I have a confession to make to the Yale community: I am an evangelical Christian.
I admit that apologetically, in both senses of the word. On one hand, I am sorry to identify myself with that community. I am well aware of the cultural baggage associated with the term “evangelical.” Such baggage is especially clear in the responses I usually receive to this confession: “Oh, so you think I’m going to hell,” “So you reject science and believe in Intelligent Design,” “So you hate gay people” or “Who are you to judge me?” On the other hand, I declare myself an evangelical a bit defensively. I am unwilling to abandon that identity, and while I understand common responses to it, I simultaneously resent them. Sometimes, after being dismissed off-hand as a result of my religion, I feel inclined to ask, “Who are you to judge me?”
So before you decide it’s time to recycle your YDN, let me clarify: I do not think you’re going to hell, I do not reject science or believe in Intelligent Design, I do not hate gay people and I am in no position to judge anyone. If that’s the case, you ask, then how the hell — if you’ll pardon the phrase — do you consider yourself an evangelical? Isn’t that what defines the evangelical community?
Well, in some ways, yes. But, in others, no. “Evangelical,” like all terms, has more than one meaning. Non-Christians usually understand the term to be synonymous with fundamentalism. But Christians usually interpret the word as Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University, does: Evangelicals believe in the Bible as God’s revelation to humans, the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus and of sharing the gospel with other people. I identify as an evangelical in those terms.
But here a dilemma arises. It seems that both fundamentalists and Balmerian evangelicals fit the above stereotypes. It seems that most in both groups think outsiders are going to hell, are highly skeptical of evolutionary theory, don’t like to associate with gay people, and feel it their duty to point out others’ flaws. I can’t dispute this. I have to agree.
And by now, you may be pondering another question: This is all very interesting, but the column is supposed to discuss science. Why am I using it to work out personal religious insecurities?
This brings me to my point. Certain stances on scientific issues, especially when it comes to biology, have become central to defining the evangelical community. Consider evolution, abortion, homosexuality or the environment. Positions on each subject are taken to determine who’s in and who’s out, or, in some circles, who’s “saved” and who burns in hell for eternity. If you subscribe to creationism or Intelligent Design and are pro-life, anti-gay rights and anti-environmentalism, as far as many evangelicals are concerned, you’ll probably be in good shape for the afterlife.
A church friend once commented, “God’s been working in my neighbor’s heart lately.” How did my friend know? Over the years, the neighbor had gradually switched from supporting gay rights to opposing them.
This column is the introduction to a series on those issues in biology that have come to establish the boundaries of the evangelical Christian community. From an evangelical perspective — and I do not say “the” evangelical perspective — I will treat evolution, abortion, homosexuality and the environment in turn. In the process, I hope to explore and nuance the cultural borders of evangelical Christianity. I also hope to show why traditional characterizations of evangelicals are descriptive and not normative. Just because many fit the stereotypes presented in the introduction to this column, there is nothing inherent in evangelicalism that requires this.
Here’s a final question to consider: Why should you care? Many people in academia would rather avoid evangelicals. Why spend your leisure time reading about them?
Polls consistently suggest that roughly 40 percent of Americans adhere to the tenets of evangelical Christianity. If you plan to live in America for a significant period of time, it’s not a bad idea to learn who your neighbors are — and perhaps more importantly, who they aren’t. In the process, maybe you’ll learn how to love them — even if you consider them your enemies.
Jonathan Dudley is a student at the Divinity School and a molecular oncology researcher at Yale School of Medicine.