What should we expect from white evangelicals? It’s a complicated question with a lot of answers, but among those answers is probably not “a lefty socialist irreligious Jew speaking at one of their flagship universities.” Yet there was Bernie Sanders last week, speaking at Liberty University, making the case that inequality and dire poverty are moral issues that speak to Christians’ core concerns. By all accounts, Sanders was met with applause, with students and onlookers telling reporters they appreciated the reminders to remember the poor.
Should we be surprised? While I’m not an evangelical myself, my first (forthcoming) book is about my fieldwork in two evangelical high schools, and at one of the schools, many students and teachers went to Liberty for undergrad. So I’m not at all surprised that Sanders received a warm welcome: There’s a cultural expectation of kindness and welcoming in these communities. One of the most vicious stereotypes about evangelicals is that they’re personally unkind. Sometimes their politics makes their relationships to outsiders complicated: It’s hard not take “hate the sin, love the sinner” as anything but patronizing, but the intention is nearly always one of kindness.
Yet Bernie at Liberty raises a question that liberal Christians and frustrated outsiders have been asking since the Reagan Revolution. If their founder insisted the last shall be first, wandering with nowhere to lay his head, commanding his followers to do likewise (don’t even bring an extra shirt!), why do evangelicals need any reminder at all that poverty is an important issue?
There’s a lot of good work on this question right now, and much of it hinges upon a crucial insight: Evangelicals aren’t nearly as coherent a group as you might think. Many are creationists, but many are not, or they’re creationist with caveats. Many oppose abortion, but not all, and not all in the ways you would expect. Homosexuality is even more complicated. And so, of course, is poverty.
Much of the criticism directed at evangelicals on poverty (and, for that matter, on race) is that their implicit sociology is far too individualist. There is an individualist strain in Reformation theology, particularly American Christianity (something Tocqueville noticed during his travels and which became even more intense after the Second Great Awakening). Protestantism’s already optimistic opinions about individuals’ capacity to read scripture on their own, mixed with early America’s distrust of elites and professionals (a distrust that still obviously exists), created a radical Christian individualism in which the Bible is easy and any authority is suspect.
That kind of anti-authoritarian individualism keeps evangelicalism from having the kind of coherence that would make it easier to categorize politically. There’s no central authority (like a Pope). Yet there’s also no explicit tradition from which to draw. If the Bible is all you need, then all the saints and Church history that matter are already there. It’s not uncommon to encounter evangelicals who can distinguish between the most arcane figures in the Old Testament who have no idea how Calvin differed from Luther and Wesley, let alone Augustine from Aquinas.
Evangelicals do rely on tradition, but it's implicit rather than explicit. After all, every community and individual is part of a tradition: None of our commitments (or those of our parents, or our schools, or our leaders) are sui generis. Yet, as Mark Noll has described, there is a particular Enlightenment obsession with the self-made man, one not beholden to anything that came before him, whose values all originate via his own careful consideration. Part of the reason why creationism is so important to some contemporary evangelicals is because of this lineage: Creationists and “New Atheists” are cousins, both descendants of a naïve and ahistorical Enlightenment theory of knowledge.
Some of the most interesting contemporary work on evangelicals—from scholars like Molly Worthen, Wes Markofski, Brad Vermurlen—looks at how American evangelicalism functions (or does not) as a field (meaning, in this context, a coherent social space in which people agree on their goals and fight each other for prominence and the ability to set key definitions). What many scholars agree on is that it’s not much of one. In the Catholic Church, battles are explicit and obvious. But for evangelicals, the fights become much more complicated. After all, if we all can read the Bible, and every man is his own priest, what right do I have to tell you your reading of scripture is wrong? Many of these fights get worked out at the level of the local congregation, but then anyone is free to go join (or found) a new one.
So what holds evangelicals together? Is it the Bible?
Maybe, but probably not. The problem with the Bible is that, like any big book, there’s a lot to it. Satan can famously quote scripture to his purposes. And this is the biggest critique of evangelicals from within, especially among neo-Calvinists, New Calvinists (not the same thing), the new monasticism, and other reform movements: The way we read the Bible, these critics insist, is necessarily historical. (The fact that this critique is something Catholics have said forever does not make it wrong.) I talked to a scripture teacher at one of the schools I studied, and he said it wasn’t until he read Origen’s Bible commentaries that he realized how historically situated the good book actually is. It’s like he was talking about a different book, he told me.
The lack of a coherent field for evangelicals is both a problem and a source of tremendous potential. It would not be too much work for enterprising conservative Protestants to show why poverty does matter, why it is Christian to care. Indeed, it is already happening, all across the country and around the world. Yet the harder problem is convincing other Protestants they’re compelled to care. To do so would require a more explicit theory of tradition and authority.
As Molly Worthen describes in her book, Apostles of Reason, white American evangelicalism conformed to American white middle class life as part of an explicitly missionary strategy of conversion. As a result, American Christianity came to look a lot more American than Christian, paying much less attention to historical Christian concerns like pacifism and poverty. That’s not to say they stopped reading the Bible. They just read it differently, looking at the bits of the book that helped them live a life that was comfortable and accommodating. Scripture’s focus was shifted from large-scale social issues to personal travails that are certainly difficult but require personal commitment rather than any sort of structural change.
So if the Bible’s not as obvious as you think, and you don’t have a tradition to explicitly engage, then what you wind up caring about is much more arbitrary that you might be ready to admit. Your concerns are formed by where you are. For conservative evangelicals, this means you share the concerns of white, conservative middle class and working poor Americans: anti-communism and then abortion, stopping violent crime and then curbing increased immigration.
That’s not to say that abortion and homosexuality and other issues of cultural conservatism don’t matter on their own merits. There are smart arguments about all of the issues conservative Protestants care about. It’s only to say that the reason it’s this issue we care about rather than that issue is more historically situated and less obviously Biblical than anyone might want to admit. And, before secularists get all smug about this, remember that secularists are evangelicals’ Enlightenment cousins: The only people possibly more unsophisticated than conservative evangelicals about their historical roots and socialized, habituated commitments are liberal secularists. No value is sui generis.
Bernie Sanders at Liberty is more than a momentary truce in the culture war. He’s an indication that the battle lines in that war are not nearly as clear as they might appear. If the lack of a strong evangelical field allows for a slew of new interpretations, the same can be said about liberal secularists: They’re also ahistorical, often convinced that autonomy is a good that needs no explanation, and eager to imagine new ways to make a better world. As Alasdair MacIntyre might say, we’re all liberals now, though even if we have more in common with our enemies than we once imagined, we also have more to distinguish us from our allies. We might all be liberals, but there’s lots of ways to be a liberal, and this gets to the real problem within the anti-authoritarianism that shows up in evangelicals as much as secularists. It’s not that we lack imagination; it’s that we lack the ability to convince anyone we’re right, or at least, that we’re right enough to change the way someone else lives her life.
Bernie’s time at Liberty is instructive here as well. Like Liberty, we have to welcome people who seem different from us, and, like Bernie, we have to speak to them on their terms. But that’s only a start. To get any further, we liberals—evangelicals, secularists, and everyone else—have to think hard about where our values come from and the processes of authority through which we make our moral decisions. There’s a reason we care about what we care about, and it’s not simply because it’s something we should care about. The fact that evangelicals can’t articulate that distinction well doesn’t mean they’re dumb. It just means they’re Americans.
* Just for the record, when I say evangelical here, I am referring to white people, to whom the term usually applies. Black non-denominational Protestants are an entirely separate historical and sociological phenomenon.