The question, I confess, caught me off-balance.
I was in California recently to give the Castelfranco Lecture at the University of California, Davis. During lunch before the event with a small group of colleagues, I fell into conversation with a graduate student who had grown up in the context of evangelicalism in rural Mississippi.
She had read some of my work but was astonished to learn that I had spent time in the Mississippi Delta. We exchanged observations about growing up evangelical and lamented that a movement once associated with noble activism – racial equality, care for the poor, women’s rights – had devolved into an engine for reactionary politics.
Then she posed the question, “Does it ever make you angry?”
In fairness, I’d encountered anger over evangelicalism many times before – and I would again at the lecture that afternoon. I’ve met countless people over the years who carry deep scars inflicted by their evangelical upbringing.
Some of the bitterness comes over matters of sexual identity, the pain of trying to fit into a subculture defined at least in part by homophobia, but doing so at the cost of denial. Others have suffered abuse, whether physical or emotional or both. Still others cannot look beyond the hypocrisy they detect in those who presume to dictate everything from theology and dress codes to morals and behavior.
Following my afternoon lecture, one woman told of her experience in foster homes run by fundamentalists, a story I’ve heard with increasing frequency in recent years. For a time, it appears, at least in certain parts of the country, evangelical families took in foster children as a tool of proselytization or at least indoctrination.
I think I can understand their anger. Some of these people now call themselves exvangelicals, a term that strikes me as a bit too cute. More have left the faith altogether.
Anyone even dimly aware of my writings over the years knows of my own disaffection from recent developments in the evangelical world. But for me, anger is not the word that comes to mind.
My parents (of blessed memory) were not hypocrites. They were devout believers whose lives, as they frequently recounted, were changed by Jesus. Sure, they had their faults, but if I could whittle my own deficiencies down to twice theirs, I’d consider myself (and everyone around me) fortunate.
I suffered no abuse, unless you count having to withdraw from square-dancing in gym class on religious grounds. By the time I left for college, we had begun to differ on various matters, including politics, but I never questioned my parents’ love or their piety.
For that reason, I suppose, I have been reluctant to untether myself from evangelicalism altogether, even though I find most evangelical worship insubstantial and emotionally coercive. The politics espoused by the majority of white evangelicals are utterly repugnant.
My moment of insight, I think, occurred when I returned to Iowa (where I had spent my high school years) in February 1988 for the Iowa precinct caucuses. I was writing Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, and I wanted to see how evangelicals, newly politicized, were adapting to political activism.
I spent time with the head of the Iowa Right to Life Committee and with the president of the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America. I attended the caucuses in West Des Moines and witnessed the struggle between Religious Right Republicans and country club Republicans.
I was distressed by the direction of the political rhetoric I heard from the Religious Right, which struck me then – and now – as a betrayal of the best of evangelical activism from an earlier era, when evangelicals almost unfailingly took the part of those on the margins of society, those Jesus called “the least of these.”
But what struck me more than anything was the tone. The sweet, gentle piety of my parents had been shoved aside in favor of shrill invective. How could this be? How could these activists so distort the teachings of Jesus and default on the noble tradition of 19th-century evangelicalism?
Since then, I’ve spent probably too much time trying to summon evangelicals back to their better selves. (You can judge for yourself how successful I’ve been!) Still, I do not carry the grievances that drive other evangelicals to anger, even though I am sympathetic to their emotions.
So, when the question came at lunch last week, “Does it ever make you angry?” I had to search for another word. Betrayal, yes. Disappointment, surely. But I think the word that most captures my sentiment is sadness.
What a tragedy that a movement with a distinguished history and so much promise, one that set the social and religious agenda for much of the 19th century, has abased itself by its complicity with the hard-right precincts of the Republican Party.
I understand the anger, and I sympathize. Fortunately, I have the luxury of sadness.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.