Anyone other than an editor of a major centrist media outlet might have decided that in July 2019, the jeremiad-over-evanglelical-hypocrisy think piece should be considered passé. So of course Peter Wehner recently published just another such lament in The Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong; I’d rather have pundits criticizing conservative, mostly white evangelicals for their hypocrisy than treating them as perfectly benign and good-faith participants in American democracy.
The United States and Canada, where the rising Christian Right is also a threat to human rights, urgently need, now more than ever, to confront the problem of anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, authoritarian Protestants (and their LDS and traditionalist Catholic bedfellows) wielding political power. We will be able to do so much more productively if we do not erase the people who know evangelicalism better than any well-known pundit, however. I am of course thinking of ex-evangelicals, who Cindy Wang Brandt recently described as occupying “a unique position to impact evangelicalism not by building bridges within it, but building coalitions that shape progress from outside.”
What bothers me about the “will no one think of the church’s reputation?” genre is that, in addition to having essentially no impact on evangelicals’ politics or consciences, it centers institutional Christianity over the lives of people who have left toxic Christianity. For someone who supposedly cares about evangelicals losing a generation as a result of their Trump support, it’s remarkable that Wehner shows no interest whatsoever in hearing from any members of this generation–actually generations, at this point–of leavers. We seem to be mere props or scenery for him.
The way that Peter Wehner and similar commentators write about former conservative Christians–in the complete absence of any interest in the perspectives and voices and lives of said exvies, ex-Catholics, ex-Mormons, et al.–erases our humanity. Wehner seems to prefer us as an abstraction, a series of statistics, a problem to be lamented by representatives of “the Church”–as opposed to viewing us as actual people with needs and emotions and desires, to say nothing of moral autonomy or voices of our own. As opposed to people with the ability to talk back to him in ways that might challenge his narrative.
In this context, it bears emphasizing that we are not merely human beings whose moral autonomy should be respected. We are also sources of valuable firsthand knowledge about how and why, for example, white evangelical hypocrisy is a feature, not a bug, of a toxic version of Christianity that has, in one form or another, been around since at least the fourth century, when orthodox Christians threw in their hand with empire, and the seeds of which are evident in the writings of Paul. Incidentally, I do not share Wehner’s apparent fondness for Augustine, who was a sex-obsessed and clearly unhealthy individual with a dangerously dark view of human nature. I figure we’d all be better off if Arius’s “heretical” theology had triumphed in the end. But I digress.
If Wehner and those like him should prove willing to subject themselves to some views that might make them uncomfortable, they might find that our insights into authoritarian Christianity are just what America needs to get through this moment of rising fascism backed by conservative Christians. Ex-evangelicals are veterans of the evangelical culture wars with knowledge of the tactics and ideological “justifications” evangelicals use.
Exvies knew that when it came to the chance to impose their norms on everyone else through the coercive force of law, for evangelicals, the ends would justify the means. This is why so many of us have been utterly unsurprised by evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of Trump, as we have been saying for years now, while far too many commentators and shapers of public opinion go on refusing to listen. Ex-evangelicals knew, and know, that white evangelical subculture is authoritarian through and through, and that as such, it allows narcissists, abusers, and other predators to thrive. We understand that, as a form of fundamentalism, white evangelicalism is incompatible with democracy, and that if we are going to salvage American democracy, we will need to expose evangelicalism as such.
No thanks to commentators like Wehner–but certainly thanks to journalists like Nina Burleigh, Sarah Posner, Rebecca Klein, Liz Kineke, and David Crary–ex-evangelicals have begun to break through into the public sphere in recent years. These journalists generally became interested in ex-evangelicals as a result of our increased visibility on Twitter. Social media has been at best a double-edged sword when it comes to the fight for democracy against the right-wing authoritarianism rising globally, but it has allowed exvangelicals and other former conservative Christians to tell our stories using hashtags like #EmptyThePews, #ExposeChristianSchools, and #ExposeChristianHomeschooling.
If influential media personalities like Wehner would begin to take us seriously as well, it could have an important positive impact on American society and politics. But I suppose he’d rather go on thinking of us as a problem to be solved, or as “bitter” individuals with “an axe to grind” who couldn’t possibly have important insights into the religion and subculture we lived for decades. It’s his loss. Unfortunately it’s also America’s. For that reason, please keep on sharing the reasons you chose to #EmptyThePews.