Why I Am not an Angry, Post-Conservative, Post-Evangelical (But I don't Judge You if You Are)

Caveats: The part of the title in parentheses is crucial. This piece is in no way meant as an attack on anyone, living or deceased. Many people have been treated vary badly by individuals or groups identified with evangelical Christianity. You have my deepest empathy, solidarity and alliance, if and whenever that might be helpful. I'd give money to your causes if I had any. By all means, tell your own stories. This one is mine, or part of it, at any rate. I know that as a white heterosexual male I'm a beneficiary of certain privileges. Moreover, I don't claim my own experiences as normative for anyone else or even claim some sort of unique insight into the religious traditions and histories that have formed me. I also don't believe there is only one "right" way to inhabit a particular religious tradition, but I think this point will become clear below.

Why am I not an angry, post-conservative, post-evangelical? First of all, I grew up with a strong religious identity as a Southern Baptist rather than as an evangelical."Wait, what?", you might now be asking. Isn't the largest (for however long it lasts) Protestant denomination in the United States quintessentially evangelical? Isn't the president of the flagship SBC seminary perhaps the leading evangelical intellectual in the U.S. today? What about the Rev. Billy Graham and, perhaps even more so, his crusading heir apparent? What about theologian Carl F. Henry, the keen mind who steered Christianity Today for so many years? Aren't these the very people who virtually invented the whole neo-evangelical phenomenon to begin with? And what about President Carter? (Gotcha!)

Bunyan in prison

A little context might help. I was born in 1971 (two years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Big Bird first walked down Sesame Street and Shaggy Rogers first exclaimed "Zoinks!"). In 1979, right about the time centrists and liberals of all stripes were about to get their rears severely kicked at the polls, a handful of brilliant, politically savvy, passionately committed and deeply ideological leaders began to enact a stunning coup -- the conservative neo-evangelical takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Over the next several years, it was virtually a complete rout. Moderate, old-school, traditionalist Baptists were driven from control of all the national boards, committees and seminaries. It was a scenario played out through most of the state conventions and spread from congregation to congregation during the following two decades. I won't detail it. I'm not a scholar of these events, such as Nancy Ammerman or Bill Leonard, but in a certain sense I did live them. I grew up in a Baptist pastor's home and was appointed as a messenger to several SBC meetings, and I read and absorbed what was happening around me. These new leaders were the folks who created the SBC that most of you know today, and they understood the interface between politics and religion better than just about anyone -- the early Civil Rights leaders notwithstanding -- until folks like Jim Wallis and Stephen L. Carter came along and shouted: "Hey, liberal Americans, get a freaking clue!"

At any rate, though I was young during the 80s when the SBC takeover was happening, I was to some extent already formed and had some of my own ideas -- deeply influenced, of course, by several key adults in my life (whom I hope I'm avoiding embarrassing by not naming them here). Things were a little different back then. The likes of Phil Donahue could be seen on national broadcast TV, not relegated to a cable ghetto like Rachel Maddow. Back then, if you had asked most Baptists about TULIP they would have imagined a flower associated with the Netherlands. So too, even when I was growing up, in a time when our staunchly evangelical President, Ronald Reagan (cough, cough...) was sharing his very apocalyptic Gospel that it was now "morning in America", some Baptists, at least, were reiterating the idea that we just didn't quite fit inside anyone's box too well. In the early '80s, Baptist mystic E. Glenn Hinson pressed the argument that the "evangelical" label just didn't fit the Baptists. Some were even arguing against classing the Baptists among the Protestants at all. We Baptists were something a little different, some argued; of course this "being different" business can lead a group toward being isolationist and a little obnoxious sometimes, but, as they say, "It's an ethos."

I have this ambivalence about my childhood religious heritage, though I'm mostly grateful for it. On the one hand, as I was growing up many Southern Baptists were desperate to be integrated in the middle classes and the broader institutional life of North American society. On the other hand, some of us saw ourselves as heirs of a more radical heritage, reaching back to the early 17th century at least, of iconoclasts, banished heretics, troublemakers and somewhat ornery folk. Hallmarks of this trajectory in Baptist life were an emphasis on the perspicuity of the Bible and an inviolable place for individual conscience and discernment in biblical interpretation, dangerous ideas indeed.

For example, take the case of early "General" (non-Calvinist) Baptists John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who dared to hang out with the Mennonites when that sort of behavior wasn't considered too cool. Four centuries before Hobby Lobby had earned corporations the precious right to religious expression, Smyth and Helwys risked life and limb to break away not only from the Church of England but also from their Calvinist Puritan sisters and brothers. Smyth went a bit far in his iconoclasm when he sought to ban scripture readings from public worship. (We weren't Quakers, for heavens sake! I'm glad that change didn't stick.) In our Sunday evening discipleship programs, we also learned about Roger Williams, the firebrand who had been hounded first out of England and then out of Puritan Massachusetts for his uncompromising views on religious freedom and the separation of church and state. John Knox seems conservative compared with this guy. Before he kind of went off the deep end and became a church unto himself, Williams founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Not one to follow social conventions, even royal ones, he had the audacity to treat Native Americans as human beings who should be compensated for giving up their lands. And then there's John Bunyan, one of those "Particular" (non-Arminian) Baptists, in whom generations of Anglican schoolchildren took a subversive delight. Bunyan was imprisoned twice for refusing to quit preaching the Gospel unauthorized. Another radical Baptist, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Bunyan in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", to wit: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Aside from some assigned passages from Pilgrim's Progress, how many of you have actually read Bunyan? Back in the day, Reformed theologians simply didn't write apocalyptic fantasies. It just wasn't done.

Flash forward to some more recent Baptist oddballs. So you always thought Jimmy Carter, the moderate-liberal-conservative probably better outfitted for a career with UNESCO than the imperial White House, was anomalous among Southern Baptists for his populist penchant for coddling the poor and oppressed? I can do you one even better than that. Just a peanut's throw away from Carter's farm, over in Americus, Georgia, Clarence Jordan in the late 1940s built a farm called Koinonia, an interracial intentional community that was, as far as I can tell, based upon anarcho-communist principles. Jordan the Baptist communist. I wonder if Sen. McCarthy ever investigated him. I read a couple of his books in my teenage years and somehow got it into my head that Jesus wanted me to sell my stereo and CDs and give the money away. Now how, apart from reading the Gospels, could I possibly have stumbled across such an insane idea as that? And I dare you to pigeonhole the drinkin', smokin', cussin' Baptist preacher and Civil Rights activist Will Campbell into any conventional evangelical box who defied convention to share the love of Jesus with members of the KKK -- who certainly could use a healthy dose of it, just like you and I.

T-Rex, ca. Day 6?

Another reason I don't really understand myself to have grown up "evangelical" in any straightforward way relates to a specific set of issues that tend to vex many (but certainly not all) religious conservatives still today -- the putative "war" between modern science and traditional religious belief. From an early age, as far back as I can remember thinking about such matters, I never saw any fundamental conflict between the modern natural sciences and the message of the Bible. My position on this issue basically has not changed during the past three decades. I loved science as a kid and considered it as a strong career possibility, until this esoteric subject called "mathematics" intervened. I read whatever I could get my hands upon, including our 20-year-old World Book Encyclopedias. I read Discover magazine cover-to-cover every month, and I loved the original Cosmos, narrated by the inimitable Carl Sagan, cousin of the trees. I was, perhaps, a bit bemused by his quaint, positivist, oh so mid-19th century anti-religious rationalism, but his scientific ruminations never shook me one whit.

Now, if you find yourself struggling intellectually and existentially with challenges from the sciences to faith as you understand it, I don't judge you. I have no aspersions to cast. Some religious conservatives find this to be a line in the sand, others not. I do know that know that some thinkers have found their jobs imperiled by their views on science, have lost their jobs in evangelical institutions, as I learn from reading Peter Enns' superb blog.

* * *

At the end of college, for a variety of reasons, I joined the Episcopal Church. That was 20 years ago and, apparently, it has stuck. A funny thing has happened, too. I have tended to consider myself an evangelical more often since I began sojourning with the "liberals" in this oldline denomination than I did before. Why is this? Here's how I figure it. Overall the Episcopal Churches have been pretty good to me, mainly by tolerating me and sometimes even letting me hand out communion. Occasionally, a few have even let me teach or preach something, until they wisely thought better of it. Still, on a few occasions I have gotten angry with "liberals" (some particular ones, not everyone) for being particularly obtuse in how they characterize and caricature the Other -- in this case, their conservative evangelical sisters and brothers. Such obtuseness I had learned to spot among some (certainly not all) Southern Baptists. Come to think of it, I've known other groups to exhibit this trait too.

So what am I then? Am I conservative, as some mainline seminary profs might say, because I read the Bible straight through -- even the "icky" parts -- or because I believe in creatio ex nihilo or because I refer to my Lord as "Jesus" rather than "the Christ"? Or am I a liberal because I believe in human rights and individual conscience and freedom, including academic freedom in biblical scholarship, and because I admit that being a (post)modern person inevitably shapes how I view the faith? Am I some self-styled radical who canvasses with the liberals on social issues, much as Sen. Sanders does with his Democratic colleagues? Am I a poseur? Well, my reading of Romans 7 points that up as a real possibility.

Maybe I just can live with such ambiguities. Perhaps I should jump ship altogether, dismiss the four-plus plus decades of life as one ideologically tainted "neo-liberal" phase and find my true liberation with the critical theorists, casting aside the dubious legacies of Christendom? My guilty secret is that I always liked The Cosby Show. Or just maybe such labels are inherently problematic. Maybe personal identity, not to mention religious commitments, is inherently fluid and variegated? No, impossible. Such an admission would be way too humbling. Who will help me sort all this out? Paging Christian Smith....

Another reason I still cling somewhat tenaciously to my evangelical identity is in reaction to the atheists -- not the non-Christians proper, or people, like Colin Cornell's friend, who have deconverted. I have an affection those atheists and try to be empathetic with them in their agitation to find truth. No, I'm talking about the atheists whom one might find in the pews and among the leadership of probably all religious denominations, those who won't admit, to us and perhaps also to themselves, that they are atheists or agnostics. Well, they probably aren't really atheists, but they are just worshiping something else -- e.g., money, right doctrines, right behavior, cultural distinctives, money, diversity, purity, hetero- or polynormativity, prestige or money. But I guess most of us are worshiping something else most of the time, and all of us are sinners saved by grace, whether we know this or not.

At any rate, how can I be post-evangelical if I wasn't a propoer evangelical to begin with? Or if I sort of am an evangelical now anyway, albeit a pretty lousy one, I'm clearly not totally beyond it then. I suppose, after all, I did maintain from my Baptist formation some evangelical distinctives throughout my sojourn with the Anglicans. J.I. Packer names six characteristic marks of evangelicals. I count six of my own (This blog has a Creative Commons copyright, y'all. I don't want to see this showing up under someone else's name): (1) A personal relationship with Jesus; (2) free grace (what other kind is there, really?); (3) singable hymns; (4) personal and corporate Bible study -- involving, whenever it's prudent, actual selections from the text of the Bible; (5) evangelism -- e.g., sharing good news (I'm kind of a pessimist and curmudgeon, but I sure would like to hear some good news for a change, wouldn't you?); (6) potlucks.

These basic meaning of the foregoing distinctives should be self evident, I suppose. No. 1 is controversial. (If you haven't met Jesus, I hope that you do soon. You might be surprised to know where he hangs out and the kind of company he keeps.) But a couple of elaborations on the other items might be in order. As for the much vaunted evangelical biblicism, I might have thought I had escaped that 20 years ago. Still, recently, I was rummaging around in my Book of Common Prayer and I stumbled upon this amazing passage, buried deep in the "fine print" sections toward the back:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Amazing! And that's in the back of every single BCP printed in the United States. What it could possibly all mean would certainly require some unpacking. Still, as I've worshiped in the Episcopal Church for two decades, in countless services of the Daily Office and the Eucharist, not to mention weddings and funerals, I've concluded that, if I was aiming to avoid Holy Scripture, I chose very badly indeed.

No. 6 also bears some comment. I love potlucks. I've eaten pretty well in the Episcopal Churches, and have consumed quite a few items -- like tapenade -- that I never even knew existed before. But oh how I miss those Baptist potlucks -- those Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening occasions of "dinner on the grounds", even if the "grounds" were the well air-conditioned fellowship hall. This may seem trivial to you, but go back and reread the Gospels. You'll find there that Jesus ate all the time -- gluttonously, perhaps? And he literally ate with anyone. (I won't get into the wine part, as some Baptists may be reading this post.)

So allow me to conclude with a modest proposal, in honor of the founder of the feast. Let's have a big old potluck -- Episcopalians, Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, followers of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, atheists and anybody else who wants to come. Let's make it as ecumenical as possible and have it at Trinity Wall Street in New York City. We'll offer to sweep up afterward, just like the good folks from OWS. Furthermore, so that bygones can be bygones, let's ask the Institute for Religion and Democracy to pay for it all. Because it would be good for them, and they are also sinners saved by grace, whether they know it or not.

Are you in?

Further Reading:

"Clarence Jordan"

Humphreys, Fisher, "Baptists and Their Theology"

"John Smith: The 'Se-Baptist'

King, Jr., Martin Luther, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Lemke, Steve W., "The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals"

McFadden, Robert D., "Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88"

Nash, Jr., Robert N. "Myth: Baptists Believe in Doctrinal Uniformity"

Terry, Justyn, "A Case for Evangelical Anglicanism"

Wax, Trevin, "Being Baptist Among and for Evangelicals"



Kevin Davis said…
Isn't the president of the flagship SBC seminary perhaps the leading evangelical intellectual in the U.S. today?

I about splattered my coffee on my computer screen!
"Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." -- Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Matthew Frost said…
As a member of a church that resulted from a conservative denominational takeover in the 70s, exiling its consciously critical "liberals" for political purposes, I have a lot of sympathy with this account. Of course, we managed to stay Lutheran, by merging with others in order to create a larger left-spectrum church, but then, ours were more internal politics than national.

As to your marks, my wife quipped that you're at least 2/3 Lutheran, what with gospel emphasis, real scriptural study, hymns, and potlucks.

Much sympathy also with your particular eclectic via media. Not that you and I manage to agree mostly, but I find myself in a similar Lagrangian point relative to a different set of gravitational forces.
Your wife is probably onto something. Two of my favorite recent Anglican writers -- Robert Capon and Paul Zahl -- are on the Lutheran end of the spectrum. Yeah, the hymns: While English speaking Protestants were still stuck on psalm chants, the Lutherans were singing some of the greatest hymns ever written.

Honestly, I can't tell much we really disagree. I'm frankly still trying to scope out what you're saying a bit. I know my recent trend of readmitting some transcendental arguments in my epistemology seems to pull me away from Barth, or at least the ways Barth is usually read. And that move seems to raise some red flags. Maybe some of the other differences flow from that basic move? And I still have some stuff to work out on the question of the law. But no one who reads this post or some of my other stuff at DET should worry I'm headed anywhere near RO territory any time soon.
Not that there's some kind of strict ideological shibboleth for contributors to DET, but I'm fairly certain that technical glitches (or some such) might intervene should one of them start down the path toward RO...

Matthew Frost said…
Sorry if I left the impression that we disagree mostly, Scott. That wasn't my intention; I was simply leaving room for something I have long noticed, which is that sympathetic positions built on different foundations produce more productive disagreements than unproductive ones.
Matthew Frost said…
(Honestly, I have more trouble with non-sympathetic positions built on nearly-identical foundations!)
Always grateful for a some friendly pushback, Matt. Thanks for reading. :)

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