By Ashleigh Bailey
Around election season, the media features numerous reminders of what others expect of an “evangelical”: a Republican who prioritizes “moral” issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Although some people get bent out of shape about this exclusionary stereotype, I typically just roll my eyes at it. I know that a large minority of evangelicals are politically moderate or even liberal like myself, and I don’t really expect journalists in politics—or even religion—to properly use the evangelical label anyway.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled with the label myself. While my becoming a feminist in high school and my developing a passion for social justice in college both surprised some of my evangelical peers, it has more often been cultural differences that have caused me to wonder if I still belong: I hate kitschy bookstores, 90s praise music, and megachurches. A high school boyfriend claimed he was dumping me because I didn’t raise my hands enough in worship, and in college well-meaning mentors wished I would read more “me and Jesus books,” i.e. devotional literature. As I grew in my appreciation for multi-ethnicity, American evangelicalism began to feel awfully racially divided and overwhelmingly white. As I learned about world religions and diverse Christian theologies, evangelicalism began to feel sheltered and belligerent. As I studied in seminary, evangelicalism began to feel naively disengaged from mainstream biblical scholarship and arrogantly dismissive towards church history and tradition.
Within the Church of England, “evangelical” tends to mean low-church, but I love liturgy, robes, and incense. To the Evangelical Theological Society, biblical inerrancy is one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism, but I acknowledge the existence of contradictions and mistakes within the text. At Wheaton College, often considered the “flagship” evangelical school, a good evangelical believes in a “historical Adam,” but that clashes with my understanding of Genesis as Ancient Near Eastern literature. Some people might say, “Let’s just set all that aside: It’s all about a relationship with the Lord, anyway,” but even here I get in trouble because I don’t call God “the Lord” enough, and I think bumper sticker sayings pitting relationship against religion are deeply confused about what Christianity has meant in any context besides their own.
It’s clear that I’m not a big fan of most of evangelicalism, and I’m guessing most evangelicals wouldn’t be a big fan of me. However, I am challenged by the testimony of “postconservative” scholars who insist on calling themselves evangelical, despite being excluded and condemned by their own. My alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary, is perhaps the preeminent postconservative institution, known for sparking controversy when it deleted “inerrancy” from its doctrinal statement some decades ago. Among the faculty, everyone accepts women in ministry. Some professors passionately reject typical evangelical philosophical positions such as Platonic dualism and foundationalism. Others are active in interfaith dialogue. Many are members of mainline denominations. Most seem to think that the word evangelical can be redeemed. I’m not always sure.
Part of me is captivated by the idea that anyone who is truly gospel-centered should try to reclaim the term, since, after all, euangelion means “good news.” But then shouldn’t all Christians be called evangelicals? Ironically, this is exactly how some self-identified evangelicals use the term: to describe those they consider to be legitimate Christians. Of course, anytime we’re willing to apply the term “evangelical” to all Christians—whether all who claim Christianity themselves or all who meet our particular definition—we run into yet another challenge, since “evangelical” has also sometimes been used to simply mean “Protestant.” It seems using the label in a broader, more general manner is just as problematic as many people’s narrow theological definitions or stereotypes.
And so, at the end of the day, I’m convinced we must work with what “evangelical” actually communicates, whether or not we like it. That’s the point of labels, and of language, generally, right? To convey meaning. At this moment, definitions of evangelicalism may be fuzzy, but the word tends to refer to a specific movement. While postconservatives may be a part of this movement, they are on the fringe—and it remains to be seen whether those teetering on the edge are the vanguard or merely soon-to-be-forgotten outliers. Where does that put me? Clearly not in the center, but still linked to the movement’s core through personal history, relatives, and friends. Does that somewhat distant and tenuous connection make me an evangelical? Like it or not, I think so, despite all the ways in which I myself no longer fit.
I’ve come to see evangelical identity much like national identity. You can be born into it or perhaps later in life you choose to become a citizen or by happenstance become a temporary resident within its territory. You can maintain dual-citizenship as an evangelical and mainliner or an evangelical Catholic if something like that makes sense to you, or you can become an evangelical ex-pat who, for the most part, adopts the language, values, and customs of another tradition. But I think it’s hard for someone like me to rid herself of evangelicalism entirely.
I can dislike being evangelical like some days I dislike being American or a woman or white, but none of these things are within my power to change. I can change my individual religious beliefs more easily, but I can’t change the people I know, the books I’ve read, the awful contemporary Christian music I listened to in middle school and still know by heart, or even the flaws I’m reacting against. In fact, perhaps the ways in which I am the most different from the typical evangelical are really proof of how evangelical I am after all. I wouldn’t feel so strongly about wanting to fix the problems I see within evangelicalism if I didn’t see myself as one of its stakeholders. There are certainly days when I wonder if evangelicalism is beyond help, but as long as I have partners within evangelicalism working towards common goals, I find it frustratingly difficult to give up hope.
As much as I might like to “move on,” it feels continued engagement with evangelicalism is my destiny, if for no other reason than I know that there will always be others like me—coming from an evangelical background but wishing to become more moderate in their theology and broader in their perspectives—needing my support. I vacillate between arrogantly thinking I might meaningfully improve evangelicalism and more humbly recognizing my own biases and imperfections. (Yes, there are aspects of evangelicalism that I admit probably should never change—or perhaps the changes I would make wouldn’t be any healthier than the status quo.) I have yet to find the magical position from which I will fulfill my imagined calling, and I sometimes wonder if I should bother to pursue it, since plenty of evangelicals see me as an outsider already. To their disappointment, however, I ultimately believe I could stop being evangelical only through the forceful repudiation of my heritage. I am not always crazy about being associated with other evangelicals, and I don’t always feel at home in their midst. But there persist small sectors of the movement which welcome me, and even the parts that don’t have had a formative influence on my faith journey. Truly, we still look much more alike than either of us is willing to admit.
And so I remain evangelical.
Ashleigh Bailey is an alumna of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, holding an M.A. in Theology and M.A. in Family Studies. She lives in Durham, NC with her husband Jeremiah and son Ambrose, where they are members of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship affiliate congregation. Ashleigh blogs regularly at Walking Toward Jerusalem and also writes for the Christians for Biblical Equality blog, the CBE Scroll.