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I Never Was An Evangelical, and I Never Want to Be

By September 23, 2017 30 Comments

Those of us in this little Reformed tribe: do we, or do we not count ourselves as Evangelicals?

Since the rise of the current American Disgrace-in-Chief, flung into power on a trebuchet constructed by White Evangelical Voters, the Reformed/Evangelical dilemma has become the subject of some urgent consideration on this blog. Kristin du Mez wrote way back in April 2015 about Rachel Held Evans’ defection from Evangelicalism, with Kristin describing her own youthful forays into Evangelical culture and ending her piece with the suggestion that the label is “on its way out” and that maybe we need to eschew categories anyway. Jim Bratt, already by January of 2016, had declared Evangelicalism a “busted brand” with a scorching analysis of Evangelical support for Trump and Cruz in the presidential primaries. Still before the Fateful Election, Timothy Gloege presented a “Modest Proposal” to conservatives about their obsession with Roe v. Wade, and Scott Hoezee offered a critique of “swaggering” Evangelical machismo.

The Twelvers have done our share, in other words, to distance “Reformed” from “Evangelical,” but I suspect we wouldn’t have expended so much fervent eloquence if not for the uneasy overlap between these two subcultures of American Protestantism.

This is an overlap I have never entirely understood. Or at least, I’ve never felt it in my bones.

It’s true, “Reformed” and “Evangelical” have a lot in common. We can confirm this by using the classic David Bebbington definition that Kristin cited as a guide. Evangelicals

  1. have high view of Scripture
  2. have a theology centered on atonement through Jesus’ death on the cross
  3. emphasize the centrality of a conversion experience
  4. feel an urgency about spreading the gospel message.

Reformed people can easily match Evangelicals on knowledge of Scripture, love of Scripture, and personal piety. I think Reformed people, generally speaking, can beat Evangelicals in the theological savvy category. Theology, after all, is kind of our specialty. On criteria three and four, we run into some cultural differences, I admit.

The Reformed denominations I know best, the CRC and RCA, have long sent missionaries all over the world, built hospitals and schools, sent relief in crises, and, through all of it, preached the gospel. However, we are much less likely to ask our seatmate on a plane what will happen if he dies tonight, or to invite a group of ladies over for an innocent get-to-know-you tea and then ambush them with testimony time and a closed-eye prayer during which those who wish to accept Jesus are asked to raise their hands—as actually happened to me one time.

Reformed people also regard conversion with a lot less fanfare. A personal relationship with the Lord? Absolutely essential. However, conversion experiences, while admired, are less emphasized than faithfulness in the long haul. To paraphrase a key line in Hamilton: Conversion is easy, young man; sanctification is harder.

Both the CRC and the RCA have deep strands of evangelical (small “e”) DNA. An earlier iteration of the RCA was here in America during both Great Awakenings. The CRC derives from St. Abraham Kuyper’s expression of Dutch evangelicalism. Considering the commonalities, then, it’s not surprising that the Christian Reformed Church in North America is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals. The Reformed Church in America, with its more mainline history, is not a member. That’s a matter of denominational negotiation and historical association, though, rather than on-the-ground, in-the-pew culture. I have observed that the RCA these days (at least in the West and Midwest) may actually be more entangled with Evangelical groups like Campus Crusade than CRC churches are.

In any case, Evangelicals of the contemporary American variety have always felt to me like the cousins my family visits only once a year for a day or two on out-of-state road trips. We are related, of course, but when we get together our differences seem most glaring. We share some genes, but we don’t share the same story or ethos at all.

I’ve always figured that, in the Reformed world, I had anything good about Evangelicalism, only better. My family has its own problems, but at least we don’t have theirs. You could put this attitude down to family loyalty. But there’s more to it.

I’ve come to understand that, for me, this feeling of distance from the cousins is the result of hitting a kind of demographic sweet spot: I grew up at just the right moment. In the CRC churches of the 1970s, we were still rooted enough in our immigrant past to feel like a distinctive, identity-forming enclave, though Americanized enough to have shed some of the old Dutch bluster about “worldlimindedness.” I’m not saying the CRC family of those days was altogether healthy and harmonious. We had nasty qualities of our very own: insularity, arrogance, and a schismatic streak. Many denominations battled over women’s ordination, but the CRC’s battle was especially long and bitter—though I was young enough at the time that it seemed to brush past me like an icy shadow. To me, being Reformed meant a combination of faithful devotion and intellectual curiosity, shaped by a tight community and a whole-life sense of purpose, seasoned with a kind of playful seriousness about human nature and life. I know. I was lucky. Or, in Evangelical parlance, “blessed.”

Then things shifted. By the mid-80s, when I was fleeing to the arms of the pagans at secular university, the CRC and the RCA seemed to lose confidence in the whole “distinctively Reformed” project. To put it reductively, Reformed culture got seduced by the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, with their promises of political power and a righteous America. I saw it happening from a distance. Real historians could tell this story with more precision, but I do remember people from my parents’ church finding the allure of 1980s Evangelicalism irresistible. I mean, who wants to be in the Religious Wrong? And shouldn’t we keep up with Willow Creek and be “seeker sensitive”? And don’t we want to save unborn babies? (Although: this.)

This transition masques an historical distinction that even good journalists can’t quite figure out when they try to understand, for instance, where Betsy DeVos came from. She went to Calvin College in the 1970s, but that’s not where her commitments were formed, not really. She was formed in the political fervor of 1980s Evangelicalism. The quintessence of Calvin in the 1970s—just for the record—is better represented by our other alum in the news this year, Al Plantinga, who won the Templeton Prize for leveraging his impressive intellectual fire power to convince the secular philosophical academy that theism is reasonable, among other things. Now that’s Reformed.

Anyway, Evangelicals, with their media empires, political machines, and illusory promises of simple moral clarity, overwhelmed the little subcultures of the CRC as well as the RCA. By the 1990s, as Jim Bratt has long lamented, the most influential theological authorities among CRC people were Chuck Colson and James Dobson—that master huckster of patriarchal hegemony.

While Dobson and Colson were speaking ex cathedra and raking in the book royalties, I was off at grad school learning terms like “patriarchal hegemony.” And then I came back to Calvin, still, in my opinion, a sweet spot of Reformed culture at its best, a nexus of faithful devotion and intellectual rigor, of appropriately Reformed skeptical reserve about… well, about everything. So somehow I missed the period where my tribe hung out with the crazy cousins more often and learned to shop only at Christian bookstores, listen only to CCM, and bring a Religious Right-approved voter’s guide to the ballot box.

Years passed, and now I’m watching in horror as the White Evangelical cousins are wracked by dysfunction. The honored tradition of Billy Graham has curdled into his son Franklin. The White Evangelical voting block, some of them temporarily wooed by Obama’s fair-minded centrism, has now closed ranks in a craven, sycophantic love of power, machismo, greed, and white supremacy.

Strong words? They’re coming from inside the Evangelical house. They came from the editorial staff of Christianity Today in October 2016. They came from Evangelicals of color, grieving a sense of betrayal. They came from Rod Dreher in an article in the American Conservative. You realize, he writes, that even though a lot of us Evangelicals think Trump is terrible, when this is all over, we’re still going to get blamed. Hard words have come from Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crew practically on the hour as their decades-long drumbeat call crescendos into a frenzy.

All this to say, I’m sorry, dear cousins, about your troubles. Actually, I’m pretty mad that some of my immediate family members have gotten tangled up in them. For everyone’s sake, I hope you get your issues worked out, I really do. But you know what? I’ve always been from a different side of the family, and I intend to keep it that way.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, Well, actually I’m doing both. You write about my own experience. You know something similar has happened to the Missouri Synod Lutherans.

  • James Schaap says:

    Me too. Terrific.

  • Harris says:

    As a political observation, there is a fateful omission here of the political/cultural hegemony of W Michigan of this same period. Contrary to Bratt, the Religious Right was not really imposed on the Dutch culture so much as embraced as a natural, understandable extension. We already had our Christian schools, we advocated for the cause of religious freedom (aka vouchers), we had a morality-infused politics and we had elected representatives who were also fiscally conservative (well, duh, right?). With that were networks of fundraisers also conveniently located in the dutch community: Holland (Prince keiretsu), Grandville (the Land family), and Ada. For the RCA you can also toss in the Cook network.

    Were one to look at what it means to be Reformed in the context of this period, I believe one would do a lot worse than consider the set of social service entrepreneurs that built Bethany, International Aid, and of course ICCF. The graduates of the late 60s and early 70s went off and did a world of good in Gospel faithfulness.

    And as to Evangelical? Even now, as I miss the old Wayside Chapel that once stood on the Beltline, I think of my father-in-law and his desire to see the Gospel known by his neighbors.

  • Dave Tanis says:

    Thank you for clearly explaining what has been in my heart for a long time. You have put words to those inmost feelings.

  • George Ertel says:

    “My family has its own problems, but at least we don’t have theirs. You could put this attitude down to family loyalty.” Or perhaps self-righteousness and insecurity. Now. do you pray each morning: Thank You, God, that I was not born a gentile, an evangelical, or a slave?

  • Mark Bjelland says:

    We need to remember that Jerry Falwell Jr. is far from representative of evangelicals and to take voter statistics with a huge grain of salt. Myriam Raynaud and Joe Carter offer different interpretations that suggest caution in equating evangelical with Trump supporter. And Brian Stiller’s new book Evangelicals Around the World reminds us of all our brothers and sisters beyond our borders. The evangelicals I know best, The Evangelical Covenant Church, are far from closing “ranks in a craven, sycophantic love of power, machismo, greed, and white supremacy.” Rather, the opposite is more the case. The Evangelical Covenant Church has transitioned from a white, ethnic denomination into a multi-ethnic denomination marked by spirited worship, evangelism, social justice, racial reconciliation, and piety. There’s plenty in that mix that I think you’d support.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Hi, Mark. Thanks for your comment. Of course, there are many terrific people who call themselves Evangelical, and who are trying to rescue the term. My husband and I spent two happy years in the embrace of Fuller Seminary, four of my dearest friends (seriously, it’s true) are Evangelical Covenant pastors, and I work with wonderful Evangelicals all the time as colleagues. And I think I made it clear I’m only ranting about American Evangelicalism since the 1980s. What burns my bacon is that, as one of my links to a Pew Research study shows, as of April 2017, 80% of frequent-church-going White Evangelicals still approved of our current president’s performance. You’ll also note that one of my links is to an article by Myriam Raynaud herself. So sure, there are lots of great “cousins” out there. As I say, the harsh words I echo are coming from inside the Evangelical house. That’s because we are not just talking about Jerry Falwell here. The issues are widespread.

  • /svm says:

    Thanks for this article, including all the links; you’ve created an extensive “study guide.

  • Elaine Schnabel says:

    Good stuff! Having grown up in the Evangelical bubble, I credit the Reformed tradition and you English professorswith saving my faith at a crucial time in my journey toward spiritual maturity. My classes at Calvin deepened my understanding of most things, but most critically my understanding of who God is and who we are in relation. And then Betsy DeVos and I kind of got worried that I misunderstood those four years. This puts things back into perspective for me. Thank you!

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    “The white, evangelical voting block… has now closed ranks in a craven, sycophantic love of power, machismo, greed, and white supremacy.”

    You REALLY need to get out more.

    Secondly, have a little grace for us evangelical bigots. While I too think Plantinga has a great mind, his level of philosophy doesn’t offer much support to families who were trying to raise children in a culture left rudderless in the aftermath of the barbarianism of the 1960’s. For those in the CRC, neither did the denominational bureaucracy nor Calvin College. In fact, they effectively acted as apologists for their secular humanist peers at more prestigious institutions, by putting a Reformed spin on the issue of the day. James Dobsen, however, did take a stand against the culture, despite his hegemonic patriarchalism.

    Finally, it is gracious of you to be concerned about your evangelical cousins. Take heart in the fact that many of us belong to churches that are experiencing rapid growth, bringing many new believers into the Kingdom, and trying to claim Every Square Inch for Christ. He can even use intellectual dolts like us. Amazing, isn’t it?

    • George Ertel says:

      Good response, sir. You are speaking truth to privilege.

      • Jack Brown says:

        I find myself very confused by your comment. In what respect does “privilege” play a part? How is it “privilege” to note the unholy alliance American Evangelicalism has made with right-wing politics? And please note that the author is writing from her own experience, not sitting in some ivory privilege tower ruminating on things that are happening far away.

        • George Ertel says:

          Jack, you confuse actions with status. I was addressing Dr. Rienstra’s status, which is privileged. Dr. Debra Rienstra is professor of English at Calvin College. She did her undergraduate work at University of Michigan and her graduate work at Rutgers. She has the professional backing of the institutions in which she participates, which protect her when she makes the condescending and judgmental comments about other classes of people.

  • Bob Bouwer says:

    I happen to believe that the most impactful christian is actually evangelical and reformed. Instead of abandoning the tribe I urge us to enhance it. The evengelical is still making the most disciples and seeing Christ convert and the caring of the poor. As mainline reformed/Protestant churches continue to desolve and die. I for one am not seeing the mainline Protestant church as the example to follow. Why not roll up your reformed sleeves and disciple the evangelical in the rich and deep knowledge of God. God has allowed me, or placed me, in the midst of evangelicals and they are more and more embracing the reformed faith.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thanks for your comment, Bob. In fact, discipling evangelicals is what I do every day as a college professor at Calvin. Only about 30 percent of our students come from Reformed backgrounds. God has placed me in the midst of the children of evangelicals (see comment from Elaine, above), and I endeavor every day to revel with my students (and colleagues, too) in the rich and deep knowledge of God. I’m glad we share that vocation. It’s often difficult, but there are many wonderful times, too.

  • Dean H Koopman says:

    The more I read “The Twelve”, the more profound my sense of loss and sadness becomes. The Denomination I grew up in is lost, the institutions that incubated my intellect are adrift, and we are all at each other’s’ throats. To my shame, I’m part of the problem, too.
    Maybe growing up in a smaller CRC enclave in a radically secular corner of America pushed me toward Evangelicalism – not enough Reformed students in the local Christian school and too many weeks of nondenominational summer camp singing “I Wish We All’d Ready”. The delineations from the the secularists, Unitarians and Christian Science crowd were too stark for some of the finer points of Reformed doctrine, so we banded together and gripped tightly to the basics and stood our ground.
    That said, I feel the urgency to spread the Gospel, and I can’t decouple God’s saving grace from the grace he lavishes on his whole creation and a desire to push society to a more “holy” state. If I got that from the Ecumenism that rolled me in with “those Evangelicals” so be it. And if that’s why I can’t connect with Timothy Gloege’s “Modest Proposal” or Mara Joy Norden’s “Showing Up: On Risk” because I when I read the Bible I simply see it as normalizing sin, I accept that, too.
    Because what I did learn from both the Evangelicals and the Reformed was that Jesus never normalized sin – he took it on Himself and washed it all away.
    That’s where we need to begin to connect again.
    I’m not your Christian cousin, I’m more the black sheep of the family – I hung out with the wrong crowd, came home and fought the battles, then walked away and never came back. So if you’d like to visit on your next road trip, I’m hangin’ with these Orthodox Presbyterians. We’d love to worship an Awesome God with you – no alter call required.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thanks, Dean. I’d be delighted to worship with the OP “black sheep”! I do “get out” quite a bit, actually, and worshiping with the extended family is one of the most unifying and grace-filled things we can do to help deal with our many mutual angers.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    In your difficult but wonderful vocation of discipling to young evangelicals, do you tell them that you are not an evangelical and never want to be?

    And why does Bob Bouwer get such an obsequious reply? Please defend your positions better, your original post had some strong statements.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Hi, Marty. Well, I would not characterize my reply to Bob as “obsequious.” And yes, my students are keenly aware that all of us on Calvin faculty identify as Reformed. Whatever our backgrounds, that is what we seek to express in our professional capacity: the best of Reformed thinking and faithfulness. In fact, students hear about this ad nauseum. Yes, my post has strong statements, but nothing that Evangelicals are not already saying about themselves. These critiques, as I say again, are coming from inside the house. I agree with those Evangelicals who are strenuously calling their fellows back from some dreadful associations.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    That wasn’t my question.

    I kind of feel like an English Professor when when I ask this:

    What do you mean by “dreadful associations”? You can’t just throw that out. Who is dreadful? Trump? People who vote for him? The curdled Franklin Graham? Dobsen?

    I went to Calvin for two years. Jim VandenBosch was my favorite professor. I don’t think he would have let me get away with that.

    As an aside, Professor VDB taught me about epiphanies as we read Flannery O’Connor short stories. My first epiphany was shortly thereafter when Econ Professor Monsma proclaimed that a Christian family of four should live on no more than $12,000 per year (1989 dollars). That’s when I transferred to a state school.

  • Nathan Bierma says:

    A church historian who would identify as both Reformed and evangelical, and who is an ethnic minority, recently said to me that the Bebbington quadrilateral is and always has been incomplete without a fifth plank: cultural imperialism. He persuaded me this is true, historically and now more than ever.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Please look for an upcoming issue of our print magazine, Perspectives, in which we hope to have various writers explore these issues in more depth in a longer format. Thanks.

  • Bob says:

    Wonderful essay, Debra. I appreciate the vibrant prose nearly as much as the textured theology. My prayer is that thought provoking essays such as this will eventually provide an invitation to a grand family reunion. Although difficult to imagine right now, I pray that this celebration will be a place where reformed, evangelicals, reformed-evangelicals, and the rest of Christ’s eclectic body can act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our forgiving God. May the climax of this reunion be a joint declaration to love one another well in spite of our differences, and stand together against any trebuchet-armed assailant who takes pleasure in excluding the stranger and causing suffering to the weakest and most vulnerable citizens of God’s Kingdom.

  • Jessica Groen says:

    This short essay about the complicated (sometimes kissing, sometimes hostile) cousinship of US Christendom’s reformed and evangelical sub-cultures resonates with the rich complicatedness of my own Xian ecosystem in the 80s. “Fundies” was used as a term of insult by the PKs I played with in second grade, and our ministers taught us that our people absolutely should never yoke ourselves unequally with any political or not-for-profit groups outside our own denomination. I read The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind with the superior attitude of an “openminded” 19-year-old Calvin College student on my 1996 summer break. I knew at age 8 that I couldn’t like my favorite Patricia St. John book “Treasures of the Snow” too, too much because it had arminian “accept Jesus in your heart” appeals that good Calvinist little girls must always watch out for. And that the catchy evangelical “Jesus Loves the Little Children” song is bad, bad, bad b/c Calvinist kids only keep their faith purity intact when they constantly remember with fear and trembling that Jesus does NOT love them all. Yet WMBI radio played in our house and car all day long during the 80s, and I was thirsty for the perky pleasant vibes of Psalty, The Music Machine, Amy Grant, Keys for Kids, and all those 80s Maranatha! song standards we girls learned to sing WITH MOTIONS a couple blocks north of our own church at CalvaryRCs Calvinettes.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Debra for the insightful article delineating some of the differences between evangelical and Reformed Christians, and noting your preference for the Reformed perspective. I think you are pretty well on target in noting some of the differences between the two. But I think you have shortchanged what I see as one of the greatest differences between being Reformed and being evangelical. And realize, I am speaking at the more popular levels of both. That difference or area being that evangelical Christianity is much more experiential or experience based than those of the Reformed persuasion. Reformed people have assurance of salvation from what they know, whereas evangelicals have assurance from what they feel. This is especially true at the popular level of evangelicalism. Reformed folk have their confessions to delineate what one should believe, whereas evangelicals don’t need confessions, they have the Bible. Conviction, for the evangelical comes from what he/she feels, more than from what he/she knows. The opposite is true for the typical Reformed Christian. Reformed Christians often long for that evangelical fervor and emotional drive they see over the fence in the evangelical camp. But seldom (at the popular level) do you see such longing by evangelicals for what they see in the Reformed camp. They might think of the Reformed folk holding to a dead orthodoxy. Evangelicals assume that when the apostle Paul speaks of a Spirit filled life, he is speaking of an emotional or experiential faith whereas the Reformed tend to think of faith as a conviction of beliefs. The Spirit teaches truths, not emtion.

    It seems that increasingly the CRC is becoming more open to the experiential expression of Christianity, especially with such movements as the third wave movement making inroads into our denomination. Such movements and experientalism seem to be eroding at the more confessional nature of our past.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    So interesting. Everything you say matches my experience, too. You know what would be really interesting? Make every Reformed and Evangelical person take the Meyers-Briggs test, and see what the relative percentages of “F” and “T” might be in each group. THEN test all those who have migrated from one tribe to the other, and see if T’s migrate to Reformed spaces and F’s migrate to Evangelical spaces. I wonder what we would find? Not uniformity, of course, but slight tendencies? Hmmmm.

  • Emily says:

    I appreciate your thoughts here. Having taught at a CSI Christian school where I had to remind staff members we believe in common grace and that the high schoolers do not need to be encouraged to listen to only Christian music, I have been concerned about the creeping in of fundamentalism in the CRC for a long time. Dordt in the 90s and early 2000s was a place where Reformed thought was still being turned into action and worldview. When I told an evangelical recently that I didn’t listen to CCM ever, this person looked at me like maybe I wasn’t a Christian?

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