patterns this year, it would do them well to hear these stories when they try to answer the question: Who exactly is an evangelical?