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How My Evangelical Childhood Prepared Me for the Great Awokening
A Personal Essay
The following is an unedited draft of a 2018 essay that was later published. It’s long and rough, but remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I come back to its ideas often.
I remember, vividly, as a 11 or 12 year old, standing at the counter of the used video game store with my Dad. This wasn’t the usual transaction, because that day I wasn’t buying, I was selling. My parents had become concerned about some occult-sounding themes in this game, which was one of my favorites and a massive hit with what seemed like all of my friends. Nevertheless, my parents judged that they didn’t want their preteen son exposed to words and ideas that even incidentally subverted a Christian understanding. I sadly handed the store employee my copy, and to this day I remember my Dad accentuating my embarrassment by actually explaining his theological concerns to the man behind the register (whom I am sure was very confused). I really enjoyed this game, and I was sad to lose it, but even in my young mind I believe I respected the inner logic of this episode, and the consistently with which my parents applied it. Not everything that was fun was good for me, and not everything that can be enjoyed should be.
Not an unfamiliar lesson by any means, not for me and certainly not for many of my fellows who were raised in conservative evangelicalism. Conservative evangelical culture, usually dubbed fundamentalism, tends to pride itself on its avoidance ethic. How extreme the ethic goes depends on which conservative evangelical you run into, of course. But a generally reliable rule of thumb for my childhood and the childhoods of many of my friends was that there were, on a given day, probably more things to avoid than things to do, especially if we were talking about TV, movies, or music. It didn’t take a whole lot for something to be problematic in our household. A single page, scene, or lyric was sometimes enough. Some of my fellow fundies have grown up and out of this mindset and now label it as vicious and oppressive. But I tend to look at it another way: I look at it as a genuine attempt to live in the tension between “Do not love the world” and “Everything is to be received with thanksgiving.” My whole life I have lived inside a paradoxical experience of culture, one that is simultaneously capable of partaking and celebrating, and eschewing and even boycotting. It’s a paradox with pitfalls, yes. But it’s a tension that gives a certain kind of authenticity and wakefulness to spiritual life.
I think this is what many of my secular fellow millennials are looking for nowadays. I can’t help but remember my fundamentalist upbringing when I read, for example, about how woke college students now find the sitcom “Friends” very problematic (I’ve never seen an episode in my life). When I read their comments carefully, I cannot join in the mockery that some of my fellow conservatives seem to employ. Why would I mock twenty and thirty somethings who are realizing, possibly for the very first time, the troubles with pop culture? These socially conscious millennials are going through something at 22 something I experienced at 5—the awareness that not everything that’s fun is good for you. I don’t feel contempt for these collegians, I pity them. It must be an awkward and painful thing to have to come to terms with your inner moral life as an autonomous adult. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” it is written, because it just gets harder later.
The emerging millennial culture’s interest in “justice” creates a fascinating dynamic for close observers of Americans culture. Moral relativism, the deconstruction of all transcendent truth-claims, was sold as the inevitable future just a generation ago. Not only has relativism failed to conquer our cultural landscape, it has been routed quite ruthlessly by something close to its opposite: A moral absolutism shaped in the image of Kinsey's sexual nihilism and a rootless cosmopolitanism. The contemporary college campus ethos is actually quite similar to that of an independent Baptist Bible college, featuring an intense preoccupation on unquestionable absolutes, a compulsive need for powerful, centralized moral accountability of students and staff, and, yes, a keen interest in rules.
When I first started reading about “trigger warnings,” I realized that America’s elite universities had culturally appropriated my fundamentalist childhood. I have never ever read Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and I can guarantee you that my parents would have never let me remain in any junior high or high school classroom where those books were assigned. The phrase “banned books” is dramatic and cliche, so I will say instead that my conservative evangelical education simply assumed that sexually explicit volumes of literature were of no importance. But smut was hardly the only problem: I wasn’t allowed to read the Harry Potter series until I could drive (I think Mom and Dad got that one wrong, for what it’s worth).
Why were all these works withheld from me? Because my parents didn’t want to be triggered. They didn’t want me ingesting false moral ideas or seductive imagery. My not-as-conservative friends often thought these restrictions were unnecessary. Can’t you just ignore the bad parts and focus on the good? But that was not how Mom and Dad viewed culture. Books and films and TV shows weren’t just the sum of their parts that could be sorted through like dirty and clean laundry. They were of a singular piece, because culture is ultimately guided by moral ideas, and those moral ideas must be, as Paul said, “taken captive to the mind of Christ.”
The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard was often unintelligible to kids around me. They simply had no category for missing out on cool stuff because it wasn’t “Christlike.” I think this was often because they didn’t think of their movies and books this way. They were toys, nothing more. Barring the unacceptably explicit, it just didn’t make sense to impose this kind of strict moral demand on the stuff other people make for us to read and watch and listen to. What my fundamentalist upbringing gave me in all of this was a childhood conception of non-neutrality. These strict moral qualifications for what I “let in my heart” reenforced for me the idea that all of culture, even the most seemingly mindless stuff, is pulsating with moral content.
I believe that what is happening for this generation of students is that they are coming to this same realization, but without the help of religion’s spiritual formation. The campus trigger warning culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if the “fundies,” whom they often dismiss as bigoted dinosaurs awaiting their just extermination, are their closest intellectual kin?
Woke collegians protest campus speakers, demand trigger warnings, and audit pop culture for the #problematic because they reject the idea that we should be good, little unquestioning consumers of whatever decadent late capitalism gives us. Fundamentalists agree with this completely! In fact, we fundies have been on this beat since long before most of the woke collegians were even born. Despite our manifold disagreements, the fundies and the woke collegians can agree on something very important, something that millions of other Americans seem to miss: It matters what we let into our world. Can is not should. Conservative evangelicals understand this very well—better, perhaps, than many college administrators.
The crucial difference, of course, is that evangelical fundies understand this from a spiritual perspective.The fundamentalists orientation toward culture is driven by a sense of religious responsibility and piety. On the other hand, the woke collegian orientation is shaped largely by concerns about “marginalization,” “equality,” and “justice.” If one were to adapt Richard Niebuhr’s famous taxonomy, one might say that woke collegians and evangelical fundamentalists both assume a “Christ against culture” position. That is, the truth-claims of the woke collegian movement and the fundamentalist doctrine are in inherent conflict with the surrounding culture. Woke collegians believe that a truly just world will look nothing like Western capitalism, and therefore their tolerance for coming into contact with Western capitalism is often relative to just how seriously they take their moral intuitions.
Evangelical fundamentalists are precisely the same way. They too believe that the ideal society looks nothing like contemporary American culture. Further, like the woke collegians, they give much attention to the ordering of their own world. While fundamentalism is often caricatured as something like the anachronistic pioneer town in “The Village,” most evangelical fundamentalists invest their energy in ordering their intellectual lives rather than their aesthetic ones. Occasionally evangelical fundies will withdraw from mainstream cultural institutions, but this happens about as often as it does for the woke collegians. More likely, both the evangelicals and the secular students are not trying to escape America physically, but spiritually. Hence, both woke collegians and fundamentalists maintain a serious oversight over the culture they consume. Both groups, though impossibly different in motivation and worldview, participate in a strikingly similar liturgy of personal formation. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall be woke.
If this way of speaking sounds dismissive of socially conscious millennials, it is not. On the contrary, acknowledging the parallels between fundamentalist Christian culture and woke campus culture is, for me at least, a crucial reminder that socially “fringe” movements often have embedded value that mainstream culture does not appreciate. Fundamentalist Christians have long been pariahs in the American public square. Sometimes this attitude has been earned, and sometimes it has been undeserved. Yet conservative evangelicalism is a surprisingly diverse movement of people that aim to take their beliefs about ultimate things seriously, and to apply them in a way they can pass on to future generations. Socially active millennials fit this description too. Thought some on the Right dismiss them as “SJWs,” this group is taking the world of ideas seriously, and their efforts to construct a coherent vision of a just, equitable society deserve to be engaged.
The greater point is that the phenomenon of woke campus culture needs to be understood in terms stronger than faddishness or even reactionaryism. What the woke campus culture strives for is the realization of live principles through enforced societal norms. This is, flatly, fundamentalism. Realizing this fact should motivate a threefold response.
First, we ought to officially disown the illusion that secularity is objective, scientific, and libertarian, and religion is biased, superstitious, and puritanical. This meme is so common nowadays that few people explicate it; rather, they simply assume that it’s true and base their political and social perspectives on its truth. A species of this meme is the idea that religion imposes moral demands on the self that secularism lifts off. This is obviously false. The woke campus collegian is not less moralistic than his evangelical friend. If anything, they are equally moralistic but in different directions. For the woke collegian, the all important doctrine of consent requires complex and invasive laws of intercourse, and a sufficiently complex and invasive legal infrastructure to ensure those laws are followed. For the fundamentalist, the doctrine of sexual purity demands similarly complex and invasive laws and norms, usually backed up by the power of institutional churches. While it may sound absurd to compare the toxicity of campus hookup culture to, say, evangelical courtship culture, the two dynamics can be strikingly similar in their moral demands. Substitute marriage for consent, and swap out the word “purity” for “equality,” and you may have difficulty telling the two ecosystems apart.
Second, we should be unafraid to make a moral evaluation between these competing but similar ethical orientations. I hope that my comments about their similarities will not be misinterpreted as an argument for why woke collegians and conservative evangelicals are equally problematic. On the contrary, I think evangelical fundamentalism is a far superior moral system. While some of my friends who were raised in conservative evangelicalism will probably rush to contradict me here, I would submit that the key difference between woke campus culture and conservative evangelical culture is that the sins and excesses of the latter are fixable and redeemable in a way that the sins and the excesses of the former are not. This is what I would call “the fundamentalist advantage.” Because conservative evangelicals ground their moral perspectives in the Scriptures, and, ultimately, in the demands of the resurrected Christ, there is an “out there”-ness to the system that offers a kind of organic resistance to widespread, perpetual abuses. The Scriptures stand above us, and by standing above us, they resist by their nature our efforts to twist and misrepresent them. Does this still happen? Certainly. But investing your authority in a moral system within definite margins, far from leading to rigid inflexibility, actually maximizes the possibility of reinterpretation and re-application. As an evangelical, I believe that, ultimately, we are all each accountable to Christ. In this way, theology provides a kind of moral social relief. The church qua church is not the final source of moral accountability in the world. That Source is here, and is coming.
By contrast, the emerging culture of millennial college campuses appears to locate its moral authority in something like majoritarianism. There’s an unmistakeable whiff of mob rule in the way that many elite universities are having to quickly change policies or fire administrators who run afoul of politically correct doctrines. There’s more than a little hint of authoritarian oligarchy in the way that social media shaming campaigns are used to end careers and destroy reputations. Bereft of a transcendent source for moral authority, the woke campus culture frequently relies on the power of the hive to effect change…change that will, presumably, look different from generation to generation.
Third, the related spectacles of insular fundamentalism and woke campus culture should motivate us to recover a language of virtue in the public square. Most people agree that American culture is deeply polarized, and that our divisions seem much larger than our unities. Could this partly be because both religious and secular moralists have lost sight of the venerated traditions of moral philosophy and virtue ethics? Conservative evangelicals often err here by relying too much on prooftexts and Christian “worldview” training, which tend to reduce the Christian moral perspective to very opaque maxims that accentuate theological disagreements. On the other hand, the woke campus collegian frequently talks of morality via economic determinism and reductionistic scientism. Both a Neo-Darwinian materialism and a theologically unmoored prooftextism are insufficient for facilitating genuine dialogue about why we human beings, as ideologically diverse as we are, still crave a unified moral life.
It may sound insane to suggest that conservative evangelicals and woke college millennials have a lot to share with each other. I believe they do. And it may be worth contemplating what each tribe can learn from the other’s mistakes. A lack of systemic accountability has wrecked many a conservative evangelical church, and socially conscious millennials should realize that activism, even very earnest activism, is not a vaccine against abuse, selfishness, and corruption. Likewise, woke campus culture has erred in stifling good faith dialogue and insisting on rigid conformities that undermine communal well-being. Conservative evangelicals should learn from this mistake and repent of the ways it has created unnecessary divisions and alienated members who felt as if they never even had a chance.
We are incurably religious, and that fact remains whether we express our religion via affirmative consent and trigger warnings, or through Harry Potter chain emails and the Billy Graham rule. We are moral people who want to live a moral life. Perhaps some of the scars of our culture wars could even be healed by some honest recognition that, regardless whether our alma mater is Amherst or Bob Jones, we all sense the accountability on us for the world we make. Look at it this way: If it all goes for nothing except that we get some lousy 90s sitcoms taken off the air, it’s probably worth it.