Editor’s Note: The term exvangelical has come into vogue recently as more people deconstruct (another trending word) their faith. All the Faith on View authors come from evangelical movements either, Baptist or Pentecostal, and all still hold their faith deeply. Yet, they have differing perspectives on the term of exvangelical, some claim it, some don’t. As a special series, we have asked each author to reflect on the concept of exvangelical. We hope you appreciate their ruminations.
In 1953, Russian immigrant Sam Born purchased the Rodda Candy Company and promptly replaced the handcrafted marshmallow chick line with the cold mechanization of mass production to make Peeps. What was once the work of a single candy artisan that involved a twenty-seven-minute process to stylize an individual Peep has now been reduced to a six-minute replication with 5.5 million produced daily. With the nutritionally inept ingredients of sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, and air, these Easter holiday favorites now sell in excess of 700 million a year, probably contributing to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and, generally speaking, the deaths of those consuming them. I eat them by the brood, unapologetically so.
Also in 1953, President Eisenhower appeared at the first National Prayer Breakfast which was organized with the assistance of a popular young Christian evangelist by the name of Billy Graham. One year later, Congress added the words “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and, just a few months later, Eisenhower signed legislation the addition of “In God We Trust” to the money we spend to purchase essential goods, services, and also on Peeps.
As it turns out, the emergence of Evangelicalism as a cultural and political force in America has a lot in common with the mass-produced colorful marshmallow farm birds. The similarities include ample amounts of sweet sentimentality and hot air, produced to fit a prefabricated mold with little to no nutritional value, and just in time for Easter. As the opening salvos were fired in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Billy Graham and other Evangelicals sought out an alliance with like-minded politicians who viewed the threat of communist Russia as more than just a military one, but rather as a conflict of moral and religious proportions that cast America as the Christian savior of the world against the threat of the Antichrist Bolsheviks. Every institution of 1950’s America was shaped by this perceived crisis, including the family and the Church; for the next several decades, Americans who identified as Christians would rail against any cultural, political, or social dissenters with Cold War rhetoric and theatrics. This cultural alliance served to transform the privately practiced ancient traditions of Christ into the prefabricated molds of political expediency and populism, culminating with the election of the Evangelical champion Ronald Reagan.
Coming of age in the 1980s, I watched with attention as the Regan Presidency played out before me in all of its sugary delights. Reagan, at least in his words, embodied the desires of Evangelicals in America, and for the first time in many years, we were able to see ourselves reflected in the Oval Office. Never mind that his predecessor Jimmy Carter more accurately lived by Christian values, it was Reagan who articulated those values eloquently and with style. Like sugar-coated Peeps, his words melted in fundamentalist mouths, one of which was mine, open to receive the political eucharist served up by the Evangelical Industrial Complex in all of its derivative iterations of music and entertainment. I listened to the militaristic themes set to a rock beat in Contemporary Christian Music and lamented the collapse of Western Civilization with James Dobson and Don Wildmon and was convinced that America’s only hope was a return to the Christian principles upon which it was founded. It wasn’t until much later in life I would learn that most of what I was being fed was simply unsubstantiated fantasy about an America that never really existed; the concoction was designed to amp me with self-righteous fervor in hopes of channeling this into political action. Political actions that always promised more than they were ever capable of delivering.
Informed by these pundits, politicians, and preachers, I worked hard and achieved success at being a good Christian but continued to fail miserably at becoming a better person. I spoke the language of Christianity but lacked the spirit of its intentions; I could mimic sympathy on occasion but would continually fall short of sustaining any real empathy. I faithfully read the commandments as if I had never broken them, seeing them as a checklist of achievement instead of the revelation of my deficits. I paraded about clothed with fig leaves woven of religious piety that only revealed spiritual nakedness. The syrupy sentimentality of my dogmatic assertions dissolved into a goo of empty religion when scrutinized under the heat of the absurdities of this life. Like the wise man of Ecclesiastes, I was left with nothing but a declaration that it was all vanity.
Peeps are good as an occasional treat, but should they ever become a mainstay of my diet, I will die. Likewise, the life of Christianity is threatened by the political, cultural, and moral aims of Evangelicalism in its current forms. Political action, social reforms, and moralistic behavior modifications are poor substitutes for The Holy Spirit.
Witnessing the failures of current political embodiments of American Christianity has been a turning point for me as it still seeks to find triumph in candidates who feign affinity with Christians but in actuality do little to perpetuate its tenets—oftentimes only paying lip service to ideologies but denying the realities at the heart of the Way of Christ, or in the difficult and often unrealistic expectations of a Christianity that insists on defining every aspect of life through the lens of preferential mores instead of Holy Spirit led convictions. I find myself spiritually starved as a result of the loss of effective, substantive orthodoxies traded for the mass-produced candied efficiencies of modern Evangelicalism.
This is why, increasingly, I count myself among the many Exvangelicals who are attempting to forge a novel path in American Christianity that embraces traditional ways devoid of political expediency or popular appeal, avoiding the rote “shibboleths” demanded as a paltry means of entry into the homogenized spaces of conventional Christian tropes. I’d much rather identify with the marginalized peasant preacher of the Gospels who declared “narrow is the way”— a Christianity that merely defines its existence by the sound of applause or bellows of outrage is in danger of losing its identity to both. A Christianity that merely defines itself by the expectations of Victorian morals or Enlightenment philosophies is in danger of becoming obsolete as these paradigms shift with time. Only a Christianity based on the reality of a “Jesus that saves losers like me” is viable for any influence beyond the harmonious choirs that currently occupy its shrinking lofts.
Or in the words of Robert Capon, The Church “will preach salvation for the successfully well behaved, redemption for the triumphantly correct in doctrine, and pie in the sky for all the winners who think they can walk into the final judgment and flash their passing report cards at Jesus. But every last bit of that is now and ever shall be pure baloney because (a) nobody will ever have that kind of sugar to sweeten the last deal with, and (b) Jesus is going to present us all to the Father in the power of his resurrection and not at all in the power of our own totally inadequate records, either good or bad. But does the church present a salty message? Not as I hear it, it doesn’t. It preaches the nutra-sweet religion of test passing, which is the only thing the world is ready to buy and which isn’t even real sugar let alone salt. In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. And he rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world….that alone is the salt that can take our perishing insipidity and give it life and flavor forever. That alone. . .”
The gospel is still the good news of substance.
The kind of substantial spiritual nutrition that Peeps only dream about.
Just in time for Easter.