Not Your Mission Field

Where Do Ex-Evangelicals Come From?

Where do ex-Evangelicals come from? Ahem! Well, erm, you see, children, when two people hate Jesus very, very much, Lilith’s pet pterodactyl (his name is Cuthbert) gets a text message alerting him that it’s time to take up his stick and bundle and pay another visit to Lucifer’s eggplant patch…

Thank you, Cuthbert! But your baby ex-Evangelical is in another eggplant patch.

But seriously, folks. I am often asked, in a certain sense, “where I came from.” Sometimes people ask me this simply because they’re perplexed that someone who grew up like I did, as a Christian Right Evangelical and Christian school kid, could come to have the politics I do (essentially democratic socialism, as laid out here). These days, however, most people who pose to me a version of the “where did you come from” question do so with a bigger question in mind: the question of whether non-fundamentalist Americans can do anything to reach fundamentalist Americans and change their minds.

My answer to that question is that you can’t do much. Initiatives undertaken on a broad scale or as part of political activism and advocacy would be bound to fail. In addition, the Democratic Party should give up on “faith outreach” (read: pandering to conservative Christians). This strategy has resulted in no tangible gains and indeed accomplishes nothing except to put abortion rights at risk of even further erosion. Please, DNC, just stop trying to reach white Evangelicals. Seriously, stop it; you’re embarrassing yourself. The small percentage of those white Evangelicals you can reach are voting for Democrats already.

I also find the scripts people come up with for e.g. “How to Talk to a Trump Evangelical at Christmas” essentially useless. (“Don’t discuss Hillary”? Get real; they will bring her up no matter what you do.) Speaking to people’s values is a good place to start when you’re trying to persuade someone of something, but conservative Evangelicals (who are a type of Christian fundamentalist) are masters of deflection and false equivalence. As a result of their fear-based socialization, they are given to succumbing to intense manifestations of psychological defense mechanisms such as projection and defensive fetishes. Fundamentalism is a totalizing ideology that goes to the very core of a person’s identity. In a healthy democratic society, fundamentalists would be politically marginalized, as their dangerous rejection of pluralism and concomitant illiberal tendencies are essentially incompatible with democracy. In the United States, of course, they own one of our two major political parties. This is a very serious problem, possible solutions to which are well beyond the scope of this essay.

So, what can we do to reach people inside fundamentalism with some slight hope their minds might change? I see only two possibilities. The first only applies if you have already built up a friendship and bonds of trust with a fundamentalist on a basis of something other than wanting to change their mind. If you have a person like this in your life, patiently, over time, you may be able to show them how e.g. their faith-based anti-LGBTQ animus directly harms people they care about. (This is just one example; use whatever is most salient on a case-by-case basis.) Personal approaches occasionally work. Sometimes people’s innate humaneness trumps ideology, but this doesn’t come easy for a fundamentalist, for whom any minor change of views could entail a risk of not only social discipline or ostracization within the community, but also divine punishment up to and including eternal conscious torment in hell. Meanwhile, getting into an argument about the irrationality of fundamentalist beliefs will only get you entirely shut down, so don’t do that.

The second thing we can do is work to make information and aid available to those already doubting, questioning, or wanting to leave fundamentalism for their own personal reasons. Some people have personalities or characteristics fundamental to their identities that simply cannot be accommodated within fundamentalism. In addition to those who are kicked out of their families and forced into homelessness for being LGBTQ or for some other reason, their trajectories tend to be as follows: quiet desperation with serious psychological damage; suicide; or a shift into some more humane form of Christianity or out of organized religion altogether.

While some people are able to shake off fundamentalist upbringings with relatively little baggage, for many, making that shift is a Herculean task. It may seem well nigh impossible. And we can help people like this, in part by giving them access not only to intellectual critiques of fundamentalism (although that is important too), but also access to stories that show that it is okay to doubt and that there is meaningful life on the other side of fundamentalism. Believe me, that any life outside their religious community and fundamentalist worldview could have meaning will not be intuitive to them. They have spent their entire lives being told that only God as understood in this specifically Christian fundamentalist way gives their lives meaning and purpose. I heard more than once from an Evangelical pulpit growing up that if there were no God, the only question worth debating would be whether or not to commit suicide. So, with this in mind, promoting ex-Evangelical and other ex-fundamentalist voices matters a lot–I have called for the centering of ex-Evangelical voices–and that’s part of why I write this blog and why I include its Ex-Evangelical Conversations series.

If you are able to follow one or both of the suggestions listed above, you will be making a valuable contribution to helping mitigate the destruction caused by fundamentalism. Reaching fundamentalists to change their minds en masse is, however, an entirely Quixotic notion, and we need to dispense with it. In what follows I’ll explain in a bit more detail, based on my personal experience, why leaving fundamentalism is so difficult, which may serve to illustrate why any sort of mass campaign or initiative you might hope to come up with to “convert” fundamentalists would be sure to fall flat.

The Impossible People: Ex-Evangelicalism as Exile

To get back to that question of “where I come from,” I have often asked myself the same thing. I now ascribe my path not only to an irrepressible intellectual precocity, but also to a repressed queerness I could not recognize until I was in my 30s, and that I still haven’t said much about publicly. Throughout my life, I felt somehow “different.” I spent much of my twenties feeling like an impossible person who shouldn’t exist, a feeling that was often accompanied by suicidal ideation. During this period, I dissimulated about the extent to which my religious and political convictions had changed, trying desperately to find a way to remain Evangelical or at least Christian while also staying true to myself and my conscience, and torturing myself with the question of whether I was dissimulating to protect myself or to protect my family. Evangelicals do guilt. Really, really well.

None of my relatives explicitly told me I should feel like a traitor if I ever changed my political and religious views, but when I eventually began to criticize certain aspects of Evangelical culture, some of them accused me of “attacking everything we stand for.” That pretty much sums up the conservative Evangelical ethos: you’re either with us or against us. In or out. And you are not in if you do not espouse all manner of #ChristianAltFacts and vigorously advocate a radical right-wing political agenda. Remember, the vast majority of white American Evangelicals, with respect to their insistence on “Biblical inerrancy,” their urgent emphasis on conversion, and their rejection of pluralism, are fundamentalists in the academic sense of the term, whether or not they call themselves such.

For me, leaving was a hard, protracted, painful process. I came out of it with religious trauma, and I’m far from the only one. People do not just leave fundamentalism. Fundamentalist ideology and communities are, by design, replete with deeply internalized disciplinary mechanisms to keep believers in the fold. Fundamentalism is essentially a misdirected response to trauma perpetuated generationally. The cycles of spiritual (and sometimes physical and sexual) abuse are hard to break.

Even if you grew up, like I did, with a form of fundamentalism far from the most severe versions out there, isolation in the enclave community means that when you begin to question you likely hardly know any non-fundamentalists. Some fundamentalist families move to preempt the possibility of their children leaving by attempting to limit their opportunities for higher education as a means of controlling them. (This happens to girls more often than boys, but it happens to boys too.) Under the best of circumstances, the choice to leave fundamentalism complicates all of your oldest and most intimate relationships considerably, depriving you of needed social support. Even when not all support from family and old friends is cut off, you will face pressure to repent and conform. You will most likely get zero support for your choice to reject fundamentalism from those in the community. You’re lucky if anyone you were close to growing up takes the same route you’re taking.

Fundamentalist socialization is not something you can just walk away from. Deprogramming yourself from the intense indoctrination that shaped the core of your identity in your formative years takes many people decades, and most of us who do leave, I think, will always be left feeling “weird everywhere,” or like “a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth.” Nothing replaces childhood socialization, and when that socialization imbues you, for example, with abject terror at the idea of going to hell, then just because you stop believing in hell intellectually doesn’t mean you stop being afraid of it. This fear makes it difficult to trust your own doubts in the first place, all the more so when a pastor tells you your doubts indicate you are “harboring sin in your life” and probably under the influence of literal demons. (Yes, I was spiritually abused and manipulated in precisely this manner.) When childhood socialization instills you with a dogmatic belief that abortion is vicious mass murder, it is very, very difficult to change that belief or to stop being essentially a one-issue voter, no matter how very irrational the “pro-life” movement is (and it is).

In order to leave fundamentalism, something within you has to be powerful enough to make you willing to leave despite the intense social, psychological, and often economic costs of leaving, and the effects of years, often decades, of gaslighting. In fundamentalism, you are trained to doubt your own doubts as likely resulting from “sin” and the influence of “demons,” things you are trained to be very, very afraid of. You have an overwhelming sense that if you leave you are betraying your family (and you might go to hell). You’re taught to see yourself as the source of your problems instead of locating them in the ultimately toxic ideology. In order to leave, your incentives to do so have to be stronger than your incentives to stay in the fold, even if as you remain you’re sort of faking it. And then you have to be strong or stubborn enough to follow through, and that likely only happens when some of your innate characteristics simply cannot be accommodated within fundamentalist ideology.

For most people in fundamentalist communities, this perfect storm is not going to come together. So here’s my advice, summed up. If you are friends with fundamentalists, gently and patiently try to show them the harm some of their specific views do when the occasion arises. Gradually, that may help some to moderate. I have seen Evangelicals mellow and moderate; it is possible.

With respect to those you may know who may be thinking of leaving, or who are leaving, or who have recently left, offer them your care, empathy, and support. Listening to them is more important than anything you can say to them, but do let them know that there is meaningful life outside fundamentalism, and that they do not have to give up faith in Jesus or Christianity altogether in order to leave behind the toxic fundamentalist variety. It is my firm conviction that we must validate both religious and non-religious paths out of fundamentalism. Finally, in order to reach and help those you do not know personally, do what you can to highlight ex-Evangelical and ex-fundamentalist voices and stories so that those who are doubting or looking for a way to leave can become aware of the possibilities and of the resources available to them. For many of us, knowing we’re not alone and connecting with others are key to healing.

If you are someone who is entertaining doubts or who has given up on Evangelicalism but are not sure what to do about it, feel free to contact me through this blog or on Twitter. In addition, you’ll be able to connect with many others on Twitter by searching hashtags like #YouDontKnowEvangelicals, #SpiritualAbuseIs, #ChristianAltFacts, #YouMightHaveGrownUpEvangelicalIf, #PurityCulture, #StillPurityCulture, #ExEvangelical, and #Exvangelical. You may also find useful information on this site’s annotated resources page.