See the original onthe Washington Post’s “On Religion” blog at this link.
An Evangelical Christian is a follower of the teachings of Jesus. They live within a knowledge tradition marked by a commitment to reason, truth, authenticity, moderation, and charity.
Evangelicals are dynamic and not parochial, growing explosively all over the world. Evangelicals are urban and rural, black and white, Hispanic and Anglo. They are members of old religious groups and new ones. If you are reading this, you probably have an Evangelical friend, though you may not know it.
Why not? Because flesh and blood Evangelicals usually do not fit media stereotypes and, as a result, many Americans think their Evangelical friends are exceptions to the rule. They know, from movie stereotypes, what “they” are really like and just assume luck in their associations.
Of course if such narrowly educated people meet an Evangelical who fits their stereotypes, this just confirms what “they” are like. Some “leaders” inside the Evangelical movement are happy to play to type in order to get media exposure and attention. Sadly, many young Evangelicals internalize this self-loathing and become extremely sensitive to any fellow believer who seems to enforce it. That fellow believer, too, will assume that their friend is exceptional.
Fortunately, a new generation of Americans, inside and outside of religion, is refusing to fall for old stereotypes. The revival of Evangelical faith inside the academy (witness the explosive growth of Evangelical colleges and universities) is breaking down old misunderstandings through exposure of both communities to each other. Such cultural meetings are never easy, but most of it is marked by good humor, tolerance and friendship on both sides.
But this is not always true. Part of the rise of a more aggressive (and intolerant) “new atheism” may be seen as a typical fearful reaction to change or the continued existence of opposing ideas that occur when we are confronted with a loss of our comfortable stereotypes.
Evangelicals are realists. They know that Utopia is not for this life and that everyone will not agree with them any time soon. The temptation to fall short of that idea and become impatient with the hard work of dialog besets Evangelicals as much as anyone else. Good ideas don’t always root out fears.
The Evangelical Manifesto is an imperfect, but positive, vehicle to continue the education process for both communities. It reminds Evangelicals of what they aspire to and hopefully will expose non-Evangelicals to the heart of the community. No community lives up to its aspirations—in fact the Evangelical worldview anticipates this—but knowing what a group wishes to be is a good way of knowing any group. After all, nobody will be better than his or her dreams.
What are those aspirations?
Evangelicals are committed to reason. They love books, ideas, debates, and finding things out. All over America millions of Evangelicals will attend seminars by philosophers such as William Lane Craig or theologians such as John Piper. When they are losing an argument, they think harder, adapt, and try again.
Like all post-moderns, they too are tempted by anti-intellectualism, but there is a cottage industry of books, such as those by J.P. Moreland, calling them back to their better selves.
Evangelicals want the truth. Not for them are soft platitudes that hide problems. If they became persuaded that their religious ideas were wrong, they would change their minds. For Evangelicals part of faith is a kind of knowledge. They care about being right and hope to avoid being wrong.
Of course, Evangelicals know that reason has limits. They know intellectualism is just as dangerous as fundamentalism. In a mixed up and complicated world, Evangelicals are practical and suspicious of rigid, Utopian ideologies that don’t take into account fundamental human ignorance.
An Evangelical Christian wants to be authentic. They hate hypocrisy more than the devil! Any just criticism outsiders make of them will be sure to find resonance in the community, if not be anticipated from within. Any person with high standards and goals will fail them. In their churches and schools Evangelicals teach, almost endlessly, that nobody is without sin and that Christians are often no better than those they criticize.
Evangelicals are constantly engaged in self-criticism of every aspect of their culture. Secularists who mock the excesses of “Evangelical” television and literature are usually well behind jeremiads from pulpits and pews.
An Evangelical does not give up on anyone. While wholly intolerant of vice, this intolerance is based on what practical experience has taught them about what bad behavior does to people. We all fail (I certainly have!) but Evangelicals in my experience are some of the most forgiving people on the planet. Their religion demands it of them.
An Evangelical is moderate, fundamentally opposed to fundamentalism. They believe in truth and that God has spoken to humankind, but know that understanding that truth is difficult. They are willing to walk the hard road of Socratic persuasion and of cultural engagement. Sometimes they do this badly, but modern American Evangelicals historically came into being through a rejection of any narrow intolerance that refuses to consider competing points of view.
Evangelicals desire charity to govern human relations. Like all traditional Christians, Evangelicals reject the idea that greed is good or that being libertine is liberating. Disagree with their ideas, but they didn’t come to their ethics on a whim or because they like them. They believe them to be true and what is best, over all, for broken people in an imperfect world.
Most of their ideas about what is best for individuals are uncontroversial. Where they are in dispute, only extreme ethnocentrism would assume that present American and European social experimentation is obviously good or practical.
Evangelicals have a long history of running soup kitchens, drug rehab, and prison ministry. They may not like your behavior, but they will help you if you need it. A sermon may come with the soup, since they hope you become the kind of person who no longer needs their help, but they still will give you the food even if you reject their most fundamental beliefs.
Nobody is a lost cause in an Evangelical church. If you find yourself lost in a major city, call a local Evangelical church. A deacon, usually an unpaid person who volunteers his time, will come to help you. I have personally seen Evangelical churches pay mortgages, help the sick, and bring young men from prison to graduate school through patient and backbreaking work.
Many people hope to be and do these things, of course, including non-Evangelicals. The difference is that for Evangelicals, like all traditional Christians, these goods are grounded in an even deeper reality.
Evangelicals believe they have divine help in finding the source of love and joy. They may be wrong, but their ideas are worthy of better discussion and more serious attention than critics usually give them. Read Joe Carter, a mainstream and serious Evangelical, at his web site, Evangelical Outpost, for a few months and think about his position.
At the core, as is true of all Christians, being Evangelical is not about any personal or cultural improvement. It is the staggering and hopeful claim that God loves each one of us. Being Evangelical is not at bottom about Evangelicals, but about God. God, so mysterious, revealed Himself to humankind in the person of Jesus.
That is why the Manifesto is right to say that Evangelicalism is a theology, because it is God centered. Evangelicals dare to tell us that we are not the center of the cosmos—God is.
Evangelicals are serious Christians from the mainstream of the Protestant tradition. Having worked with many over the years, they have earned my respect and my hope that more Americans will seek to understand them better.