Evangelicals are much nicer than people think
If you bump into one then your heart shouldn’t really sink
They’re really lovely guys
Who just aren’t keen on compromise
So change the subject if doctrinal issues should arise…
Thus begins a jaunty little ukelele calypso I’ve been working on. The first line repeats each time, getting progressively more qualified until it ends up ‘(Most) evangelicals are (mostly) nicer than (most) people think (most of the time)’. Which isn’t fair, but might be a little bit funny, perhaps – so that makes it okay, right?
Okay, much as it galls me to, I must admit I’ve been guilty of anti-evangelical bias in my thinking and in this blog. There are reasons for this, but I’d like if possible to take a slight step back from that now, apologise for hurt caused and try for a slightly more positive and balanced position. That’s not to exclude legitimate critiquing, but I’ll try to avoid cheap shots and carping. Mostly.
The caricature and the reality
I’ve tended to caricature evangelicals as lacking in imagination and humour, as ploddingly literal, embarrassingly earnest, Pharisaically fun-hating. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s all too easy for liberals, progressives and Anglo-Catholics to dismiss all evangelicals (unfairly) as sanctimonious, self-righteous, sin-obsessed, po-faced, puritanical, pious, homophobic and a whole bunch of other things we don’t like, and which in reality most evangelicals aren’t like.
When we think of evangelicals it’s often the more vocal ultra-conservatives, über-Calvinists and fundamentalists who come to mind. But evangelicalism is a far broader church than that. There are progressive evangelicals, open evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals and contemplative evangelicals. There are evangelicals who support gay marriage and female ordination. There are evangelicals who accept evolution, evangelicals who don’t believe in a literal hell, evangelicals who question biblical inerrancy. There are even evangelical universalists.
There are extremely intelligent and deep-thinking evangelicals (think Tom Wright for starters); evangelicals who understand science, do nuance and get metaphor. There are open-minded and generous-spirited evangelicals, like the late John Stott. And there are deeply compassionate evangelicals who work their hardest to make the world a better place for everyone to live in. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was famously an evangelical, and Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis are contemporary examples of progressive evangelicals with a passionately strong social conscience.
But are these not just the exceptions? I don’t believe so. I could list plenty more names, but more important are the many ordinary evangelicals I know personally who are for the most part kind, intelligent, good-humoured people – however much I may disagree with aspects of their theology.
So why do a lot of people – including other Christians, and including me – often dislike or misrepresent evangelicals, or feel that they’re fair game for mockery?
The Bible and bigotry
Probably one of the chief reasons evangelicals get a bad press is the perception that they hold bigoted, antediluvian views and beliefs – at least, views that look that way to anyone steeped in the values of modern liberal western culture. For example, we assume that evangelicals are fairly likely to oppose gay marriage and female ordination.
But that isn’t the case for all evangelicals, by any means. And where it is, that’s often not because evangelicals really want to hold these views – they simply feel they have to, because that’s what they’re convinced the Bible says and they believe the Bible to be God’s written Word and final authority.
But of course the Bible wasn’t written in or to a modern liberal western society. Plenty of stuff in the Bible is pretty repugnant to many of us now, and that (often unfairly) rubs off on those who feel they must defend the Bible, align themselves with it and try to live by its teachings.
Not really homophobic?
So I suspect that the majority of evangelicals probably aren’t significantly more homophobic or misogynist than the rest of us (a few may be). The difference is that they’re often sure that the Bible – God’s Word as they see it – unequivocally prohibits same-sex relationships and female leadership. So whether they like it or not, they feel they have no choice but to follow that line if they’re to remain obedient to God.
But there really is a difference between believing homosexual intercourse to be prohibited and being homophobic. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, and can be hard to spot if you’re feeling hurt or excluded by a group who consider any expression of your sexuality to be wrong.
But take the example of shopping or working on a Sunday. Many evangelicals used to consider this prohibited (fewer do now). The plot of Chariots of Fire hinges on Eric Liddle refusing to compete on a Sunday. Yet evangelicals didn’t once a week suddenly hate, fear or despise shopping or work or any of the temporarily prohibited things; they simply didn’t do them. And the same kind of distinction applies to many evangelicals’ views of homosexual practice – forbidden, not (necessarily) hated.
Hell and exclusivism
Then of course there are all the other repugnant ‘biblical’ doctrines – hell for example.
Again, many evangelicals feel that they have to believe in the doctrine of a literal hell of eternal conscious torment, because they’re sure that’s what the Bible teaches. I suspect that few evangelicals are really happy or comfortable with this belief, but again they feel they have no choice. But because we hate or fear the doctrine, many of us also feel some repugnance towards those who hold it.
What perhaps makes it worse is that evangelicals also often believe that this hell is the inevitable ultimate destination for all non-Christians, as they’re convinced of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel – that only those who submit their lives to Christ are saved. And of course this is pretty off-putting to those on the outside. I have at least one non-Christian friend who (rightly or wrongly) felt judged and condemned by the evangelical Christians at her university. I suspect she misunderstood them, but if so it’s an easy mistake to make.
Those of us who aren’t evangelical can sometimes feel looked down on, excluded or dismissed by (some) evangelicals. And evangelicals can sometimes seem arrogant in their certainty; unwilling to listen because they know they’re right because the Bible says so. Again, I don’t think this is entirely fair to most evangelicals, but it can feel that way at times.
But I’d also say that where a few (usually conservative) evangelicals really are arrogant or exclusivist, that’s often simply out of fear. They fear straying from the Only Right Path and so being damned; they fear associating with ‘heretics’ and ‘sinners’ in case that leads them astray. It’s not an enviable place to be; such as these deserve our compassion not our hate.
Finally, evangelicals’ adherence to the Bible can sometimes lead them to positions which just seem silly to the rest of us and make them a laughing stock. Creationism – particularly Young Earth Creationism – is a prime example. For the secular world (and for many Christians now), evolution has long since won the fight and any who continue to deny it are, well, dinosaurs. But for some evangelicals, the Bible simply must be defended; nothing less than God’s perfect Word is at stake.
However, an increasing number of evangelicals, particularly scientifically-literate younger ones, don’t hold strictly to Creationism any longer. The Cambridge immunobiologist Denis Alexander is a prominent evangelical proponent of evolution, and he’s far from alone.
So a good number of evangelicals are prepared to re-interpret the Bible in the light of other evidence, whether it be historically on the issue of slavery like Wilberforce, or currently on issues like homosexuality, gender roles, evolution or the doctrine of hell.
And crucially, many evangelicals are much better than their theology. Even those who hold beliefs we strongly dislike or disagree with are often personally kind, decent and likeable people. It’s not our theology and beliefs that matter most in the end or that truly define us, but rather our humanity and how we treat each other.