The Social Problem with Evangelicalism

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Evangelicalism. What’s been troubling me is this: Evangelicals cannot accept that there’s more than one way to live well. (That may be true of most fundamentalisms, but I’ll treat the case closest to home. And obviously I’m considering only popular doctrine; this won’t hold true for everyone who claims the mantle.) Socially, this means on principle that they cannot treat non-adherents as equals. Personally, it means they cannot show them love.

Evangelicals talk a lot about being “sanctified,” set apart from “the world.” That may seem innocuous—communities are by definition set apart in some sense—but in practice it means feeling set apart from this person and that person. And not just set apart, but superior. Spiritually better, of another kind altogether. Evangelicals view neighbors with a kind of pity, and are rather uninterested in understanding the depths of others' beliefs. Indeed, these are often threatening. (To choose one example among many: I couldn't listen to secular music until I left for college.) They cannot countenance that there are many different ways to be good and live a good life.

I’m mostly interested in the personal problem: Evangelicals think this distancing is compatible with loving their neighbor, when in fact it cuts them off from genuine love. They can show loving acts but not agape. That’s because their love always attaches to some imaginary version of the person rather than the person themselves, accepted for who they are.

Suppose someone says “I love you, and I can’t wait for you to look like a young Brad Pitt.” We’d think this a strange sort of love! Now it’s perfectly possible to love someone and wish they’d change at the margins: lose a little weight, stop smoking, drive better, etc. (Ask any married couple.) But at some point, asking someone to change too much feels akin to asking that they become someone else, and that no longer feels like love.

Love, we think, requires deep acceptance.

It also requires a desire that the other person should flourish, and—here’s the crucial part—flourish on their own terms. Again, we’d think it a curious kind of love to say “I want you to flourish in exactly the way I prescribe.” That’s not love, it’s dominion. And yet that’s exactly the sentiment Evangelicals repeat to friends and loved ones; there’s only one right way to live—how lucky that believers stumbled upon it out of infinite possibilities!—and anyone who chooses otherwise is defective, is lacking in a real sense.

I don’t see any way for Evangelicals to stick to their literal interpretation of scripture—which says that everyone must believe exactly as they do (even other believers!)—while also showing genuine love to others.