Depending on whom you ask, America has always been “Christian Nation,” its guiding principles rooted firmly in Protestant tradition. Such an invocation has long been put forth by those on the right, frequently in contrast to a perceived shift away from “core” American values as the nation has become increasingly liberal.
But in her new book Rescuing Jesus, journalist Deborah Jian Lee upends that notion. With many young Americans fleeing the church at unprecedented rates, Lee makes a surprising discovery: “Today, more than half of younger Christians are people of color.”
Rescuing Jesus holds plenty of revelations about the future of American Christianity, but it’s not the Book of Revelation: by documenting the ways in which demographic trends and liberal politics are reshaping evangelical churches from within, Lee persuasively argues that women, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color are slowly redefining what it means to be evangelical in some of the most conservative denominations in America.
Lee, who was raised in a nonreligious household by Taiwanese immigrants, is a fitting narrator for this great change within American religion. After joining a Christian campus group in college, she was consistently pressured to yield leadership roles to men, and her attempts to discuss racial justice issues were met with apathy and resistance.
She eventually broke off ties with evangelicalism when a group of her friends performed a dance with insulting Indian stereotypes. Nonetheless she shows compassion and understanding to all the people she discusses throughout the book, even those resisting change. Instead of demonizing slow-moving evangelicals for failing to embrace the changes rapidly spreading throughout the country, she finds powerful examples of those successfully challenging religious orthodoxy. One particularly moving story concerns the Biola Queer Underground, a group of students at a conservative Christian university in California whose daring organizational efforts helped open up a dialogue on a campus where “homosexual acts” were considered grounds for expulsion.
Lee also probes the complicated history of progressive politics in the evangelical community. Plenty of surprising historical nuggets emerge about the rise of the evangelical right in the 70s and 80s. For example, Lee finds evidence that race, not abortion, spurred the rise of conservative Christianity in the early 80s: a Supreme Court case ruling Bob Jones University’s antiblack policies unconstitutional galvanized the movement.
Throughout the book, Lee challenges prevailing understanding about American evangelicalism, and she demonstrates that identity politics, which once served to divide liberal evangelicals, are now working in tandem with their evangelical identities.
The question remains: How much has really changed? While Lee finds plenty of growth in the movement, the response to the current Republican presidential candidates shows that many conservative evangelicals haven’t budged yet. Still, Lee writes, “I came to appreciate the complexities of evangelicalism and its people in a way I hadn’t before.” Even that complexity challenges the decades-old presumption that evangelicalism is synonymous with conservatism, and for now, that’s progress indeed. v