At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and to that end we are publishing a series of essays written by evangelicals on their understanding of faith in the era of President Donald Trump. This week, D.L. Mayfield wrestles with the burden of evangelicalism. To read more in this series, click here.
I didn’t know I was an evangelical until I was in Bible college. Growing up, my dad was a non-denominational pastor at a variety of churches across the western half of the United States—some churches were large and suburban, others small and rural, one was in a nondescript strip mall. I grew up with no knowledge of church history or denominations—the words Methodist, Lutheran, Wesleyan blurring together in my mind. We were non-denominational. A-denominational. Beyond distinctions, perhaps above them. We read the Bible plain as day and followed it. We were Christians, no need for any more qualifiers.
When I was attending Bible college in Portland, Oregon, the local alternative weekly magazine did a story on us, calling us evangelicals. This was my first experience with the term, and it made sense. I was going to school to be a missionary, after all, and my call was to preach the good news to people: to evangelize. Even when I turned out to be miserable at the task of conversion, I still knew my life revolved around the belief that Jesus was good news and that it was my job to make this known as far and as wide as possible.
Soon after this, I took a class that proved formational called Evangelicals and the American Experience, which traced the lineage of fundamentalism and American history, bringing us to modern-day evangelicalism. It was sobering to realize the retreatist roots of my own people—how we had felt betrayed by modernism and liberalism, how we focused on building our own institutions outside of the public sector. But it wasn’t until many years later that I finally put together all the pieces of this puzzle. White evangelicals weren’t planning on staying in the background forever; they had retreated in order to organize and strengthen themselves to one day come back and take power.
While I was attending Bible college, I also started volunteering with recently arrived Somali Bantu refugees living in low-income housing in my own city. Most of the people I met were non-English speaking and came from a non-literate Muslim backgrounds. There was no way to communicate correct doctrine about Jesus or the Sinner’s prayer—but I could drive them to the grocery store and spend hours on the phone trying to untangle insurance issues. And the question I couldn’t help asking was, what made my theology and doctrine good news for only a very select few? That question has remained with me, haunted me, and propelled me to seek answers in Scripture and in community with the groups of people Jesus was so obsessed with: those at the margins of society. After over a decade now of living in people-rich and resource-poor neighborhoods, thin versions of “the gospel” no longer suffice (and in fact, can obfuscate the real issues by over-spiritualizing the faith). Reducing Jesus’ message to four spiritual laws without addressing issues of real-life injustice leave me cold as a block of ice, as do versions that motivate one-issue voters who strain at a gnat and swallow the camel.
The U.S. is currently cutting programs for the poor, refusing to address our broken and immoral immigration system, making healthcare out of reach for millions, and continuing to give tax cuts to the wealthiest among us—the opposite of fulfilling the work that Jesus said he came to do: bring good news to the poor, heal the sick, set at liberty the captives, and work for the oppressed. That my people are responsible for this anti-good news weighs me down. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted not only for a president who in his person seems an affront to their faith values, but also for policies that contradict the summation of God’s law: to love your neighbor as yourself.
How did this happen? I don’t know all the answers, but I think many of us evangelicals thought we were supposed to distance ourselves from the secular world in order to become more holy. In reality, though, we were being prepared to take over and gain influence and restore Christianity to a place of power and prominence.
Everywhere I look I see the seeds of this quest for power and prominence. I see it in the Christian history textbooks I was homeschooled on, which speak longingly of the Christian nation of our founding fathers (making America great again). I see it in the influence and strategy of the religious right, elevating abortion as the only moral issue of our day, and making it impossible for many to grant the legitimacy of any political posture other than the Republican Party’s. I see it in the language of the “culture wars” in which evangelicals constantly hold a persecution complex, even when holding the highest levels of government office.
White evangelicals like myself are precariously perched. We are people who claim to love God and others, but are also willing to support seemingly anyone that maintains and grows our political power. Like many, I have ridden a roller coaster of emotions the last few years. Do I distance myself from this group? Do I leave it behind? Do I stay and try to reform it from within? I have been assessing my options and wondering what the right answer is, but I have made little progress. I change my mind nearly every day, confused and frantic, feeling a sense of personal responsibility in the midst of growing shock and betrayal. I am both the problem and am trying to dismantle the problem. I feel as though I am trying to address the complicated and fast-paced nature of politics while swimming against the ocean’s deepest, strongest current. I am grieving, my senses both slowed down and heightened. I am starting to realize how far the actions of my community have come from our stated beliefs.
Am I an evangelical? Oftentimes I wish I could leave the word behind, like chains I no longer wish to wear. But I can’t do that. Evangelicalism is me, and it is a burden I will have to live with. As I continue to move forward in a world where following Jesus is costly, I know one hallmark of my faith will be to divest myself of as much power as possible, in order to hear and receive the good news from the marginal places where Jesus continues to speak it.
The tenets of evangelicalism—evangelism, activism, Biblicism, and crucicentrism—are still crucial and bone-deep important to me. I believe that Jesus is good news for the poor and brokenhearted. I believe in working hard to carry out justice in the world, to see systems changed for the common good, to see glimpses of the kingdom of God on earth. I am in love with the Bible, which cuts like a sword and never lets one forget about the impossible love of God for us and for our neighbors. And Jesus, our suffering servant, who lived on earth as our brother, who is with us in our broken world and who came to take away our sins—this is a Jesus I am in love with, and I try to follow him with my life and my actions. I hope I never stop being converted by Jesus Christ, and I hope and pray the same for my fellow evangelicals.
Like this post? Subscribe to have new posts sent to you by email the same day they are posted.
I feel like you just wrote my heart, and for that I say — thank you and you are not alone.
Paula Sayers says
Eloquent. You touched my heart today.
Lawrence Webb says
I was a Southern Baptist until I was in my 50s, in the early 1980s, the time I can only call the “hostile takeover” of denominational structure by people with the mindset you describe. Baptists were essentially the inventors of separation of church and state with Roger Williams. That has continued, with the exception of the New SBC leadership. As you describe your evangelicals, when the SBC grew in number, they saw their potential for political power, so they laid aside separation. I’m still a Baptist and would have difficulty being otherwise. Our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, only 25 years old, holds fast to the historic separation conviction, along with the strong belief that God calls women to congregational leadership. See Acts 2:17-18 and Galatians 3:26-29 on the latter.
Every day I struggle with my background which was once so comfortable and secure. Now I’m on a much scarier and more fragile journey to re-listen to the words of Jesus…the words the church of my formative years either re-interpreted or skipped over. NT Wright, Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen, and Walter Breuggemann (among others!) are teaching scripture to me in ways that have enlarged and deepend my faith in Christ. It’s very hard to align myself with “Evangelicals” these days. That label has been kidnapped by a political group. The original definition is now lost. I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America…which is not aligned with “The Evangelical” political movement. I am deeply saddened by the division in families and the church. I. too, am in a season of lament