11 Former Evangelicals Talk About What They Left Behind

You can’t reject the dogma without losing the community

Dani Fankhauser
Jul 22, 2019 · 11 min read
Getty

uring election seasons in my childhood, people at my evangelical church would joke they’d write in Jesus because neither candidate was good enough. That isn’t the case for vocal evangelical leaders who have supported President Trump through his election and term. The Pew Research Center found 7 in 10 white evangelical Protestants approve of Trump’s job performance as president.

Evangelicals are a category of Christians defined in a couple of ways, including, as the name suggests, a commitment to evangelism, or proselytizing.

For some evangelicals, especially millennials, the recent confluence of religion and politics has reached a tipping point. The need to distance themselves from Republican views gave rise to a new term: exvangelical.

The term — now a hashtag, podcast, and community — brings together people who seemingly want to identify by what they are not.

Some still claim their Christian identity, but reject headlining Republican policies on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. Others left religion completely, but the exvangelical identity creates a common bond with others who escaped a particular type of trauma, perhaps as one might attend a support group for survivors of champagne cork accidents.

What’s at stake for exvangelicals is both their worldview and community — one could argue, these two things are a person’s most important support systems.

Eleven exvangelicals share what inspired their shift, how they’re coping, and what (if anything) they miss.

Do what is most healthy

My evangelical faith crisis happened while attending a Christian college in the wake of 9/11. In my history courses, one central professor taught hawkish, hardline conservative interpretations of the Bible and presented it as the “biblical Christian worldview.” In my biblical literature courses, I was learning about how the biblical texts were constructed and questioning whether the Bible was inerrant. Engaging with my faith was making me more politically and socially liberal. I rejected evangelical Christian conservatism and the default Republican stances.

That which is good in evangelicalism can be found more readily and in more abundance in more affirming Christian denominations and communities, should one wish for that.

What’s good for one person may not be healthy for another.

What’s good for one person may not be healthy for another. For instance, if someone’s tradition rejected them because of their sexual orientation, it is understandable if they don’t want to associate with Christianity anymore. It may be the most healthy thing for them. Acknowledging personal autonomy and respecting it is a central tenet of the exvangelical community. It makes things messier, but I believe it’s the right thing.

Blake Chastain, 35, host of #Exvangelical podcast, Chicago

Find a belief system that suits you

My parents announced they were getting divorced in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. When I told my youth leader about the divorce, she blurted out, “But I thought your mom was a good Christian woman?” Even though I knew that divorce was bad, I knew my parents’ marriage was bad enough that divorce would be best for everyone involved.

I still struggle with not judging myself

I remember getting my period just before I turned 13 and panicking because I realized that I could get pregnant and I wouldn’t be able to hide it and say that I was still pure if I was raped and got pregnant from it. At 12 years old. I still struggle with not judging myself for how many sexual partners I have had.

I don’t really practice anything that I was specifically taught in church unless you count using “Jesus Fucking Christ” as my go-to swear phrase?

I went several years identifying as Christian but without a “church home,” and then I identified as an atheist for several years before I decided to convert to Judaism. (My dad’s family is Jewish.)

Lauren Bauer, 28, parts pro at Advance Auto Parts, Austin, Texas

Connect with God

During the 2016 presidential election, I realized that I could no longer align myself with the evangelical label, as I was disgusted by many evangelicals’ desire for political power. I am vocal about my advocacy for people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Muslims, folks with disabilities, and anyone who has been marginalized by this country and by white American evangelicals. The unholy marriage of Republicanism and evangelicalism is destructive. White evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on Jesus.

White evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on Jesus.

I absolutely believe in Jesus, God the Father/Mother, and the Holy Spirit. I take the Bible as the word of God. Much of it is open to interpretation, and that’s a positive thing. I retain these beliefs because I simply believe they’re true. They give me life. I am a part of a congregation that is committed to loving the least of these. They do exist. You have to look for them.

It’s difficult to know what is “bad” and what is “good” in terms of the American evangelical expression of Christianity. I line up an expression of this Christianity against Scripture and see how they align. I don’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake. If it’s not biblical, toss it out.

G.G., 25, English tutor and writer, Augusta, Ga.

Join an affirming Christian church

You get out into the world and you meet new people and have new experiences and start to realize that the world doesn’t fit into this neat box that you were taught that it should.

I remember when World Vision announced it would hire LGBTQ people and Christians responded by dropping their sponsorships of children in protest, so much so that World Vision was forced to reverse their announcement and no longer hire LGBTQ people. In that moment, I knew evangelicalism was an empty belief system that didn’t have anything to do with repairing real harm and injustice in the world.

So many of the teachings of Jesus run in diametrical opposition to the popular teachings of the well-known evangelical celebrities of today.

I still believe in a God that created and sustains the universe as we know it. It’s ridiculous to know how small we are and how big everything else is and understand space and quantum physics and look at all that and think we’re the pinnacle of what’s out there.

I think Jesus has a lot to say about our current theological and political milieu, and he’d be disgusted by a lot of the people who call themselves “Christians” today. So many of the teachings of Jesus run in diametrical opposition to the popular teachings of the well-known evangelical celebrities of today.

I still go to church. It’s a very small, very gay Episcopalian congregation in my neighborhood, so not at all what I grew up with, but I find the community and motions of church very life-giving.

Emily Joy, 27, yoga teacher, spoken word poet, Nashville

Be a Christian without being evangelical

Like a house of cards, once I began to question one aspect of evangelicalism, the whole thing collapsed.

While I don’t read the Bible as a guidebook anymore, some of those principles are seared into me for better or for worse. Evangelicalism gave me this boldness that has served me well in my adult life. Since leaving the fold, I’ve done professional comedy, public speaking, and have put my whole life out there in the form of a memoir. Once you’re trained to be comfortable turning to your seatmate on an airplane to ask them if they were to die right then, where would they spend eternity, public speaking doesn’t seem so scary.

Evangelicalism gave me this boldness that has served me well in my adult life.

I go to a couple services a year for various reasons, and I’ll usually cry at some point during the singing portion. For years I thought this was the Holy Spirit convicting me to go back to church, but now I see it as a respect and tenderness for a part of my past.

One thing that does help me is evangelicals don’t hold a monopoly on the truth, though they don’t admit it. So I can call myself a Christian if I want because the Christian tradition is far more rich and diverse than evangelicalism would lead you to believe.

Carly Gelsinger, 31, author of Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith, Gilroy, Calif.

Explore other belief systems

Evangelicals’ embrace of Josh Duggar, the embrace of some evangelicals of Doug Wilson, and evangelicals’ embrace and endorsement of Donald Trump have prompted me to leave evangelicalism.

How do you keep the good and get rid of the bad? I honestly don’t know.

I identify now as Theistic agnostic, i.e., I believe there is a god, I just don’t believe it is the evangelical Christian god. I consider evangelical beliefs around corporal punishment and “purity culture” to be destructive. I miss Sunday potlucks.

How do you keep the good and get rid of the bad? I honestly don’t know.

Thomas Charles Geer, 50, Over The Road Taxi driver, Erwin, Tenn.

Retain the intellectual, drop the supernatural

I started going to church because they had free food and things for the community. In high school I felt more connected to God. I felt like Jesus was my friend. When I met my wife and started going to her church [Church of Christ] — they don’t really believe in the Holy Spirit in the sense that it’s an active force in people — I lost any intimate connection with the divine at that point.

I said I believed in God, but I really didn’t. But I still was an active member of that church for a very long time.

I still consider myself a Christian even though I don’t really even believe in anything supernatural

The big thing was I listened to this lecture series on how the Bible was put together, how it evolved, how few people had access to it prior to the printing press, discrepancies between different manuscripts. It just shattered the whole thing. My entire faith system hinged on the inherency of scripture.

I still consider myself a Christian even though I don’t really even believe in anything supernatural because I like the message of liberation theology and I’m also deeply interested in existential questions and theological philosophical nomological questions. I love going to church [Christian Church Disciples of Christ] so that I can have those conversations.

Doug Rice, 31, sales forecast planner, Streetsboro, Ohio

Leave religion completely

The biggest factor was the treatment of women. It had always been a problem for me as far back as middle school when they would give the boys double points for Bible trivia to ensure they beat me because as a woman I shouldn’t know so much. I always wanted a career in academia. The last straw was when I was raped and developed PTSD; the church could not handle it.

The Christian counselor they assigned me made me feel worse, and when I ended up in a psych ward and then a program for “battered” women, I realized people outside the church were not evil, and even better equipped to give me the help I needed.

Whatever existed there that was good is not anything inherently owned by evangelicalism.

I don’t personally see the benefit of any religion. I know many do and I think there is nothing inherently wrong with faith. I think that views of evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity regarding women, people of color, and mental illness to be particularly abhorrent.

If we are talking about the good and bad of evangelicalism, I don’t think there is any good to keep. Whatever existed there that was good is not anything inherently owned by evangelicalism.

Jessica Bennett, 30, digital archivist, Richmond, Va.

Keep asking questions

I found that the more I explored and the more that I learned and the more questions I asked, the less I felt like people had real answers. I would say, “Well, are women really supposed to talk in church or not? This is a thing. Where’s the answer?” I started asking questions that fell outside of the bounds of evangelicalism. Intuition and psychic gifts and trying to make sense of my experiences of God in that realm, things started to blur, and people couldn’t understand me or couldn’t handle my exploration.

I started asking questions that fell outside of the bounds of evangelicalism.

I miss worship music. I love being drowned by the music and singing at the top of my lungs, ’cause I can sing on key, but I’m not a Beyoncé. Nobody’s begging to hear me sing. I miss the music…that mystical experience of being with a body of people that are all involved in this communal worship.

Steena Marie Brown, 29, sexual embodiment coach, Portage, Mich.

Take your time

I grew up in a mainline Protestant church (PC USA) but definitely ran in more evangelical circles and was influenced by evangelical media like Focus on the Family. I began to see the downside to all of that once I got to high school and had friends who were LGBT as well as friends with different religions/no religion. I stopped attending church a year ago, after a lot of therapy and reflection. I now consider myself agnostic.

If I can forgive someone simply by choosing to, why can’t God?

Evanglicalism is mired in legalism and tends to be very shame-based. A lot of Christian theology doesn’t make sense to me anymore. If I can forgive someone simply by choosing to, why can’t God? Why do we need penal substitutionary atonement (a theology prevalent at most churches in my experience).

Katharine Strange, 34, writer and editor, Seattle

Live your truth

I was attending a church, and I was married. I found out that my wife had an Ashley Madison account. I took her back four times. They kept telling me to tell her to come home, even though she didn’t want to. I wanted to be a good Christian guy. When she filed for divorce, the church told me I needed to beg her to stay. I couldn’t do that. I would have been completely disrespecting myself. Two days later I was disfellowshipped and kicked out of the church.

I repressed being gay from the time I was 14 when I realized I was gay, until I was out of my marriage at 28. Because I was going into the ministry I wanted to be completely faithful to the Bible that I was teaching. Anybody that I’ve ever dated knew: I struggle with this, but I never plan on acting on it.

The idea that God, who calls himself love, created a special type of eternal life for people to stay conscious to feel burning for eternity is outrageous.

I consider myself an atheist now because I can’t logically look at anything in the Bible, and say, “Oh, that’s worth me believing.” Literal interpretation of Hell is just so outrageous. The idea that God, who calls himself love, created a special type of eternal life for people to stay conscious to feel burning for eternity is outrageous.

I miss the community, but I also see how incredibly toxic it can be — of having, in one moment, that entire community turn against me. We talk so much about unconditional love, but I realized how conditional that could be.

Brady Hardin, 32, podcast host of The Life After, St. Louis

Read my book, Shameless: How I lost my virginity and kept my faith

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication…

Dani Fankhauser

Written by

Fiction writer, cofounder @joinxo, creator @the__salve @readthisnext, author @shameless_book, writing in @thecut @thebillfold @popsugar

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

Dani Fankhauser

Written by

Fiction writer, cofounder @joinxo, creator @the__salve @readthisnext, author @shameless_book, writing in @thecut @thebillfold @popsugar

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

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