Owning Our Baggage
OCTOBER 2, 2021
by Dan Stringer
Once we re-envision evangelicalism as a common space, we start noticing how its well-being impacts residents. When a neighborhood’s crime rate spikes or water supply becomes contaminated, concerned residents take collective responsibility for addressing the problem. Instead of calling it someone else’s responsibility or waiting for it to get worse, they take action on behalf of their community. Like any place, evangelicalism has its fair share of problems and unhealthy patterns that disproportionately harm residents on the margins. I call this our “baggage.” Every religious group has baggage, but things get worse when we fail to own it as ours. When problems are identified inside evangelicalism (especially in the United States), we’re quick to say, “Glad that’s not my neighborhood.” It’s much easier to shout advice from a safe distance than participate in a messy cleanup.
Our aversion to the evangelical label makes it harder to own our baggage. I sometimes joke that you can tell someone is an evangelical if they strive to not be known as an evangelical. To keep our baggage at a distance, we attach prefixes and qualifiers like neo-evangelical, post-evangelical, progressive evangelical, big tent evangelical, postmodern evangelical, and even sorta-evangelical. In the United States, our prevalence grants us the privilege to self-define in ways that keep the mess at arm’s length. Just as racial and gender privilege have facilitated the hijacking of evangelicalism’s brand, it also takes a certain degree of religious privilege to have the option of re-branding when we don’t like how it looks on us. “Those aren’t my people,” we say, but not every religious group has that option. Here’s a thought experiment: When Catholics, Mormons, or Muslims are negatively stereotyped, misunderstood, or face fallout from a scandal, can they swap out their name to increase favorability ratings? Not in the United States, they can’t.
When we know where our neighborhood ends and another begins, it becomes easier to take care of the place we call home. Despite my uneasiness with much of what American evangelicalism is known for, I have a responsibility that comes with living here. I was born here, work here, and raise my kids here. Many loved ones live here too. It’s our spiritual home, the place where we met Jesus and became his disciples. Evangelicalism’s problems might look obvious from the outside, but they aren’t being well-addressed from the inside. I’m often embarrassed by what happens in my religious neighborhood, which is why I’m trying to leave this place better than I found it. Make no mistake: there’s a big mess to clean up in American evangelicalism, but it starts with admitting we live here.