How To Love God, Chapter 2 (part 1 of 2)
(NOTE: Chapter 1/Introduction is in three parts and begins here.)
Almost every book or article on evangelicalism starts with statistics describing who they are and how many percent they amount to. And that’s about as far as they go in their description, which leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, like, “Why are they so hostile to evolution?,” “Why do they believe in the virgin birth when the alternative seems more plausible?” and so forth. (And even here I’m being generous and presuming that the sociologists are asking the right questions in the first place. Unless you’ve been there, it’s easy to screw up. ) Then the reporters go on to talk about their tremendous growth and influence, and they interview a few converts, and what you get is the impression is that evangelical Christianity is like one option much like others on the Christian Religion Menu that these particular adherents consciously opted for—which, as I will show, is rarely the case. All I know is, when I was an evangelical, and in the years since, I’ve rarely seen a study or article that felt accurate.
It’s important to get this right because evangelicalism is the most common form of Christianity in the U.S., and often has an important impact on the practical policy issues of the day, from stem cell research to abortion to evolution to homosexuality to our treatment of Israel. In fact, I would be inclined to say that evangelicalism in many ways owns the word “Christian” in these areas—and not by accident, as we shall see. And yet evangelicalism itself is poorly understood, even by the evangelicals themselves (who are not, after all, inclined to look at their faith at a critical distance.). Because these beliefs are both common and misunderstood, they get adopted by others as well—which is why statistics don’t help that much.
For example, a 2004 Barna study says that evangelicals make up only six to seven percent of the population. This might seem right to an actual evangelical (as we’ll see, evangelicals continually see themselves as an oppressed minority), but it seems strange to outside observers like me who see the stuff everywhere. But here’s why: Barna classifies evangelicals as a subset of “born-agains.” Born-agains are people who have accepted Christ as their savior, made a personal commitment to him, and believe they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins. To become an evangelical in the Barna study, you have to also subscribe strongly to all of the following beliefs: Faith is very important to my life, I have a personal responsibility to share my faith with others, Satan exists, salvation is only possible through grace and not works, Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth, God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and the Bible is totally accurate in all its teachings.
That’s a pretty high hurdle! I know, because if I’d been asked this same survey when I was an evangelical, I wouldn’t have counted as one! I would not have believed that the Bible was “totally accurate” in all its teachings (any evangelical should be familiar with the problems that come from taking the Bible literally or without context; I would have heartily accepted “totally trustworthy when properly interpreted,” however.) And the concept of whether Satan literally existed was hardly relevant to my faith. That there were evil spiritual forces at work was clear; that there was one particular spirit named Satan was pretty irrelevant; you can read the Bible cover to cover and pretty comfortably see Satan as a metaphor for evil spiritual activity in general. I was attending three services a week at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, was active in both Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, I was manning an open-air discussion table and going out on campus to strike up random conversations with people in the hopes of converting them, and I was a religious studies major studying apologetics and intending to become an evangelical theologian—and yet, to hear George Barna tell it, I never counted.
Be that as it may, even if we take Barna’s word for this, the influence of evangelical ideas is still entrenched enough across the nation to be worth looking at. For example, this same 2004 Barna study found attitudes that have held pretty consistently since the early 1990s, and most of which have only changed very recently: 89% of Americans believe in God, and 69% believe he is a benevolent, all-powerful Creator who intervenes in human affairs. 52% of all adults believe that it is important to share their faith, and 60% believe that the Bible is “totally accurate in all its teachings.” 56% believe that Jesus never committed a sin while on earth, and 60% believe that Satan is literally real. (The only really big change is that the 89% believing in God is down to about 85%.)
I don’t have Barna’s raw data here, but I suspect that if the requirements for “evangelical” were eased to “must be born again and agree with five out of seven of the following beliefs,” we’d be back up to thirty percent in no time. One reason I suspect this: one of the Barna findings is that 28% of the respondents “strongly disagreed” with the concept of salvation by good deeds. Since salvation by good deeds is pretty much a part of every major religion, denying it would seem to suggest that these particular people have had specific counter-training—evangelical counter-training. So even if “true” evangelicals are only about six percent of the population (let’s call these folks hardline evangelicals), most of their beliefs are shared by at least thirty percent of the population. Even if you live in some Babylon like San Francisco or New York City, you probably know someone who’s an evangelical. They’re more numerous than homosexuals, and you probably know at least one of those as well. (Although I imagine if you know a lot of the one, you might not know any of the other.)
But what does “evangelical” mean—especially to evangelicals? A sociologist is hampered in this respect by seeing the world through surveys and checked-off boxes, and this is one reason that evangelicals themselves distrust the studies the moment they’re announced. The evangelical faith is overtly committed to focusing on one’s spiritual life—the real, internal conversion and commitment—and as a result, evangelicals themselves continue to point out how varied the community actually is, how difficult it is to pin any one definition down.
As an actual evangelical once myself, I know how tricky the label can be: just when you think you’re hanging out with a thoroughly orthodox evangelical, she’ll go to the kitchen for a beer or something. (There are plenty of evangelicals who drink beer, but it still raises a consistent eyebrow.) But fortunately, evangelicals themselves, for reasons I will shortly explain, need to find each other. What I remember, having lived it, is that the real difference between evangelical Christians—the people I considered “real, committed Christians”—and the nominal Christians all around us were hard to pin down: someone can say they’re really committed, but how do you really know if someone has a nominal faith or not? Since we’re not supposed to judge by works per se, I remember that every time I met someone, I would check them out against a loose series of shibboleths that suggested, not that a fellow Christian’s soul was pure (who can say that?) but that they spoke the same language and understood the Bible in the same way. The list was something like this:
· Does she talk about her “walk with the Lord”(evangelical) or her “spiritual evolution” (liberal)?
· Does he call the Bible “the word”?
· Does she have “quiet times?” Does he go to “Bible studies?” (Either one of these is a pretty good mark all by itself.)
· Does she swear, smoke, or drink? Does he think evolution might have happened? (Both of these are bad, but not necessarily damning.)
· Does he know Christian music? (This is very useful, because only sectarian Christians have any real reason to listen to Christian music as a genre.)
· Has she ever had sex outside of marriage and been unrepentant about it? (A very strong black mark as well, but not a dealbreaker, since we’re all at different points in our spiritual maturity.)
· Is he open-minded about gay marriage or stem-cell research? (Again, another bad sign; one or two more of these and you’re just a liberal in disguise.)
· Do they go to a megachurch, or a church that calls itself “non-denominational?” Those are good churches; others good ones include Baptist, conservative Lutheran (i.e., Missouri and Wisconsin Synod only), Church of Christ, and Assembly of God. Charismatics and Pentecostals—those Christians who raise their hands, speak in tongues, dance in the aisles and so forth—are often weird, but you can count on them to accept most of the evangelical basics. Bad churches: Any mainstream version of a mainstream church—Presbyterian, Lutheran, and especially Episcopalian. And don’t even talk about Unitarians or the “cults” (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, etc.)
There are a bunch of these, and of course they vary from person to person, but the idea is to let them collect until you get a general sense of whether or not the person fits the evangelical mold. Note also that although the evangelical is dismissive of “cults” (actually sects) like Mormonism, the fact is that almost every sect of Christianity is also evangelical in most of their thinking and behavior: witnessing to others, having Bible studies, voting Republican [FOOTNOTE: Black evangelicals excepted.], et cetera.
Having said that, let me explain what I mean by “evangelical,” and where I get off claiming to know it for sure.
PART TWO IS HERE.