Dr. Isaac Sharp is Director of Certificate Programming and Visiting Assistant Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Isaac’s current research focuses on the theology, ethics, and history of American evangelicalism. In April, he published a new book, The Other Evangelicals: A Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians and the Movement That Pushed Them Out, which debuted on Amazon at number one for books on sociology and religion. The book is a must-read for any reader seeking a deep dive into a more inclusive history of religion in America.
Hear the full May 13, 2023 State of Belief Radio program here.
Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Host:
Dr. Isaac Sharp is Director of Online and Part-Time Programs, and Visiting Assistant Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, my alma mater. Last month, Isaac published his new book, The Other Evangelicals: A Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians and the Movement That Pushed Them Out.
Isaac, it is great to have you with us on State of Belief Radio.
Dr. Isaac B. Sharp, Guest:
It’s great to be here. I’m excited for the opportunity to chat about the book, and to chat again with Paul after having worked together on various projects over the years.
Absolutely. This is fantastic. And The Other Evangelicals debuts at number one on Amazon for books on sociology and religion. You are a star!
So, let’s start with this title – which is not known for its brevity, but its inclusiveness. Introduce, first of all, yourself; and why this book?
The most direct answer is that it came out of my dissertation. A bit of a longer backdrop there is that it grew out of exploration that I had done over the years during my own MDiv. I have an MDiv from Mercer University where I worked with David Gushee, who was my advisor at Mercer in the MDiv program, and I worked for him for the Center for Theology and Public Life for a year before I started my PhD. During that time period, he and I worked together on a book called Evangelical Ethics, A Reader in Evangelical Ethics. And it’s a selection of various kinds of influential thinkers across the 20th century in the American evangelical space – and those, specifically, who focused on social, ethical, personal, moral issues.
And in the beginnings of working on that book and in working closely with my friend and mentor David Gushee, I began thinking through these questions of what it means in a contemporary context to say, yes, I am an evangelical; or who is an evangelical, or who’s not an evangelical. And one of the interesting places that it most directly became a question was, as David Gushee and I were working on that book, making decisions about who goes in a book like that and who doesn’t go in a book like that. And some of that research, for me, began the process of asking this question of who gets counted as evangelical and not, and the kind of discovery that I think that there’s a story there that generally isn’t told in the popular and scholarly sources about evangelicalism.
Well, it’s interesting. When I read that title, I was curious, would Walter Rauschenbusch be included as an evangelical? Because certainly in his mind he was, but then, almost, he became the kind of flashpoint for deciding what isn’t an evangelical – although he wrote a book called Christianizing the Social Order. You know what I mean? Something that you wouldn’t want to get away with today. And he worked with Moody, and he was very interested in the prayers and the hymnology and all of that. And yet, no, he’s like the opposite of an evangelical today. He’s like, the ur-not-evangelical. So, it is interesting who doesn’t qualify.
I often say, today, the only way anyone can claim being an evangelical today is if they say they’re anti-gay or they’re anti-abortion. That’s the thing that allows you to continue to be in the club. The moment you step over the line, you’re not part of the club. You can prove me wrong, but all I’m saying, I’m entering into the conversation that you entered into more fulsomely with this book.
Yes-and. Walter Rauschenbusch is a prime example of something that I argue happened historically. And what happened historically, I argue, is that the evangelical label was more in flux for a longer period of time than folks realize.
So, into the 20th century with the fundamentalist modernist controversies and these fights over who is in and out of various American denominations, and you retroactively get this split between the liberal mainline and the conservative evangelical – this is the so-called two-party thesis in American Protestantism. And historically, then, the ideas that never the twain then meet; they go their separate directions. And it’s really interesting that it’s more complicated than that.
There are these figures back there in the story who considered themselves evangelical; and what they would have meant by that would be various things, but in some cases at least it’s faithfulness to the gospel, right? They would say, I may be a progressive on economic issues or I may be a theological liberal, meaning that I accept Darwinian evolution or higher critical methodologies; but that doesn’t – in their telling, these liberal evangelicals – but that doesn’t make me any less faithful to the gospel.
And part of what I was doing in the dissertation and the book, with that chapter in particular, is saying that story of these folks who are these early progenitors of what becomes the other direction in American Protestantism are lost from the stories specifically around evangelical identity, when they consider themselves evangelicals and faithful to the gospel. And it’s just this fascinating piece of the story that really gets left out.
On the other end, the anti-gay piece – any number of these chapters could be the most controversial, but number one on the liberal evangelicals and the last chapter on gay evangelicals are definitely in the running for the most controversial.
I do think that this is a really interesting and important book for right now, because, almost, “evangelical” has lost its meaning. I don’t even know what we mean anymore by “evangelical.” It’s almost become a political category more than it is a descriptive of a certain stance towards religion. All these different categories of people who have been pushed out of being able to claim that label, it’s all about politics and it’s about other things perhaps outside of the gospel. So, I’m just curious how you feel about that.
Yes, so part of the argument that I am setting out in the book is that evangelical identity over the course of the 20th century and into the dawn of the 21st century took on these certain connotations, and that part of how it took on these connotations is by gatekeeping by these… Because evangelicalism is this kind of nebulous thing that doesn’t have an official roster of members like a denomination does or an officially recognized singular leader who everyone can point to as, that person is the head of evangelicalism – although Billy Graham could vie for that unofficial title in the 20th century context – but part of what I’m arguing is that because of that kind of nebulous movement that changes and shifts over time, that across the 20th century you get this periodic thing that happens where these folks who built this movement of generally theologically conservative Protestants have to deal with the fact that there is internal pluralism in building a coalition of generally conservative Protestants. There’s an internal pluralism that’s going on.
And what regularly happens that I end up arguing in the book is there are folks who say, yes, I believe X, Y, Z theological tenet that you say is the requirement to be called evangelical: you know, a focus on the Bible, a belief in the authority of scripture, whatever the changing qualifications are. You get these folks who say, yes, I agree with that, but I vote Democrat; or I am a feminist; or I interpret those few, the quote-unquote “clobber passages” in the Christian scriptures that folks usually interpret as referring to homosexuality; or, I interpret those passages differently, but I still hold to the authority of scripture.
And so these folks that I end up talking about in the book, many of them said and grew up and spent their lives or chose later at some point to move among the religious community called evangelical because it’s where they believed they belonged and in line with a theology; and then there would be one thing, there would be some extra little qualification that would get paraded out by gatekeepers and they would say, ah, you know, you agree to all these points; but if you vote this way or you think that about feminism or you’re gay or you’re black, there’s something else all of a sudden that becomes an extra requirement.
And when folks ran afoul of the gatekeepers, they got written out of the history books such that you never hear about this black evangelical movement or the evangelical feminist movement or that there were gay evangelicals because these folks have gotten written out of the story.
Right. And you think of movements like the Southern Baptist takeover in the late 70s, which was a big power play. You know, women preaching, women teaching – that was like an accepted part of what it was to be a Southern Baptist; and then all of a sudden it was like, nope, and then they got kicked out. And so, when you say gatekeepers, that’s what it also is, it’s like evictors. People who literally will say, you no longer are welcome here.
And you think about the damage that does to the people who are evicted and then the paucity of who remains. That’s the other part of this story. It’s terrible for people to get kicked out of church. It’s a damaging traumatic. But then you think about, oh, well, what are you left with? And, you know, this idea of this purity – and then you’re always fearful. Are you going to be the next? I just think it sounds like a horror show.
It is definitely the case: the part of the argument that I end up making is that you get these power brokers, gatekeepers, often self-appointed, in evangelical spaces across the 20th century and into the 21st century, who end up drawing a tighter and tighter circle around who is in and who’s out. And part of the argument I end up making is that these folks end up remaking evangelical identity in their own image, such that the only people who are left who are the official safe recognized evangelicals whose credentials aren’t challenged are those who look, think, act, vote, literally look like white, straight, Calvinist Republicans.
We just talked to Brad Onishi, who has this great podcast, Straight White American Jesus. I mean, that’s what it is, honestly. And everybody else is there, if you can adopt that identity. And it just seems like you’re putting a lot of people in this no man’s land.
You think about the movement, the gay church, the Metropolitan Gay Church, that if you’ve ever been to one of them – for me, I grew up kind of liberal Protestant, and I go in there and I’m like, what evangelical? It just happens to all be gay guys and gay women and bisexual, transgender. But the fervor is very evangelical. It just so happens that they were all evicted. This is something that is in people’s blood, and yet they are not able to stay in their broader community and so they have to leave and they find other communities. And again, what’s left loses out, because there’s deep spirituality and power in these various communities that have been kicked out. And I think it’s sad.
Yes. And the MCC, the Metropolitan Community Churches, are a piece of this story in a very concrete way, because of the very reason that you’re talking about. The emergence of the MCC, in certain iterations of it – I didn’t get to talk too much about this in the book, but I do mention a little bit, I think, where certain congregations of Metropolitan Community Church, it is like a very evangelical and or sometimes Pentecostal flavor to some of them. That it is the case that you have these folks who say, this is how we want to be in religious community and worship. We don’t necessarily want to go down the street to the liberal mainline church that would fly the gay flag; and that’s a piece of the 20th century American Christian story that is really not told enough, I think.
Somebody like Troy Perry is a fascinating example of this. I think I included some mention of Troy Perry in the book, but not a profile. There needs to be more historical work on Troy Perry as somebody who was like, yeah, I’m evangelical. And I’m gay. And that’s just what it is.
And if you’ve ever heard him preach, you’re like, okay, here comes the Spirit!
You know, one thing that is a part of this story is how you view the salvific power of other traditions. One of the things that I’ve written about, because I have Jewish cousins and I’ve written publicly, if heaven doesn’t include my Jewish cousins, I don’t want to go there. But I think that that’s another element of the evangelical, like, you can’t allow for the fact that people might get redemption or enlightenment or fulfillment, true fulfillment, honest fulfillment, and respect that fulfillment – and remain an evangelical that thinks everyone who isn’t saved exactly in the way you’re saved is going to hell.
But this thing around interfaith work, also, though, is a piece of the story where there is something going on in evangelical circles, specifically, explicitly, in the 20th century that is a rejection of a certain kind of interfaith engagement.
The interesting thing that happens, that I do talk a little bit about in the early chapters with the emergence of the official evangelical organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today, is, in fact, that those organizations were explicitly predicated on the idea that the ecumenical movement is a liberal, backsliding, dangerous thing that is watering down true doctrine for the sake of ecumenical cooperation. And you get this rejection of that as very foundational to 20th century evangelical identity, where you have these organizations that say all those liberals that are in charge of all of the main denominations are joining in – even cross-denominational work, are joining in cross-denominational work – and they’re watering down the gospel. And that is a strong preventative to certain kinds of interfaith conversations.
For sure. For sure. When I was at Princeton, running interfaith work at Princeton, often the evangelicals wanted to be there because they actually really liked talking to people who took religion seriously. So, I think there are manifestations of that in different ways.
But I just think the political aspect of evangelicalism is really fascinating. And here you have the figure of Jimmy Carter, who is probably the most serious evangelical we’ve had. But this gets to your point. If you talk to him, he will talk about Jesus. I mean, he’s like a serious dude as far as evangelical. And I think maybe the first time he ran, people were thinking they should support him. And then they flip and they go to Reagan. And then since that time, it’s been anathema.
I mean, Barack Obama had a little moment, but not really. Not really. And so then you find this. I just find it so strange. I mean, Donald Trump just was convicted of sexual assault. And yet the only response is like, oh, this is terrible that that woman would do this to him. And then you’re thinking, well, what kind of morality are you actually working with here? I find this one of the most mystifying things about the modern evangelical reality. But maybe you can talk a little bit about what that involves and why that has become so hardened in our current moment.
Yes. So, the that’s a big piece of the puzzle. And the chapter that I have specifically on the evangelical left retraces some of this and how this happens. You get Jimmy Carter come on the scene, and all of a sudden he’s talking about having been born again, and then all of a sudden there are journalists everywhere trying to figure out what that means and who are all these born-again folks.
And then shortly after Carter’s election, this is ‘76, and you have the pollsters start saying things like, this is the year of the evangelical – you very quickly on the heels of that get the rise of the religious right. And by the time the 80’s are in full swing, evangelical identity is becoming closer and closer linked to specifically partisan politics; over time, I would argue, that one of the most determinative aspects of contemporary evangelical identity by this point, let’s say by now in the contemporary 21st century context, is that partisan alignment such that, I argue, and I think I even say explicitly in the book, that you can make a strong argument that evangelical is a kind of identity politics. It’s a white identity. It’s an identity politics for white conservative religious folks.
And how that happened is specifically, I argue in the book, one of the ways that you can see how that happens is by tracing the emergence – which actually predated the religious right – of this robust, politically progressive evangelical movement that also historically gets forgotten a lot in the history books.
And part of what I argue is that what happens, in part, with the rise of religious rights is you get folks like Jerry Falwell who define evangelical identity in a certain kind of way, and they consistently undermined and denigrated and challenged the religious credentials of progressive evangelical figures.
Within evangelicalism, they had this uphill battle where every time they would say, we believe in Jesus, we affirm the authority of the Bible, and when we read the Bible, we see that you are supposed to care about the poor, and that translates for us into progressive politics – such that to be evangelical, to be faithfully evangelical in some of the minds of these evangelical left figures, sometimes would require voting against the Republican Party. And they had their work cut out for them, because the religious right was such a formidable force and was so well-funded and so well-organized that it steamrolled them.
Part of what I end up arguing, though, is that one of the really effective rhetorical tactics that folks like Jerry Falwell used was casting aspersions on folks like Jim Wallis and their religious identity. You get these interviews, a couple of them with Jerry Falwell where he says things about Jim Wallis like, quote, “Jim Wallis is about as evangelical as an oak tree” – which is, like, weird. I don’t even know exactly what that means; but the rhetorical move is to say, because his politics is progressive, he obviously can’t be an evangelical. And that was a powerful rhetorical move.
Yeah. But that’s exactly what you’re saying, it’s excluding him. I remember the way I met Brian McLaren was that some kind of right wing evangelicals called him “Warmed-over Rauschenbusch,” which was the worst insult you could possibly imagine. And then we kind of like, oh, well, as long as you’re warmed-over Rauschenbusch and I’m leftover Rauschenbusch, we might as well have a conversation.
And I actually remember a fellow, I think his name is Tim Tuttle or something like that. He wrote a book called… He discovered Walter Rauschenbusch. He was a hardcore evangelical and actually an evangelical kind of rock star. I mean, he had like a Christian rock band. And then he read Rauschenbusch, and he was like, wait, this is exactly how I feel. Because he has very religious language, and then he was like, okay, where do I go with this?
And I think it was very interesting for me to see young evangelicals, this kind of emergent church movement for a while and things like that, the Shane Claibornes of the world – who was on the show recently – who are amazing. And I would call them evangelicals partly just because they worship slightly in a different way and they preach the gospel in a way that I wasn’t really raised to do in the same tenor. I still consider Shane one of the major evangelicals of American Christianity right now. William Barber as well. I mean, these are people who have deep, deep roots. They can talk about Jesus and you’re like, well, sign me up. But they’re also doing it in a context of respect for other religious traditions, respect for people who are different from themselves and in a posture of learning and welcoming and building community.
So for you, looking at that story, looking at where evangelicals are in the political cosmology that is so crazy right now, what gives you hope about the movements that you see right now?
In the conclusion I don’t do too much prognosticating except to suggest that this story that I’m telling, it’s my read of what it means for contemporary folks who are interested in challenging what it means to be evangelical, is that they have their work cut out for them, because the powers that be are doubling down on defining this this narrowly. So, for instance, though it does seem like we’re in an inflection point post-2016 where a lot of folks in evangelical spaces, or in Christianity more broadly, have looked and said something is off with this whole thing and they’re questioning the religious community that they were brought up in – and a lot of it is generational, although not purely, where you get younger, a group of younger evangelicals or ex- or now post- evangelical, whatever the labels that folks want to use for that, who are saying things like, you taught me X, Y, Z about Jesus, the Bible, faith, ethics, personal morality that matters. And now it seems like that rings hollow in light of these political commitments and this falling in line behind Donald Trump.
And so it feels to me we are at an inflection point where people who otherwise might not have are asking hard questions about their faith communities and what it means. There are several folks who are doing this kind of work around offering space for those people who maybe are questioning the political aspects of their faith community, but they’re not sure what’s next or where to go next or what it means to be a person who… Some folks end up going from that period of questioning and saying, well, maybe I’m an atheist, or maybe I’m agnostic, or maybe I’m not really a Christian at all.
But to your point about, one thing that has happened with evangelicalism, I think that it was an effective kind of PR campaign in some ways, is evangelical leaders and the evangelical movement were really successful at making it seem like they’re the only Christian game in town, that they just are the true Christians. And that’s a flattening of the rich diversity of… The Christian tradition is complex and even the evangelical tradition is complex.
What’s the connection between what we’re calling white Christian nationalism and this remnant that is the core of what people call “evangelical” today? Are those synonymous?
So that is an interesting question, because the white Christian nationalism thing is such a fascinating piece of this puzzle in that it is a new language, in some ways, to name an old thing. And that’s not to cast any aspersions on the folks who are doing the work – the sociologists or authors who are writing on this stuff, I think if they’re doing really important work – but it is interesting, the evolution of the terminology. Because stuff around white Christian nationalism definitely would have been there in the ether decades ago, right? God and country alignment with Christianity, meaning Christianize this nation and make the nation Christian again, turn back to God. That stuff goes all the way back to the religious right. And that stuff has been there for a long time.
Yeah, you could argue that goes back to Ku Klux Klan in 1920s and you can take it way, way back. It is interesting that we’re naming something and I guess it’s a Venn diagram – but it seems like almost at this point the kind of remnant of evangelicalism that you describe after pushing everyone else out and what we would call Christian nationalism are almost one to one.
In some ways, what I am trying to do with the book is say this story about how evangelicalism became what it is, is more complicated; so we think we know who the evangelicals are and in some ways we do. We know who the capital E official evangelicals are. They are those who look, think, believe, vote like these gatekeepers. And yet it still, in some ways, is more complicated than that. Where there are folks out there, I think, who would end up checking a lot of the evangelical boxes who are trying to push back on this stuff, right?
I also think of somebody like Beth Moore, who would check all of the boxes and yet has effectively been pushed out of official evangelical rosters because of her willingness to challenge the alignment with Donald Trump. That is a really interesting thing to me. It is an interesting thing, where those who would be able to check every box that anybody could throw at them to say, are you an evangelical or not? Even some of them are getting pushed to the margins of this thing.
Well, yeah. I think it’s almost now like, do you support Donald Trump? And people who said, I won’t support Donald Trump before, and who have flipped – I think of Albert Mohler, from the Southern Baptists – these are people who said, never, never, never. And now they’re like, yeah, actually, I changed my mind. I’m definitely behind Donald Trump. And now they’re welcome back in. Talk about the courage of your convictions!
In some ways, it’s the story I’m telling, you can watch it happen in real time – where somebody goes out on a limb on a certain position. Usually it’s a political or social issue, gay marriage or a presidential election. Then all of a sudden, the gatekeepers come storming the gates.
It’s just so interesting. I think what you’ve offered is really focusing on evangelicalism and, really, how we imagine what this term that gets thrown around a lot, what it means today, what it can mean, and also the broad history of what it was and who gets to decide who gets to call themselves that. And going forward, if journalists are listening to this or people who tell stories or preach, when we use that term, maybe add a few more words to describe what you actually mean by that. And don’t default – and I’m guilty of this too – evangelical means white, male, Protestant, straight, all of those things.
There’s lots of people out there who do not identify that way and who understand themselves to be evangelical in the – maybe it’s the small E rather than the big E at this point.
Dr. Isaac Sharp is director of online and part-time programs and visiting assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the coeditor of Evangelical Ethics: A Reader, as well as Christian Ethics in Conversation. His important new book is The Other Evangelicals: A Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians―and the Movement That Pushed Them Out.
Isaac, thank you so much for being with us today on State of Belief Radio. It’s really fun to talk to you and congratulations on your book.
Yeah, thanks so much for having me. This was good, and maybe we will have to have another follow-up conversation one of these days about where Rauschenbusch and the social gospel fits in all this. We touched on it, but there’s a lot to discuss there too. So, yeah, thanks for having me, Paul.