The 2016 election of Donald Trump with 80% of the white evangelical vote has generated intense consternation about the identity of “evangelicalism”: the character of its constituents, its fragmentation according to political leanings, whether the term remains usable as a theological descriptor, given its partisan connotations.
A related discussion has arisen concerning the history of evangelicalism. For many years, scholars like George Marsden and Mark Noll have presented evangelicalism as a theologically motivated movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century from fundamentalism with a social conscience and mission. This narrative invites us to see evangelicalism as the right kind of both-and: we are committed to both doctrinal orthodoxy and engagement with the world. Since the election, interest has grown in alternate accounts of evangelicalism that investigate its checkered past on race, gender, and nationalism. Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne seem to have won the widest audience among evangelical readers. Parallel arguments have been advanced by Robert Jones, Anthea Butler, and Randall Balmer, among others. Marsden and Noll have written critically of evangelicalism, of course, including of ideas associated with the religious right, and the more recent histories are not necessarily repudiating Marsden and Noll’s work. But one still senses a shift of emphasis in the questions that historians of evangelicalism are raising.
I have felt these developments in my own teaching. Before 2016, introducing my undergraduate students to evangelicalism was as simple as recounting the Marsden/Noll narrative of evangelicalism’s pivot from fundamentalism. My students now find this account wanting. “Evangelicalism” sounds to them more like a political identity than a theological one, and they want to know how this has happened. I have thus added to my classes readings about the rise of the religious right. My students typically respond to this material with frustration at the conflation of Christianity and political identity, and a sense of ecclesial homelessness as to their future. Repulsed by religious partisanship but unattracted to secular liberalism, they wonder what their options for Christian community are. Statistically, young people are voting with their feet. According to one estimate, one million youth are disaffiliating from Christianity every year. (The data is not clear on where they land.) There is a reason terms like “exvangelical,” “deconstructing,” and “deconversion” have entered the religious lexicon.
What my experiences in the classroom suggest is a relation between how one understands evangelical history and how one relates to present-day evangelicalism. The history of a community is crucial to its identity. Identifying racism as central to United States history raises questions about how racist the United States is today. Identifying the persistence of racism (or sexism or nationalism) in evangelical history can leave Christians of social conscience wondering why they should remain evangelical now. This sense of dislocation seems to reflect an operative, if unrecognized assumption: the worth of a community depends on its moral rectitude. Evangelicalism is not worth preserving if it has been as sinful as charged.
Evangelicalism is at a time of reckoning, a moment when self-examination and lament are crucial priorities. How do we grapple with the seriousness of evangelicalism’s sins without jettisoning the community altogether? Can we indict institutional Christianity without abandoning Christian faith? I would like to suggest an approach to these questions that draws on one of evangelicalism’s most basic convictions: our worth is established by God’s grace and not by our good works. Evangelical theology characteristically applies this principle to individuals. Scripture encourages us to consider its relevance for communities as well.
The Old Testament testifies to Israel’s status as a covenant community, a collective entity whose identity spans generations. God’s covenant was not with Abraham alone, as if the promises would expire upon Abraham’s death. It extended to Isaac and to Jacob and to Jacob’s descendants, and eventually to all nations. Present Israelites could thus consider themselves heirs of a collective past. In times of great sin and judgment, this required confessing their predecessors’ wrongs.
Consider the collective, penitential prayer of Nehemiah 9. This chapter recounts a rededication ceremony following the Israelites’ return to the land from exile. At stake is the future of Israel, which has come under foreign rule because of the people’s disobedience. Israel has been unfaithful for generations, beginning at least since Manasseh, who instituted the idolatrous practices that subsequent kings would perpetuate. The participants seek to confess “their sins and the sins of their ancestors” (2).
As Nehemiah recounts, the people prepare by fasting, wearing sackcloth, and putting dust on their heads (1). They read from the law for a quarter of the day, and they spend another quarter of the day in confession and worship (3). The Levites then lead the people in a corporate prayer, representing the Israelite community as a whole (5-37). The heart of the prayer is a history of Israel, which stresses two dominant themes: God’s goodness to Israel, and Israel’s sin. God has blessed Israel through creation (6), the covenant with Abraham (7-8), deliverance from Egypt (9-11), provision through the wilderness (12-21), and provision in the land (22-31). Despite these gifts, Israel has disobeyed God and violated the covenant. “They, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and they did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them” (16-17). Still, the Lord is “a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (17).
After this historical recital, the prayer shifts to petition (32-37). This section presents one muted request, “Do not let all this hardship seem trifling in your eyes” (32), before returning to the themes of God’s righteousness (32, 33, 35) and the people’s sin (33, 34, 35). The pronouns also shift from third- to first-person. It is not a distant “they” that has sinned. “We have acted wickedly; our kings, our officials, our priests, and our ancestors have not kept your law or heeded the commandments and the warnings that you gave them” (33-34). The people have been delivered to foreign rulers “because of our sins” (37).
Israel’s past was a moral failure. The prayer does not minimize or justify this reality. It does not appeal to the good things Israel that has done, or its improvement over time, or its positive trajectory for the future. Nor does the prayer blame a “few bad apples.” Sin rests with the whole nation, including its leaders, who were the most culpable of all. Even the most righteous Israelites participate in this confession by their self-identification with the covenant community. Israel has sinned, full stop, and its only hope is divine mercy.
Remarkably, Israel retains its status as God’s people. This identity is not a function of Israel’s righteousness, as if the people satisfied some threshold of holiness. The petitioners are astonished that Israel has not been forsaken. They attribute this preservation of covenant exclusively to God, who abounds in mercy and forgiveness. God’s faithfulness to Israel is not something the people presume upon. It is not an entitlement God owes them. It is a promise in which they hope. Over and over again, God has shown mercy when the people have repented. Perhaps God will forgive them this time, too. The New Testament extends this understanding of communal sin and repentance to the church, which comes to expression in local communities. Paul can thus rebuke the Galatians or Corinthians as a whole, as can the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. God’s promise of life remains for these communities if they turn from their sins.
Collective repentance offers a powerful resource for our debates about history. Christians have no stake in minimizing the sins of the church—or the nation for that matter. Our responsibility is to truth, which requires acknowledging the grievances others have against us. This remains the case when these criticisms are presented with a hostile spirit. Receiving critique does not mean agreeing with every charge against us. But it does require humility and self-reflection about the sins of our past. On the other hand, Christians can love and remain within the church because its identity has always been founded on grace. Indeed, it is our trust in God’s love that enables us to confess our sins. Defensiveness and self-justification derive from fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). By confessing our sins, we open ourselves to forgiveness. This is the promise on which evangelicals have already staked our claim.