In a couple of recent interviews with leading evangelicals, Philip Yancey and Jim Wallis both stated unequivocally that regardless of how negative or harmful the religious categorization of “evangelical” has become, they would not give up identifying themselves as such. Yancey and Wallis certainly have the right to identify themselves however they choose after years of leadership. We all have the freedom to choose to believe whatever we want and to claim loyalty to whatever social or religious tribe we want to attach ourselves to. But as one who claimed the identity “evangelical” until my late 30’s, I believe my liberation began when I jettisoned the term and the tribal politics associated with it.
It was in college when I first really focused on my relationship with Jesus and it was thanks to my evangelical friends, some of whom I am still close to. They discipled me and showed me the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus and maintaining that through spiritual disciplines. I still believe in that today.
However, it was also in college that my interest in issues of social justice took on a larger role as well and it was my engagement in advocating for justice that my evangelical friends were nowhere to be found. There was no internet back in the good ol’ 1980s and so I had no idea that there were groups who believed that being passionate about Jesus and being passionate about people on the margins of society could be linked. It made sense to me when I read Scripture, but most of my fellow evangelicals in college did not connect these together.
For my friends, the only issue they seemed even remotely interested in was abortion. Frankly, I did not understand why they were so passionate about this particular issue, but they were. I accepted their passion, but as I got more and more involved in our campus chapter of Amnesty International and particularly our goal of abolishing the death penalty in Texas, I could not understand why so many of my friends who were so passionate about a personal relationship with Jesus and who proudly called themselves “pro-lifers” happily cheered on state executions and showed no interest in the lives of poor people. It just made zero sense to me.
This kind of blatant hypocrisy did not cause me to renounce my identity as an evangelical, but it did give me freedom to question. And I questioned a lot of things. Why did evangelical leaders harp so much about Jesus as a “personal Savior” when the words, “personal Savior” were nowhere to be found in Scripture? Speaking of the Bible, why were evangelicals so focused on condemning homosexuality, which is at best questionably addressed only a handful of times in Scripture and never by Jesus, while caring for the poor, seeking justice, and saving people out of affluence and power are addressed literally hundreds, if not thousands of times? And the few times I saw evangelicals reach out to individual people on society’s margins, why did they so strongly oppose attempts to bring about systemic justice?
These questions gnawed at me, but not to the point of me changing my identity. I maintained my belief (as I still do) in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from death and in the transformative power of God to change not only individuals, but unjust systems as well. My claim to evangelicalism was still intact until I saw evangelicalism become a harmful political force.
I finally formally parted ways with evangelicalism March 20, 2004. It was a year before on that same day that the United States illegally invaded Iraq while then-President George W. Bush enjoyed over 80% support from my fellow evangelicals. I was a seminary student at a conservative seminary at the time and for more than a year a few of us spoke out against the impending war, passionately urging restraint until the United Nations weapons inspectors were allowed to complete their search. Bush instead hurried them out, and his administration, though propaganda and lies, marched the nation into an unjust and unjustified war.
It was during the first year of the war that I finally could not stomach the blatant duplicity. It was during this year that I saw my continued claim of evangelicalism would only perpetuate the harm the overall movement was causing. People were dying for absolutely no reason while others were being tortured all the while evangelicals were essentially bought off with tax cuts.
I felt faithfulness to Jesus meant I had to do more than simply speak out against the war – I was doing that. Mine was a crisis of identity and I could no longer make my home within a movement of people that, generally speaking, had so easily and clearly jettisoned their beliefs in the sacredness of human life when they supported an administration that condoned torture and illegal warfare.
In the nearly twenty years since I publicly left evangelicalism I never anticipated the wholesale betrayal of even a semblance of biblical Christianity that the evangelical movement has now become in their support of the previous administration. I frankly don’t understand why anyone would want to lay claim to such a harmful movement, but again, folks are free to choose who they attach themselves to. My beliefs have certainly been impacted by those we attach ourselves to – there is no doubt about that. Perhaps the best way to be an evangelical today is by no longer being an evangelical.