‘People who like Billy Graham.’ That’s how one academic jokingly defined the term ‘evangelical’ to me in a recent conversation for The Underneath podcast. And, having spent the past year carrying out interviews with a huge range of people in religious Northern Ireland, this light-hearted definition may well be the most accurate one I’ve come across. From Edwin Poots’ views on the age of the earth, to the multi-million-pound new church builds in Ballymena, to the four hundred thousand Northern Irish members of evangelical denominations, evangelicalism is very much the norm here within Protestantism.
In the States, the term evangelical means something a little more concrete, used as it is by pollsters and media types to refer to conservative and mainly white, Protestants. As a theologian and writer living in Northern Ireland, I have been interested in getting beneath the surface of evangelicalism as it shows up here, to explore what it’s really like to be an evangelical, what it entails beyond the ‘issues’ that dominate our headlines.
As an identifier, evangelical covers a massive range of churches, groups and individuals in Northern Ireland who claim it as their own. In the past few months, I have had conversations with a gay ex-Presbyterian who feels the term describes her, as well as with Ian Paisley Jnr who also claims it for himself. This kind of diversity within evangelicalism may be stretching the much-tortured ‘broad church’ metaphor beyond its limits, and I’ve been left wondering if ‘evangelical’ actually means much at all any longer. For what it’s worth, I think it does, and as we inch closer and closer to an Americanised way of seeing our identities, ‘evangelical’ seems to be intimately bound up with specific stances on moral issues.
The Underneath has been the product of many things, and chief among them is my curiosity about my own upbringing, an evangelical Protestant background shared by so many people across Northern Ireland. And, as a model evangelical, I attended church on Sundays, often twice; I led Bible studies for my fellow teenagers; worshipped and studied at Youth Fellowship and took part in every weekend away and mission trip I could get time off for. It wasn’t until I was about nineteen that I began to see what it took many others no time at all to realise — that evangelicalism was only one way of doing Christianity. That although utterly pervasive in contemporary Northern Irish Protestantism, evangelicals, in a global and historical context, are a pretty recent arrival on the Christian scene.
This would have been hard to tell the fifteen-year-old me, furiously preparing the next lesson for Wednesday Group about ‘putting on the armour of God.’ Evangelicalism and its central tenets, the ultimate authority of the Bible and the ‘in the world but not of the world’ notion, for example, were not debatable beliefs but were actually litmus tests for a true Christian. This is the Protestant way, though, it seems. Whether in politics or religion, we are constantly bickering over who is in and who is out; who is truly a unionist or who is truly going to heaven.
The central metaphor guiding The Underneath comes up in the initial episode. In it, I talk about how being a young evangelical is like being a fish in a tank. That while that tank may be very well equipped and kept scrupulously clean, because the fish is in water it never thinks to consider the nature of its enclosure, and the human hands that made the limits it is allowed to swim freely within. This series aims to look closely by zooming out. To see evangelicalism as a social phenomenon as much as a set of theological commitments is to realise, perhaps uncomfortably, that the water so many of us were swimming in was not some transparent medium for the gospel of Jesus, but like everything else, was formed by history, politics, power, trauma and accident.
In recent years, Northern Irish Protestantism has been caught up in the culture wars. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland drew its lines firmly on LGBTQ+ participation and membership in 2018, effectively banning queer people from taking communion, having their children baptised or becoming members of the Church. Christian advocacy groups like CARE and the Evangelical Alliance have made reproductive rights a central issue, representing the anti-choice Christian movement as if it were the only view held by people of faith within Northern Ireland. That opinion is divided on these issues amongst the people in the pews is a fact this podcast series takes seriously, platforming the stories of those often edged out by the noise and clamour of louder, more powerful voices. The four episodes, titled after the earliest stories in Genesis (Creation, Fall, Flood and Babel) cover some core evangelical themes. The importance of hell, the centrality of heterosexuality and the constant desire to draw lines separating the In from the Out. And while this is an affectionate look at the underneath of evangelicalism, it is, at times, harrowing. Listeners will hear personal stories of hurt alongside tales of discovery and from outside of traditional church walls.
Amongst the stories of people impacted by evangelicalism in NI, the four episodes feature some prominent public figures, including Naomi Long, Doug Beattie and the director of Evangelical Alliance UK, Peter Lynas. It has been a massive privilege to sit with such a range of people and listen to their stories and learn from such varied perspectives. It is my hope that this series reaches those that it has been made for: the committed church-goers, and the massively disillusioned; the evangelical leaders and those marginalised by them; the young people terrified of hell and damnation; the teenagers on fire for Jesus; those who have been subjected to or have sought, conversion therapy within a religious setting. This series has been made with balance and fairness very much in mind, but it certainly does not shy away from calling out harm when it is clearly there. The conviction behind The Underneath is simple: the truth of things often lurks below what we can usually see and what we are typically allowed to hear.
Andrew Cunning is a theologian and teacher working in Belfast.