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Spring Books

The Exvangelicals Searching for Political Change

Former evangelicals are growing in number. But are they a movement?

When Sarah McCammon was a child, the evangelical church was her world, and the world was on fire. As she writes in her new book, The Exvangelicals, her parents married in 1976, which was, Newsweek reported, the “year of the evangelical.” She was born five years later, not long after white evangelical Christians helped elect Ronald Reagan. Despite that victory, evangelicals were afraid—of persecution, and irrelevance. Of losing. After watching a dramatic reenactment of the Crucifixion at church, she remembers coming to “understand that of course the violence I believed I was witnessing on that day was not real.”

Still, she took the intended lesson. The violent scenes, she saw, were “meant to illustrate a deeper reality”:

that lurking beneath the veneer of our comfortable, suburban, midwestern American lives was a threat so severe that God had to send his only son to brutally suffer and die to save us from it. The blood might be fake, but the danger was not.

By the time McCammon became an adult, evangelicals had won unquestionable power. They wielded great influence over the George W. Bush administration, and the presidency of Barack Obama was a temporary defeat. But white evangelicals had always believed they were under assault from the forces of progress, and now they had fresh proof, in the form of a liberal Black president and the legalization of same-sex marriage. McCammon, an NPR reporter who covered the Trump campaign, knows what happened next, and at this point so does everyone else. In Donald Trump, white evangelicals found their strongman. They helped put him into power once and could do so again.

The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church
by Sarah McCammon
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $30.00

But there are signs of turbulence. If 1976 was the year of the evangelical, 2024 could be something else: the year of the heretic. Though a majority of Americans are Christians, the religiously unaffiliated, or Nones, are on the rise. A study from the Public Religion Research Institute says the Nones accounted for 27 percent of the American population in 2022, up from 16 percent in 2006. Major Christian traditions are declining. Twenty-three percent of Americans identified as white evangelical Christian in 2006, PRRI says, a share that declined to 14 percent in 2022. Ethicist David Gushee estimates that “some twenty-five million American adults who had been raised evangelical had left the faith,” McCammon writes.

Post-evangelical stories are becoming more common, and the publishing world has taken notice. Part-memoir, part-reportage, McCammon’s book joins an emerging genre. In recent books like Heretic by ­Jeanna Kadlec, or Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism—and What Comes Next by Bradley Onishi, the post-evangelical recalls life in and out of the church, and often warns of political danger. “The violence wrought by Trump supporters storming the Capitol is anti-epiphany. It is dark and based in untruth. The symbols of faith—Jesus’ name, cross, and message—have been co-opted to serve the cultish end of Trumpism,” argues political journalist Jon Ward in Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation. The Trump presidency whet an appetite for post-evangelical stories. Liberals still want an explanation for his popularity among white evangelicals; in theory, the heretic can offer one.

Cue McCammon. In The Exvangelicals, she capably describes the fear and shame that trammeled her for years. When light does break in, she follows it. She embraces LGBTQ rights against her parents’ wishes and forges a relationship with her grandfather, a gay man. She later writes movingly of the end of her marriage to a man she’d met at her evangelical college. These personal reflections are broken up by interviews with other post-evangelicals, whose experiences often resemble her own. McCammon depicts a subculture that merits careful attention. By the end of The Exvangelicals, though, that portrait is far murkier than it should be. Exvangelicals may share many distinctive experiences, but are they a movement?

Like McCammon, I was raised by devout parents who named me Sarah Elizabeth and educated me mostly at home or in Christian schools. McCammon describes her mother as a follower of Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned against the ERA and founded the conservative Eagle Forum; my own mother was not so political. As I grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, I didn’t protest abortion clinics or volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers, the way McCammon did. Ours was a quieter conservatism, though it was still all I knew. Then the Bush administration invaded Iraq. I opposed this and began to move left. Soon political conviction gave rise to religious doubts. Halfway through my time at an evangelical college in the Midwest, I stopped attending church. By graduation, I was an atheist. Not just a heretic, then, but an apostate, and perhaps something else, too: an exvangelical.

McCammon borrows the term “exvangelical” from Blake Chastain, a podcaster who also grew up evangelical and later left the church. The term “particularly resonates” for McCammon, she writes, as it signals “that the culture and identity of our communities of origin shapes each one of us, and the active decision to separate and leave that world behind.” Exvangelicals, in McCammon’s portrayal, are united by past upbringing and present trauma, rather than by any shared conviction. Some are still religious, others are not, and their political views are rarely specified.

In an evangelical upbringing, McCammon notes, there is an overwhelming emphasis on what a person truly believes. Of her sister’s infant dedication, she writes, “In our belief system, while my sister’s dedication was important, it was only a symbol. For us, the central question was what we believed in our hearts, not whether we’d participated in the proper rituals.” She adds, “There were frequent warnings against insincere belief, reminders to look deep within and be certain, absolutely certain, that your ‘heart is right with God.’” McCammon was “saved” at age two and a half; I was “saved” at the relatively advanced age of five. Afterward, I asked God to “save” me many times over because I feared my initial prayer wouldn’t stick. Fear shaped everything we did, and everything we thought. Childhood, for McCammon and her subjects, is “characterized by the push and pull of fearing eternal punishment from God while embracing his love, which was the theme of every church service, every prayer meeting, every hymn.”

Fear can be a useful political tool, and a vehicle for hatred. McCammon reflects on the racist fear that shaped her own education in a Christian school, one of many “initially opened by white churches in the 1960s and 70s in a revolt against school integration.” The Christian homeschool movement went a step further, as it cut off “white Christian students from the outside world and reinforced a nostalgic vision of an America once dominated by (mostly white) Christians,” McCammon writes. By the late 1970s, a robust media network conditioned the evangelical mind. Media juggernauts like James Dobson of Focus on the Family taught evangelicals how to educate their children, how to have sex in a God-honoring way, and how and whom to fear. Over time, evangelicals constructed a predominantly white and exclusively heterosexual country within a country, whose territories they sought to not only defend but expand.

Youth were key to this mission. McCammon herself was a foot soldier in training, interning for the Eagle Forum and becoming a page for a Republican senator. As I learned in my own upbringing, worldly interests—in politics, or culture—were suspect among evangelicals, especially when they appeared in girls, so they were weaponized rather than nurtured. A girl could never preach, but she could be political as long as her role models were women like Phyllis Schlafly or Margaret Thatcher. She could write like Elisabeth Elliot, a former missionary who was known for her anti-feminism. A well-funded infrastructure existed to train her. Historian Molly Worthen describes “Christian worldview” material promoted through “publications, camps, and curricula focused on evangelical youth,” McCammon writes, adding that the men behind this material “approached this endeavor by framing their vision of a ‘Christian worldview’ against any secular one that might challenge it”—for example, by popularizing a revisionist American history. As Worthen writes, evangelicals could thus “dismiss opposing interpretations of the evidence…. They insist upon their own worldview as the only clear window on reality.” (Worthen has since converted to evangelical Christianity.)

McCammon writes that she may have been an “exvangelical” before she knew it was a word. I suppose that’s also true of me, although I dislike the term. It assumes that I define myself primarily against what I used to believe. Nevertheless, exvangelical writers have produced valuable work, much of it informed not just by experience but by research and reporting. Does that mean exvangelicalism is a “loosely organized, largely online movement of people,” as McCammon says? Movements can be loosely organized, they can even be largely online, but they require shared conviction and purpose. An ideology, even. Without that, “exvangelical” is just a hashtag.

Because exvangelicalism is defined only by what it is not, it offers a fitful counter to evangelicalism itself, which is as much a political movement as it is a religious tradition. Ideology is baked into the theology. There is a lot of money, for example, invested in efforts to keep evangelical youth in line. But the question of class goes unexamined in The Exvangelicals. Holy war is class war, too, waged by far-right wealth against the rest of us. The alliances evangelicals have built with right-wing Roman Catholics and other conservative activists funnel millions into institutions, organizations, and think tanks like the Council for National Policy, the Heritage Foundation, and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Yet communal trauma, not ideology or power, remains McCammon’s principal subject. This is a mistake. The pain experienced by exvangelicals is actually more potent if the perpetrators are fully understood. It would be easier, also, to grasp the rise of Trump, whose campaign McCammon covered in 2016, had she considered the financial and ideological interests behind his successful campaign. Instead, her observations about Trump can feel shoehorned in, and ultimately that’s a disservice to her subjects.

Exvangelicals are experts on what evangelicalism taught us, but we aren’t necessarily experts on everything else. One exvangelical artist says that she had expected her former peers to break with Trump. When they didn’t, she explains, “That brought into crystal-clear focus that a lot of this evangelical culture has been about political power since the beginning. And I didn’t even realize that.”

Exvangelicalism seems nearly as white as the movement it rejects, and as a subculture, it may be ill-equipped to address or critique racism in the church. That requires ideology, or at least a shared sense of history. Support for slavery—and Christian slave owners—helped give white evangelicalism its distinct political identity. Take the Southern Baptist Convention, which formed in 1845 “to safeguard the institution of slavery,” as Eliza Griswold wrote in a 2021 piece for The New Yorker. Founders claimed that “slavery was ‘an institution of heaven,’” she added, and they backed the Confederacy. McCammon writes that the SBC approved a resolution apologizing for its past in 1995. As the election of Trump shows, however, there is still a chasm between white evangelicals and many Christians of color. There are other evangelicalisms, though McCammon and I were cut off from them as children, and the white variation still dominates headlines. In part, this is because white evangelicals could help reelect Trump, for whom racism is an important selling point. When Trump won the presidency, Jemar Tisby, a historian of race and religion who is Black and Christian, didn’t feel comfortable attending his white evangelical church the following Sunday. As he recounts to McCammon, “it’s clear that this church I have been going to, they clearly don’t understand my reality if they are celebrating the election of Trump.”

Exvangelicals may not understand that reality any better. Though a number of Black Christians have left white evangelical churches since the election of Trump, they aren’t necessarily exvangelicals, Tisby tells McCammon. “There’s a sense in which we were never evangelical because of race, so the hashtag and movement is a very white one,” he says, adding, “I think there are a lot of people who call themselves ‘exvangelicals’ who have also erased the Black church. Because what they’re essentially saying is, the only way to be Christian is the way white evangelicals have been Christians, and I don’t want any part of that, without ever deeply considering Black Christians.” While exvangelicals speak, often, of “deconstructing” their faith, or unlearning what they once thought they knew, McCammon says that Tisby’s circles speak instead of decolonizing it. Tyler Burns, a Black pastor, tells her that by turning so often to white, progressive theologians, exvangelicals are “kind of replacing one problem for another, the problem of whiteness at the center.”

I’m not convinced, however, that there is a center to exvangelicalism. If it exists, McCammon hasn’t discovered it, which is unfortunate. The heretic has a critique to offer, and a critique is not the same thing as a complaint. Anyone can come up with the latter; the former requires politics. Pain has a role, even a central one, in any post-evangelical awakening, but it is not the end of the story. Evangelical Christians hurt me deeply before I left the faith, and I considered suicide. Leaving evangelicalism was as difficult as it was necessary, and the fallout lasted a long time. A prominent fundamentalist said he hoped my parents “went to be with Jesus” before they learned of my leftist politics. Because of my pain, and the pain I saw inflicted on others, I sought a liberatory alternative to far-right Christianity. Leaving wasn’t enough, nor was “deconstruction,” a nebulous term for a process seemingly without end. I had to arrive somewhere, too. That arc is common among the post-evangelicals I know, even if they haven’t landed precisely where I did. But it’s rare in The Exvangelicals.

What emerges instead is a rudderless subculture. White evangelicalism is strong stuff, political to its core; exvangelicalism can appear pseudo-therapeutic in contrast. McCammon interviews a former evangelical named Rebekah Drumsta, who, she says, offers life coaching and “deconstruction” services. Here’s what McCammon doesn’t mention: Four 50-minute “mentoring calls” with Drumsta cost $400 out of pocket. If this is deconstruction, who can afford it? Moreover, why should anyone buy it?

Drumsta isn’t alone. McCammon mentions Joshua Harris, a celebrity pastor turned ex-evangelical who offered a “Deconstruction Starter Pack” priced at $275 until outrage shut him down. But McCammon leaves a broader ecosystem untouched. Less-famous “life coaches” and “deconstruction coaches” are becoming somewhat common in the exvangelical world, where they operate with little oversight or transparency. (At least Drumsta openly lists her prices.) Onishi, the author of Preparing for War, offers coaching on his website. Some coaches are trained mental health professionals, but many aren’t, and the definition of “coaching” varies wildly from practitioner to practitioner. Professional therapy is no panacea. But when personal experience is the only credential a coach needs, clients are vulnerable to grift and abuse. A skeptical edge is in order. Without it, exvangelicals—including McCammon—will remain in the wilderness.

We cannot afford the lack of clarity. “To be an American evangelical is to be often at war—a Christian soldier, moving ever onward into an invisible battle with the highest possible stakes,” McCammon writes, and she is correct. White evangelicals are at war, and they are formidable. The courts are packed with far-right judges who will shape law and policy for decades to come. Roe v. Wade is already gone. Conservatives have their sights set on the abortion pill, birth control, and civil rights for LGBTQ people. Trump may win a second term. Although that context haunts The Exvangelicals, I don’t know what McCammon believes about any of it beyond her generic acceptance of LGBTQ people.

A bullet-point list isn’t necessary, but in a work that is also a memoir of belief, the ambivalence is misplaced, and leads to odd places. In purity culture, which teaches women and girls that they are dangerous sexual objects, McCammon somehow finds a silver lining. “When purity culture was at its worst, it left many young women feeling distant from our bodies, and ashamed of our natural sexual desires,” she writes. “But at its best, it could offer a vision of a woman’s body as something more than an object for men to use. In a culture where women lacked power, it also provided a framework for women to insist on more than a transient physical connection with men.” Feminism does that, too, without the cultural and political restraints of purity culture. Surely that’s worth consideration.

The alternative is authoritarianism. As a child in the church, I heard adults speak of our “witness,” the way we showed Christ to the fallen. Later I saw the truth: They had long ago sacrificed whatever witness they possessed. Now is the time for heresy, and truths plainly spoken. That may come from exvangelicalism, or not. The blurriness of The Exvangelicals can be explained in part by the subculture’s youth; it is still taking a shape. But it will have to work faster, and much more decisively, if it is going to matter.