They Have Faith Their Church Will Change

They are often pro-gay, vote Democrat, and are pro-choice, but their churches aren’t. Can they convince their brethren to change?

09.25.16 4:15 AM ET

They're young, liberal, LGBTQ+, pro-choice, feminist, science loving, climate change accepting, and immigrant welcoming. They're evangelicals.

No, this is not a report from an alternate universe, where history took a different turn. This is about a growing rift in the evangelical continuum, one with significant uncertainty about its future. It’s about a tribe within a tribe within a tribe—outcasts on the inside.

It’s a internal divide that’s forced some progressive evangelicals to part ways with the name. Just this week, co-founder of the progressive Red Letter Christian movement, Tony Campolo, told Premier that “A lot of people who are evangelical in their theology, do not want to be called ‘evangelicals’ anymore.” Being evangelical in the United States means “you're anti-gay, you're anti-women, you're pro-war,” he adds. 

With the evangelical public reputation now seemingly wedded to Donald Trump’s Gospel of the Wall and Alt-Right talking points, why would anyone, especially progressive Millennials—a minority that could find a new home on the mainline—remain in the movement? 

“Almost nothing could push me to give up the word ‘evangelical’,” insists the 24-year old Brandan Robertson, a progressive, bisexual Christian activist, and author of Nomad: A Spirituality for Travelling Light (2016). “I really do love the word,” he insists, “...and cling to it so tightly because it really embodies the core of my spirituality—I am a person of good news.”

In fact, the moniker, “evangelical,” finds its origins in a Greek word for “good news,” and this continues to be an important part of the evangelical identity, though the exact theological emphasis is different depending on how conservative or liberal one is.

Robertson accepts evolution, climate change, the reality of systemic racism, and that “black lives matter.” He’s “somewhere in the middle” of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. He longs for the end of “gender binaries” and patriarchy; he also hasn’t been afraid to make his progressive evangelical spirituality known. His activism has garnered attention—he’s spoken at the White House Summit on Bullying, been interviewed on NPR, and has bylines in TIME, The Washington Post, and Religion News Service

But it hasn’t been all smooth-sailing for him; he once lost a book contract when his evangelical publisher asked him to disavow his bisexual identity and his work for marriage equality. There are Christian distributors who have blacklisted his name. He’s lost friends and was called a heretic in college.

Brandan is representative of a small and less-explored demographic of religion in America; one that is currently overshadowed by prominent, straight conservative evangelical leaders who openly oppose progressive, liberal thinking.

Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan's Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, for example, is pulling few punches over liberalism during his Decision America Tour. The tour takes Graham through all 50 states, includes prayer rallies, and calls to “stand up for the things of God and his Word.”

“The enemy is not the British today,” Graham insisted on Facebook during his Boston stop, “but godless secularism and people who call themselves progressives who are undermining the morals and the God-given biblical foundation that our Founding Fathers gave this nation. These foundations are under attack, and the election coming up is so critical for America's future.”

Similarly, in a recent “Briefing,” President Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary offered his critical take on the liberal Christianity of pastor, activist, and progressive evangelical icon, Brian McLaren, asking why individuals now want “to repackage” what he sees as the failed “theological liberalism?”

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He believes they ultimately want an “alternative to biblical Christianity,” one “ many people in the culture who want to have the sexual revolution but continue to have some form of Christianity as an ongoing part of the culture.” If the liberal Christianity wins the day, he says, “it may turn into something significant. But whatever that is, it won’t be Christianity.”

Currently, white evangelical Protestants make up 76 percent of the movement in America, with only 28 percent accepting anthropogenic climate change, 80 percent saying abortion should be illegal, and only 27 percent favoring same-sex marriage. Within evangelicalism there are some differences of opinion, with just over half (51 percent) of evangelical Millennials saying that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” For some comparison, among evangelicals only a third of Boomers and a fifth of the Silent Generation agree. 

Even with some differences of opinion by generation, however, the majority of evangelicals still cling to conservative ideals. In fact, according to some polls, 78 percent of white evangelical voters are tossing their hat in with Trump’s bid for the presidency. 

In other words, being a progressive evangelical is currently a life in the margins.  

While Brandan continues as a confident evangelical, a social cross-section of others remain, howbeit, hesitantly. 

As Marie (full name withheld) has discovered, being a progressive evangelical in the Mennonite world can mean a loss of friends and awkward family relationships. “When I am with my evangelical family, I often feel like I am two people,” she says.

In her world, evolution and climate change aren’t controversial, but other issues are. “I am very progressive on LGBT issues,” she adds. “I’m also attracted to women myself. I'm pro choice, though that's a somewhat recent development.”

She says she feels like she doesn’t fit in among evangelicals because she doesn’t share their prescriptive rules. “It sucks to be a queer Christian. Over the past few years—as I’ve been in the process of coming to terms with my own sexual identity and coming out—the deepest spiritual experiences I’ve had and the times I’ve felt closest to Jesus, is when I’m worshipping with other queer Christians.” 

In that context, Marie adds, “I feel like I’m allowed to bring all of myself into the presence of God, instead of just having to hide a piece of myself or having to pretend, even to myself, that this piece doesn’t exist.” 

In the meantime, this friction has led her to stop attending church, though she still gives money to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, where she once served as a student representative for several years, and remains a prayer partner with them. 

“I am a very orthodox believer; I simply do not have the same certainty.” And this leaves her future in the evangelical world unwritten.

Like Marie, Daniel Willson, senior pastor of Williamsburg Baptist Church (Virginia), epitomizes the difficulties of being a progressive within evangelicalism.

He’s a member of the local NAACP chapter, involved with Black Lives Matter, and regularly promotes racial justice and economic equality in his sermons. “I started an annual tradition of having a ‘Science Sunday,’ where we honor those in the congregation who work in scientific fields (it’s very pro-evolution),” he says. His congregation is now beginning to look for ways to respond to climate change.

“I'm interested in our church providing a fuller welcome for LGBTQ people,” Daniel Says. “We're a pretty open-minded bunch, but we're in the process of moving from a position of tolerance toward a culture of belonging, where human difference is fully celebrated.” After the Pulse shooting, for example, he organized a “Service of Remembrance” at William & Mary, with over 200 attendees from the community.

Raised a fundamentalist, he graduated from Pensacola Christian College; his wife graduated from the equally conservative Bob Jones University. His strongly fundamentalist world saw even mainstream, but still conservative evangelicalism, as a move to the left. “We had to undergo a distinct theological and social paradigm shift just to become evangelicals!”

Now he’s not only evangelical, but also progressive, and that comes with a real cost. He’s lost evangelical friends, job opportunities, and there's family friction. “I feel like a black sheep in many contexts,” he admits. “But it's worth it. I feel like I'm realizing my faith more now than ever. I value the people who have befriended me more than the esteem of those who have left.”

So while he hasn’t abandoned the evangelical world entirely yet, he can see it as a possibility. “I think that once there are no more evangelicals who would own me or work with me, I would finally relinquish the name for good.”

Relinquishing that name may not be a necessity, after all, as there are signs of a different future for evangelicalism, one that reforms the movement from within. 

Deborah Jian Lee, journalist and author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, is no longer an evangelical, but continues to report on it, finding hope in this burgeoning progressive direction.

“I was raised non-religious, converted to Christianity at a Chinese immigrant church in high school, and was deeply in the evangelical movement in college as a student leader at one of the largest campus ministries, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,” she says.

It was here she first experienced the evangelical culture wars. 

“The evangelical litmus test included what you’d expect: opposing choice, opposing equality for the queer community, focusing almost exclusively on personal faith, piety and conversion with very little regard to the pressing issues of authentic racial justice, gender equality and equal protection and inclusion of the LGBTQ community.”

Her liberal thinking made for conflict and eventually pushed her out of the evangelical world, leading her to look for a church without fundamentalism. Her faith was questioned by her Christian friends and she found herself moving away from labels.

Her work as a journalist, however, provided her a chance to meet progressive groups across the country who were working to rewrite the evangelical script. 

She interviewed the secret society, Biola Queer Underground (now Biolans’ Equal Ground), which formed to create a “place of refuge” for LGBTQ students and to change the conservative university culture into a welcoming one. She discovered Evangelicals for Justice, which she says is “working to dismantle white power structures in the church, and working to bring conservative white evangelicals to support racial justice work, like Black Lives Matter.”

“What excites me about the progressive evangelicals that I reported on,” she adds, “is that instead of running from evangelicalism (like I did), they are reclaiming it, staying within their communities and changing them from within.” 

The difficulties faced by evangelical progressives is one of connection. The sea of conservative evangelicalism can amplify one’s feeling of being an island. 

Alternative voices to evangelical far right are emerging. The newly formed group, Public Faith, for example, is composed of both conservative and liberal leaning Christians. They oppose climate change, racial injustice, and poverty, but remain traditional on issues of abortion and gay marriage. While Public Faith shares some of these concerns with progressives, it nevertheless appears to be a more moderate voice at this point.

It's not that there aren't big progressive names promoting the cause, like Brian McLaren or Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners Magazine. And it's not that there aren't small organizations and groups pushing for change; it’s that these tend to remain siloed. 

Enter the OPEN Network, a collective of post-evangelical and progressive evangelical leaders founded in 2015 by Doug Pagitt and Michael Kimpan. (Deborah Jian Lee is among their growing list of speakers for their first annual conference.) 

“Evangelicalism,” says Michael, has been “hijacked, and “needs and ought to be reclaimed, reposted, and reoriented towards its original meaning of a declaration of ‘good news.’” 

Like so many, Michael’s journey to progressive evangelicalism came after years of grappling with what he believes it means to be a Christian and discovering that he was no longer conservative. Also like others, his new worldview was costly. In the past, he’s been under church discipline, called a heretic, and lost friendships. He was recently disinvited to an annual family vacation because of his political perspective.

“There’s a more beautiful world my heart knows is possible, and any good God would want it,” says Michael. “Finding others who not only believe the same, but strive to live out a more just and generous expression of Christian faith has been life-saving. You could even call it salvific.”

He wants other progressives to know that they are not alone, and OPEN is the project to deliver that message. “One of the values of OPEN is to resource the groundswell of people, churches, and organizations who identify as both progressive and evangelical. Many don’t even know there are others like them! Yet we are many—and there are enough of ‘us’ out there to make a difference.”

With the future of evangelicalism up for grabs, these young progressive leaders are looking to transform it into what they imagine as the best version of itself. Many understand their work as evangelicals as part of the Protestant heritage of reforming Christianity. 

“Jesus caused the faithful of his day to question everything they held to be fundamentally true and progress beyond their religious doctrines and dogmas,” says Brandan Robertson. “And I believe Christ is calling us to do the same in our day and age. That’s what makes me progressive.”