Like many of my peers, I am a child of American evangelicalism. I was born to professing parents, made my own public statement of faith at five, and was baptized a few years later—still so tiny that my pastor had to lift me up to reach the microphone. My parents themselves were raised in the broader evangelical movement and shared many of the same religious rites of passage: baptism, communion, VBS, church camp, and eventually Christian college.
My paternal grandparents were steady churchgoing people, while my maternal grandparents came to faith through the revivals of the World War II era. Beyond that, things get murky. My family and I have discovered that some of my father’s forebearers were Anabaptists, but no relatives in living memory were part of that tradition.
I’ve occasionally wondered when exactly my ancestors might have converted from paganism to Christianity or what churches they would have worshiped in, but I don’t know the answers. And I have no way of finding out.
Such is the dilemma of many American evangelicals. In much the same way that countless immigrants gradually lost their ethnic heritage and traditions to racial categories, American evangelicals often lack a sense of our religious roots. As interfaith leader and rabbinic scholar Yehiel Poupko recently told me, “Neither Jews nor Christians pay enough attention to the influence of American culture on their respective faith communities.”
Due in part to the pull of assimilation, our lack of attention also stems from the distinctly modern way evangelicals understand faith—as an individual expression of belief or experience.
In his new book, You Are Not Your Own, Alan Noble argues that, while the American church theoretically offers an alternative to this worldview, “far too many churches have adopted the contemporary anthropology. They assume that we are our own and provide us with options for meaning and identity like any other community.”
As we shift away from understanding faith as a shared generational experience, we put pressure on the individual, and that pressure is especially debilitating for those wrestling with the evangelical tradition into which they’ve been born.
For some, the pressure is so profound that they feel no other choice but to leave. The stories of these “exvangelicals” are varied, writes Blake Chastain, who coined the hashtag #exvangelical in 2016 to describe his own departure from evangelicalism and now hosts the podcast Exvangelical. But they also “have patterns—earnest struggles with doubt, the physical and emotional burden of purity culture, [and] authoritarian environments.”
Taken individually, these stories may seem like aberrations. But in many ways, exvangelicals’ dilemma is more native to American evangelicalism than we’re comfortable admitting.
After all, it was their evangelical upbringing that suggested they’re solely responsible for the spiritual path they choose. It was evangelicalism that often taught them that their biblical faithfulness is measured by the church to which they belong. So when they see that very same tradition taking on an increasingly political quality, what are they supposed to do?
Perhaps leaving evangelicalism, then, is a most evangelical response.
But what if the way forward doesn’t lie in sorting through our various religious options? What if it lies instead in questioning the modern notions of self that tell us we are the sum of our personal choices?
Just as we do not choose our biological families of origin, there’s a sense in which we do not choose our religious families of origin either. Those of us who have been birthed or shaped by evangelicalism will never not be affected by it. You can be a former evangelical or a postevangelical. You can be a neo-evangelical. You can be a recovering evangelical—even a reforming evangelical. But you will never not be defined by your relationship to evangelicalism.
At the same time, acknowledging your evangelical roots does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges facing the movement, nor does it mean defining evangelicalism so narrowly that you can absolve yourself of responsibility for it. To extend the family metaphor, evangelicalism may be comprised of your crazy cousins, embarrassing uncles, and perhaps even dysfunctional homes, but it’s still your family.
“You don’t choose your family,” writes South African bishop Desmond Tutu in God Has a Dream. “Perhaps if we could, we might have chosen different brothers and sisters. Fortunately or unfortunately we can’t. We have them as they have us. And no matter how your brother may be, you can’t renounce him. He may be a murderer or worse, but he remains forever your brother.”
Owning our religious heritage doesn’t mean that we’re without agency or that we should stay trapped in abusive churches or unsustainable traditions. Every generation must take what it’s received, evaluate it, discard what is unhelpful, and keep what is. We have to erect healthy boundaries and break cycles of dysfunction. We have to take responsibility for our own lives.
But doing so is not the same as attempting to start all over and create “whole cloth.” For some, taking responsibility for their own lives might mean staying within evangelicalism and owning it.
“I am talking to lots of evangelicals who want to give up the very word evangelical,” Poupko told me later in our conversation, “and I say to them, ‘Evangelical is at the core of what it means to be a Christian. What you have to do is not let the bad boys and girls in the schoolyard own it.’”
Author and Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge offers similar sentiments in a 2017 podcast interview:
Historically, [evangelical] was applied to a vast sweep of the church which does not correspond at all to the idea of American evangelicals in the way it is defined. … I still think the nomenclature is worth fighting for because … when someone uses the word evangelical in the wrong way, then that gives me an opportunity to talk about what I think it really means.
Quoting 20th-century evangelical theologian F. F. Bruce, she continues, “What is an evangelical? … He said, ‘An evangelical Christian is one who believes in the justification of the ungodly.’”
Plenty of scholars and writers have debated the merits of keeping or discarding the “evangelical” label. But that’s still an individual consideration. The deeper question is more pressing: How do we see and understand ourselves as part of a spiritual lineage that started well before us and will go on (in some form) long after?
Earlier this week, my husband came back from his parents’ house with a cardboard mailing tube. It had been repurposed, with the words “1 MAP PALESTINE N. T. TIMES” crossed out. Next to them, his grandmother had written, “Two genealogy charts—somewhat finished, to be researched.” Inside, we found the aforementioned charts, one of his paternal grandmother’s ancestry (“somewhat finished”) and one of his paternal grandfather’s ancestry (“to be researched”).
I can’t help but hear an invitation here—an invitation to discover both our biological and religious roots. In the process, we’ll probably learn things we don’t like. After all, we enter our cultural, national, and religious stories already in process.
But for reasons God alone knows, this is the moment given to us. How we resist corruption and preserve our faith for future generations is a question for another time, but for now, we can rest in the knowledge that we are not the sum of our religious choices and we are not alone in them. We belong to Jesus Christ, and from that place, we belong to the generations—both those in the past and those yet to come.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.