A Review of
The Other Evangelicals: The Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians – and the Movement That Pushed Them Out
Isaac B. Sharp
Reviewed by Andrew C. Stout
In our consumer culture, we are all conscious of the power of branding. Commercial businesses have long been concerned with developing and defining their brand so that their product stands out against competitors in the marketplace. Even our individual identities are commodified as we are told we need to build a “personal brand” to market ourselves and our skills effectively. North American religious culture is more than susceptible to this ethos, and no religious group has branded itself as effectively as EvangelicalsTM – or, as Isaac Sharp refers to them, “capital-E Evangelicals.” Hillsong Music competes in the market with major music labels. The red “CT” logo of evangelicalism’s flagship publication is as recognizable as other national weekly magazines. Ads for the “He Gets Us” evangelistic campaign are ubiquitous on professional sports broadcasts, including this year’s Superbowl. But if a brand is designed to communicate who you are as a company/institution/person/movement/tradition, it also functions to communicate who you are not. The Other Evangelicals is about the 20th century evangelicals who were ultimately deemed off brand.
Evangelicalism is notoriously difficult to define. Sharp opens the book with an overview of the contested field of evangelical studies and its development, challenging the received narrative regarding the formation of this popular but nebulous tradition of Protestant Christianity. The standard account charts the development of the evangelical movement from the separatism of early twentieth century fundamentalism, to post-war efforts at conservative Protestant engagement with the broader culture, to the emergence of the Religious Right, to the supposed loss of evangelical cultural influence in the twenty first century. For Sharp, the progression of this story is too neat and tidy, the characters overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. In the struggle to develop and define evangelicalism, there were winners and losers. This book is an exercise in remembering “the evangelical losers, the dissenters who were sidelined,” (30) in the formation of mainstream evangelical identity. As many younger evangelicals today call into question supposed orthodoxies surrounding politics, gender roles, racial dynamics, and sexuality, Sharp is concerned to preserve the memory of an earlier generation of boundary defying evangelicals.
Sharp claims that “the evangelical label remained up for grabs for far longer than most standard accounts of twentieth-century evangelical history commonly claim” (35). He identifies five groups who, while not conforming to what has become the evangelical brand, were legitimate claimants to the evangelical faith. At various points, theological liberals, Black radicals, political progressives, biblical feminists, and gay Christians could all be found under the evangelical tent. Sharp attempts to reorient the study of evangelicalism’s development by examining its margins.
In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a “center-left” of evangelicalism. As inerrancy became an incontrovertible standard in the formation of evangelical institutions, the very notion of “evangelical liberalism” – an approach to scripture that took historical criticism seriously – became a contradiction in terms. However, theologians like Charles Briggs, Shailer Mathews, and Harry Emerson Fosdick modeled an evangelical piety that took seriously the claims of modern science. Even Karl Barth, whose dialectical theology was aimed at dismantling the concessions that liberal theology had made with secular society, was not conservative enough for American evangelicals. Sharp narrates the stringent critique of Barth by conservative Reformed theologians, critiques that hinged mostly on his rejection of inerrancy and ignored the reverence that Barth’s word evidence for the inspiration and authority of the Bible. He notes the continued suspicion of Barthianism in North American evangelical institutions, effectively making the case that inerrancy became and still functions as a litmus test that rules out-of-bounds those whose evangelical credentials are otherwise solid. The British evangelical landscape of the twentieth and twenty first centuries should reinforce the oddity of this North American stance. While the inerrancy of scripture has been defended (quite fervently) by some British evangelicals, other models of biblical authority have been put forth by English evangelicals in good standing.
Sharp’s discussion of the Black evangelicals reveals that theological traditions are fueled as much by cultural assumptions as doctrinal beliefs. No matter how closely Tom Skinner and other Black evangelical leaders hewed to the doctrinal criteria established by white evangelicals, or how actively they participated in an explicitly evangelical organization like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, their views on racial justice mirrored the concerns of the Black power movement too closely for the evangelical establishment. Tom Skinner’s 1970 address to the Urbana Student Mission Conference on America’s legacy served as the high point of a short-lived movement, an address which sounds tragically contemporary. Sharp documents the existence of a niche consort of Black Christians who took their Blackness and their evangelicalness equally seriously, even while the white evangelical mainstream called the latter into question.
An EvangelicalTM is not only theologically conservative and white, but also politically conservative and male. Again, this wasn’t always so. In the 1960s and 70s, evangelical activists Ron Sider and Jim Wallis led protests at Christian colleges and seminaries against militarism, poverty, and racism. The group Evangelicals for Social Action stands as evidence of a distinctly left-wing approach to social engagement for which the neoevangelical movement called. Similarly, evangelical feminists Nancy Hardesty and Virginia Mollenkott, founders of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus, took up the cause of women’s liberation through their reading of the Bible and their commitment to the authority of scripture. In recounting the history of the EWC and the development of Christians for Biblical Equality – a group which distinguished itself from the EWC for its refusal to affirm the moral legitimacy of homosexuality – Sharp introduces the important notion of the “inherently porous boundaries” (202) of evangelicalism. Sharp consistently demonstrates just how porous this tradition is, despite the attempts of EvangelicalTM brand managers to control the image.
Sharp’s account of gay evangelicals is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book. He carefully distinguishes between the homophobia of Religious Right figures like Jerry Falwell and the experiences of gay evangelicals in ex-gay ministries. Without excusing the cruelty of the various forms of conversion or reparative therapies practiced by some of these ministries, Sharp recognizes that some ex-gay ministries served as a kind of “third way” between full affirmation of LGBTQ people and homophobic rejection. Some of these ministries actually served as space in evangelical circles for LGBTQ Christians to be honest and open about their experiences and identity. With the collapse of the ex-gay movement, even that marginal space to discuss the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity has largely disappeared. Sharp offers this nuanced picture of the ex-gay movement without excusing the movements’ gentler homophobia. He accomplishes this by examining the foil of Ralph Blair, and evangelical psychologist who has been calling for the full affirmation of committed gay relationships since the 1960s. Blair’s biblical argument for his position, combined with his evangelical bona fides, makes him perhaps the most surprising figure in the book.
The account of the recent evangelical past offered in The Other Evangelicals rings true because it continues to be repeated in the evangelical present. Gatekeepers continue to try and stave off those who don’t adhere to the ever-narrowing doctrinal core of evangelical beliefs, as well as those who fail to reside in the cultural, political, racial, and sexual boundaries that so often serve as the infrastructure of conservative religious traditions. In the twenty first century, an evangelical “liberal” like Old Testament scholar Peter Enns can attest to the cost of questioning the core doctrine of inerrancy. Black writers like Jemar Tisby and Danté Stewart have found evangelical spaces unwelcoming once they began speaking out on issues of racial justice. As a progressive evangelical activist, Shane Claiborne is regularly ridiculed by mainstream evangelicals for his commitment to ending the death penalty and stopping gun violence. Theologians Beth Allison Barr and Amiee Byrd have been maligned by male theologians for their critiques of complementarianism. The organization Revoice, committed to making space for LGBTQ Christians in theologically conservative churches, is consistently the object of homophobic slander. Sharp observes that when it comes to figuring out who counts as an evangelical, “connotation is often easier than denotation” (5). All these contemporary figures bear the distinct marks of evangelicalism while connotating something that we have learned to think of as unevangelical.
Trumpism revealed a crisis that has always been present in North American Christianity. Those who claim this as a new crisis have ignored the voices of the “other” or the “off-brand” evangelicals. Evangelicalism has never simply been defined by a minimal doctrinal core. Whiteness, social conservatism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity have become unspoken (and sometimes spoken) additional requirements. Sharp’s book is an important contribution to the field of evangelical studies. Beyond that, it is something of an affirmation for those who still wish to claim their evangelical identity while denouncing the racism, sexism, and homophobia that has come to typify it. Evangelical identity is more porous, more diverse, and potentially more gracious than the EvangelicalTM brand managers would like to acknowledge.
Andrew C. Stout
Andrew C. Stout is the Access Services Librarian at the University of Missouri - St. Louis. He has also worked as a librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary. His writing has appeared in the journals Religion and the Arts, Pro Ecclesia, Presbyterion, and The Journal of Reformed Theology. Find him on Twitter: @ThomasACStout
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