Some thoughts on evangelicalism
26 September 2019
I really enjoyed this article called The Evangelical Mind by Adam Kotsko. Parts of it reflect my experience growing up as an evangelical Christian very well, other parts do not. I have a few thoughts on the parts that don’t.
One point of difference is music. Kotsko’s parents complained that their Christian radio’s programming was “dull and conservative”. Kotsko says elsewhere that his father saw an important place for rock music in Christianity. My experience couldn’t be further from this. Even the most traditional music playing on Christian pop stations would have been regarded as wholly inappropriate for church, and questionable in general.
Kotsko identifies the evangelical movement with the “seeker-sensitive” approach to church growth. Every church I attended as a child was violently opposed to this idea, and many of the pastors would rail against the idea (by name) from the pulpit. There was a constant fear that anything too friendly or enjoyable would water down the tough message of the gospel. The evangelicals I knew liked to point out that “narrow is the way…”
Additionally, Kotsko accuses evangelicalism of “self-satisfied conformism”. While I think this is appropriate as a political and social point, Kotsko extends it to also mean that for the quintessential evangelical, “nothing could be stupider than expecting people to live by the teachings of Christ”. This would have been big news to my church, where nearly every member knew many verses of Romans 6 by heart. Their willingness to hold themselves to the Bible’s standards was certainly selective (never more so than on those political and social points), but the issue was always taken seriously. And apparently “arcane” points of doctrine like predestination were major issues: they were instrumental in a church split, in fact.
I rehearse this because I think Kotsko would not be surprised by any of it. It’s not simply that there are more serious and extreme evangelicals, as there are in any movement. It’s that this internal dissension is a central part of the evangelical movement itself. Whether you view evangelicalism as primarily a theological response to liberal traditions in the early 20th century, or a political response to the changing fabric of American culture of the 60s (as Kotsko does), it is undeniably characterized by paranoia and reactionary attitudes (as Kotsko says).
These are at the heart of modern evangelicalism’s instinct to eat itself. As Kotsko says, “Evangelical Christians nevertheless regard themselves as a persecuted and misunderstood minority, surrounded by a hostile secular culture that is actively seeking to deceive and corrupt their children.” Those who aren’t familiar with evangelicalism may be surprised to learn that this is no exaggeration. It’s a conspiracy theory as expansive as the Reptilian one, but believed by far more people. Beliefs like this are hard to go halfway on; they tend to consume you. You begin to see lizard people, or black helicopters, or “secularists” everywhere. When I came home from college after my first semester, I was excited to let everyone know there had been a mistake - not every non-evangelical had been a tool of Satan out to eat my soul. This did not go over very well.
When you take this kind of conspiratorial view of the world, it’s hard to stop with just those not in your group. Arguably this is made even harder by the plain fact that the majority of Americans claim to be Christians. If you’re going to maintain your self-understanding as a persecuted minority, while you’re the majority, you’ve got to believe that most of the people who claim to be on your side are actually infiltrators. And so it is: evangelicals are forever splitting into smaller, more specific, and more suspicious groups.
The points of difference, while taken extremely seriously by most evangelicals, are also necessarily created by this process. If you’re going to kick someone with almost identical beliefs out of your group, you need an important reason. What could be more important than a central doctrine like predestination, or not diluting your message with “seeker-friendly” music arrangements? Or what could be a more useful tool for purging your group of the infiltrators? The most serious evangelicals are always trying to purify themselves in this way. Controversies that seem unimportant to outsiders, like whose books Lifeway is selling, are great ways of figuring out who’s on the narrow path and who’s in danger of hellfire. Megachurches, in particular, are widely viewed as suspicious organizations that grift off an evangelical identity without any of its substance.
Once more, I note that I don’t think any of this would surprise Kotsko. This kind of continual purging is central to the evangelical experience, but the particular bugbears that apply to each evangelical subgroup are always unique. Mine viewed movies with suspicion, and thought that seeker-friendly worship was a sinister plot, but didn’t require women to cover their heads, use the KJV version of the Bible, or believe that drinking was inherently sinful. What I’m hoping this illustrates is how Kotsko’s particular experience fits into evangelicalism as a whole - a movement that’s a weird continuation of the paranoia of the reactionary conservatism of a prior generation.