As the author of Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free (Atria Books, 2018), Linda Kay Klein is a woman who needs little introduction in exvangelical and adjacent circles. Linda and I were both featured in the 2018 CBS Religion documentary special Deconstructing My Religion, and and she is a friend whose mind, character, and integrity I greatly admire. In the interview below, you’ll see how graciously and thoughtfully Linda responded to criticism of her important book, frankly admitting that she had a blind spot when it came to the representation of people who have left Christianity and religion altogether. This is also a long and detailed interview, so, without further ado, let’s get down to it!
Chris Stroop: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Linda! For readers just getting to know you and your work, could you give us a little background on your life and how you came to write Pure?
Linda Kay Klein: Happy to do it Chris!
When I was 13, I joined the Midwestern evangelical church at the end of my block with the absolute fervor of a convert. I started a Bible study at my public junior high school, while leading another Bible study for girls from around the city. I sang and played guitar in my youth group band. I witnessed and brought people to church almost constantly. And I announced to everyone I knew that I would be attending Bible college and becoming a missionary. In junior high, I was such a “good Christian” that kids would flash me the Satan sign, or give me the finger just to see what I’d do. And I’d smile, and give them the a-okay sign. Because I was deeply uncool.
But my youth group leaders and friends weren’t as convinced of my goodness as my public school peers were. They often pulled me aside and told me I was a threat to the purity of the men and boys in our youth group. Some called me a stumbling block—a thing over which good Christian men might trip—because they felt I didn’t dress right that day. Or walk right. Or talk right. There was always something. Even talking to the boys could be considered impure behavior if it struck someone wrong. Lists of my supposed “sins” came to me in lectures, but also prayer circles and confessions. As an example, once on a youth group retreat, we were encouraged to confess our sins to one another.
“I want to confess the sin of judgmentalism to you,” one girl pulled me aside to say. “I’ve been judging you for being such a flirt with Rob and with all of the other guys on this retreat.”
“Oh,” I said. “I wasn’t flirting with Rob. He and I are friends. We actually go to the same school and hang out all the time.”
“No,” she said. “You’re flirting.”
“Okay,” I said. There was an awkward silence. “You’re… forgiven?” She smiled. We hugged.
In high school, life in the church became more difficult for me. My youth pastor was convicted of child-enticement with the intent to have sexual contact with a 12-year-old girl in our youth group after having been quietly asked to leave two previous evangelical institutions for essentially the same behavior. I withdrew from Bible college two weeks before I was to start school, and a year later I began attending one of the most liberal secular colleges in in the nation.
At 21, I left the church. There were a lot of reasons behind my decision: my discomfort with the church having an answer for everything, even those things that seemed fundamentally unanswerable; the intolerance of questions, doubts or ambiguity; the suggestion that my gay friends had to change in order to be good; and on and on. But the reason that felt the most personal was realizing that I’d never really belong there. I would always have too many opinions for a woman and chafe at absolute male authority. But most of all, because of my female body I’d forever be seen as a stumbling block.
When I left the church, I thought I would be free from the sexual and gender-based shame, fear, and anxiety I’d developed in the years I’d tried to make myself into who they wanted me to be. After all, I’d just rejected their rules! I’d even announced to my long-term boyfriend that I was open to having sex before marriage now! But the shame, fear and anxiety didn’t go away. In fact, they got worse.
As I allowed my confidence and my sexuality—the two parts of myself that I had internalized the most shame around—to emerge, I began to have nightmares. When I’d make out with my boyfriend, I’d start to cry, my eczema would flare, and I’d wind up scratching myself until I bled. And if we ever got even close to having sex, I’d take a pregnancy test, though I was still a virgin. I write about these things in my book. After the boyfriend I was dating at the time read that section of the book, he called me up and he said, “You made it sound so much better than it was.”
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
“It went on for years,” he said. “For years. The tears, the scratching, the anxiety, the fear, it didn’t just happen when we got close to having sex. It happened when we talked about having sex. Or when we talked about another couple having sex. It was hard. It was really, really hard.”
He’s right. It was hard. It was really, really hard.
I felt scared. I was sure I would never be healthy and never have a healthy relationship. And I felt entirely alone.
Then I started talking with some of my girlfriends from my childhood evangelical Christian church. I told them about the shame, fear, anxiety and PTSD-like experiences I was having. And then—and this part was big—they told me very similar stories from their own lives.
At the age of 26, I went back to my hometown and spent a year in coffee shops, bars, and living rooms interviewing the girls I’d grown up with about sex, gender, and sexuality. This became the catalyst for 12 years of research that included interviews with women and others raised in white evangelical Christian churches around the country. I heard story after story of shame, fear, anxiety, and experiences that mimicked post-traumatic stress disorder. Turns out I wasn’t the only one having nightmares. I wasn’t the only one having anxiety—some people were even going to the hospital with panic attacks, their sexual anxiety was so severe. And I wasn’t the only one with paranoia. Several women have told me they took pregnancy tests though they weren’t having sex, or shared stories about fearing they were being followed while going out on dates, or even being recorded.
Over the course of my research, I realized that my interviewees and I had unknowingly been members of one of the first classes of adolescents to have grown up in the purity movement—a white evangelical Christian movement that shamed young people into believing that the only way for them to be worthy of love and acceptance was for them to be–more than abstinent–for them to be sexless in their minds, hearts, and bodies before marriage. For girls and women, this sexlessness included not “inspiring” sexual thoughts or feelings in men by the ways that they walked, talked or dressed.
The purity movement quickly developed a purity industry with rings, pledges, curricula, books, events, mugs, underwear, t-shirts, and on and on. I imagine that many who developed and bought these products assumed that all this would be good for young people. But my life and the lives of the people I’ve since interviewed over 12 years show something very different. A generation of young people—particularly girls and women—were shamed, dramatically shaping their lives and damaging their self-confidence, their sense of worth, their ability to connect with others sexually and otherwise, even their ability to connect with themselves.
CS: What has the response to Pure been like so far? Is there anything that has surprised you about the book’s reception and the opportunities the work has opened up for you? Have you experienced any kind of disconnect between the audience you thought you were writing for and the audience that has embraced the book most enthusiastically
LKK: Before publishing the book, I knew the purity movement—and the purity ethic that undergirds it and is taught across the globe—had hurt a lot of people, but readers’ powerful responses to the book still take me aback at times. I receive messages every single day from people saying, “Thank you. I thought I was the only one. I thought I was damaged. I thought I was broken. But now I know I’m not alone, and that gives me hope.” Receiving these messages and people’s stories are an honor I will never get over.
The most surprising audience the book has had is men. This book centers the experience of people raised in the purity movement as girls, and yet many men have told me it is the best resource they’ve come across for healing the damage the movement did to them. This tells me just how desperately we need a book that delves into the ways in which boys are shaped in the purity movement and how those teachings impact them as they grow.
CS: I appreciate the scrupulousness and self-consciousness with which you approach your understanding of evangelical subculture and your interviewees in Pure, and I like the theoretical framework you establish at the beginning, invoking Freud to discuss the notion that people can become taboo. You contend that this is what happens to girls and women in right-wing Christian purity culture, and you link your Freudian analysis to the Pauline notion of “stumbling block.” Making those associations and drawing the insights that you do out of them is absolutely brilliant! You’re a very talented writer, and the autobiographical parts of your book are highly engaging.
I further appreciate the way you take care in discussing the sociological reasons for why your sample is overwhelmingly white, making sure to devote some space in the book to considering the work and perspectives of people of color. And in terms of inclusivity, I think your highlighting the story of a trans man socialized as a girl in evangelical purity culture adds significant value to the book.
That being said, I do have a couple of criticisms regarding representation in the book. While I agree with you that a study of the impact of purity culture on boys would be valuable, I take no issue with Pure being almost exclusively about women and girls, since they have a distinct set of experiences and are more harmed by purity culture than boys and men, particularly cishet ones. However, I can’t help but wonder why you didn’t also talk to, say, at least one trans woman who was socialized in evangelical purity culture as a boy.
Despite the pressure to conform to evangelical understandings of masculinity, a trans girl would internalize purity culture differently than a cis man. And while cis and trans experiences are certainly different, in a book about women who grew up with evangelicals’ denial of queer existence, seeing trans women affirmed as women would be valuable. Do you know any out trans women who grew up evangelical, and if so, what do you think their perspectives might add to our collective deconstruction of purity culture?
LKK: Thanks for this question, Chris. I do know trans women who were raised evangelical. Among them is Paula Williams, whose sermon is featured in the “Sanctuary” chapter of the book, in part because it is a really helpful sermon on the topic of sexual ethics in the church, in my opinion, and in part because I agree with you that it is important for trans women to be affirmed as an important part of this conversation, though they aren’t the core population the book follows.
In Pure, I was interested in tracking the specific sexual shaming that those who were identified as girls when they were growing up in the movement received and how it impacted them as they progressed through their lives, including the experience of transitioning. I limited my scope in this way because the messaging for girls and boys in the movement is so different. As one of my interviewees put it: “Women are taught their bodies are evil; men are taught their minds are.”
But the chasm between how the genders were raised to see/experience gender, sex, and sexuality is much wider than any adage can sum up. Paula, for example, talks often about how having been raised as a boy and seen as a man throughout most of her life shaped her in ways that she knows (now more than ever) she wouldn’t have been shaped had she been raised as a girl. When a book about the impact of the purity movement’s messaging for those assigned male at birth is written one day, it is very important for stories like Paula’s to be included.
CS: Also with respect to representation, I found the book on the whole to be so sympathetic not just to Christians, but even to evangelicals, that in places I, as someone harmed by evangelicalism (including its purity culture) who ultimately landed outside of organized religion altogether, got quite emotionally upset. I kept waiting to see you highlight a story of someone harmed by purity culture who made the choice to leave the church and Christianity for good, and by representing and sympathizing with that person, to validate that choice. But you never do. Instead, time and again, the interviewees you choose to highlight talk about how much they still love God and Jesus, albeit a couple of them, like you, no longer go to church.
There are also so, so, so many pastors and seminarians in this book. Look, I get it–reclaiming the right for women to be pastors for those who want to salvage Christianity is a good thing. But could you not have highlighted some stories of overcoming women who overcame by….well, by becoming any kind of male-dominated profession other than pastor? Could you not have celebrated some strictly secular responses to purity culture? After all, for many of us, on a visceral level, the Christian god will only ever be an abuser. And the historical track record of organized religion is not exactly stellar when it comes to human equality (“not exactly stellar,” of course, being Midwestern for “fucking awful”), even though liberationist and feminist theologies and versions of Christianity do exist and should be acknowledged. If you believe that abandoning Christianity entirely is a valid choice, as you affirmed you did when we chatted about this earlier, why is that choice given zero representation in this book?
When we chatted earlier, you said you meant for chapter 15, “The No Shame Movement,” to represent a secular model for responding to purity culture. However, chapter 15 is one of the book’s shorter chapters, and even if the responses to purity culture you highlight might be broadly defined as “secular,” you still don’t feature any non-religious, or even non-Christian, people. The founder of the No Shame Movement you refer to is a social justice Christian. Elizabeth Esther and Keisha Mackenzie are social justice Christians. You mention Rev. Verdell A. Wright, who is now publicly known as an atheist, but he wasn’t when he talked to you for the book, and so he is presented to readers only as a reverend and theologian. Where are the secular people in this chapter about ostensibly secular ways to respond to purity culture?
In addition, you spend much of this chapter sympathizing with Josh Harris and with a group of people who were relatively sympathetic toward his documentary project looking back at I Kissed Dating Goodbye and supposedly taking his critics seriously. This was before the documentary was released, of course. You seem to sympathize far less with the Josh Harris skeptics than you do with those who extended some trust to him, although, in my view, it was very predictable that the skeptics would be proven correct, and that Harris was not really going to change his views about sex.
It’s just odd to me that you sympathize with Harris so much at the same time that you advocate for the rejection of the traditional Christian prohibition on all sex outside of marriage. Anyway, if chapter 15 was meant to be a chapter that made secular exvangelicals feel heard and seen, I’m sorry to say it, but it completely fails to do that. Apart from Harris, I admire all the people that you highlight, and they deserve a place in the book. But this is in no way a chapter that validates those of us exvies who have left religion. It’s just another chapter where we’re invisible.
Indeed, chapter 15 seems to me to be just part of a narrative arc that emerges in Part IV of the book in which healing ends up being linked primarily with Christianity; in which the feelings of evangelicals are placed on par with the harm they have done to so many of us; and in which the importance of healing the church comes across as at least as important as the healing of individuals harmed by evangelicalism’s authoritarian nature, abuses, and purity culture. You may say it’s a chapter modeling “secular” responses to purity culture, but without secular people in it, it’s still part of a narrative arc of “redeeming,” and indeed even celebrating, Christianity. You can’t really highlight or celebrate secular responses to purity culture if you only feature Christians.
Some of us absolutely need to leave Christianity, whether for paganism or atheism or something else, in order to heal. To my mind, a robustly victim and healing centered book could certainly still e.g. highlight the use of non-shaming sex ed curricula in mainline Sunday schools without making readers feel like you have no validation to offer those of us who leave Christianity and religion altogether.
Unfortunately, the book leaves us leavers to wonder if you, too, think we’re just “bitter” and that we should be invested in reforming the church, rather than being indifferent to what happens to the church. Personally, I would love to see evangelicalism burn to the ground. I find it 100% irredeemable. And as progressive Christianity doesn’t work for me, the only investment I have in it is that which comes from my desire to build bridges between those of us who left toxic Christianity for no religion, and those who left it for better religion. I will affirm those who leave toxic Christianity for a healthy religious path, but I expect them to affirm my choice to give up on religion altogether in return.
Regarding your evident sympathy for evangelicals, of course, not everyone in evangelicalism is a monster, but the adults who raised us in purity culture, forced us to learn #ChristianAltFacts via homeschooling and/or Christian school, and mobilized us for culture wars are still accountable for their actions. The harm done to us is more important than their feelings. Your book at best sends mixed messages here.
Take your statement on page 258: “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my mother, who once felt so blessed to be able to give me the greatest gift she had ever received–evangelical Christianity–to see me walk away from it.”
I can relate to this. But I think we need to move past this kind of guilt, sometimes even actively limiting our empathy toward oppressors (even though they are also victims) in order to be able to speak our truth and reclaim authenticity. Sometimes that will lead to breaking ties with family members for good. You and I are lucky that hasn’t been the case for us, but I can say for myself that I would rather that have been the case than that I never got to the point of unabashedly telling the truth about evangelicalism.
Speaking of which, on page 268 you refer to a purported positive “shift in evangelical culture” in a celebratory way–and this is in chapter 15, which is the chapter exploring ostensibly secular models of responding to purity culture? Anyway, I do not see any substantive shift in evangelical subculture; all I see is slicker marketing, and some younger evangelicals who actually want change. But those youth who do want a better, more inclusive evangelicalism? In my view, they’re eventually going to be forced out, because, for reasons I have documented for example here, evangelical institutions are never going to change. Why bring up supposed positive changes in evangelicalism when that’s going to be upsetting to many of your readers?
I hope that despite this criticism, offered to you in good faith as both a friend and a colleague who greatly respects your talent and intellect, it is clear that I think Pure is an important book that people should read–maybe especially, in addition to post-evangelical Christians, people who grew up entirely outside evangelicalism or even outside Christianity, so that they can get a sense of how harmful evangelical authoritarianism is.
I also respect your choice to remain Christian in a way that works for you, but in the spirit of building bridges between people who left evangelicalism for better religion and people who left it for no religion, non-religious exvies who consider reading Pure should be warned that it’s a very Christiany, Jesusy, pro-Christian book. In online discussions of the book I’ve seen a number of cis women agree that Pure is not really a book for us leavers. Since I expected it to at least include us, the longer I went without any representation of secular exvies, the more I found getting through the book to be difficult and emotionally fraught. Leavers who consider picking up Pure need to know this going into the book, because seeing Christianity celebrated can in fact be triggering, just as entering a church can be triggering to people harmed by toxic Christianity (in fairness you do note this latter point in the book).
Non-religious exvies who simply throw themselves into Pure may find it painful to read, not just because they’re survivors of purity culture and the book explicitly revisits all the attendant horrors, but also because in many ways this seems to be a book not just about purity culture, but also about redeeming and celebrating Christianity. I respect people like you who are invested in doing that, but some of us have absolutely no interest in participating, and we should be visible too. We deserve to feel like our moral autonomy is also respected by those on the other side of this divide that runs through the exvangelical community.
LKK: Thank you for these comments and questions, Chris, and for your honesty and vulnerability.
I can’t say strongly enough how much I believe leaving Christianity altogether is not only a valid choice, but for some, it is a vital, life-preserving, or even life-saving choice. The church has traumatized and abused many people, and some people’s healing–and again, indeed survival–requires that they stay as far away from it as possible. I feel so strongly that this is a valid choice that it was a blind spot for me; it didn’t even occur to me that I might not represent my feeling that not everyone needs to be involved in redeeming the church! What I was worried that I might not represent was the validity of remaining in the church, as honestly that choice was more complicated and challenging for me personally for a very long time.
I left evangelicalism when I was 21. Though my spiritual life remained active, I didn’t feel comfortable in a church again until I was 30. Even then, it didn’t come easy. And it wasn’t until many years later still that I felt comfortable calling myself a Christian, which was largely the result of my deciding that it didn’t matter what anyone else meant by that word, I could claim what it meant to me. With this as my background, I went into writing the book very conscious about making sure that I represented the validity of staying, only to very recently realize that I had swung so far in that direction that I wound up not sufficiently representing the validity of leaving!
When I went back to my interviewees just before the book was published and asked them whether or not they were still evangelical, 14% of those who got back to me said “yes,” 14% said “it’s complicated,” and 72% said “no.” Their detailed answers ranged from “YES!!!!” to “Ugh, sort of.” to “Oh, hell no.”
When I asked if they were still Christian, 53% of those who got back to me said “yes,” 22% said “it’s complicated,” and 25% said “no.” Their detailed answers ranged from “YES!!!!” to “hmmmmmm. Yes?” to “No, not even a little bit.” Further reflection in this data collection phase shows that some interviewees were “in a Taoist place,” or “atheist,” or “spiritual atheist,” or “Christo-Pagan, heavy on the Pagan,” etc.
The original draft of the book, which was twice the length of the draft that was ultimately published, represented this multiplicity, going into the various religious and non-religious choices that people made over the courses of their lives. If I had it to do over again, I would keep this multiplicity in the book, clearly illustrating that leaving the church is as valid a choice as staying. I do feature quotes and some extended stories from people who left the church, like Eli, Scarlet, Muriel, and Jasmine, but you often wouldn’t know that is part of their story from reading the book, and that’s a problem.
In the last movement of the book, it was important to me to illustrate healing interventions both inside and outside of the church as we talked about on the phone. While the “Sanctuary” chapter focused on healing within Christianity, the “No Shame Movement” chapter centered the No Shame Movement platform, a secular intervention for healing from purity culture. Its founder, Laura P., has gone to great lengths to make sure that the platform is squarely secular, differentiating it from Christian platforms like Thank God for Sex in an attempt to ensure that people who want to have nothing to do with religion feel as comfortable on the site as those who are religious. That said, you are right that in ‘The No Shame Movement,” I do quote/cite people who are identified as Christian and should have quoted/cited people who were identified as secular as well.
Finally, I mention the positive shift that I believe the activists featured in “The No Shame Movement” chapter are making within evangelicalism (though, like you, I am skeptical of how much it will change), not to applaud evangelicalism but to applaud the activists.
CS: Your book is what I would call an autoethnography–a work that places one’s own story in the context of wider socially significant phenomena, using data where possible to aid in the contextualization. A lot of my writing is also autoethnographic, and I think autoethnography can be a fantastic way to connect to readers while informing them about broad social concerns.
But while we’re on the subject of constructive criticism, was there really no one else you could cite for basic data on things like teens and sex other than the rabidly anti-LGBTQ Mark Regnerus, whose frequent appearance in your notes may be triggering to some? I personally don’t think your footnoted caveat on citing his work excuses devoting so much space to it. Where possible, why not go back, for example, to the U.S. government survey he draws on for raw data? I understand that the particular work you cite is probably largely untainted by the man’s uglier biases, but what does his analysis add that is significant enough to afford so much space in your citations to a man known for anti-LGBTQ animus expressed in direct malfeasance through deliberately methodologically corrupted “science” mobilized to harm queer people?
LKK: I appreciate this question. I was really torn about using his work. His research on same-sex parenting showed a deeply problematic anti-LGBTQ bias as you note and, though I was focusing on other research untainted by that bias, I struggled with whether to include his work in any way for that reason. All this to say, your point is very well taken, Chris.
CS: This might be a weird question to ask given the heaviness of much of the subject matter, but what is your favorite part of Pure? And what were the best and worst things about your writing process?
LKK: After Rachel Held Evans’ recent passing, Kevin Miguel García quoted her on Twitter. Rachel had told them not to write from their bleeding open wounds, but from their healed scars. I think this is good advice.
I wrote most of Pure from my scars. But it’s the chapter I wrote out of a still healing wound that was most powerful for me on a personal level. In the “Going Home” chapter, I wrote about my fear of losing my relationship with my mom when I one day spoke out about the damage the church has done to so many. I’m grateful that I didn’t end up losing my relationship with her, though I did lose some of our closeness. This is still a tender, painful spot for me, which is why I think the chapter feels so precious.
CS: I certainly empathize with the pain that comes with social loss, identity loss, and complicating some of our oldest and most intimate human relationships when we abandon conservative Christianity. Thank you for sharing that, Linda. You’re definitely not alone in that struggle, and I don’t think there are any easy answers. Many in the exvangelical community struggle with this.
Speaking of exvies, I’d like to ask you what your general take on the emerging exvangelical community and movement is. What kinds of undertakings do you think we need in order to gain greater visibility, foster healing among former evangelicals, and raise awareness of evangelical extremism and the harm done by things like purity culture among Americans who have not lived evangelical subculture?
LKK: I wish I’d had the kind of community that exvangelicals offer when I was leaving evangelical Christianity. I would have felt so much less alone and so much less crazy.
But I think the fact that you are presenting yourselves as more than a community—truly, as a constituency—is particularly powerful. I’d love to see journalists interviewing exvangelicals whenever they do stories on evangelicalism. Toward that end, perhaps the community’s leadership would be wise to build a database of exvangelicals who are willing to talk to the media, expand its relationships with the media, and become the go-to group to hook people up with exvangelical voices across the country. “You’re writing for a local media outlet in a rural part of the country? We’ve got an exvangelical there who would love to talk to you and we can connect you with them immediately so you can make your deadline.”
CS: Thanks for that excellent suggestion, Linda! Changing our national conversation around evangelicalism via media representation is something I consider a key goal.
So, what are you working on now, and what are your future plans? Can readers expect another book from you in the future, or are you going in a different direction?
LKK: Great questions! I would really like to write another book, but I’m still waiting for the right idea to emerge. Ideas are slippery little things in my experience. They have to be courted to come out.
Meanwhile, I am working on my nonprofit, Break Free Together, which uses story exchange to help people release shame and embrace their whole selves. We work primarily with churches, providing them with a healthy way to have community conversations about sexuality.
I also speak and lead workshops and retreats on a variety of topics, do storytelling consulting for individuals and organizations, and coach individuals.
Finally, I had such a blast doing my audio book that I just took a voice-over class, and I’m preparing to put myself out as a voice actor as well!
CS: Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of Not Your Mission Field?
LKK: This was a long interview, so I’ll keep it short. If you got this far, I mean, wow, and thank you.
The thing I think it is most important for me to say is: if you are experiencing any of the things that I wrote about in this interview and you feel alone, please know that you’re not. You are not alone.