How to Love God, Chapter 2 (part 2 of 2)
The simplest definition of an evangelical most people give is “someone who takes the Bible as literally as seems humanly possible.” Of course, this doesn’t help a whole lot, since liberals also take the Bible as literally as seems possible—it’s just that most of it doesn’t seem possible to take. And the fundamentalists that evangelicals are keen to distinguish themselves from—those dress-wearing, long-sleeved, no-movie-watching, can’t-dance-or-play-Old-Maid repressives are also, to the fundamentalist way of thinking, taking the Bible as literally as humanly possible: they just crush more of their humanity than evangelicals do. Besides, even if we think we know an evangelical when we see one (short version: an evangelical is a fundamentalist who wears normal clothing and has roughly the same media diet as normal people), there’s still the question of why they read the Bible this way when other people don’t.
My own definition lists four or five characteristics, depending on how you count them. They run as follows
CHARACTERISTIC #1: A Sense That the Spiritual Life is More Important and More Involving Than Everyday People Know. [NOTE: It struck me last night that I need to expand this so that people who really don’t have the spirituality gene—certain atheists, for example—get a sense of what it feels like and why people want more of it.]
CHARACTERISTIC #2: A Belief That Human Morality or Conscience Is Basically Unreliable. Anyone concerned with being good is also, almost by definition, more acutely aware of their own moral failings. And this failure pains them more than it does most people, since clearly their own good intentions don’t seem to be helping much. Ultimately, though evangelicals may vary a little on this, and though your conscience may not fail all the time, practically speaking, the trickier the moral question, the more likely it is that your own human conscience is lying to you. This is perhaps most true in the area of sex, where it’s very easy to ascribe our desires to very base, self-serving motives.
When these two beliefs encounter the Bible—as it tends to do here in America, where the Bible is available in every hotel room and sometimes even thrust at you on streetcorners—it leads to the next three:
CHARACTERISTIC #3: The Bible Is an Essential Moral Guide. After all, if it isn’t true, and if humans are fallible, we’re lost! (And picking up a Bible and reading it literally is a lot easier to do than, say, taking a cultural leap over to Hinduism…) Individual evangelicals may vary about whether the Bible is infallible and inspired, or merely inspired, and some of them (like my brother) shrug their shoulders at entire swaths of the Old Testament and consider it irrelevant. But they all tend to believe that the Bible is an essential moral guide, and that the Bible’s take on any subject ought to supersede our own conscience.
The natural corollary to this is that, precisely because the Bible is to be approached humbly and worshipfully, anyone who reads the Bible any other way—certainly anyone who would question it or pick at it—must do so from morally suspicious motives. Because no evangelical would even see the point of this. If you’re clinging to a life raft, what good can come from poking it?
And you are on a life raft, because of…
CHARACTERISTIC #4: A Belief in Hell. The New Testament teaches that hell exists as punishment for sinners. [FOOTNOTE: Actually, hell is taught less by the Bible and more by translators, but since evangelicals don’t poke at the raft, the Bible and its translation are basically the same thing. So hell exists.] Therefore, morality is not a game, and gray areas are inherently dangerous (unless, perhaps, you know the exact dimensions of their grayness ahead of time). It should be added that many people—myself included, in a few chapters—point out that the Bible teaches many different things about the afterlife, some of which seem to point to the existence of hell, others of which don’t. But because of their high regard for scripture and low regard for their own discomfort, when evangelicals get two messages from the Bible—like “there might be hell” (Matthew) and “there might not” (Ephesians), they tend to assume the worst, so that they can keep everything. This leads to...
CHARACTERISTIC #5: Moral Reliance on the Bible—where the Bible’s word will tend to take precedence over even scientific data (like evolution or homosexuality) and certainly over the individual conscience. See Characteristic #3.
Ultimately this describes what I call the Iron Triangle: a series of three interrelated beliefs that all support each other:
A. Human conscience is unreliable;
B. Moral ambiguity is not an option; and
C. The Bible is (therefore) an essential moral guide—and it teaches A. and B.
These three beliefs lead to several other ancillary traits that also tend to characterize evangelical Christians.
TRADITIONAL MORALISM. Characteristic #1 leads evangelicals to adopt popular moralities that aren’t necessarily scripture based—not because the Bible teaches them per se, but because evangelicals aren’t eager to challenge traditional moral norms. So, for example, evangelicals rarely curse or drink or smoke, even though none of these are directly adjured by the Bible. They just seem like clean things to do. The most common expression of this is the consistent focus on “family values” (through organizations like Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers), which are supposed to be based on the Bible, even though the Bible has almost nothing to say about families in general. These values are often purported to be “what Jesus taught” even if they’re not biblical in any significant sense.
NONDENOMINATIONALISM. Also, because everyday religion is seen as less satisfying than the more morally and spiritually involved life of the evangelical, evangelical Christians tend not to identify themselves by denominational labels. Any “nondenominational” or “Bible” church—in fact, any church that refuses to identify itself, whether it’s Streams of Life or The Koinonia Fellowship—is almost certainly an evangelical one. (There are exceptions here. Any sectarian wing of any major denomination—such as the Southern Baptists or the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church—is apt to be effectively evangelical too.)
SECTARIANISM. The most unpleasant aspect of this tendency—“I’m not a Presbyterian; I’m just a Christian”—is that evangelicals, deep down, don’t even think of mainstream denominational Christians as being “real” Christians. After all, if the mainstream churches feel spiritually dead (which they do to involvement-demanding evangelicals), it’s because (they feel) the real truth of the Bible is not being taught in putatively “Christian” churches. So when a stranger says, “I’m a Christian,” a sociologist will nod and mark the appropriate box. An evangelical will nod politely and wait for further proof. The stranger is probably wrong, but probably isn’t aware of it. If only they knew! (This is also why evangelicals have what looks like a bizarre tendency to proselytize to other Christians. My own father once served as a missionary in Spain…)
POLITICAL CONSERVATISM. Their moral uncertainty also means that they tend—overwhelmingly, in fact—to vote conservatively. In fact, a conservative morality seems so obvious that there’s often surprisingly little distance perceived between the conservative views of the Bible (on sex, on women, on homosexuality) and the views of other conservatives on topics the Bible doesn’t quite address (taxation, immigration, unions, et cetera.) If you listen to certain evangelical preachers, you’d swear that Jesus died to pass tax cuts. Evangelicals are aware of this disconnect (read any issue of The Door for satire in this direction), so I’m not saying that evangelicals are foolish. I’m just saying that conservative politics is an inherent, unavoidable result of the other premises.
TALISMANIC BIBLE USE. Because they’re so reliant on the Bible, they have what may look to outsiders like a worshipful, even superstitious, attachment to it. There’s a strong tendency to decorate their homes (and sometimes their t-shirts and bumper stickers) with Bible verses, to read the Bible constantly as a religious practice—many people even have a favorite “life verse.” The most common version of this tendency is the suggestion that simply reading the Bible (“getting into the Word,” or what have you) can sometimes help to solve problems. My old friends from church used to have a joke: “The answer to every problem,” we told each other, “is ‘Read the Bible and pray.’” This was, of course, an exaggeration, but there’s a reason it sometimes felt true. If you can’t trust human wisdom, and if we need help getting over persistent, serious problems…well, maybe the Bible isn’t just a book of information; maybe it can work a little magic. It is also often taught that the word of God is spiritually powerful, and can reach people where simple argument fails…and that’s why people hold up John 3:16 signs at football games. Those people are evangelicals. No one else would see the point. (I should add that many evangelicals think the John 3:16 people are silly as well; but the tendency to do it is definitely an evangelical one, rather than a Catholic or Hindu or Methodist one. It’s just that most evangelicals don’t take their own premises that far.)
SELF-CONSCIOUS HIPNESS/CONCERN WITH CULTURAL RELEVANCE. When this biblicism is combined with their love of pop culture, you get the single most characteristic element of evangelical faith: their tendency to mix pop culture with their own religion, so that they produce, and listen to, Christian music, Christian hip-hop, Christian heavy metal; they read Christian fiction and watch Christian movies. (Note, by the way, that they don’t listen to “evangelical” music; again we see how evangelicals consistently co-opt the name “Christian” rather than behave as if they share the religion with liberals.)
MODERN CREATIVE FORMS OF WORSHIP; LACK OF TRADITION. Finally, precisely because they’re involved in pop culture, their own religious services are informed more by popular culture than by the dead wood of mere tradition. As a result, evangelical churches tend to have the best music of any churches on the market—at least if you’re a white person looking to feel comfortable—and the best preaching of any other form of Christianity, since the emphasis is on getting the message across effectively rather than performing rituals or observing traditions. It’s no surprise, then, that evangelical Christianity is the form that has given us the world’s largest megachurches and the phenomenon of pastors who are almost like rock stars. Related to this, as we shall see later, is an almost complete absence of visual art. Old cathedrals look something like museums; evangelical megachurches look more like very nice office buildings.
I’m sure I’ve skipped a few things here and there. (For example, I consciously skipped the fact that evangelicals tend to have an acutely individualistic approach to their spiritual walk because it doesn’t seem central to my argument.) But for the most part, I think this is a fair assessment of what most evangelicals believe. I know perfectly well there are exceptions—one can frequently find, in Christian colleges everywhere, evangelicals who believe in evolution. But those Christians know quite well that as far as they believe in evolution is exactly the extent to which they’re out of the mainstream. There are evangelical Democrats, but they know they’re swimming against the current. What I’ve just described in many ways is evangelical Christianity. Now it’s time to turn our attention to how these good intentions wind up creating bad relationships and turning well-intentioned people into jerks.
But first, I’d better answer some obvious objections…
[Note: the next section answers five major objections. 1.) Your whole premise of trying to analyze spirituality by external description can’t help but miss the point; 2.) Even if there are bad aspects to religion, that’s just the way it is; we should be more concerned with truth than with being pleasing to people; 3.) You really just want evangelicals to become politically correct liberals; 4.) You misunderstand the concept of grace that makes evangelicalism qualitatively different from all other religions; and 5.) you were never really a Christian anyway.]