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The Life Coaches Fueling the “Ex-Evangelical” Movement

A burgeoning new field of spiritual counseling promises to cleanse the faithful of far-right religious ideas. But is this just swapping one kind of snake oil with another?

Attendees sing during Franklin Graham's "Decision America" California tour
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Micah Murray was a teenager, he took a vow of purity and wore a ring to commemorate his pledge. Like millions of evangelical youth, he believed that if he remained chaste until his wedding day, God would bless him in marriage with out-of-this-world sex and much more. As a teenage “soldier for Christ,” he just as fervently opposed homosexuality and feminism. It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he began to question if these religious beliefs were doing more harm than good in the world. That’s when he began to read more widely on topics of theology, philosophy, and other fields. He eventually came to the conclusion that much of what he’d been sold as divine truth was actually inspired by the more earthbound politics of the Religious Right.

Today, Murray is one of a growing number of “deconstruction coaches” who provide intellectual, spiritual, and emotional support to others who are unpackingor “deconstructing,” to use the parlance of the daytheir conservative religious upbringing. While Murray is an atheist in seminary, many other coaches are Christian. Though their motivations and methods vary, these professionals all agree that religion influenced by conservative political dogma (white evangelicalism, in particular) has been disastrous for individuals and society alike, as leaders have used doctrine to support such evils as misogyny, sexual abuse, racism, eugenics, and xenophobia.

In one-on-one and group settings, coaches help clients to separate universal truths from man-made ones, often with the aid of bestselling works of history such as Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Recognizing that faith crises often lead to identity crises, coaches also give clients room to figure out who they are–or who they could becomewithout their old beliefs.

Along with those telling stories of church abuse under hashtags like #LeaveLoud, #exvangelical, and #EmptythePews, deconstruction coaches are helping to facilitate the broader deconstruction of right-wing religion. This is a movement that many progressives view as promising to reinvigorate hearts and minds, but that others warn may deliver different doses of theological malignance. As the Covid-19 pandemic spurs more and more individuals to seek help deprogramming from poisonous belief systems, it’s worth examining both the ways formalized deconstruction binds existing wounds, as well as the ways it may inflict new ones.

In contrast to therapy, which is also adapting to accommodate those with “church hurt,” coaching is unregulated. There are no laws or professional codes to govern who can coach or what happens in coaching (though many do have counseling or related licenses). If this fact leads to jokes that coaches are essentially armchair philosophers for hire, it also explains one reason why coaching can be so transformative for people: It is wonderfully improvisatory.

Murray, who is based in Minnesota, once smoked cigarettes and traded swear words with a client just so the man could expose himself to these vices without the world ending. He’s also happy to play devil’s advocate if it’s intellectual sparring people need. Texas-based Deconstruction Coach Kurtis Vanderpool is similarly content to engage in debate, although he recognizes that even clients who claim to have strictly philosophical goals in mind tend to also need a coach willing to provide generous emotional support. Contrary to conservative claims that many of the people deconstructing are doing so simply to be fashionable, most clients are terrified of losing friends and family membersin some cases, their entire social networkssimply for inquiring about certain doctrine or practices.

Within evangelicalism, “you can only ask questions up to a point,” Angela J. Herrington, a faith deconstruction coach in Indiana, told The New Republic. “The line in the sand is things that upset the power structure.” Biblical inerrancy, for instance, is off-limits. If people question the absolute infallibility of scripture, perhaps favoring a more literary or historical approach, then the case for male headship collapses. Consequently, many pastors go to extreme lengths to protect such doctrine, including shunning those who express doubts.

Herrington says the pandemic has only intensified pastors’ fears, as it’s given churchgoers the cause and occasion to step back and take inventory of their beliefs. Horrified by conservative Christians’ callous disregard of public health measures, many are turning to coaching to figure out what happened to make Christians reject the ethics of the Gospel Jesus.

Coaching, as Murray, Vanderpool, and Herrington describe it, is about caring for hurt people and creating a space for them to explore ideas that feel unsafe and unfamiliar. In practice, clients often have to come face-to-face with their own dehumanizing ways of thinking. For example, in Herrington’s experience, white women harmed by purity culture often harbor internalized racism. “It’s easy to see how we’ve been othered,” she said. “It’s harder to see how we ‘other’.” When people do get a glimpse of themselves doing harm, as tends to happen in group settings, they get lumps in their throat.

The idea of truth sneaking up on individuals is reminiscent of the deconstruction theorized by Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida and then applied to American religion by Syracuse University Professor John D. Caputo, a philosopher and theologian, in his 2007 book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Building upon an idea of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who was, in turn, building upon an idea of Protestant reformer Martin Luther), Derrida describes deconstruction as delivering the shock of “the other” to the forces that repress it.

Deconstruction is not something that people do exactly, but rather something that happens, often when people commit to the unknown and the impossible. In Derrida’s words, deconstruction is “an affirmation” of othernessa promise “not to reduce the otherness of the Other,” such as by trying to render it intelligible. It “never proceeds without love.”

Insofar as deconstruction calls for individuals to be hospitable to that which takes them by surpriseany idea that, in announcing an uncomfortable truth, “calls for justice to flow like water over the land”it might be called “the hermeneutics of the kingdom of God.” So claims Caputo, whose book proceeds to ask what U.S. Christianity might look like if more believers allowed themselves to be shaken by the call of Jesus, which is necessarily the call of the “other.”

Derrida isn’t much referenced in today’s discourse around deconstruction, except by those who, perhaps wanting to show off their learning, express concern about how the term has been adulterated by the masses, and those who find the very academic nature of his project to be sufficient cause to dismiss deconstruction today. (For those who may not be persuaded that any interpretive method born of a “woke” elite is very bad, conservative podcaster Darrel B. Harrison adds that Derrida was “a staunch defender of Karl Marx.”)

But even if Derrida is not explicitly part of the dialogue, the deconstruction movement bears his imprint, according to Murray and others. Its proponents acknowledge that deconstruction can be profoundly unmooring. As Professor of Religion at Skidmore College Brad Onishi, a prominent exvangelical and host of the Straight White American Jesus podcast, recently opined on Twitter, it’s callous to reduce deconstruction to the simple act of criticizingor even leavingthe church.

Precisely because Derrida haunts this spiritual revolution, his insights may help to illuminate the problems that manifest within it, including in the burgeoning coaching industry. If coaching is a space where meaning can “happen” in a Derridean sense, it is also one where meaning can be rather violently imposed, foreclosing healing and love.

“Many people are coaching to deal with their own stuff or to feel like they’re saving others,” Murray told The New Republic. He explains that coaches often have an idea of what deconstruction should look like and push it on clients. They may feel, for instance, that deconstruction should stay within the bounds of Christian belief or that it should lead to atheism. In either case, they are not allowing the process to unfold.

Following Derrida, Caputo is firm that no one can know “the Way,” at least “not in any deep-down, epistemologically unshakeable way.” This is especially true when it comes to matters of God: “If you understand it, then what you understand is not God. If it is God, it eludes your grasp and always slips away.”

The problem of forcing narratives upon others is easily compounded by deconstruction’s normative whiteness. In keeping with the broader movement, many coaches center white evangelicalism, ignoring both the ways Black churches cause harm and the particular needs of BIPOC individuals. C Davis, who launched the “Deconstructing Black” and “Deconstructing Colors” on Instagram, claims deconstruction can be more troubled for people of color, who are also “decolonizing” other belief systems and who are often viewed as race-traitors simply for questioning God or religion. Because the Black church was long the only refuge from white persecution, she explains, those who leave that community are often treated as suspect. But with so few resources designed with Black individuals in mind, these disputants often have to navigate the deconstruction process on their own.

Kyle J. Howard, who provides “soul care” from a Black perspective, identifies a consequence: Many Black believers attempt to decolonize their faith only to adopt the views of liberal European thinkers. In doing so, they simply swap one white supremacist belief system for another. Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren targets whites with a similar critique. In a recent piece for Christianity Today, she wrote, “Often, when white Christians deconstruct their faith due to racism and injustice in the church, they don’t then learn from or join Black, Latino, or immigrant churches.”

Both Howard and Warren have a point, even if they profess a certainty about Christianity that Derrida and Caputo find inimical to ethics. Without the voices of the dispossessed, how can there be deconstruction?

That question is only more pointed as one-time evangelical influencers now hang out their coaching shingle in what’s becoming a rather lucrative industry with subscription book clubs and curated Spotify playlists. Exvangelical celebrity Joshua Harris made headlines in August when he announced he was offering a Deconstruction Starter Pack for $275. Harris’ bestselling books on chastity have, for some years, been widely blamed for mainstreaming junk theology in the first place. After being roundly rebuked, he apologized and canceled his deconstruction-for-beginners course. But there are many other such hustlers, including coaches who, according to Murray, were working the other side of the street as charismatic megapastors as recently as two years ago.

“Slow down,” Murray wants to tell these unnamed “lane-switchers.” “Build trust in the community. Listen to those who are deconstructing and think hard about what you can offer and how you’ve come to that knowledge.” While it’s impossible to know the intentions of others, and while all coaches have their own ongoing deconstructive work to do, it is important for deconstruction to proceed from those who’ve experienced harm and begun the work of healing.

Research shows that people are hungry for ways of thinking about truth that render them larger, more whole, and more loving. Many find these in coaching. But deconstruction also happens in small talkin those seemingly mundane moments when people let their guard down only to be arrested by what others say. As Davis offered in a recent interview, it can be transformative to simply sit on a porch and chat with someone who is “other” than you.

Vanderpool, referring more broadly to the way Americans are already beginning to reconceive religion, notes that younger generations don’t have the same respect for authorities; with that in mind, he believes that the deconstruction movement is something that can’t be stopped, only shaped. He is hopeful that coaching might cultivate more lay spiritual leaders and more communities that build on a foundation of “everyday people loving and serving one another”measures that would, no doubt, improve upon the “influencer” model where many coaches seem to either be cashing in on a trend or using the needs of others to work through their own crises of faith. Most urgent, though, is that deconstruction unify people “by love and not belief.”