THE BLOG
01/28/2013 01:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2013

Why I Am Still an Evangelical

In 2003, a friend invited me to a formal dinner at one of the colleges of Cambridge University. The food was traditional yet exotic (think guinea fowl), the conversation with the professors as stimulating as one would imagine. My main memory of the evening, however, is of listening to two American lawyers who were working in London at the time. As they and my American wife talked about their experience of living in England, they mentioned that they and many of their compatriots were asking their companies to extend their contracts in London for as long as George W. Bush occupied the White House. They were still mostly proud to be Americans, but they were horrified by their president and wanted to stay out of their country as long as he was in charge.

One of the reasons that conversation has stayed with me is that on moving to California in 2004 I found myself part of analogous conversations with some of my colleagues at the Christian college where I work. Westmont College says that it belongs to "the worldwide evangelical Protestant tradition," but one of those words made people squirm, with some reason. I learned that in much public discussion in this country, being an evangelical meant being thoughtless, heartless, and hopelessly conservative. For colleagues trained at Berkeley, Yale, and places like them, being an evangelical could be awkward. One professor sent round a definition of an evangelical that would make a person wonder why any of us would want to work here.

Some of this aversion made sense, for reasons that I will come to. But on the whole the attitude puzzled me. My experience of evangelicalism in England had been quite different. As an evangelical at Cambridge I had felt a little outside the cultural mainstream, but not scorned. The university had numerous students and professors who identified with the evangelical tradition, which made it hard to argue that it was anti-intellectual. The political commitments of my evangelical peers were certainly not always conservative.

But the public perception of evangelicals in America also puzzled me because it did not match my experience of evangelicals in America. I looked at my college's faculty and staff and at students and thought to myself how happy I would be if my children grew up to be as bright and kind as them. The church I attend here in Santa Barbara is as compassionate as any community I know. People tutor at-risk youth, they provide shelter for the homeless, they feed the hungry, they support people in rehab. When one of the pastor's children died in a tragic accident, they set up a foundation in his honour to fund children's education in Uganda. The church is also intellectually engaged: when it recently merged with another, dwindling congregation and inherited forty acres of some of the most expensive real estate in the country, concern for the poor meshed with careful environmental reflection in the creation of an organic farm to grow food with local families. The church isn't perfect. The occasional sexist comment gets under my skin. But the congregation is not harshly conservative. They give one Sunday every year to abortion, but they also give one Sunday a year to racial justice. Many families are involved in fostering and adopting children from our county.

It's not just evangelicals in liberal California. My only other experience of evangelicals in this country comes from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The church I belonged to was the most diverse community I have ever been a part of -- ethnically, socially, economically, politically and culturally. They ran free health clinics for people in the inner city streets that surround their campus. They had a learning center to help people who had failed to get a high school diploma. They cared for the disabled. They provided furniture and English language instruction for recent immigrants.

There are things about evangelicalism that I dislike. Anti-intellectualism is a problem. Public pronouncements from some leaders make me cringe. Close links to the Republican party bother me; I tell my students that it usually ends poorly when the church hooks itself up to any particular group or nation. Evangelicals can also be too strident. The apostle John said that Jesus Christ was full of grace and truth; we don't always get these in right proportion. Some of the bad press is deserved.

But I still want to call myself an evangelical. I do so knowing that evangelicals have made mistakes, in America, in Britain and probably in every other country. We need to ask for forgiveness for when we have failed. But that does not mean we need to ditch evangelicalism, any more than the mistakes made by governments, nations, NGO's, higher education, medicine, Rotary clubs, and the Catholic Church require people to shed those allegiances. As Walter McDougall put it, everyone has their good, their bad, and their ugly. Evangelicals are part of a tradition that stretches back to the 17th century and beyond, and even if a person does not agree with them it is right to recognize that their tradition has brought much good, not least through a restless activism that has taken on all sorts of injustices. Ironically, campaigns for gay marriage owe much to techniques that evangelicals in the abolitionist movement helped develop.

I have lived in America for more than a decade now, but I have kept my British citizenship. The primary reason is that I still see myself as British and like being British. I am aware of many regrettable acts committed by my country but on balance I still like it. I imagine that the Americans I met in Cambridge felt something similar. They were not threatening to tear up their passports.

Giving up on evangelicalism would seem easier. There are other Christian traditions I could join. But I think that evangelicals have Christianity as right as anyone, with their emphasis on the need for a personal response to a holy God who loves and their eagerness to reach and serve others. Because I believe that Christianity is true, these two driving impulses are as important as anything for me. Being an evangelical is grounded in convictions about God more than culture. So I am still an evangelical, and plan on remaining one. But it would make me happy if more people thought of evangelicals with nuance and charity -- in contrast to those British people who lumped all Americans together with George W. Bush.