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Postmodern Identities: Agency and Volunteerism

The overlapping and synthesizing of traditionalism and egalitarianism in evangelical gender relations (such as the contradiction of affirming marriage as an equal partnership and male headship simultaneously) can shed light on the complex interactions of cultural and religious influences that constitute the processes of evangelical identity construction and maintenance. Identity is the means by which we navigate the world. We experience life around us as distinct selves, and piece together who those selves are by determining where we fit in. In a very real sense, our identities are cognitive maps that orient us in time and space, and give direction as well as content to our projects and aspirations. These maps are always in flux, as the terrain around us is constantly changing. Thus we are perpetually redrawing our cognitive maps and reconstructing our identities in response to changes in the landscape of our society and within our personal experience (Ammerman 2003).

Identity formation fits one's own needs and experiences, including the traditions, values, or mores transmitted via the social institutions such as schools, churches, and religious groups in which one is socialized. We create and recreate our identities through the stories we tell about ourselves, particulary through autobiographical narratives that are situated in and linked to the context of stories and public narratives transmitted by the institutions of which we are members (Somers 1994). As such, we build narratives that are constructed through our own initiative but that are structured by public narratives already present in the society and groups of which we are a part. In this intersection of personal and public, individual and social, pre-existing narratives are recast and new ones are created:

We may understand identities as emerging, then, at the everyday intersections of autobiographical and public narratives. We tell stories about ourselves (both literally and through our behavior) that signal both our uniqueness and our membership, that exhibit the consistent themes that characterize us and the unfolding improvisation of the given situation. Each situation, in turn, has its own story, a public narrative shaped by the culture and institutions of which it is a part, with powerful persons and prescribed roles establishing the plot, but surprises and dilemmas that may create gaps in the script or cast doubt on the proffered identity narratives of the participants. Both the individual and the collectivity are structured and remade in those everyday interactions. (Ammerman 2003, 215)

Modern religious agents have been characterized as "tinkerers" (Wuthnow 2007) and "seekers" (Roof 1993, 1999) who create the religious worlds they inhabit as bricolages, or worlds constructed and "improvised" from a variety of cultural resources (Withnow 2007). Robert Wuthnow and Wade Clark Roof 's research into the spiritual lives of the Baby Boomer generation, and Wuthnow's recent forays into those of twenty- and thirty-somethings, suggest that people today are engaging religion differently than the generations that came before them. Religious identities today are generally more achieved or voluntary in nature rather than ascribed; individualism, self-initiation, and choice continue to be central characteristics in the spiritual lives of many Americans (Bellah et al. 1985; Roof 1993, 1999; Roof and McKinney 1987; Warner 1993). Religious actors engage in bricolage construction, utilizing a "cultural tool kit" comprised of the variety of narratives, symbols, traditions, and worldviews that their culture provides. In a society as pluralistic as the United States, an abundance of tools in the tool kit allow individuals to construct "strategies of action" (Swidler 1986), the cognitive maps that orient them and give direction in religious and non-religious endeavors.

While not all evangelicals (and non-evangelicals) can be assumed to have consciously reflected on the sources of their understandings of gender, how those understandings are constructed, and the ways in which they are enacting those views, some evangelicals interviewed in ethnographic studies by Brenda Brasher, R. Marie Griffith, and Julie Ingersoll show awareness of where certain perspectives on gender roles come from, who benefits and who is disempowered by them, and how they are being maintained and/or manipulated in present debates about gender in evangelicalism.3 Although subconscious absorption, alteration, and repetition of the cultural influences around us is a large part of how worldviews are built—and such a lack of awareness is also evident in many of the respondents in the ethnographic studies and the in-depth interviews of the EIIP—we cannot presume that the construction of gender in evangelicalism is not in some part conscious, and this realization is important for considering how evangelical individuals use gender perspectives to their own benefit, whether to empower themselves or to disempower others.

Due to the biblical imperative to engage the world but remain not of it, evangelicals face a unique challenge in constructing identities from this myriad of resources both within and outside of evangelical traditions. They must find strategies or maps that allow them to both be fully integrated into the wider culture while remaining within the boundaries of what is evangelical, or what is considered to be a "biblical" way of life. Bartkowski has likened this "balancing act" between being in the world yet remaining not of it as being on "a razor's edge" (2007, 154). Through this balancing act, evangelicals must find what works in the particular situations in which they might find themselves. For many, this occurs within a social location that does not greatly differ from that of their non-evangelical counterparts. Within a similar social location and relational networks (Smith et al.1998), evangelicals share a common cultural tool kit with other (non-evangelical) Americans when constructing their identities.4 The many symbols that they draw from include these broad cultural values and symbols shared with non-evangelicals, and those values and symbols that are central to evangelical identity – historically significant ideas such as male-headship, gender essentialism, and biblical inerrancy.5

Evangelicals have gleaned resources from the cultural tool kit with historical significance and power within the evangelical tradition, as well as a variety of available public narratives that serve as important sources in the construction of gender identity and "strategies of action" used to successfully navigate family life and relationships between families and their communities. Wider cultural resources or public narratives shared with the dominant culture include perspectives stemming from major women's movements, which have resulted in a general rejection of male superiority and the widely accepted belief that women should be treated as men's equals in American society. Although much of the change in opinions concerning women's employment and the egalitarian distribution of housework and child support can be attributed to wide-spread economic changes that have affected the middle class since the mid-1970s, even those evangelicals who express negative opinions of modern feminist movements have been deeply affected by its legacy, such as egalitarianism among the sexes as a basic cultural value (Bendroth 1993, Brasher 1998; Gallagher 2004; Gallagher and Smith 1999; Wilcox 1989).6

In the "symbolic traditionalism and practical egalitarianism" found by Gallagher and Smith and supported by Bartkowski, we can see ideas transmitted from evangelical traditions intersecting the wider cultural resources outside church and family life, shaping gender relations that work for evangelical men and women within the complex context of their daily lives. Traditional evangelical gender ideology (gender essentialism) is reincarnated within the symbols and meanings—including male headship—evangelicals attach to everyday family experience, activities, and responsibilities. These symbols also connect evangelicals to something that transcends the everyday concerns in which they are embedded. An evangelical father working full-time so that his wife might devote herself to raising their children is not simply performing a task that must be done for financial and practical purposes. These acts have been interpreted by many evangelical men and women in the vein of sacrifice, one through which the male head of the household imitates the sacrifice of Christ. Such male self-sacrifice is linked to the admonishment to love one's wife as Christ loved the church (Gallagher 2003; Gallagher and Smith 1999; Bartkowski 2001, 2004, 2007). This establishes a connection to the divine, a direct link to transcendent meaning that goes beyond the significance of performing the activity for the sake of getting it done or to make ends meet. The religious identities of the performers of these tasks are then reinforced in unexpected ways through the fusion of activities that we might typically label as non-religious or mundane, and the religiously significant symbolism attributed to them (Munson 2007; Ammerman 2003).

Maintaining the Sacred Boundary

In identifying as evangelical, one is tied to a collective identity that is continually transformed by its members. This group identity is not merely the sum of identity work occurring on the individual level; personal identities are formed within the contexts and through the influence of important reference groups in our lives. Groups by nature have boundaries, those that separate persons who belong in the group from those who do not. Maintaining group boundaries is part of the balancing act evangelicals must engage in to remain not of the world or mainstream culture despite their deep level of engagement with it. Without such boundaries, evangelicals would no longer exist as a distinct group discernable from any other. This distinctiveness is particularly essential for evangelicals, because a sense of morally-based otherness from nonevangelicals has been part of the "cultural DNA" of evangelicalism throughout its history. Some have argued that this emphasis on distinctiveness from the mainstream culture may also be largely responsible for a great deal of evangelicalism's success (Smith et al. 1998).

Since individual identity work takes place within and through the groups of which we are members, group attempts to maintain boundaries that keep evangelicals from being of the world are also at play in the identity work carried out among individual evangelical believers and their families. But if evangelical family practices are not unlike those of non-evangelicals, and evangelicals are very similar in their social location and level of embeddedness in the mainstream of American culture, how do evangelicals remain distinct as a group?

Anthony Cohen (1985) suggests that as groups become structurally similar to others that lie outside of their boundaries, efforts to symbolically separate who/what is of the group and who/what does not belong within its borders become more strenuous: "the greater the pressure on communities to modify their structural form...the more they are inclined to reassert their boundaries symbolically by imbuing those forms with meaning and significance...In other words, as the structural bases of boundary become blurred, so the symbolic bases are strengthened" (Cohen 1985, 44). To remain distinct, evangelicals engage in efforts to build up what symbolically separates them from non-evangelicals.

Emmanuel Sivan, in his analysis of Protestant fundamentalist construction and maintenance of symbolic boundaries, employs the metaphor of a "wall of virtue" to describe boundary maintenance through assertions of moral otherness from mainstream culture. According to Sivan, conservative Protestants use shorthand terms in everyday conversation, such as "biblical standard," "Christian home," and "bible believers," to serve as collectively constructed markers of who is in and who is out, who roots their way of life in the Word of God and who does not (Sivan 2004, 18). These boundary markers point to specific shared understandings that are not immediately understood or self-evident to outsiders, and thus they separate those who are initiated in the shared understandings of the group from those who are not. The boundary or wall of virtue separating evangelicals from non-evangelicals and non-biblical ways of being is comprised of beliefs that construct evangelicalism as a morally superior form of life (superior in that it is biblebased and therefore approved by God). Those beliefs include male headship, servant leadership, mutual submission, and biblical manhood and womanhood. This symbolic traditionalism allows evangelicals to keep the group boundary strong while living up to the biblical imperative to be in the world but not of it (Gallagher 2003, 2004; Gallagher and Smith 1999).7

By constructing gendered identities through symbols central to collective evangelical identity since evangelicalism's inception (DeBerg 1990) and that are understood to be rooted in the biblical past, evangelicals re-imagine and reconfigure tradition in a way that complements their contemporary lives and unique needs while allowing them to maintain connections to a group identity moored within a historical institution. This also strengthens a sense of connection to a rich historical past because believers use symbols that point to a stream of tradition stretching back to the first century CE, linking them to the formative period of Christianity, a time believed to be the most authentic and authoritative form of Christianity as practiced by Christ and those who followed his example soon after the resurrection. Retaining traditional language and symbols that evangelical faith roots in this historical thread allows contemporary evangelical men and women to orient themselves within it and count themselves as part of a true, biblical Christian lineage, a public narrative in which individuals enact their own autobiographical narratives as members of the evangelical tradition (Ammerman 2003, 217).

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