A friend recently sent me a story from Smithsonian.com about how Evangelicalism arose partially in reaction to protests against the Vietnam War. Not that they were protesting it, but rather other mainline Protestants protesting drove evangelicals further to the right. Having grown up evangelical, I think I understand their strange reasoning fairly well. It was illustrated, for example, in a meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees. Now, confidentiality rules—which I support—prevent me from providing details, but as you can imagine board meetings involved differences of opinion. I was a faculty representative (voice, but no vote), and I had a point to make. Being Episcopalian I politely and calmly raised my hand. At the same table one of the student representatives (voice, but no vote) was waving his arm like he had to find the nearest restroom, and quick. The chair called on him, ignoring my learned gesture. “He has a fire in the belly,” the chair said, “let’s listen to him.”
A fire in the belly. Not exactly an empirical—or even rational—reason to select one comment above another in my opinion. It was outward and dramatic gesticulation that caught the chair’s attention. Cooler considerations could be easily ignored. Nashotah House wasn’t exactly Evangelical. It was conservative, to be sure. What this episode taught me, however, is that society responds to those with bellies strangely warmed. Mainstream Protestants, for the most part, want comfortable faith experiences. Reason, after all, suggests decorum. Over 90 percent of the many, many mainline sermons I’ve witnessed have been staid and calm. Back in John Wesley’s day enthusiasm was an actionable offense in ecclesiastical eyes. Was the fire in the heart, or in the belly?
So, what does this have to do with the Smithsonian story? Evangelicalism is driven not by the head but by the midriff. John Wesley’s conversion account was famous for his statement that his heart was “strangely warmed.” An inveterate doubter of his own salvation, Wesley needed to be certain. His thermo-cardiac episode helped to comfort him in the face of the lapping waves of the lake of fire at his feet. Having been evangelical once upon a time, I think I understand this constant Wesleyan concern. The fear of Hell is never easily overcome. The Greek word for strong emotion can be translated “to feel it in the bowels.” Examined more rationally, we know what moving bowels lead to. We see it every day as Evangelicals drive all three branches of government. The fire in the belly wins over cooler heads every time.