Are conservative, mostly white evangelicals, finally losing control of their narrative in the public sphere, where Christian supremacist assumptions have up to now led to the effective silencing of ex-evangelical and critical scholarly voices?
Noting the critical focus on Christian nationalism in coverage of the January 6 insurrection even in such outlets as The New York Times and The Washington Post about six weeks ago, I suggested we might be seeing a turning point in what perspectives and contexts are included in coverage of evangelicalism. My optimism was tempered and cautious, and it remains so now, but subsequent developments seem to be bearing out that initial contention. In the wake of the racist Atlanta spa murders, for example, my analysis of the likely role played by evangelical purity culture—itself grounded in racism and misogyny—went viral, and the legacy mediacontinued the discussion, with The Washington Post adding a critical look at discredited evangelical therapeutic practices related to “sex addiction” (which is not an established diagnosis and certainly not a justification for murder).
Meanwhile, evangelicals have started to exhibit clear concern over their loss of control over their public image. Pointing to “hackneyed attempts” by evangelicals to reframe the conversation around the deconstruction of conservative Christianity with campaigns like #revangelical, the ex-evangelical podcaster Blake Chastain (full disclosure: we’ve been friends for years) argued in a March 12 Substack post: “Let’s be clear: White evangelical institutions will endure. They remain well-funded. But they have lost something they’ve long controlled: the narrative.”
Chastain maintains, surely correctly, that evangelicals’ Trump support, culminating in the obvious evangelical presence at the January 6 insurrection, is one important reason evangelical attempts to save face are now falling short. But he also credited those of us who have been speaking out over the last few years with influencing the change that seems to be underway:
The steady work of people publicly sharing their stories of deconstruction, their stories of abuse, their stories of triumph and flourishing after leaving evangelicalism over the past several years is yielding results. Hashtags like #exvangelical, #EmptyThePews, #ChurchToo, #deconstruction, #decolonize, #religioustrauma, and #LeaveLoud make it much easier for those still embedded in these communities [to find validation in leaving] than it has been in the past. Podcasts and books and Instagram feeds and Facebook groups explore these topics from all manner of perspectives, and do not require a particular set of theological belief[s].
In addition to evangelical attempts to appropriate the concept of religious deconstruction, elite evangelicals have issued testy responses to the viral discussion of purity culture, racism, and misogyny that followed the Atlanta spa murders. Never-Trump conservative pundit David French made a dubious and unconvincing attemptto dissociate purity culture from Christian “orthodoxy” on sexuality and gender, as if the balls and rings and pledges themselves are the only real problem, rather than the underlying theology that gives rise to such creepy and obsessive practices, not to mention the predominance of disinformation heavy, shame and guilt inducing abstinence only sex “education.”
President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler similarly arguesthat there’s nothing wrong with fighting against “lust,” given that reserving sex for one-man, one-woman marriage “is basic Christianity,” and that Jesus claimed looking lustfully at a woman is just as sinful as adultery. Mohler wants us to empathize with how “difficult” it is for parents, pastors, and youth pastors to teach about “a healthy sexuality” within those heteronormative, paranoid strictures—and I guess I’ll grant him that, because there’s no such thing as a healthy sexuality based in repression and alternative facts. He also scolds Skidmore College religious studies professor Bradley Onishi, an Asian-American ex-evangelical, for describing evangelical teachings about sexuality to New York Times reporter Ruth Graham “in very negative terms as teaching women to hate their bodies as a source of temptation and teaching men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and morality [sic.].”
Evangelicals also understand the power of narrative, which is why they’re so concerned with controlling the stories the public hears not only about themselves, but also about those of us who leave evangelicalism and tell the truth about how it has harmed us, criticizing evangelical theology as well as the racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ animus, and culture-warring politics that theology bolsters. As evangelicals’ own story of engaging politically out of serious concerns about morality and “sincerely held religious beliefs” has lost influence with the public because of the transparent hypocrisy they displayed through the Trump years, space has opened up for a shift in the national discussion that includes a sympathetic hearing for ex-evangelical stories and perspectives. Shifting the national conversation, as elite evangelicals and right-wing political strategists are well aware, lays the groundwork for shifts in politics and policy.
That’s what’s really at stake here. The possibility of a more equitable America, one that affords full rights to members of the groups that evangelicals tend to ‘other’ and disparage, is the last thing the vast majority of white evangelicals, who have a pathological need to feel superior to others, want. Here’s hoping the fairer journalistic approach to evangelicals we’ve seen in recent months, which bolsters civil society and democracy instead of undermining it through the normalization of extremism, will continue.