Think You Know Evangelicals? Think Again.

Author Deborah Jian Lee wants you to meet the young, diverse, progressive Christians who are transforming the Evangelical movement.

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For many left-leaning, less religious Americans, the word “Evangelical” conjures someone who is anti-gay, anti-choice, Bible-thumping and in this election, perhaps even a Donald Trump supporter.

While these descriptors may hold true for many Evangelicals, they most certainly don’t reflect them all—particularly evangelicals of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.

These evangelicals are the subject of Deborah Jian Lee’s book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism. I recently spoke with Lee about her book, the 2016 presidential election, and why some progressive Christians continue to work for reform within the movement, even as the centers of power oppose them. 

Rachel Held Evans: There’s an overwhelming assumption among the media and the culture at large that evangelical Christians are some of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters, or at least his most loyal supporters, which comes as something of a surprise, given his moral track record. In what regard is this true, and in what regard might there be some misunderstanding, particularly about the term evangelical and who it represents in polling data?

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Deborah Lee: This Evangelical narrative is frustrating and incomplete. So many outlets apply polling data on white evangelicals to all evangelicals, and in doing so they miss the real story. White evangelicals are a shrinking segment of the evangelical population; people of color are on their way toward becoming the majority, which is reshaping evangelical priorities. (Researchers predict they’ll exceed 50 percent of the evangelical population around 2040.) What’s really interesting is that as the presence of evangelicals of color increases, in many cases their concerns also become the concerns of the white evangelicals with whom they worship.

Pastors see this happening in real time. They say their churches will only survive if they embrace diversity. One pastor in Georgia told me that she could see this plainly in her congregation: the aging and exiting population was mostly white while the children and youth programs host mostly kids from immigrant communities.

So if we take a step back and look at the broader evangelical landscape, we’ll see that, one, it’s much more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and, two, it’s much more diverse in terms of political alignment and values. For example, black evangelicals overwhelmingly say they will vote for Hillary Clinton. Generally, people of color steer their political concerns toward issues that affect their communities, such as immigration reform, police brutality, affordable health care and environmental justice to name a few. And does Donald Trump share these concerns? Absolutely not. 

Do you sense also a generational divide? I know when it comes to evangelical support for same-sex marriage, for example, polling shows a significant generational difference.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s two things. One, we’re in a new era of Evangelicalism, so people including Millennials, Boomers, and Gen Xers are broadly shifting toward more progressive policies, such as policies that are inclusive of the LGBT community. I spoke to a sociologist from Idaho State University named Jeremy Thomas (he’s been studying the evolution of evangelical beliefs about homosexuality since the 1960s) and his research shows that when it comes to the issue of sexuality, three distinct groups are emerging from within evangelicalism: those who embrace, those who reject and those undecided about LGBTQ inclusion in the church. The undecided struggle between teachings that say the Bible condemns homosexuality and the actual LGBTQ people in their lives whom they love. I have a close friend who was undecided, but after a decade of reading books from various perspectives, wrestling with scripture and getting to know her queer friends, she transitioned to the camp that embraces. Among younger people, I’ve seen this shift happen more quickly. They simply know more people who are out and have more access to literature and communities that educate. They’re a much quicker study than us older folks, and in many cases, they are becoming our leaders. And that’s true across progressive issues. So yeah, when you look the shift that’s taking place, it’s happening across generations, it’s often led by the younger generation. 

To me, the most moving stories from Rescuing Jesus were the stories of LGBTQ Christians like Will and Tasha who fought against anti-queer policies at their Christian colleges and universities. Once all this election drama dies down a bit, I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about LBGTQ policies at Christian schools. What are people like Will and Tasha concerned about, and what seems to be giving them hope?

One pressing concern is the fact that Christian colleges are applying for Title IX exemptions, which would allow them to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and still receive federal funds. They can discriminate in areas including admission, housing and employment. What are the real life consequences for LGBTQ students who are at these schools? Already, non-affirming Christian colleges create an environment that triggers alarming rates of mental health problems among LGBTQ students. I’ve interviewed students in these hostile environments who experienced panic attacks and suicidal ideation. When Tasha was at Biola, she frequently heard professors and students talk about queer people with contempt, or have friends call her “dyke” based on what she wore, and each time it made her heart race, her palms sweat and her stomach turn until she would almost vomit. One student drank bleach because he did not believe he deserved to live. Exemptions from Title IX give schools an added layer of protection, when it’s the LGBTQ students who face serious harm; it’s the LGBTQ students who need protection.

The absurd argument that schools are making is that they are upfront about their policies and that LGBTQ students simply should not apply. But the reality is so much more complicated for LGBT youth from Christian families. According to psychologists and common sense, a lot of people don’t have their sexuality figured out when they are applying to college. Secondly, many of their parents will only fund a Christian education. Oftentimes it’s not safe for them to come out at 17 because their parents may cut off financial support or cut them off entirely. I know students who have ended up homeless after coming out. So to say that students at 17 should understand their sexuality completely, come out, risk losing their parents’ support and strike out on their own really discounts where they are developmentally and their reality.

Yeah, and yet in spite of all that we have people like Will and Tasha who are willing to do some really difficult work in these environments. What do you see in that regard that is encouraging?

What blew me away was the way their Christian faith prompted them to start the Biola Queer Underground (they’re now called Biolans’ Equal Ground), which was a safe place for LGBTQ people to be themselves, be loved and be healed. They were living out the Gospel in a way that was stripped of ideologies or political agendas. And this cobbled together, underground, student-led group actually worked. I spoke to students who, prior to their time with the underground, struggled with self-hatred, isolation, suicidal ideation and so much more.

Here were all these extreme cases of psychological distress, but after just a year and a half with the Biola Queer Underground, I couldn’t find anyone who still had severe mental health issues. I met the group at this party they threw at the end of their second school year. I remember hearing their difficult stories and asking, “What kind of distress are you under right now? Didn’t you say that Biola University had hurt you?” And they all said, “Well yeah, Biola hurt me, but the Biola Queer Underground saved me. I’m happy.” I remember watching them at that party. They danced. They hugged. They prayed. They passed love notes. They talked excitedly about the future the way college students should.

This gave me so much hope. Not only is this happening at Biola, but LGBTQ support groups are popping up in Christian institutions across the country. It’s happening at Christian colleges. It’s happening among the Queer Collective at InterVarsity right now. It’s happening in mega-churches. In so many communities queer people are rejecting the narrative that their sexual orientation or gender identity disqualifies them from church. Instead, they are showing the rest of us that they not only belong, but that they are absolutely needed. They are saving LGBTQ Christians from being destroyed by harmful ideology and they are saving straight Christians from privilege that blinds us to the fact that our liberation is wrapped up in each other. 

Right, which goes right to heart of Rescuing Jesus, which is about how people of color, women, and queer Christians are reclaiming evangelicalism. Do you think this election is having an effect on whether such people continue to identify as evangelical or is there more incentive than ever to just ditch the label and identify as something else, like Lutheran or Episcopalian or simply Christian?

Yeah, I think that is the question that our entire generation is asking, and a lot of them have answered with no, I’m not evangelical or no, I’m not Christian. When you look at the numbers, Millennials are ditching the label. But the focus of my book is about people who are holding onto the label, and that’s still a significant segment of the population.

So why are they holding onto the label? There are many reasons. One, for many, the evangelical world is their family. You may disagree with your family, but that doesn’t mean you disown your family. Two, leaders like church growth scholar Soong-Chan Rah talk about how it’s important to stay and be held accountable to both the good and bad that evangelicals have brought to the world. Three, those that keep the evangelical label have the authority to speak to the broader evangelical community. And that point dovetails with my final point: as evangelical demographics shift, a lot of previously marginalized evangelicals (like people of color, women, and queer Christians) realize that they can use their rising influence to transform the priorities of one of the nation’s most prominent religious movements. Holding onto the evangelical label allows them to keep their voice within evangelicalism.

One of the progressive evangelicals in Rescuing Jesus is Lisa Sharon Harper, a black leader who recently helped organize and draft a declaration by American Evangelicals concerning Donald Trump, which condemns his racism and misogyny, among other things, How are evangelicals of color in particular disrupting the status quo, maybe changing the conversation in evangelicalism, and who are some others we should be watching?

People like Lisa Sharon Harper and Soong-Chan Rah are bonafide evangelicals. They claim the label, they speak the language and they’ve served in all the major evangelical organizations. Because of all this, white evangelical leaders give them a seat the table, and that’s when they get to work on disrupting the white evangelical paradigm. For example, Lisa has been working for years on building a bridge between conservative white evangelicals and the Black Lives Matter movement. After Michael Brown was killed, Lisa went to Ferguson repeatedly and organized an unlikely movement. She met with white evangelical leaders. She made a case for why white evangelicals needed to support this movement and mobilize their faith communities. She’s able to act as a translator between those two communities where if there wasn’t a translator, those communities would just remain divided and at odds with each other. 

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