My Grievances with American Evangelicalism

Let’s start by defining the term “evangelicalism.” A Wheaton College study defines it, in its most basic sense, as “all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” However, they study goes on to note that “A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a largely Midwest-based coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s.” In other words, the early 20th Century Fundamentalist movement, in which evangelicalism has its roots, had taken a turn towards complete separation from the world, and those who came to be called “Evangelicals” contended that Christians must be engaged with the world. Out of this movement came those of us who are now labeled as such, sometimes politely, sometimes pejoratively. And in the contemporary manifestation of this faction/movement/segment/whatever are several things that I take strong issue with, and although they could be criticized as massive generalizations, I maintain that they are largely valid criticisms:

1. American Evangelicalism tends to overemphasize personal experience, to the point that it is largely taboo to question the divine origins of what people claim.

I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard “The Lord laid it on my heart to…..” or “I really felt God speaking to me” or “I felt burdened to….”. Look around in many worship services, and you will see often hundreds of people lifting up their hands, eyes closed, apparently lost in an out-of-this-world existential experience, each on an individual basis. Each person is looking for what I see as more of a quest for emotional fulfillment than looking to meet God as a Christian community. Now, I happen to attend a Baptist church with strong Biblical teaching, and is not as much into that stuff, but I nonetheless see it a lot. 

I have often loved being in Anglican, Orthodox, and yes, even Catholic services, in that at the center is the (beautiful) liturgy, which is the expression of a collective Christian community, in line with the intent of worship in the Old Testament. Worship in the early church, as I understand, was primarily about the church meeting God as a group, not individual experience. The latter is, at its core, shallow, selfish, and lacking in foresight. 

2. American Evangelicalism functions such that it is completely dominated by those with extroverted and/or emotional personalities. 

This is related to the previous one, but not identical. In nearly all of my experiences at churches, I have noticed that those most often looked to as shining examples of Christian living have been people who are really good at verbalizing spiritual things. Let me be extremely honest with you: You know in Bible studies where some people ask deep and probing questions about your spiritual life? I have always HATED those moments. I am an introvert and a rational through and through. I always felt like I was being judged for my typical inability to give good examples of when I had “felt” that God was communicating with me. I’m terrible at explaining how my Bible reading for the week has been spiritually nourishing me. It seems that people often resort to unbiblical methods of determining such things. Sometimes I have almost felt as though small groups resembled police interrogation sessions. Why do people need to know the intimate details, any more than I need to know about their sex lives? Not to go on a rabbit trail, but back to the original point, such ways of running Bible studies very much favor a particular temperament. About five years ago, I even temporarily became a deist because I was completely burned out from trying to conform to this type of Christianity (my own pride was also a huge factor, though that’s a story for another day). It seems that many others feel this way.

3. American Evangelicals often are very enamored with American civil religion. 

American civil religion is the veneration of the narrative of America’s history, which ascribes a special moral character to both the American people and the founding principles of the United States. Many quote the Founding Fathers like scripture, refer to democracy as a chosen system of God, and justify atrocious foreign and domestic policies in the name of Christ. One can see this in the overwhelming support for the Republican party among evangelicals, particularly in the area of war. I find that deplorable, to be honest. A friend of mine has some good thoughts on this.

 

I strongly hold to these grievances, though please feel free to either agree or disagree. 

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