Resolving the Evangelical Paradox

By: Amar D. Peterman

April 26, 2021

The Future of U.S. Evangelical Christianity

After the long year of 2020, I was glad to return to my childhood home in Green Bay, Wisconsin to begin the new year. Long drives down snow-dusted roads, a visit to Lambeau Field, and time with family were exactly what I needed to start 2021 rested and with renewed hope. Yet, only a few days into January, my chest tightened and my heart raced as our nation witnessed a mob of white supremacists invade the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. The People’s House was filled with “Jesus Saves” banners, MAGA hats, and Confederate flags as insurrectionists prayerfully invoked the name of Jesus from the floor of the U.S. Senate chamber. In a matter of hours, hope was replaced with a gut-wrenching fury.

The January 6 insurrection is the culmination of a long evangelical history tied to militant masculinity, a dependence on political power, and an engrained persecution complex. This predominantly white expression of evangelicalism presents a weaponized Christianity—God’s warriors ready to wage war against “liberal” theology and the secularization of American society. As the old hymn goes: “Onward, Christian soldiers!” 

The January 6 insurrection is the culmination of a long evangelical history tied to militant masculinity, a dependence on political power, and an engrained persecution complex.

The Capitol insurrection and subsequent commentary also laid bare the paradox of American evangelicalism—that Charlie Dates and Pat Robertson, Beth Moore and Voddie Baucham, Timothy Keller and Charlie Kirk could all exist within the same tradition. While the ambiguous nature of evangelicalism has allowed many to claim it as their own, recent events have quickly led the tradition to a breaking point. 

As an evangelical, what I found most evident on January 6 is the incredible disunity and inconsistency of Christian witness in my tradition. In 2020, many evangelicals actively sought to elevate the voices of marginalized and minoritized communities crying out for justice, attended peaceful Black Lives Matters protests across the country, participated in the faithful work of educating friends and family about privilege and white supremacy, and boldly preached the good news of God’s liberative justice from the pulpit. However, other evangelicals kept busy by defending and campaigning for President Trump, writing books like Fault Lines and Christianity and Wokeness, denouncing critical race theory, and waging Twitter wars. Both groups are certainly evangelizing, but they are bearing witness to two different faiths.

As an evangelical, what I found most evident on January 6 is the incredible disunity and inconsistency of Christian witness in my tradition.

I have spent most of my academic life studying the history of this paradox and disharmony within American evangelicalism and how such different groups can claim the same tradition. To be sure, divisions within American evangelicalism are nothing new. For centuries, evangelicals have been divided across partisan and cultural lines that dictate the spaces we inhabit, the beliefs we hold, and who we are willing to include in that biblical category of “neighbor.” 

Yet, there is a question I have asked in recent years from both within and outside the evangelical tradition: Is the patriarchal, Christian nationalist, white supremacist expression of evangelicalism the inevitable conclusion for the whole of the evangelical tradition? I don’t think it is. 

I believe evangelicals already hold the tools needed to reform, redeem, and reconstruct their tradition. Even more, I believe evangelicals can flourish under the Biden administration. By rejecting the white evangelical quest for political power and instead embracing the core theological emphases of the evangelical tradition, we evangelicals might recover the inclusive and prophetic witness desperately needed in our world today. 

To say that we ought to bring our faith into the public square, advocate for the religious freedom of all faith traditions, and seek justice in our world today is not a betrayal of evangelical values, it is faithfully living into these values.

Beyond a disproportionally powerful and influential cohort of white evangelicals, who occupy themselves with attaining political dominance and social clout, are two important groups. The first consists of a faithful practice of evangelicalism from the margins that does not fit into the reductionistic, white binary of “progressive” and “conservative.” There is a long history of Black, Latinx, and Asian worshiping communities in America who have upheld the Christian scriptures as an authoritative location of liberation, centered the person of Jesus Christ who teaches us how to not only survive but flourish under the weight of the empire, and leaned into the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. For these non-white evangelicals, the work of evangelism and Gospel proclamation is not a political project; it is a liberative one. To say that we ought to bring our faith into the public square, advocate for the religious freedom of all faith traditions, and seek justice in our world today is not a betrayal of evangelical values, it is faithfully living into these values. 

The second group we will find consists of confused, fearful white evangelicals who are watching the world change before their eyes. These evangelicals, often formed by the revivalism of Billy Graham and politics of the religious right, have been ill-prepared by white evangelical leaders for the world around them. Their daily lives and concerns are the same as West-coast John MacArthur, Texan mega-pastor Pat Robertson, or city-dweller Eric Metaxas. As Asma Uddin describes in her book The Politics of Vulnerability, these evangelicals are not all alt-right Christian nationalists. They are local pastors in Chicago suburbs, Nebraskan cornfields, and Oregon forests trying to understand how to welcome LGBTQ folk into their congregations, how to address racial injustice and systemic oppression from the pulpit, and how they can make a positive change in their local communities. 

As an Asian American evangelical, I straddle these communities. On one hand, I embrace my South Asian roots and the theology rising out of my homeland; on the other, as an Indian adoptee I have spent much of my worshiping life in the latter space—among Christians seeking to break out of the polarizing cycle of conflating faithful Christian practice with political platforms. This lived experience led me to start the Ideos Center for Empathy in Christian and Public Life, which seeks to equip Christians to engage faithfully, critically, and consistently in our world today through the values of empathy, intellectual humility, and hospitality. 

If evangelicals seek to return to our euangelion, we must recognize and reject the dehumanizing, oppressive, trauma-inflicting practices of evangelicalism.

In this work, we have found that the greatest catalysts for change are stories and relationships. For Christians, this should sound familiar; it is exactly what Jesus did. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, told parables, and healed lepers. Jesus radically resisted the empire, not by climbing the sociopolitical ranks of the Roman Empire, but by laying down his life—making space within himself for his enemy as an act of radical self-donation

This is true Gospel witness—making space within oneself for the other, loving one’s neighbor, caring for the marginalized and oppressed, the orphan and widow. If evangelicals seek to return to our euangelion, we must recognize and reject the dehumanizing, oppressive, trauma-inflicting practices of evangelicalism and instead look to the margins and embrace an evangelical practice that aligns with the person of Jesus, rather than a party platform. Only then can the evangelical paradox find resolution.

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