I thought this piece in the NY Times “Campaign Stops” feature was interesting, but when I learned the author did much of her research in the church community to which my two sisters, numerous friends, and a handful of spiritual mentors for whom I have the utmost respect have all belonged, I was fascinated.
A brief excerpt, but worth the full read:
If you want to understand how evangelicals conceive of their political life, you need to understand how they think about God. I am an anthropologist, and for the last 10 years I have been doing research on charismatic evangelical spirituality — the kind of Christianity in which people expect to have a personal relationship with God. They talk to God, and in some way or another, they expect that God will talk back. This is a lot of people. In 2006, the Pew Forum reported that 23 percent of Americans embraced this kind of “renewalist” Christianity and that 26 percent said they had received a direct revelation from God.
What someone believes is important to these Christians, but what really matters is becoming a better person. As I listened in church and participated in prayer groups, I saw that when people prayed, they imagined themselves in conversation with God. They do not, of course, think that God is imaginary, but they think that humans need to use their imagination to understand a God so much bigger and better than what they know from ordinary life. They imagine God as wiser and kinder than any human they know, and then they try to become the person they would be if they were always aware of being in God’s presence, even when the kids fuss and the train runs late.
This is tough to do. Christians understand that it is hard and so they practice being with God in many different ways. They set themselves tasks — ministering in jail, feeding the homeless, helping to set up the church on Sunday morning — so that they can grow through the experience of service. They care about the task, of course, but even more they care about becoming a person of God through doing the task.
I had a hard time with the e word. In theory I should claim it as my own (rich!) heritage, but I hate the crazy connotation it carries in my modern, urban world. “Those evangelicals,” we say, that weird and distant breed.
But the organization for which I now work describes itself as evangelical. I initially felt uncomfortable with it and I asked my supervisor what that word meant, “officially.” I was surprised to see the components are all things to which I readily agree, key aspects of my own vibrant, urban, modern, artsy, intelligent, social justice-loving church community. Oh. It’s not “those evangelicals.” It’s “we evangelicals.”
So, what’s our deal?
Part of the problem is the actual definition of evangelical is essentially the core tenants of Christianity, which means it incorporates a broad, diverse swath of people. Politically, is this broadly defined “evangelical” even a relevant category?
But the broad definition is not how the word is used. It’s got that crazy connotation. As portrayed publicly, it’s people who yell and seem obsessed with positions on social issues that are awkwardly out of step with what liberal secular folks take for granted.
But that’s not who many of us are. Sure, you know a pleasantly liberal Christian, maybe you’re ok with that kind of “evangelical.” (Thanks, I appreciate it).
But even at more conservative churches I’ve attended, I have never heard sermons on abortion or homosexuality. That stuff has assumed a weirdly urgent and prominent public face for some segments of American evangelical Christianity, but it’s not what occupies our daily spirituality, even the conservative amongst us.
Daily spirituality is about worship, walking with a God you believe you can know, conforming your heart to be more fully like that God. Part of the frustration many of us feel is surely the disconnect between what occupies daily spirituality and what some have dug into as public priorities. As Christians who lean politically liberal point out, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality, but he talked an awful lot about money.
Anyway, the author’s point is not theological, but political — she explains how Democrats can frame their positions in “a political language that evangelicals can hear.”
They should talk about the kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey that any choice will take us on. They should talk about how we can grow in compassion and care. They could talk about the way their policy interventions will allow those who receive them to become better people and how those of us who support them will better ourselves as we reach out in love. They could describe health care reform as a response to suffering, not as a solution to an economic problem.
As a Christian who is drawn to political positions that tend to be liberal because of and not in spite of my faith, I welcome Democrats learning how to better communicate these ideas … but I would also be thrilled if my fellow evangelicals reached these conclusions the same way I did: by poring over scripture and feeling called by a living God that I have the audacity to believe I can know.