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What Makes Evangelicals Different?

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It used to be that evangelical Christians were easy to spot. They were the ones boycotting things like Disney and SpongeBob Squarepants. They were the students in high school that wore True Love Waits rings, W.W.J.D. bracelets and prayed around the flagpole. They could be seen standing with bullhorns outside Planned Parenthood, leaving tracts instead of money as "tips" in restaurants, packing out stadiums for Promise Keepers rallies and reading Left Behind at the country club pool.

Evangelicals were a stereotype: they were too political, too capitalistic, too apathetic about the long-term health of the earth and her inhabitants. They believed in Noah's ark and talking serpents but not global warming. They preached a gospel of grace but rarely acted graceful in their dealings with gay people, welfare recipients or liberals. They mourned the killing of innocent lives from abortion but seemed hardly to notice the millions of lives lost every year due to war, genocide, disease or malnutrition.

I'm not sure I've ever met an evangelical who fits the exaggerated stereotype described above. But it doesn't matter. This is more or less the portrait of "evangelical" that the media adopted: anti-culture, anti-intellectual, right-wing, hypocritical, bigoted, legalistic Red State Jesus freaks. And to some extent this narrative persists today.

Because of this unfortunate caricature, evangelicals -- particularly the younger generation of evangelicals (myself included) -- have tried hard to shed this baggage. In the 2000s, "re-branding" evangelicalism as a more culturally savvy, open-minded, dialogue-friendly, edgy movement that is "not your grandmother's religion" became a mini cottage industry -- with scores of sleek conferences, self-critical books, self-parodying websites, "relevant" magazines and "hip churches" to show for it.

Happily, evangelical organizations and coalitions began to pop up in support of causes ranging from global warming, immigration and nuclear disarmament to stopping African genocide and promoting liberty in North Korea. Evangelicals also began taking more of an interest in the arts and culture, whether in fashion, food, literature, film, quality music, fine art or pop culture commentary.

All of this is fantastic; it's encouraging to see evangelicals engaging and loving the world around them rather than hiding away and biding time before the Rapture. But part of me wonders: in their attempts to downplay their quirky differences from the unbelieving world, have evangelicals gone too far, to the point that it's hard to know what makes them different at all? It's great -- even necessary -- that Christians care about the poor, appreciate good art and engage the world of ideas. But so do atheists and religion-averse heathens. And thank God they do.

The question remains: what constitutes an evangelical identity in today's post-Falwell world? Can, or should, evangelicals be "different"? And what should define that difference?

Previous generations of evangelicals interpreted the call to be set apart (to "be holy, for I am holy," 1 Peter 2:16) as meaning: flee from worldliness and avoid being tainted by the "secular." This defensive posture was dos-and-don't oriented and favored legalism over liberty.

Younger evangelicals are reacting against the baggage and reputation of that posture by ardently emphasizing liberty. They drink, they smoke, they go to indie rock shows and are #%(@^#$ proud of it. (I chronicled this generational pendulum swing in my 2010 book, Hipster Christianity).

But in the process of draining the dirty bathwater from the tub of evangelicalism, have younger believers thrown out the baby of "set apart" holiness? If Christians are known for anything, shouldn't it be for their commitment to living Christ-like lives of faith, hope and charity? Should not their lives noticeably overflow with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and temperance?

The thing about holiness is that the point of it is not to steer clear of all that is unholy; it's not about retreating from "the world" and existing in some perfect space untainted by temptations and immoral sights and sounds. The Christian call to holiness is more complicated than just abstaining from a checklist of vices.

Christians are called to be "set apart" in this world, yes. But the difference between the church and culture is not a "hard" difference, notes Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, but rather a "soft difference" characterized by "people who are secure in themselves -- more accurately, who are secure in their God," who "have no need either to subordinate or damn others."

Evangelical difference should not be about retreating from or picking battles with the culture, but rather embracing the path of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "the cost of discipleship," a commitment to living in the footsteps of Christ, even if it means living out of the mainstream of culture.

As Volf says, "to make a difference, one must be different." If evangelicals are going to make any difference, it won't be because they've self-consciously endeavored to repair their PR image; and it won't be because they've adopted and affirmed every pattern of behavior around them. It will be because they genuinely and passionately follow after Christ, manifesting through their lives something refreshingly different -- what theologian N.T. Wright calls "the language of God's new world."

Brett McCracken is the author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books, 2013).

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