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‘Exvangelicals’ Are Living a Uniquely American Crisis

 

Daniel Griffin grew up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, a desert town that sits near the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, population 30,000. In the 1980s, his mother was the secretary at Christ Community Church, a small gathering that began in a Holiday Inn meeting room in 1973. She was the evangelical matriarch; his father’s faith in the church lapsed before he was born. Some afternoons, he was rocked to sleep by the pastor in his office.

 

 

Griffin worried about the status of his father’s soul, knowing that the stakes of salvation couldn’t be higher. His was a “rapture-oriented” church, meaning the distance between believer and apostate was a matter of eternal certainty—to believe was to punch your ticket into the millennial kingdom of heaven, and to stray was to be dashed into pieces like pottery on earth (if biblical prophecy is taken at its word.)

 

When he was 11, the congregation came together to stand outside of the church as the sun was set to rise in Israel. It was the beginning of the Jewish holiday Rosh-Hashanah, and 40 years after the creation of the State of Israel. Edgar Whisenant, a rocket engineer turned preacher, had recently published a booklet titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. A literal interpretation of the Bible told Whisenant that the second creation of heaven and earth, a spectacular event in which Jerusalem is centered, would begin—as the title suggests—in 1988. Christ Community Church had taken the warning seriously. Griffin knew that if they were right, he would rise to join Jesus in the clouds, and his father would be left to face the wrath of the Great Tribulation beneath him.

 

It didn’t end up happening that night, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen the next. When he was 16, the church arranged a production of Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames, a budget preview of the afterlife hosted by the Ohio-based company Reality Outreach Ministries. The left side of the stage was white and glowing to simulate heaven. The right side of the stage was red and relied on cheap pyrotechnics to simulate the lake of fire in hell.

 

 

Griffin was selected to participate as a cast member, and he invited his father to watch, convinced that once he saw the real consequences of godlessness he would feel called to return to the church. Griffin was cast as an unsaved teenager whose drunk driving led to an accident, killing his friends in the car. At the gates of heaven, his character was turned away, dragged into “hell” kicking and screaming by Satan and a cast of demons. Reality Outreach Ministries (which continues to operate today) marketed this $400 service by claiming that audience members would be terrified enough to commit their lives to Jesus in the altar call at the end of the performance, thus broadening the flock.

 

Griffin’s father did not heed the altar call; instead, he sat unmoved in his agnosticism while his son sobbed in the back of the church. Griffin believed that his faith, in all of its boundlessness and sincerity, would form a protective armor around his father’s soul and bring him back to Jesus. It didn’t, and so began the seeds of his “teenage rebellion.”

 

He couldn’t wrap his head around some of the biblical teachings, which seemed too much like a shortcut to being a good person. He couldn’t relate to the church’s staunch political conservatism when he knew believers who were as pious as the rest of them and voted for Democrats. More and more, the things he was taught to be absolutely true—the rapture, for instance—were turning out to be unreliable. He began to visit other churches in Alamogordo in the hopes that one might come along and fill in these spiritual gaps. That curiosity was enough for the parishioners of Christ Community, many of whom he had known since birth, to stop speaking to him altogether.

 

 

Griffin remained a churchgoer until he was able to leave for college, but he didn’t talk about the faith system he grew up in once he got there. He wouldn’t talk about it at all until his 40s, embarrassed that there were parts of young life he couldn’t relate to. As a boy, he didn’t know if he was going to grow up in the first place. How could he, if there was a God that promised to return at any moment and sweep the true believers into heaven?

 

A few years ago, a friend pointed him to the work of Chrissy Stroop, a writer with tens of thousands of online followers who often speaks out about the authoritarian roots of evangelical subculture and her own “fundamentalist” upbringing. In her Twitter bio, there is the hashtag she created, #emptythepews, and through it, a window into the “exvangelical” community of people who have dissociated from the original term.

 

“Tell me you grew up evangelical without telling me you grew up evangelical,” one Twitter user asked recently. The responses stacked on top of one another.

 

“Let’s go out to coffee” still makes me nervous

 

No dancing on Sunday

 

I was homeschooled with my seven siblings

 

Sometimes, when I can’t get my mom on the phone, I think: Maybe she’s been raptured

 

“It was fascinating,” Griffin told VICE. “It was like, oh, my God, there are more people like me. There are people who grew up in the church, in Jesusland, and never quite fit. We are all trying to put a big chunk of our life back together that we missed.”

 

In July of 2016, timed to coincide with the Republican National Convention, Blake Chastain released the first episode of the Exvangelical podcast from his home in the suburbs of Chicago. Raised in a conservative branch of the United Methodist Church in Indiana, Chastain saw that friends and former classmates were leaving the churches they were brought up in, becoming more liberal and less religious in turn. His own faith had ebbed and flowed away from evangelicalism since college, beginning with white evangelicals’ outsized support for the invasion of Iraq, something he saw as at odds with the person of Jesus.

 

The idea for the podcast was to interrogate these departures. He would ask historians, authors, and advocates about evangelical subculture in an effort to expose the toxicity of the aggregated experience. To promote the show, Chastain posted on Twitter with the hashtag “exvangelical” and connected with Stroop, who would later be called the movement’s “prophetic voice.” The podcast began with a modest audience, but when Donald Trump was elected president in November of that year, the numbers spiked––former evangelicals felt emboldened to speak about their experiences within the church, some for the first time, and those unfamiliar with the evangelical electorate seemed to want to listen, stunned by the president’s stronghold of evangelical support.

 

 

Later, Chastain created a private Facebook group in response to the desire for community among former members, a space where people could talk about all of the issues that come up when you leave “the bubble” of evangelical life. The group now stands at 8,000 members and requires only a few biographical questions for admission: a brief summary of your evangelical experience, an explanation of your interest in joining, and an agreement to follow the basic rules (no proselytizing; no mansplaining to the group.)

 

The screening process for the Facebook group is generous by design, since relying on evangelical as an identifier is almost always imprecise. It is a term that fits the space it is given, describing various types of Christians depending on the person doing the describing. The word is derived from the Greek euangelion, or “gospel,” which can refer to anyone who spreads the good news of Jesus Christ. It is a theological position, and one that is relatively mainstream.

 

The evangelical vote, as defined by scholars and researchers and reflected in polls, usually comes down to those who self-identify as “evangelical or born-again,” although there are lots of people associated with the term who would not lead with it as a descriptor themselves. Then there are those who attend churches associated with an evangelical tradition, like Southern Baptists, and are coded as evangelicals by default. But most Christian denominations are in the evangelical swimming pool, and the swimming pool is full; it’s just that there are enough people milling around the perimeter or ankle-deep or denying that they’re there, to begin with, for the presence to mean much at all. They’re all welcome in the Facebook group.

 

 

“[You’re] a young man who loves the Lord. You’re a Christian, and you’d be labeled an evangelical Christian,” Pastor Rob McCoy told now-congressman Madison Cawthorn in an interview in November. “[MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes] is trying to label you as some strange fanatic for having a heart to share your faith.” A few weeks earlier, Cawthorn told a reporter that he saw evangelism as on par with public service, but that he had a “difficult time” converting practicing Jews, prompting accusations of anti-semitism.

 

“Our faith teaches that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by Him. If we believe that, and our heart’s desire is to want people to know that, then the good news is to share the good news,” McCoy said in defense of Cawthorn, shaking his head.

 

An evangelicalism sanitized from its historical baggage does come down to these relationships—there is the relationship between self and God, and the relationship between self and others who have but to know God.

 

But the definition that matters, according to Chastain and Stroop, is one that acknowledges the institutions that undergird white evangelicalism as it stands today. It carries the weight of its late 20th century forefathers—men like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson who hardened the idea that the litmus test for devotion was when you stepped inside the ballot box: believers would be grounded in their opposition to things like abortion, integrated schools, and women in the workplace, and would fall in line with the “family values” Republican ticket.

 

The gatekeepers of legacy media, she said, refuse to cover white evangelicals in a way that is “true and representative,” often publishing puff pieces that suggest a through line of liberalism that just isn’t there.

 

Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 win against Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, white evangelicals have made up an essential part of the Republican coalition. This support has yet to be shaken by one presidential candidate or another, a phenomenon that seems to perpetually stump outsiders. George W. Bush led with “compassionate conservatism,” dressing policy decisions in moralistic language that acted as a dog whistle to regular churchgoers who would recognize the biblical phrasing. Donald Trump, who campaigned as a Presbyterian before declaring himself nondenominational, made headlines early on for fumbling biblical passages and speaking in obscenities. He received a greater share of the evangelical vote than each of the last three Republican candidates, including Bush.

 

“Why do [evangelicals] love me?” Trump said to reporters on his first campaign trail. “You’ll have to ask them. But they do. They do love me.”

 

 

Evangelicals have been asked why they voted for Trump—over and over again—but Stroop argues that the picture is incomplete if it doesn’t include the perspectives of those who have left these communities.

 

“The religion and the politics are the same thing,” Stroop told VICE. “It’s all about hegemony and who has power in what context.”

 

The gatekeepers of legacy media, she said, refuse to cover white evangelicals in a way that is “true and representative,” often publishing puff pieces that suggest a through line of liberalism that just isn’t there. Her view is that the theological tenets of the subculture—biblicism and conversionism—trend towards authoritarianism in the best of circumstances.

 

Recent events bolster this concern: in a survey following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, over one-quarter of white evangelicals reported belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory that Trump has been working against a group of child sex traffickers that include Democrats and Hollywood elites. The insurrection itself involved spontaneous praise and worship to Kari Job’s “Revelation Song” and professions of love for Jesus Christ.

 

In the end, the evangelical nebula—the white, conservative churchgoer you assume you’ll know when you meet—might be the best bad definition of an evangelical there is, which creates some linguistic awkwardness for Christians who have never been on board with a politicized euangelion.

 

 

“If I say to someone that I haven’t met before that I’m an evangelical, how are they going to receive that?” said Justin Sytsma, a staffer at a mid-sized Presbyterian church outside of Toronto. “They’re going to get their hackles up.”

 

In late October, Sytsma posted a tweet that sparked a modest online discussion in Christian circles: “Besides ‘exvangelical,’ is there a term for someone who still loves Jesus and believes that he is the hope of the world, is not deconstructing, but cannot self-identify as evangelical because of… *gestures broadly at everything*?”

 

He admits that there is no such term, and certainly no perfect community. The ties between white evangelicalism and political “duplicitousness” are too strong and too obvious. As a placeholder, he has settled on “theologically homeless.”

 

Kaylyn Whitley adopted the exvangelical label when she left the Southern Baptist church a few years ago. She was a student at Liberty University, perhaps the best-known evangelical college in the country, during Trump’s first year as president. When his policies turned out to be as hawkish and cruel as his stump speeches, it didn’t seem possible to reconcile her faith and her politics. “I was trying to brush it off, but you just can’t do that forever,” Whitley said.

 

 

At first, it looked like it was going to be a slow, gradual transition. Then, at 23, she was asked to leave her lifelong congregation, a church her parents helped to start. She was told that she had elevated her social justice agenda over sharing the gospel. And though she still identifies as a follower of Jesus, her religious habits have paused.

 

“Being asked to leave the church was painful,” Whitley said. “I haven’t found another dwelling church, and to be honest, I haven’t really been looking.”

 

Whether Trump is the symptom or the disease, the idea that his politics might be driving evangelicals away from the church is an important note in a well-documented demographic shift, particularly after an revolt that led to calls for a reckoning if not within, then at least about the faith. The logic once was that while religion is in decline across the board, white evangelicals were faithful enough to be the exception. That turned out not to be true. In 2006, white evangelical Protestants made up nearly one-quarter of the American population. Ten years later, that number has dropped to fewer than one in five, although some data has shown {that a} perceived fusion of evangelicalism and support for Trump may be drawing in new, non-churchgoing members.

 

Those who belong to exvangelical communities tend to skew millennial with experiences that involve the youth groups of the 90s, purity culture, and problematic Christian schools. But there is reason to think {that a} decline will continue—or accelerate—in younger generations who appear much less likely to agree that politics is a matter of good versus evil. It makes a difference if they can turn to the internet when it happens.

 

 

There are different ways that people describe the experience of leaving evangelicalism, which often involves the loss of a rich social network and a personal narrative in one fell swoop. Some say it is like escaping from a fishbowl into an ocean. Others say it is like living in a snow globe that breaks open, moving into a world that has only been seen from behind glass.

 

The gravity of this leap can be difficult for outsiders to understand, although no one story resembles another. Chastain said he had “positive experiences” growing up in the church and felt the call to ministry after graduating high school. Others, like Griffin, think of their time spent in evangelical churches as a source of trauma and heartbreak.

 

Not all families choose evangelicalism as a way to withdraw from society, but for those that do, there is no shortage of options for insulation. In America, each choice can be a religious alternative. There are evangelical schools, and failing that, there is evangelical homeschooling. There are evangelical music and concerts; there are evangelical books and bookstores. It is possible—and in many cases, encouraged—to be sustained by the social ties of family and church alone. Then, when the snow globe breaks open, it shatters.

 

Some evangelicals struggle to leave their faith communities for practical reasons, as “deconstruction” can wind up being a matter of capital. There are churches in which young parishioners are discouraged from securing driver’s licenses or investing in savings accounts. The degrees obtained from homeschooling and small Bible colleges wilt without proper accreditation and end up hurting them in the job search.

 

 

For these people, the various #Exvangelical hubs and organizations like Recovering from Religion and Freedom from Religion Foundation can be useful for a period of time.

 

“There’s this tendency of the human condition to want to get a sense of validation,” Andreea Nica, a professor of sociology at Western New Mexico University, told VICE. “That’s one of the very initial steps in trying to rebuild that new identity. These groups provide that.”

 

In Nica’s research on the well-being of those who have left fundamentalist religions, the exiting process appeared to get easier with time. She divides it into phases. The first 5 years of life after leaving a “high-cost” religion are the hardest. Some participants she spoke with described feeling suicidal or hopeless. The next three are better. And then, after nine years have passed, participants showed real progress in the search for new meaning.

 

“It may be a very lonely path,” Nica said. “These institutions are not going to be like, ‘Oh, you want to leave? Let me show you how. Let me show you how to rebuild your identity.’”

 

That is where Chastain feels like he comes in. Just having the language—being able to call yourself an “exvangelical”—is useful, he said. The point is not to create an imitation church or a group that replaces the social nest of evangelicalism. The groups he started share the common denominator of loss, which can become emotionally taxing over time.

 

 

“If this community is no longer what you need, then go with God or go without God and find the things that sustain you,” Chastain said. “I’m here to help them when they need to leave. Those first few steps, wherever they need to go after that.”

 

Recently, when Chastain commissioned new artwork for his podcast, he asked for a design that would explore the idea of something dying away so something new could grow in its place. He received a technicolor portrait of a Bible with flowers blooming every which way out of the pages.

 

It symbolized that “the paths out are many,” he said. It’s true; there is no one way to live a life after evangelicalism. But one of the challenges comes when it is time to build new relationships. In the evangelical church, bonds are heightened against the intensity of their spiritual significance, a high which can feel impossible to replicate. And that is without accounting for the fact that finding community outside of religion is difficult in general, Stroop said. She moved to Portland, Oregon in 2019 and said that it is “still a work in progress,” although she has a network of friends and engages locally with gigs on public radio.

 

When Jeanna Kadlec left the evangelical church and her marriage at 25, “virtually none” of the relationships she had remained intact. She was shunned by the people who were closest to her, save for immediate family.

 

 

“When people find out for the first time that I have this incredibly religious background and a husband to go with it, they’re flabbergasted,” Kadlec stated. Even when she was in the process of leaving, she “passed”—with some exceptions, evangelicalism isn’t an identity that shows up on sight.

 

In Brooklyn, she discovered tarot, astrology, and witchcraft, with it a world of queer women who also wanted to practice spirituality in a new way and enjoy the freedom of making decisions for themselves. Now she is working on a book that delves into life before and after leaving the church, and what it looks like to find meaning outside of the pews.

 

Ben Gulker, a former Pentecostal who hosts an SB Nation podcast on the Detroit Pistons, said that his exvangelical identity speaks to what he is not, but doesn’t have much to do with “what [he] is becoming in any depth.” Online communities might help, but they can’t stand in for those ties.

 

“I think all of us who have lived through 2020 understand this better now than ever,” he wrote in a message.

 

After college, Daniel Griffin ended up moving to Cedar Park, Texas, a suburb of Austin which happens to also be home to a historic steam train and a 400-year-old tree that gets decked out in twinkle lights every December. He works as a product manager for an information company during the day, and when he is not working, he spends time on Twitter as @HC_Exvangelical: Husband, Father, Wine Lover. #Exvangelical.

 

As he has grown older, his interests have shifted to viticulture, where he feels like he is on the ground floor of an ancient world he knew as a child. Jesus bypassed the fermentation process in the Gospel of John to turn water into wine, the first of the signs through which he revealed he could perform miracles. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” scripture reads.

 

In memory of his late father who shared his love of wine, he planted vines out in the Texas Hill Country. When he spends time in the vineyards, he feels like the connection is still there.

 

More often than not, the wineries Griffin visits in Texas are run by devout Christians. There is one called Perissos, he said, that he knows runs its business in accordance with its owners’ beliefs. They like to age their wines in the same wood from which Noah’s ark was built, and sometimes they placed on appreciation dinners to give back to the community in a way that aligns with biblical teachings. He still gets the sense of the belonging of faith.

 

Logging onto Twitter reminds him that there are other stories out there like his. There are people who were soused in evangelical doctrine for most of their formative years, and against every protective instinct, they chose to leave. He finds it inspiring that the community has been able to flip that damage into something good.

 

His frustration is that the media doesn’t seem to take exvangelicals seriously. It is convenient for religious outlets to dismiss them as black sheep, he said, or people who weren’t true believers, to begin with. Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post rarely engage at all. He wants to see things move towards spiritual pluralism—a society in which all interests are represented, including those of exvangelicals, even if there is no accounting for the “exvangelical vote” in polls. After all, there is no addendum to the “religious affiliation” checkbox that asks if you were always that way.

 

“It’s still very young,” Griffin said. “But we’re just trying to find a place. We’re trying to find a seat at the table.”

 

Follow Scout Brobst on Twitter.

 

Source: ‘Exvangelicals’ Are Living a Uniquely American Crisis

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