Authority First: The Enclave Strikes Back

“I sat in the waiting room wasting my time, and waiting for Judgment Day. I praise liberty, the freedom to obey.” – Green Day, “21st Century Breakdown,” 21st Century Breakdown (2009)

Fundamentalists force an inhumane choice on reflective, empathetic individuals who grow up in their enclave communities: assent that 2 + 2 = 5, or, if you can’t, shut up about it or leave. Conservative Evangelicalism is a variety of Christian fundamentalism, and, make no mistake, the data tells us with overwhelming clarity that (apart from the “special demographic” of Vladimir Putin, Mitch McConnell, and James Comey), white Evangelicals are the one demographic most responsible for electing the most patently unqualified and dangerously demagogic president in modern American history. I am often asked how they could vote for someone so impious, which is a question I’ve addressed multiple times, generally referring to white Evangelical subculture’s pervasive authoritarianism and its politics of Providentialism (which can lead them to conclude that God can use Trump as a “vessel” despite his imperfections).

Perhaps a more interesting, or at least less frequently addressed, question, is how Evangelicals could vote for a candidate so manifestly, indeed flamboyantly, incompetent. But the two questions are very much of a piece, and the answers will take us down similar paths. Authoritarianism in power is always accompanied by anti-intellectualism, pseudo-intellectualism, and post-truth conditions. Fundamentalism is authoritarian by definition–it accepts a vision of “the Truth” that is sacrosanct, unquestionable, and, when found to be incompatible with reality, protected through the generation of “alternative facts,” which themselves become unassailable truths within the enclave community that is built up to sustain the fundamentalism in question.

Why go to such extreme lengths to maintain false “truths” instead of simply accepting new information?  Because, thanks to abusive socialization and indoctrination, one’s entire identity is tied up with being right about these particular truths, making it so painful to face (actual) facts that for most fundamentalists doing so is simply impossible, leading to deflection, whataboutism, and extreme manifestations of psychological defense mechanisms such as  projection and defensive fetishes.

If this sounds a lot like America’s current (illegitimate) president, it should. Both conservative Evangelicals and the reality-TV-star-in-chief are insecure and defensive. Both cling to demonstrably false views. Both feel aggrieved, since they believe their “alternative facts” deserve a hearing on par with actual facts. What this serves to do, of course, is to create a situation in which there are no generally agreed upon facts, leaving “facts” to be determined by power. And because they are so invested in being right, they are willing to use coercion to force their fake “facts” on others.

Fundamentalism is authoritarianism in microcosm, or on the margins. Fascism is essentially fundamentalism in power, and it continues to nurse a sense of being “the moral majority,” as well as a sense of being “beleaguered” and “treated very unfairly” – at the same time. As I tweeted on February 11, “There’s a reason that one scholarly framework for approaching authoritarian ideologies is ‘political religion.'” See also my analysis in “#ChristianAltFacts, or, How the Christian Right Broke America,” and Christopher Douglas’s excellent article “The Religious Origins of Fake News and ‘Alternative Facts.’

But perhaps this is all very abstract. And perhaps it might imply that all Evangelicals are simply anti-intellectual, with no ambivalence. In fact, in the kind of Evangelical environment I grew up in–a generally college or postgraduate educated, middle to upper-class part of the broader enclave community–attitudes about education and knowledge are riddled with tensions. In an attempt to help others better understand the dynamics of living with Evangelical anti-intellectualism while simultaneously theoretically valuing education, I’m going to explore this topic  through my personal experience below.

There is a strange sort of hope and fear for Evangelicals who profess to value academic achievement–they want the kids in their communities to achieve academically, because that lends a veneer of credibility to them and to the ideology itself. Would-be respectable Evangelicals desperately want to believe that their parallel institutions and bodies of knowledge are just as good as “the world’s.”

At the same time, there is a widespread fear that at least some aspects of the parallel Evangelical information universe may not hold water when seriously tested. Would-be “respectable” Evangelicals who value education and want to be taken seriously are acutely aware that when it comes to “training up” the next generation, too much critical thinking, or the “wrong” kind of education can lead to the community losing a potentially talented culture warrior to “the world.” I was supposed to be that talented, academically accomplished culture warrior. #SorryNotSorry, but “taking back the country for Christ” was not for me. I am in fact horrified to watch theocracy rising in Trumpism, as I switched sides in the culture wars long ago. This blog is part of my effort to talk back, fight back, and support others undergoing the very difficult process of leaving fundamentalism.

“Take Captive Every Thought”: Coming of Age with Cognitive Dissonance

“…and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” – from 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV).

I grew up with my parents and relatives frequently telling me I was smart. They expected great things of me, speculated I would become some sort of scientist or inventor. Indeed, I was a precocious kid, speaking in complete sentences when I was two. It wasn’t too long after that age, still in the first half of the 1980s, that one of my dad’s favorites stories about little me occurred. We were in a department store, and I asked him if I could have a toy car that cost a dollar, but which he deemed cheaply manufactured and not worth the price. Disappointed, I bided my time and, 10 or 15 minutes later, when we were in a completely different part of the store, I asked Dad, “What’s the most money you can think of?” Not suspecting I was still thinking about the toy car, he answered, “Oh, a million, maybe a billion dollars,” and I immediately followed up with, “Now does one little dollar sound like much?” He bought me the toy car.

As this vignette illustrates, my family members can admire and encourage intelligence. They also value education. Both my parents have master’s degrees from Ball State University. They were both in the first generation from their families to get college degrees, making me part of the second generation to go at a traditional age (my maternal grandmother did get a degree as an adult; she then became an elementary school teacher). My dad likes to brag that with my Ph.D. from Stanford I’ve “taken it to a whole new level.”

Nevertheless, in my childhood my parents also provided me with young earth creationist literature; exposed me to frequent urgent insistence that abortion is a literal holocaust, so we must stop the baby-killing liberals; exposed me to the teaching that sexual orientation is definitely a choice, and certainly never provided the slightest hint that they might question that pernicious notion; seemingly expected that the rapture could occur any day now; and taught me to interpret the Bible essentially literally–which frankly struck no small amount of terror into my highly sensitive young heart. As I’ve written elsewhere:

My early childhood was marked by episodes of abject terror over whether I was “really saved.” In my teen years, I wondered whether Calvinism were true and whether I might be part of the predestined reprobate. Later in high school, I moved on to thinking I had committed the unpardonable sin, walking around with a palpable lump of anxiety in my chest for about a week because I had failed to keep a promise to God to stop masturbating.

You could say I got some mixed messages growing up. One message I consistently got was that it was absolutely essential to do God’s will. My need to be certain that I was doing God’s will was at times so paralyzing that I would stand in front of my dresser wondering which pair of socks God might want me to wear that day. And then there was that other terrifying message taken from the apostle Paul–to “take captive every thought” in order to make sure it was pure and properly Christian. Given that I was already inclined to introspection, you can bet that one did a number on me.

However, another message I consistently got was that I was going to go to college and probably get a full ride academic scholarship. And so, after graduating from an ideologically driven Christian high school, I did. I looked at a few schools, including Evangelical colleges, whose required “lifestyle statements” (yes really, Google it) I already found infantilizing and invasive enough to rule them out. And I ultimately went to my parents’ alma mater, where I received the Whitinger Scholarship, won best undergraduate paper in one of the History Department’s Student History Conferences, and even won the Provost’s Prize for outstanding graduating senior in 2003.

Meanwhile, I voted for George W. Bush in 2000, despite serious misgivings and ambivalence, “because abortion”; I tried to argue with professors that if there were credible historical witnesses to miraculous occurrences, then we could be confident miracles did indeed occur; and I embarrassed myself in far too many attempts to defend young earth creationism because I accepted Ken Ham’s argument that Christianity falls apart without taking the accounts of creation and the fall literally.

In general I fought hard, but slowly failed, to hold on to my Evangelical faith. For me, giving up that faith was ultimately the only way to be able to live with myself while beginning to resolve the cognitive dissonance that resulted from growing up taught both to value authentic intellectual inquiry and achievement and to defend #ChristianAltFacts at all costs–indeed, in some cases potentially on pain of eternal conscious torture in hell if I rejected these “alternative facts.”

Speaking of living with myself, I was only just able to do so. Suicidal ideation was a frequent visitor during my college years, and well into my twenties I would often think of myself as “an impossible person who shouldn’t exist.” Someone raised by a loving Christian family wasn’t supposed to change beliefs and politics. I felt like a traitor and was torn up with guilt, which I now realize were responses programmed into me through my indoctrination in the toxic, authoritarian ideology of Evangelicalism. My youth, spent in absolutely unnecessary existential crises, was stolen from me, and none of it was my fault (and if you’re reading this and struggling with similar issues, as you may need to hear, it is not your fault either).

In fact, the suicidal ideation started earlier, as did my crisis of faith. Ever since my childhood I’d had a strong sense of self and of being “different.” This went along with being uncomfortable in my own skin, as the acceptable ways in which one can be different are highly circumscribed in the conformist conservative Evangelical subculture. Meanwhile, when I was 16, I read the entire Bible through for myself, and that was the beginning of the end of my ability to hold on to the Evangelical belief in Biblical inerrancy, and of a crisis of faith that only really began to feel properly resolved much later, in my 30s, when I realized I’m queer.

Back in those teenage years, I found some solace in alternative rock, the authenticity of which stood in sharp contrast to the glibness of most “contemporary Christian music,” as our enclave community’s parallel music industry is known. In my doubting teenage angst, one of the tracks I played over and over–I am confident my parents did not know this–was “Suicidal Dream” from Australian band Silverchair’s 1995 album Frogstomp (along with “Shade”). I knew something was “off.” Spiritual abuse programmed me to blame myself, but somehow I ultimately could not authentically and in good conscience give up my doubts.

The cognitive dissonance went back further. While I did indeed have young earth creationist literature and apologetics books growing up, I also had a subscription to Ranger Rick Magazine, an annually renewed gift from my maternal grandma–the one who went back to school as an adult and became a fourth-grade public school teacher. Her generation’s Christianity, in my family at least, was much more moderate than that of the next generation. Through Ranger Rick, an excellent publication for children from the National Wildlife Federation, I learned about environmentalism and evolution. I learned about the latter as well from an old natural history textbook that had once been my mom’s, and which I found fascinating, though I eventually learned that some of the information in it was dated. (Thanks, Robert T. Bakker! I’ll take you over Jim Bakker any day.)

There was also a more distant relative who would teach me fascinating things about carnivorous plants, meteor showers, and dinosaurs, and who always told me that they lived tens and hundreds of millions of years ago, even though I knew I was supposed to believe that the earth was 6000-10000 years old. In Christianese, all of this “planted seeds,” I’m sure. And yet I couldn’t fully give up on young earth creationism until well into college, and then only in conjunction with severe existential crisis. The extent of identity loss that goes along with losing fundamentalist faith is something I think few if any who have not lived it can really understand.

High SAT Scores for God: Academics in a “Respectable” Christian School

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17 (NIV)

And then there was Christian school. From first grade through half of sixth grade, and then again for all four years of high school, I went to a Christian school in Indianapolis. Elementary school talent shows concluded with sing-a-longs of–to borrow a phrase from Dave Barry, I am not making this up–Lee Greenwood’s godawful “God Bless the USA.” Our high school chemistry, physiology, and AP bio and AP chem teacher was an absentminded apocalyptic who would at times spend half the class on what he called “thoughts,” long, rambling devotions of sorts. These often involved his dreams (“I dreamed it was Judgment Day, and Christ was separating people into the sheep and the goats, and I was running around frantically trying to see if any of my students were among the goats…”).

The two years I had him, for chemistry and AP bio, he predicted that the rapture would probably occur “this fall around Yom Kippur,” because, you see, it was surely the year of Noah, since sin (especially gay sin) was increasing and increasing, and did you know they’re genetically engineering red heifers? (Again, I am not making this up.) I’m pretty sure he did/does this every year. The rapture’s always just around the corner. And this man teaches science.

In AP bio, this teacher showed us young earth creationist “documentaries,” even one about “flood geology,” as well as secular documentaries. While we used a secular college textbook, as is standard, he refused to teach us the evolution chapters, instead telling us to read them on our own and regurgitate them for the exam. In class, we discussed how “microevolution” could occur within a Biblical “kind” as described in Genesis, but this was not “macroevolution,” which would involve speciation. Of course, the position that “microevolution” can occur without the speciation of “macroevolution” is untenable, but what of that?

To get back, then, to the paradoxical nature of the pro-education anti-intellectualism I grew up with, you can see how odd it is for a school to offer AP courses and encourage high college placement rates, etc., while still teaching #ChristianAltFacts. But that’s what our school did and does; Christian Right ideology, including a belief in Biblical inerrancy, set the tone for everything else. In elementary school, we pledged allegiance both to the American flag and the Christian flag. One of the walls in the old elementary school was emblazoned with part of Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” In our milieu, “liberal” was treated like an antonym for “Christian.”

And yet the school has long touted its SAT scores and college placement rates, both of which are higher than those of the surrounding Indianapolis Public Schools. (Incidentally, the school tried to funnel as many graduates as possible into Evangelical colleges, so the #ChristianAltFacts deemed essential to the salvation of our souls would not be too severely challenged in the process of acquiring higher education.) Part of this is self-selection, I’m sure. The student body consists almost entirely of children from middle and upper-class families and, when I was there, was very disproportionately (almost entirely) white, though it has since become much more racially integrated.

As both my parents work in Christian ministries–my mom is a Christian school teacher and my dad has spent most of his adult life working with music, arts, and technology in churches–we were on the lower end, economically, of the range of families associated with the school. These were not families whose children grew up without books in the home. And the school was (and presumably still is), too, rigorous in its way. All students took the PSAT, and before we took it officially we had a practice test administered. In English and Bible classes, we were taught how to craft arguments and how to identify logical fallacies–in order, of course, to defend the faith. You were not supposed to turn these critical thinking tools back on Biblical literalism, but some of us couldn’t help it. The English teachers gave me an excellent start in learning how to write well. I would not be a published writer and scholar now if not for them, I’m sure.

So, this rigor produces its effect. The school graduates national merit scholars. Alumni go on to become aerospace engineers, entrepreneurs and business leaders, theologians, or, in my case, an apostate historian leading a pretty weird life. Kent Brantly, who made the cover of Time for his role in fighting the 2014 Ebola epidemic as a missionary doctor, graduated with me in 1999. Although I have not talked to him in years, I remember him as a very kind, unassuming person. I have often quipped that my Christian school education consisted largely of two prongs, critical thinking and Biblical literalism. For me, that created unbearable cognitive dissonance. Others are apparently capable of living with it. But while academic achievement that did not challenge conservative Evangelical ideology was encouraged–“for the glory of God,” of course–this coexisted with overt anti-intellectualism and a sense that secular experts were “blinded” and/or part of a conspiracy when their expertise challenged untouchable, sacrosanct beliefs.

Rejecting the “Worldly Wise”: Evangelical Anti-Intellectualism 

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” – 1 Corinthians 1:27 (NIV)

After my first year in college or at some point when I was home during the first half of my college career (I don’t remember exactly when), I found myself at a concert held back at my Christian school. A local Christian singer was performing. As she got ready to cover Nichole Nordeman’s “Fool for You” (the “you” is Jesus), she said something that’s been etched in my memory ever since. “It’s impossible to be too dumb to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. It might be possible to be too smart, but it’s not possible to be too dumb!” The crowd cheered wildly, while I sat there quietly horrified, pondering the “it might be possible to be too smart” part of her statement.

The song itself was already cringeworthy to me; I encourage you to click on the link above and listen to it, paying attention to the lyrics, just to get a feel for the attitudes one finds in Evangelical communities and contemporary Christian songs. They usually resolve everything tidily, because Evangelicals generally do not deal well with internal conflict, questions, ambiguity or, well, reality. And yet they live with glaring contradictions they refuse to face.

The value placed on a (circumscribed) good education one finds among educated, middle and upper-class Evangelicals sits oddly with this kind of overt anti-intellectualism that one also meets frequently in the subculture. But in this area too, one meets not only aggrieved defensiveness, but also magical thinking, both of which help explain white Evangelicals’ affinity for Trump. I’ll give just two examples.

First, on the aggrieved and defensive front, an experience from my two years at Colorado Springs Christian Middle School comes to mind. This school was even more extremist than the one I graduated from in Indianapolis; while at CSCS, I had to do a worksheet in (I think it was eighth-grade) Bible class that indicated that black people were the cursed descendants of Ham. The teacher seemed embarrassed, but made us go through the material anyway. But the incident I’m thinking of happened once while I was in the lunch line, when the cashier overheard me referring to humans as primates. She became furious and red-faced, despite my protestations that I was simply using a descriptive classification, not actually suggesting that humans evolved from apes. That didn’t stop her from going, well, apeshit. I suppose I was lucky to get out of that situation without a detention.

Now to the magical thinking. I spent my third year of college studying abroad, in Germany and England, and as I had some time between terms due to differing academic schedules, I decided to spend a month in Russia. This was in early 2002. A German friend accompanied me for the first part of the trip to Russia, which we spent in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As it was not so far back that I had participated in short-term mission trips in Russia (1999 and 2000, more here), despite my increasingly acute crisis of faith, I was able to find connections through missionaries to help arrange affordable lodging and even some guided tourism, which was nice.

In Moscow, we worked with an American woman who was employed at a missionary organization. She was very friendly and helpful, but also exhibited typical Evangelical magical thinking. Her Russian was not very good, she admitted to us, before telling us that she spoke fluent Spanish, but God “called her to Russia.” I had long since become critical of this notion of God “confounding the worldly wise” by using people with dubious qualifications as “vessels” of his will in particular callings to which they are not naturally suited, but it is a deep-seated part of Evangelical culture. Later in the trip, I visited a Wesleyan church in Vladimir, where, I was told, the American pastor had been serving for seven years. He still preached through an interpreter. My Russian–I could get by but was not fluent at that time–was clearly better than his. I was not impressed.

What this is meant to illustrate is the broader point that Evangelicals devalue the expertise of “secular elites.” Since these “elites” are “wrong” about evolution, it is easy for Evangelicals to believe they are also wrong about climate change, and, indeed, to believe anything our increasingly radical American conservative movement–radicalized in large part thanks precisely to the Christian Right–wants to believe. Belief in “the Truth” inevitably leads to post-truth, which is a necessary condition for a power struggle in which authoritarians, if victorious, can impose the narrative they wish to impose on society.

As long as he proved willing to protect them, to treat their views, no matter how absurd, as acceptable or even authoritative, and in particular to help them pursue their goal of outlawing abortion, it should surprise precisely no one that America’s white Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump for the presidency. Fundamentalism is authoritarian. Political forms of authoritarianism are essentially species of fundamentalism. And the dynamic they represent is abusive. Post-truth politics is gaslighting on a large social scale. Today’s radical post-truth regime is now in power in America thanks largely to your friendly neighborhood white Evangelicals, who are confounding the worldly wise indeed.

87 thoughts on “Educated Evangelicals, Academic Achievement, and Trumpism: On the Tensions in Valuing Education in an Anti-Intellectual Subculture

  1. My church was just anti-intellectual, and opposed higher education altogether (there were a few approved schools, such as Oral Roberts University and things associated with people like Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson; Liberty was fine, but Pentecostal was preferred to Baptist). They were afraid we’d be taken away from Jesus by antichrist professors. (I wasn’t into being indoctrinated, as I had already started questioning.)

    However, I have since discovered that my mom wanted me to go to school and wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. (She explained that African-Americans want their kids to go to school, to remove some of the barriers black people face.) So, she’s very supportive of my decision to go to college, though I’m in my 30’s. (My dad is supportive as well, but I didn’t grow up living with him. Besides, he’s Catholic.) I actually wrote a four part series on my religious journey, under my blog’s “My Story” page.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Love your writings Chris. I learn something from you every time. This article made me wonder about the stress from cognitive dissonance you speak about in the evangelical faith. How many more are suffering from major depression and other mental health illness brought on by this?
    Thanks and please keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Chris-I have interacted with you on Twitter a few times. The reason I’m commenting here is that I was so struck by how similar our childhoods were – I mean inwardly, in the precise phases of religious mental anguish going on. I also went through a “sin against the Holy Ghost” phase that started when I was 10 and bothered me off and on through much of high school; and I went through a period of worrying about whether Calvinism was true and I was damned (or even if I wasn’t, what about the people who were??). I also went through a period of “paralysis” like what you described (only mine was related to the verse about not eating meat offered to idols for the sake of your brother’s weak conscience. See if you can guess the connection 🙂 ). I was raised Catholic and I don’t blame the Church for a youth spent in quiet depression & terror (though I blame it for later things); I blame my own Bible reading and interactions with Evangelicals who told me Catholics weren’t saved. The Catholic Church actually became a refuge from my crazy thoughts. My problem became that I could only conceive of two possible realities: either the Catholic Church was right about everything, or one of the theologies I found so terrifying, Evangelicalism or Calvinism, was right about everything. So I clung desperately to Catholicism. It wasn’t until much later that I became open to another possibility: no one is right about everything, but that’s OK.

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    1. My daughter was affected by this through the church we were a part of. We have since left that entire subculture. But, she still has difficulties that stem from those years. I have apologized many times for subjecting our family to that.

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    2. I guarantee it affects people. I was raised in a very religious home, went to religious school from 4th – 12th grade, participated in youth groups, worship teams, etc. I now have crippling anxiety and depression which I believe largely come from the inability to separate my religious upbringing (you will go to hell, etc.) from the decisions I make as an adult now that I’ve broken away from the faith. When a principle is ingrained in you from birth reason and logic have little to no effect on the guilt I feel for making a ‘sinful’ decision, for instance making the decision to get a divorce two years ago. I still find it almost impossible to orgasm from sex because I’m having sex outside marriage and that thought is constantly lingering in the back of my mind.

      Now I’m pregnant and I will never ever put my child through the mental torture of being made to feel like she is not good enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m so sorry you have to deal with that psychological damage. Thank you for sharing, and for being committed to raising your child differently from how we grew up.


  3. Your story is basically mine. I am late to the party though, I’ve only been deconstructing for maybe the last 5 years or so. My Dad was (is again after a long time of different employment) a pastor in a conservative Evangelical sect (Reformed Baptist). My parents encouraged my curiosity, taught the same critical thinking and self directed learning skills you mentioned, yet scoffed at all the evolutionary science I got in my NOVA shows and National Geographic articles. The one thing that got my cognitive dissonance going early on, was my Dad’s love for astronomy, and his lack of even a basic attempt to explain how such a vast universe made any sense in the young earth time frame. My Dad taught me to love the universe, then told me that earth at least was only a few thousand years old; As if somehow astrophysics and geology were separate from each other.

    Anyway, this is a great read. One thing I’ve struggled with… How did you approach breaking the news with your family? I love my parents, I hold no ill will towards them, or blame them in any way, yet they are still deeply fundy. For instance, sharing this article on my social media is something I’m seriously considering… But it’s not automatic since it will inevitably bring a bit of confrontation.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s really hard, and something we all have to navigate for ourselves. For some people, it may not be safe to be open with their families about their break with fundamentalism. Others simply don’t want to deal with the fallout, which is absolutely understandable. All of this comes with a huge emotional and social cost.

      For my part, I believe that we need to be having public discussions of the kinds of experiences those of us who were raised with and left fundamentalism have had, and, after many years of keeping a lot inside or only sharing it privately, I decided I was willing to speak out. After already publishing some critical commentary about the Christian Right, I published this personal essay, which was an important step, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to take it back:

      Did it cause a lot of uncomfortable fallout? Yes. But it allowed me to move forward authentically in relationships with my relatives, and I’d rather have authentic relationships, however complicated, than fake ones in which everything is fine on the surface. This has led to some positive if difficult conversations, and I’m glad to know that my parents still love me and are proud of me and my academic achievements. Because “all our deeds are as filthy rags,” for a long time I didn’t think they would be if I broke with Evangelicalism. And I didn’t think they could love me unconditionally despite their assertions they could. Well, it turns out they were telling the truth. Even so, being frank about what’s wrong with conservative Evangelical subculture is hard. I don’t judge others who choose to avoid the direct confrontation. Our subculture, after all, teaches us to dread direct confrontation, so that’s an added bonus.

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  4. Gosh, we had very similar experiences. I went to a school run by my church, with passionate teachers who, with pure hearted intentions, created us to be soldiers for Christ. When I graduated, I was determined to be the proverbial “shining light” in science. This led me to choose a (secular) university, though I was determined I wouldn’t be that kid who lost their faith during college. Which … ha. I didn’t, but I changed most of my beliefs to the point that I’m sure I’d be considered a heretic if any of my old community knew what I really thought. Still, the paradoxical pain of feeling betrayed by the lies, yet like a traitor for changing my mind, is so great I can’t spend much time in church without anxiety attacks. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the strict ‘alt-facts’ I grew up with – the facts that were supposed to protect my faith – were what nearly killed it.

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      1. Shortly before I left Christianity (I am now formally converting to Judaism), I found myself unable to enter low church spaces that architecturally resembled the churches where I suffered the most abuse, even if they were for non-religious events like concerts (but I love visiting high-church spaces like Catholic cathedrals and basilicas and find them comforting. I don’t get it either.) Years after leaving and beginning my practice of Judaism, I tried to attend one interfaith event with my husband, opened the door to the sanctuary, and panicked, ending up sitting alone in the foyer crying for what seemed like forever. When I finally summoned the will to go inside and meet the very lovely chaplain who had put the event on, I gently suggested future events be held in a more neutral space than a sanctuary, which many strictly observant Jews and Muslims can’t enter anyway. I think a lot of us miss out on community events or charitable activities held in church spaces because it triggers visceral memories that nobody wants to revisit.

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  5. Chris, enjoy much your articles and thanks for the invitation for sharing our (ex)evangelical experience which I will do briefly here.

    As a young adult Evangelical in the mid-1970’s I can remember my first conscious brush with the Religious Right. Jimmy Carter had recently announced his candidacy. Many (I thought all) were excited that a confessing “born again” Christian was seeking the highest office. I found his commitment to his faith and progressive leanings to be the Christian answer.

    Our conversations were loaded with “make-America-Christian” rhetoric. This, I thought, is what Jimmy Carter would do, and I remember once elating this to a woman about how wonderful it all could be. She looked at me coldly and told me how she, as a Christian, was supporting Ronald Reagan. “What? What did the host of Death Valley Days have to do with a born-again Christian in politics?” I had never heard of this before. Apparently, I was in the wrong conversations for it wasn’t long before I was engulfed by the political Pat Boone, Richard Viguerie, and Francis Schaeffer in my Christian community, leading today to Donald Trump.

    I went on to study philosophy at an evangelical college and then moved to Norway where my progressive self only grew stronger. For those who might be interested, I have chronicled my religious journey in an “emotional autobiography”, a novel with fictitious persons and events, but the feelings are truly mine. Click my name, ldwenzel, ( to learn more about “Caught in the Winds”.

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  6. Fascinating stuff. I only had a brief brush with this world through a high school boyfriend (in Colorado Springs, even) but coming from a much more progressive and only vaguely observant background I was very soon completely turned off. The songs that seemed like thinly veiled praise of money and the strange experience of “speaking in tongues” struck me as heresy and false teachings. I abandoned Christianity for the most part after that.

    Since the election I’ve become much more interested in stories like yours. If people like me are to have any hope of getting our country back we need to understand what we are dealing with. Thanks for sharing your experiences publicly.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think there are many reasons we need to be having public discussions around these issues. One is to help inform the public that hasn’t lived authoritarian Christianity.

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  7. Your journey is very similar to mine, although I am still a Christian. The biggest difference is that now I focus on following Jesus, not following the Bible. FYI there are plenty of truly intellectual Christians who don’t buy into the whole conservative Evangelical subculture and believe in evolution: Dr. Peter Enns, Ken Miller of Brown University, Francis Collins at NIH, Pope Francis, to name a few.


    1. I’m well aware of them and am friends with many such people. Still, it’s not for me. I try to respect paths out of toxic Christianity that end in religion as well as those that end outside it.

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  8. As someone with a similar upbringing who is still dealing with a lot of the guilt/fallout of leaving the church I really appreciate you opening up publicly about your experiences. As others have said, it’s good to know I’m not alone with these feelings. Thank you.

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  9. My upbringing was less demanding (Southern Baptist, mainstream), my father a college professor and mother a school teacher. Yet I went through some of the same issues.

    By my thirties, I accepted a very tolerant Christian morality & ethos (some called me the best Christian they knew) and rejected the solo scriptura theology.

    I saw the evil promoted by Southern Baptists (evil rather than theology drove me to renounce Southern Baptists). After decades of wandering, I have become a recently convinced Quaker. It is true as I know the Truth.

    No theology, no leaders or pulpit (I know only unprogrammed Quakers) but a seeking of the Light of God.

    In Southern Baptist terms, I have a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. Seeking God’s Will for us to do is paramount is how I experience our hour of silent prayer.


      1. I agree. And in my opinion, if we are to believe that “His ways are higher than our ways, etc” the idea of seeking, or as some do, *claiming to know* God’s will (imo) always seemed extremely arrogant on the part of man. I just can’t go there. I prefer to do my best to emulate the teachings of Jesus rather than follow the bible as literal instruction. I attended an evangelical Christian school from 5th thru 12th grade. I remember well the whole “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called” nonsense. Basically, not concerning themselves with whether one is qualified or fit to do something, as long as you believe “God told me to.” Sooo glad I’m free of toxic bigotry & misogyny draped in the trappings of organized religion. Be well, Chris & thank you for sharing your story.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this. My experience was so similar to yours, although it started earlier (I’m older). My parents were Evangelical Southern Baptist missionaries (spoke in tongues, etc.; they’re retired now). And like you, I can’t go back there. My parents weren’t as intellectual as yours, but they were educated and did the same dance of trying to reconcile in odd ways the growing scientific knowledge about the world with their faith. I found the cognitive dissonance overwhelming. I had to leave.

    I did find that going to a Baptist college contributed to my losing my faith. I was done with religion entirely by the time I went to grad school and got my Ph.D. in English literature. And for me, the guilt of my increasing skepticism didn’t last long. In fact, it was the guilt that helped push me out of the church. I had my own sexual issues (different ones than yours) and spent my entire childhood in guilt over them. It was such a relief to leave that behind, though I too feel like my childhood was stolen from me.

    Fortunately, I found a husband who’d left the Catholic church over the same issues I had with the Baptist church, and we bonded over that. We’ve been married 30+ years now.

    My brother has tried (still tries) to embrace both faith and liberalism, but once I broke with the church and its lack of reason or consistency, I just couldn’t. I still can’t believe that my parents voted for Trump. I found that so appalling that I broke my usual silence about religion and railed at them over it. For them, it was all about the abortion issue–nothing else mattered.

    I was surprised to find other people saying they had panic attacks when they enter a church. I thought I was the only one. I get the heebie-jeebies if I go to a Baptist church, so I avoid that. Anyway, your story resonated with me, another sufferer. I suspect there are far more of us than anyone knows.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Good job and keep up the good work. I am sixty-seven, so I went through this same sort of transition a long time ago. I don’t actually have panic attacks triggered by going to a church, but I have no doubt that fundamentalist psychological abuse and habituation are in part to blame for my anxiety disorders. You have done an excellent job of explaining this world view. I am saving this piece to give to my students when they come to talk to me, either to “defend the faith/young earth/creationism” or when they are in tears because they understand that what it true is not what they have been taught and are desperately frightened. I think this will help them.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I forgot to add that my mother never censored my reading, although my dad took my books away twice. I ended up with a M.A. in Ancient and Medieval History from the University of South Florida- Tampa, and Ph.D. in Graeco-Roman and early Medieval History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fundamentalism cannot survive that sort of rigorous education in history, philosophy, languages, and religion, unless an individual is terrified into utter self-deception. After two years at a church college, I transferred to a public university (USF), the seeds of my discontent having already been planted, ironically enough by my professor who taught the Pentateuch and the gospels. By twenty-five, I had decided to call it a day, have never looked back, and don’t regret it in the least. Again, keep up the good work. You will rescue a lot more people than fundamentalism will ever “save.”

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Thank you for this. As always comprehensive and thoughtful. I’m fortunate that I never ever had the slightest supernatural beliefs. My parents did, sort of but never even suggested that I should believe or not. I got the same exhortation to intellectual rigor, but with no protected ideas.

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  14. This essay resonates with my experience growing up going to a Baptist church in the 1980s-1990s. From what I’ve seen, the materialism and admiration for wealth and success are the motivations for valuing education, at least in the evangelical culture that rose in the U.S. since the 1970s that is aligned with the right-wing. Education is valued mainly as a passport to a good-paying career. They distrust intellectual elites, but admire wealthy people and millionaires. It’s one of the many layers of inconsistency that is exhausting to live with and becomes the reason why thoughtful people leave and others avoid thinking too deeply or whole-heartedly embrace willful ignorance as a form of righteousness. There’s the inconsistency between American evangelical culture and biblical literalism and science and secular philosophy. There’s the dissonance of living like a regular person in a modern American culture while walking around believing that 90% of people you interact with aren’t Saved and are going to spend an eternity in Hell. And there’s also inconsistency between right-wing political evangelical culture and the New Testament and its overall message of love, fairness, equality, tolerance of others and personal humility. The most distasteful thing I found among the Christian Conservatives I grew up with, and encountered since, was the lack of compassion for people who were struggling and the outright rejection of policies and programs they could recognize as good and beneficial and alleviating the stress of poverty, even for people like them, if it came from a secular source or non-Christian source, especially from the must-maligned government.

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  15. I’m new to your blog and so I’m a little late in coming to this piece, but it sounds very familiar, to echo a lot of your commenters. What is slightly different (and slightly ironic) about my story is that I went to West Point, and subsequently the Army, after high school, two institutions generally regarded as very conservative. One would have expected me to double down on my conservatism and religious fundamentalism after these experiences, but, on the contrary, my exposure to something outside my Oklahoma bubble was what did it for me.

    Anyway, I wanted to know your thoughts on engaging with family members still in the bubble. I have attempted to engage my dad in conversations about religion and politics in the past, but he always bows out, calling the experience “too painful”. I know he is just avoiding facing the cognitive dissonance you describe, and so I let it go. Essentially, we are now like two guys who knew each other in college, but took very different paths and now have to live next to each other, so we try to make things pleasant. It’s exhaustingly boring.

    I also have two brothers in the ministry. Each of them is what I would call a thoughtful Christian, judging not, lest they be judged and whatnot, but they’re still very much Christian. My obvious dream would be to get them to all see the light, including another brother and sister who are currently attending Christian secondary school, and my other sister, who is a Trump supporter straight from the factory. So, keep at it? Or just make nice and talk about sports and stuff?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jeremiah. These are tough questions, and I can’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. How people are able to talk to their relatives about changes they’ve experienced in religious views and political orientation depends a lot on their own personalities and the relationship they have to their relatives. I can make a few general comments, though. I find direct attempts to “convert” people to agnosticism or atheism distasteful, and they will typically backfire in any case. A better approach, to me, seems to be simply raising particular issues and concerns as they come up that may allow you to show how this or that aspect of Evangelicalism is harmful to people your relatives care about, or how it undermines their professed values, etc. For more details, see my essay “Where do Ex-Evangelicals Come From?” You can find it here:


  16. Thank you Chris for sharing. As a Christian who has questioned his faith and ultimately retained it (albeit in different shapes than it began), I appreciate your perspective — it has informed mine as well as I relate to those around me of differing experiences, beliefs, and life trajectories. You have a powerful story that I hope is heard by many.

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  17. What a wonderful article Chris. We have so much in common. I too graduated from a Christian school in Indiana….. Indiana Christian Academy. I too was a good student….. could have go so many places, but chose one of those horrible fundamentalist schools: Bob Jones University. Got through that and managed to make my way to a secular school for grad school. I too went through all that while trying to sort out my queer identity.

    Just wanted to thank you for the great article. It isn’t often that I stumble upon something that reads like my autobiography. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Chris,
    I am very late to the game here but I just discovered you on Twitter and now here I am reading everything I can as quickly as possible. My story is long and complicated and I will only share a bit but I just want you to know reading your posts are so helpful! I appreciate your deep knowledge of the Evangelical world as well as your intellectualism. I am not as educated as you are but I am finding that what you write speaks to me.
    I’m still trying to figure out what I am, I have been going through what I call a “spiritual crisis” for almost 20 years. I feel (not know for sure anymore) that I believe in God and I really like Jesus but I can’t believe in the Church (any of them) and I deeply dislike Christians (even more so after this Trump disaster) It has been a gradual process for me that started when I moved to the US at the age of 12 from Argentina. My parents are fairly “liberal” Christians even though my dad is a pastor. In Argentina being Protestant was not mainstream so there was a huge separation between politics and our faith, they simply didn’t mix and that was so much better than American Christianity. I won’t go into details about all that but I felt free, inclusive and positive about my faith there. I could watch any TV, show,swear, wear anything I wanted,have friends outside the faith, question anything. There was no cookie-cutter way to be a Christian there.
    Then we moved to the US (my dad felt “called to come to the US to minister”) and I now was part of this weird Church culture that wanted to tell me how to believe and how to act. My parents adapted somewhat but I had issues with it. Nevertheless, I slowly became indoctrinated and was fully indoctrinated, I drank the Kool-Aid (but somehow never Republican-this caused people to look down on me). This part is long and complicated, I won’t go into all the details but it involved Charismatic churches, “prophetic” churches, being forced into discipleship, much spiritual abuse,weird church practices and beliefs, marital infidelity, more bad counsel from the Church (“you must make him want to stay with you and not the other woman”),eventual divorce, rejection from church over divorce, judgement from Christians, loss of friendships and community, doubts, pain and more pain. It’s like a soap opera and through it all I always felt “uncomfortable” with much of I was being told to believe. After this whole mess I just walked away from it all and spent years trying to heal, got involved in a long-term relationship and barely thought about it. Now 20 years later, I find myself trying to figure it all out. I can’t completely say I don’t believe in God at all (I still want to) and I feel I am somewhat “spiritual” and care about loving other people. I guess I’m trying to figure it out but I will never be part of a church or associate with Christians much. My biggest issue is that except for my family I can’t openly share all this. I still have some Christian friends, my dad is still a pastor, my new husband is a teacher at a Christian school (I know- but he feel the same as I do- at least he doesn’t teach his students Christian crap, he subtly tries to open their minds, he’s a science teacher). On the other hand brother is a horrible legalistic Fundie and our relationship is broken.I want to talk about how I feel with people, I want to have intellectual conversation, I want to be open about where I am at, I am passionate about social justice (which doesn’t jive with most church folks)
    Finding your blog and finding like minded people in social media has been tremendously helpful, as always it’s great to know I’m not alone. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more.
    PS: I should write down all my crazy experiences in the church and in life, it would make an interesting read but I’m no writer (as you can tell). Sorry this comment is so long.

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  19. Thank you for your beautiful blog. I just said to my husband, they could always smell I was different. How is that the “just know” that someone is different, even when you show up with the best of evangelical intentions? What I find so abusive is how they share the Gospel with the “heathen” and then spend the rest of the time telling you how you’re wrong: didn’t go to private Christian school, wrong family background (no Christian “cred”), didn’t go to Christian university. I actually think vacation Bible schools, as they currently stand, are a form of child abuse. They just like to say “oh, 50 kids gave their hearts to Christ”–but those kids are going to have to get with the program, aren’t they, to truly belong in evangelical land. So, so, so, so much wrong with evangelicalism right now. But mostly: how nasty and mean the people are! Such cruelty and contempt for all that is different. So sad.

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  20. THE RED HEIFER. Oh my god I’d almost forgotten. I graduated from a very conservative Christian high school in 2010, and we were still taught about that imminent sign of the rapture. -__-
    Some pastors also made jokes about being too smart. I recall one instant where they joked that “hey how many of you won xyz academic awards? Isn’t it great that God doesn’t often choose these people?” And it was super awkward for me because, well, my twin sister and I had* won those awards because always excelled in academics. I felt like maybe I was too smart and that would be my undoing (and then, arrogant for thinking I was smart! Lord, humble me, and so the cycle spun).

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Dear Chris, okay, now i know why that practice program won’t run…i followed the instructions, checked, checked and rechecked the coding…and still, no car! Now i understand. You see, i am one of those six-twenty-four-hour Creation believers, and go to a church where the preacher actually preaches from the Bible – yep, lots of Scripture at that church. i realize almost everyone buys into evolution, but the question still remains: when does a fin become a foot?


  22. Oh I can relate to this. I’m glad I’m out of the whole religious thing now… It was torture in the beginning, losing my faith, yet certain things still “sticking”.

    Liked by 1 person

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