Growing Up Evangelical: How Does Childhood Faith Influence Political Engagement? A Conversation with Seven People Who Were Raised in Conservative Evangelical Homes-And Lived to Tell the Tale

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When Gerald Liu followed his friend to the front of a Southern Baptist church during an altar call, the then-12-year-old had an unusual motive. "He was my ride home," says Liu. "I didn't want to get stranded." So began the now-26-year-old youth director's journey into the Christian faith.

In this post-election year, pundits and politicians are weighing in on evangelical Christians and the "moral values" vote. But making sense of evangelicals in politics requires more than political commentary. It also requires theological sensitivity. Some of the best people to comment on conservative Protestant evangelicalism in American politics are young adults, because they have lived these traditions and reflected on them critically and compassionately.

Sojourners interviewed seven men and women, ages ranging from 24 to 40, who share this theological sensitivity. All come from--in their words--conservative and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. Several continue to call themselves evangelicals. Others have left for mainline denominations, and one has left the institutional church entirely. We asked them to talk about their early religious experiences and to assess the 2004 election in light of those experiences.

SAVED FOR SERVICE. Regardless of their current denominational affiliations, the seven agreed that growing up evangelical included learning that Christian conversion leads to engagement in the world. But this outlook came with a challenge: Be in the world, but not of it. Striking that balance wasn't always easy.

Nancy Hightower, a 34-year-old college English instructor, grew up thinking Christian social action meant winning America back from the clutches of secularism. She describes her background in the Assemblies of God and in PTL Ministries as charismatic evangelical. There, engagement in the world necessitated a spiritual warfare mentality. "Victory was the key word," she says. "But when all you can talk about is victory, you forget how to handle those times when, for whatever reason, God doesn't deliver people."

Janel Bakker, a doctoral student at the Catholic University of a America, learned a similarly "triumphalist" outlooks her Christian Reformed congregation. Although her childhood church promoted civic engagement, sustained immersion in secular culture occurred infrequently. Consequently, Bakker grew up believing there were two kinds of people: evangelical Christians and everyone else--"the unsaved."

Graham Reside's evangelical parents and his fundamentalist school training taught him that the world needed witnesses for Christ. Named after evangelist Billy Graham, Reside, 40, grew up with the expectation that he needed to become a leader in the evangelical world. As an undergraduate, he studied with evangelical theologian J. I. Packer. "My identity as an evangelical was supposed to be that of a godly, charismatic male leader," he says. But after college, Reside realized he no longer believed in the role he was performing. Now a Presbyterian and a father of two, Reside is a sociologist working at the Fund for Theological Education.

LEAVING--OR STAYING--HOME. Although they agree growing up "in the world, but not of it" was not always easy, the seven now view their religious upbringings in different ways.

For Lucy Suros, entering any church, let alone an evangelical one, is an unlikely event these days. Her departure from the "mainline evangelicalism" of her youth began at Westmont College, an evangelical liberal arts school. There she became aware of Christianity's historical complicity in systematic oppressions. When she started asking hard questions, "the fissures in my belief system opened up."

Now the mother of a young daughter, the 33-year-old freelance writer remains disturbed by what she sees as the moral self-righteousness of many who call themselves conservative Christians. She no longer attends church. At the same time, Suros misses the communal ethos of religious gatherings. …