Life in the Borderlands: A Taxonomical Analysis of Post-Evangelicalism

In the wake of the flap over World Vision changing its policies and then changing them back, there’s been a lot of discussion in the Christian blogging universe about whether or not people can call themselves evangelical or not. Evangelical gatekeepers who insist that they have the say on when and by whom the “evangelical” label may be used have complicated this movement. This gatekeeping is further complicated by the evangelicals’ seeming assumption that to be Christian is to be evangelical, and divorcing oneself from the evangelical movement is to divorce oneself from Christianity altogether.

Add in a heaping of confusion about what political vs. theological liberalism and progressivism are, and you have a mess of terms with people claiming to be one thing, railing against gatekeepers, and claiming others are not what they say.

All this complication rises to the surface in vitriolic, pleading blog posts about whether or not X Big Name belongs in Y Category, followed by pushback that no one else gets to decide what someone else’s identifiers are and how dare you keep the gate! And back and forth and back and forth.

Much of this cycle can be attributed to a widespread misunderstanding of what each of these labels means and how they should be applied and interpreted. So I’ve decided to analyze the taxonomy of the current political and theological climate, though it is by no means definitive. I am, of course, discussing these terms as they relate to the American scene – the political labels, especially, shift meanings depending on which country you’re from.

[image description: A Venn Diagram of American Christianity. A large yellow circle in the middle is labeled "American Christianity." This circle encompasses two smaller circles - a green one labeled "Evangelicals" and a blue one labeled "Liberal Christians." These two circles overlap. Another circle overlaps with Evangelicals and the larger Christianity circle, though part of it touches neither circle. This purple circle is labeled "American Political conservatives." The last circle is a larger green on that only overlaps with the yellow American Christianity circle. This large green circle is labeled "American Progressives."]

[image description: A Venn Diagram of American Christianity. A large yellow circle in the middle is labeled "American Christianity." This circle encompasses two smaller circles - a green one labeled "Evangelicals" and a blue one labeled "Liberal Christians." These two circles overlap. Another circle overlaps with Evangelicals and the larger Christianity circle, though part of it touches neither circle. This purple circle is labeled "American Political conservatives." The last circle is a larger green on that only overlaps with the yellow American Christianity circle. This large green circle is labeled "American Progressives."]

Let’s start with evangelicals. Historically, “evangelical” has simply meant someone who wishes to share the Gospel with others – this is the definition of evangelical embraced during Charles Finney’s Great Awakening and various 19th century revivalist movements in the US. However, in the 1960s and 70s, following the Civil Rights Movement, there was a political and theological shift within American Christianity and conservatism wherein “evangelical” – a previously apolitical entity – became intertwined. This was both a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement – which many white churches in the South felt infringed upon their right to practice as they wanted – and the decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.

In the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority rose (and subsequently fell apart in the 80s), “evangelical” became inseparable from conservative American politics. Thus, the evangelicalism I grew up with and which characterizes the American Christian Right now was born. Evangelical, then, is not merely someone who wishes to share the gospel with fervor, but a theo-political label indicating conservatism on nearly all fronts. “Evangelical” often indicates complementarian sympathies (if not outright complementarianism), a small government approach to politics, conservative theologies with either literal or close-to-literal approaches to Scripture, and, often, a refusal to recognize structural iniquities within our political, spiritual, and financial systems.

There have been, in recent years, attempts to reclaim the label of “evangelical” by some more egalitarian voices – Rachel Held Evans being one of the most famous. These voices point back to the Finney-esque definition of evangelical, that of someone eager to share the love of God to all peoples, in the hopes that many would be brought into the fold. Evangelical gatekeepers, on the other hand, have become some embedded in the theo-political definition of evangelicalism that any claim to the label by a supposed “social liberal” is anathema to their work.

As I hinted previously, a further complication of such definitions is the obstinant insistence that theologically and politically conservative evangelicals have a monopoly upon the label of “Christian.” The slow, creeping co-opting of the label of Christian has created a powerful system of evangelical gatekeepers. These keepers are usually white, cis, hetero, neurotypical men who decide when and whom to “farewell” from the fold. Such is the political climate in American Christianity, too, that a farewell from evangelicalism means a farewell from a large demographic block.

Evangelicals have very nearly succeeded in making their theological and political conservatism synonymous with Christianity as a belief system. Those who are socially, politically, or theologically liberal are denounced as “not true [Scotsman] Christians.” Evangelicals, then, are deeply engaged in policing their own flock, rooting out potential threats to their conservative system, identifying hidden liberals as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Evangelical, as a demographic group, has become a method of ideologically purifying the church, ridding themselves of ideological enemies. Their existence and power depends upon the unquestioned association of “Christian” with a very specific set of politically and theologically conservative beliefs.

This death grip on what “Christian” means in the US has left those who wish to leave evangelicalism (and its brother, fundamentalism) without family or identity. Because evangelicalism has tainted all associations of the term “Christian,” post-evangelicals end up in a no man’s land wherein claiming themselves as “liberals” risks essentially being excommunicated and shunned from the church bodies in which they had found identity for years. Post-evangelical are also unable to move toward the left theologically or politically in any meaningful way without risking destroying existing relationships with the evangelical world from which they came.

What results, then, is a type of fauxgressivism – a Christianity that fails to perform new theological exercises or to embrace fully new theologies or identities apart from evangelicalism. It is an identity that defines itself as against the bad parts of evangelicalism, rather than for something new. Because these post-evangelicals are unwilling to give up on those things they’ve been taught are “Scripturally clear” – like premarital sex being a sin – their analysis becomes that of attempting to baptize the poor theology as less shameful and more gracious and loving, instead of actually challenging the theology itself. This is how we land at post-evangelicals who challenge Thabiti Anyabwile on “the yuck factor” of homosexuality but will still waffle and say they’re uncomfortable with saying homosexuality isn’t sinful.

Post-evangelicals tend to exist in a world where they take steps to challenge shaming rhetoric without actually challenging the beliefs that cause that rhetoric to arise.

This uncertainty on the part of post-evangelicals is, I will not deny, a necessary part of the journey away from evangelicalism. It is hard to leave behind those identities that shaped you for so long, especially when you’ve been told that forsaking those particular political positions means you are sacrificing Scriptural fidelity and faith.

Such waffling also fuels the evangelical declaration that post-evangelicals are merely lukewarm believers who are giving themselves over to the sins of the world. When I began questioning the certainty of the evangelical mandate against premarital sex, family members accused me of seeking a more lax version of Christianity so that I could sleep with men after no evangelical would marry me. Such reinforcement of the boundaries, the denial of questioning, and the intense personal consequences that result from such faithful exploration mean that living life as a post-evangelical is quite hard.

What’s more: because post-evangelicals often have moved only partially away from the rhetoric of evangelicalism and not necessarily the beliefs, they also don’t find themselves at home in a theologically and politically liberal world. Many of the beliefs espoused by post-evangelicals still contain the political conservatism of evangelicals, resulting in rejection from progressives and liberals who desire a more open and accepting political and theological framework.

This leads me to the last label in my taxonomy – progressive. Many post-evangelicals find themselves trying to claim the identity of progressive in their walk away from evangelicalism. It is, in many cases, a label that feels safer than “liberal.” When I registered to vote at 18, I knew I wasn’t a Republican anymore, but I didn’t feel comfortable registering as a Democrat – the party I’d been brought up to belief was my enemy. So I registered “independent,” happily searching out a middle ground that allowed a little more liberalism (at the time, my rejection of complementarianism).

For many post-evangelicals, progressive becomes that label. They aren’t those scary liberals; they’re progressives! And progressives are a symbol of tolerance and big-tent beliefs – or so the thinking goes. However, post-evangelicals, in chasing after a safer, more tolerant and less terrifying label than “liberal,” find themselves claiming a theo-political identity that, like evangelicalism, has specific designations, markers, and perspectives. In seeking to find a group that accepts them, post-evangelicals begin identifying themselves as progressives, only to discover similar gatekeeping surrounding the particular label. And because the expectation was further tolerance and big-tent politics, post-evangelicals find themselves hurt and stunned by the idea the progressive doesn’t merely mean defining oneself as against harmful evangelicalism but also moving toward a system of equality and justice for all peoples. [This confusion may also explain why the Patheos Progressive Christian channel consists almost entirely of white, male writers.]

This is why there is much post-evangelical anger over unwillingness of progressives (like myself) to accept those who are in the middle ground. Christianity, and even liberal Christianity, is a big tent. But progressivism, as a political and theological label, is not. Like evangelicalism, a label characterized by a specific conservative theology and politics, progressivism is a political system that has certain, defined tenets of honoring the stories and experiences of others and fighting for justice within the messiness that is American Christianity.

Progressivism carries with it a specific understanding of the intersectional nature of oppressions and privileges, and knows that moving forward – progressing – in the world means embracing changes on both the individual and systemic level.

It is a far more radical leftist ideology than I think many post-evangelicals expect, and much of the post-evangelical crowd finds themselves disappointed when they are held to a higher standard of progressivism while attempting to claim a more liberal but still “safe” ethic.

I have sympathy for the position post-evangelicals are in. By attempting to hold on to that middle ground, afraid, in many ways, to move too far from evangelicalism out of the fear they will lose all relationships there, they exist as people without a country, lost to both parts of the political and theological debate.

My sympathy, however, only extends so far, as much of this post-evangelical struggle is used as an excuse for behavior that perpetuates harm similar to that they denounce by evangelicals. The liberalism of the post-evangelical often denies the role that privilege plays throughout systemic injustice, promotes problematic half-baked ideas, and often only challenges existing systems in ways that are deemed safe and nice.

A fellow blogger and friend, T.F., wrote about this complication in an article for RH Reality Check, discussing the ways in which post-evangelical critiques of evangelicalism still reinforce those very things they are attempting to critique:

The most visible evangelical critiques of purity culture themselves tell “single stories” about what purity culture means, and how to counter it. Lola, a Black woman whose family attended white evangelical churches between stints abroad as missionaries, observes, “Many evangelicals lamenting purity culture are still enforcing it. They’ve reframed abstinence as a ‘choice,’ but there’s only one right choice.” Some “recovering conservative Christians” feel frustration over being “shamed for sexual desires” by evangelicals who denounce shame-based theology.

Much of this tension in post-evangelicalism extends from its existence as a reactionary movement. Post-evangelicals define themselves as being “against” a specific American subculture, creating a toxic symbiosis with that culture. They must maintain ties to it in order, they say, to maintain a voice – which keeps them from moving too far to the left for fear that their critiques will no longer be relevant.

But this failure to move to the left places in post-evangelicals in a middle ground that results in the worst of both worlds. Unable to release themselves from the desire to identify with the evangelical subculture while simultaneously challenging it, post-evangelicals are a people without identity, place, or purpose. Burn-out comes quickly, with much pain and sadness, because defining oneself as “against X” can only work for so long.

Evangelicals have told us for too long what it means to be Christian. Their gatekeeping over “evangelical” has become gatekeeping over Christianity itself, leaving many millennials and others lost and confused, with no actual choices. And post-evangelicals continually cede ground to the evangelical power structure by marking the rhetoric as harmful, and not the thing itself.

Instead, post-evangelicals, I want to offer you a new way. As I said previously in this space, the middle ground is not a sustainable place to be. It creates an identity out of uncertainty and neutrality – a dangerous thing in a world of systemic oppression. Instead, I encourage you to move to the margins, to listen to the voices of those who have been marginalized and maligned – and not just the kind, quiet voices that make you feel okay about yourself.

Listen to the voices that make you angry – then ask yourself why you’re angry.

Listen to the ones you were told would be dangerous for you – and ask yourself to love them.

Listen to the ones on the edge, learn from them, and discover a new God who loves deeply, greatly, and whose strongest desire is for a just world in which all of God’s creatures can be recognized as God’s creations.

Learn to love people, especially the marginalized, not just because of what you can learn from them, but as people, created beings with God in them.

Learn what we are creating, out here, in the borderlands and be not afraid. There is life here.