Just when we thought we knew what to expect from evangelicals, they seem to be changing again. After more than two decades of developing a public identity as loyal Republican “values voters”—replacing their earlier image as otherworldly, backwoods bible-thumpers—evangelicals seem determined to confound our social scientific wisdom again. Just who are these people? In spite of the difficulty of definition and the constantly shifting terrain, I want to argue that there is a “there” there, but it lies in the stories being told more than in any theological or demographic categories.
What I want to suggest is that to understand the nature of the evangelical world, we need to listen for the distinct evangelical “public narratives.” I borrow this term from Margaret Somers, who writes about public narratives as the stories that identify all cultures and institutions, the shared tales that are constructed out of collective experience and orient the action of those who recognize and participate in them. These “public” stories aren’t just the civic and political ones, but all the explicit and implicit plots that coordinate the actions and expectations of groups large and small.
That is, each situation has its own story, a public narrative shaped by the culture and institutions of which it is a part. When evangelical political figures are interviewed by broadcast journalists, there is a script, and we are rarely surprised. When evangelical parents encounter recalcitrant school boards, or even when everyday evangelical workers try to witness quietly to their faith, there are mutually shared expectations (by insiders and outsiders alike) about how the story will go.
But like all stories, the public narratives that identify a group are multi-layered and subject to twists of plot. Existing narratives about who we are both constrain action and enable innovation. The strands of the existing story give direction to the future, but the fact that there is never just one theme allows new directions to emerge. There often are surprises, dilemmas that create gaps in the script or cast doubt on the implied storyline. More about those gaps and dilemmas in a moment.
If we are to understand evangelicalism, then, we must begin by attending to the shifting store of narratives within which evangelicals live, looking for the actors, plots, and experiences that are taken to belong there. Sometimes those narratives are distilled and institutionalized into experiences that evoke individual and collective memories and mutual recognition (singing “Just as I am” perhaps). Sometimes they are distilled into objects that suggest to those who see them that there is a shared story to be told (quilted bible covers come to mind). Sometimes it is a turn of phrase that suggests a larger story about the world (“I’m so blessed . . . “).
People who use these symbols signal to those who have ears to hear that they are part of the tribe. And once accepted as part of the tribe, their actions (until proven otherwise) will be read through the script that shapes that tribe’s way of living in the world. No elaborate arguments are necessary, simply a knowing nod and smile that says, “I know that story. I could tell you what comes next and how it is supposed to end.”
For instance, George W. Bush had to say almost nothing about gay marriage during the 2004 election for his supporters (and detractors) to be convinced this was a central issue in the campaign. One part of the story—being a born-again leader who shares personal prayers with fellow believers who visit the Oval Office—led inevitably to the next part of the story: we stand together in defense of the family and against the forces of evil that would destroy it.
People who spend a lot of time together—as evangelicals certainly do—build up a large store of such stories and symbols and phrases. Because they attend church with much more regularity than their liberal counterparts, they simply have many more ways to recognize each other and to talk about the world.
So what sorts of public narratives have identified the evangelical world? The longest and deepest set of stories in fact has to do with being born again. It’s no accident that we call these people “evangelicals.” There is a “metanarrative” of sin and redemption at work shaping much of the rest of the evangelical story. They are unsurprised to find the world a flawed place, and they expect that lives can be transformed when people accept the Jesus story as their own. There is both a fundamental fatalism and a boundless hope in how they talk about life.
It is worth noting that the “sin” part of this story is not uniquely theirs. Where they differ from more liberal Christians is in insisting on the singular path—belief in the saving blood of Jesus—away from that sin. On the other side of the Protestant family, it is both the sin and the salvation parts of the story that bind evangelicals together with the Pentecostals and African American Protestants with whom they otherwise differ enormously.
That metanarrative of sin and salvation has, at least in the last couple of generations, become intertwined with an equally pervasive American public narrative about how we get along in a diverse society. From Christian Smith to Alan Wolfe and Michael Lindsay, researchers in the evangelical world have listened for a strident hellfire message and heard instead the everyday stories of people who want to be liked and don’t want to make waves, who translate their story about eternal destiny into a more visible story about kindness and honesty. They declare with their lives, more than with their words, that people who have been saved from eternal damnation are the sorts of caring, hardworking friends and colleagues who don’t succumb to life’s pervasive temptations to cheat and cut corners.
Alongside the narrative of salvation, the narrative of “defending biblical truth” has been the other defining theme in evangelicalism. Yes, this includes knowing a prodigious number of actual bible stories, but more importantly, it means describing what is good and right in the world as “biblical.” That may include being able to cite a verse in scripture that supports the claim, but most of the time, it is the rhetorical use of the word that does the narrative work. It evokes a story of persons and faith communities who spend significant time studying the bible, perhaps stirring up memories of the groups in which that study has been done. It also evokes a longer historical story (a “myth,” if you will) of a world that no longer believes the bible standing against a faithful remnant that knows the bible to be true.
Precisely because “biblical” has come to signal being part of an embattled remnant, the bible itself has been very difficult to use as a tool for undermining the political positions of those who claim to be “biblical.” Liberal evangelicals can muster utterly unassailable scriptural claims about the need to care for the poor or protect the planet, but they do not participate in the “embattled remnant” story that goes with being “biblical.” Disrupting one plot in favor of another is much more complicated than simply engaging in a proof text competition.
But disruptions and complications do happen, and stories do take new directions. In a variety of ways, the ‘60s and ‘70s had begun to undermine the stories evangelicals had been telling about themselves for half a century. They had become everyday participants in a middle-class and culturally diverse world where the “old time religion” of their grandparents sometimes didn’t fit. As they developed everyday strategies for getting along, they also developed an ear for the sorts of stories Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were offering about the threats and opportunities of this new world.
Over the last thirty years, those new stories have taken hold. When the sins of the nation are invoked, people know what list to expect. When the possibilities for redemption are imagined, “taking back” the statehouse or Congress or the courts is part of the story. And the Republican party is routinely cast as an indispensable ally, if not the actual hero. From the grassroots to the federal bureaucracy to the presidency itself, a cohort of politically active evangelicals has signaled to other members of the tribe that God’s work is unfolding in the American public arena.
But there are potential disruptions afoot again. What happens when the Republican nominee is tone deaf to the stories of the tribe, but the Democrat isn’t? What happens when apocalyptic stories about global enemies seem to have done more harm than good? What happens when a critical mass of younger evangelicals starts to make “biblical” and “environmental” stick together in the same story? The stories of the last thirty years are highly entrenched in the lives of the myriad publicly-engaged evangelicals who populate the Bush administration and the courts. No matter what happens at the grassroots level, their positions will give the existing story staying power.
For the disruptions of recent history to result in a new re-telling of what it means to be an evangelical, one or more charismatic figures will likely need to find and re-weave the strands of the story for a new generation. It will have to be convincingly about sin and redemption, about being a biblical people. Within those narrative constraints, however, there are endless possible variations. This is a fascinating moment for watching an old story unfold in new ways.