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The Exvangelicals

By Sarah McCammon

A Book Review

New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2024


 

Ever since the 2016 election—and even years before—waves and waves of Evangelicals have taken a hard right turn to embrace a presidential candidate who is near-polar opposite of what their Christian faith teaches and practices.  Behind the dramatic rise in white Christian Nationalism in recent months are, again, waves and waves of Evangelicals who are ready to embrace violence and authoritarianism, and sympathize with communist-Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, in order to clinch political power and bring a forced change to the social-political culture of the United States.  Which is just the opposite of what Jesus teaches and practices in the New Testament. 

 

I’ve been left scratching my head, trying to figure out where this is coming from and why.

 

Yet at the same time, author Sarah McCammon documents in her book, The Exvangelicals, the huge exodus of people—especially younger people—who are abandoning their evangelical churches, their evangelical faith, and the evangelical culture because of a deep “conscientious objection” to its content (including grown children like Abraham Piper, son of the well-known evangelical leader John Piper).

 

So what’s going on?  Is there a connection between the hard-right turn of evangelicalism and the mass exodus of Christians who have grown up in evangelical churches and families?  And if so, what is it?

 

Sarah McCammon is a National Political Correspondent for NPR and cohost of The NPR Politics Podcast.  But more importantly, she was raised and grew up in an evangelical church, family and culture.  Her book is part memoir and part documentary that explores the roots, social dynamics, theology and culture of Evangelicalism that accounts for these recent trends.

 

“Growing up in a deeply evangelical family in the Midwest in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sarah McCammon was strictly taught to fear God, obey Him, and not question the faith.  Persistently worried that her gay grandfather would go to Hell unless she could reach him, or that her Muslim friend would need to be converted, and that she, too, would go to Hell if she did not believe fervently enough, McCammon was a rule-follower and—most of the time—a true believer.  But through it all, she was increasingly plagued by fears and deep questions as the belief system she’d been carefully taught clashed with her expanding understanding of the outside world.

 

“McCammon spend her early adult life striving to make sense of an unraveling worldview, and by her thirties she found herself face-to-face with it once again as she covered the Trump campaign for NPR, where she witnessed first-hand the power and influence that evangelical Christian beliefs held on the political right.”

 

Personally, I thought I was familiar with evangelical culture, people and churches since I had worked with many pastors and church leaders in evangelical and Pentecostal churches (along with Catholic priests, and a wide variety of mainline pastors and churches) during the last eleven years of my ministry career, working in the international of ministry of Alpha.  But as Sarah’s story unfolded with every new chapter, documented by her well-articulated and passionate reporting, the broader and deeper story of Evangelicalism in the United States began to emerge from its shadows.  I felt as if I was learning about a completely foreign culture being lived out by people with whom I was working, praying, and having coffee on a daily basis.  (The title of her second chapter, “A ‘Parallel Universe,’” comes to mind.)

 

While Sarah’s story is not the story of every evangelical in every church in the U.S., many of her life experiences within that culture have been manifested outward, and reported on, in the larger public sphere: e.g., the broken trust that resulted from the financial fraud of several televangelists in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the resistance of evangelical churches to recognize women who felt called to teach or preach, the cover-up of rampant sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention by its governing leadership, the “moral-twisting” embrace of President Trump, a thrice-divorced man and self-proclaimed “womanizer” after castigating President Clinton for similar escapades, unadulterated bigotry against LGBTQ+ people, and so on. 

 

The upshot of all the broken trust, authoritarian culture, “parallel universe” of truth, and isolationist lifestyle, McCammon writes, is that “some twenty-five million American adults who had been raised evangelical had left the faith,” “based on Pew Research Center data from 2014, even before the rise of the Trump era and all of the fallout it brought,” (p. 29).

 

I was intrigued with the wide sweep of ordinary facets of McCammon’s life that she recounts from her evangelical upbringing and its resulting impact upon her life as an adult. For example she writes about how she and others were taught about the “secular,” evil world “out there,” and the “biblical” teaching of dominance of men over women, the extreme pressure of everyone within your family and church to “conform” or risk being ostracized from the only community you’ve ever known, the (lack of) teaching about sexuality, dating, and knowledge about her own body, and how home-school and private Christian school “select” textbooks subordinates all science education to the authority of, and in alignment with, the Bible—especially the science of evolution.

 

An acquaintance of Sarah’s “remembers the humiliation of finally discovering, during a nursing school class, that men weren’t actually missing a rib” as the Genesis creation story teaches.  In that same vein another friend said, “I was so scared of believing a lie… of believing something that wasn’t true, or hurting God’s heart, doing something wrong, believing something bad.  There’s so much fear.” 

 

Hearing such testimony helps me understand how so many evangelicals can be so easily manipulated by someone like Trump, an authority figure, within a culture that all but forbids asking questions, suppresses skeptical minds, and cultivates a fear of doing something wrong.  The only viable choice one has is to “follow the crowd,” wherein your fate is wrapped up with the fate of everyone else you love and cherish, even if that “crowd” is heading off the edge of a cliff at 100 mph.  In this “tribal epistemology,” writes David Roberts, “Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders” (p. 84).  McCammon sites a March 2021 article for the news site “FiveThirtyEight” titled, “Why QA



non Has attracted So Many White Evangelicals,” as more evidence of this common experience within evangelicalism.

 

McCammon’s later chapters deal with the community of “exvangelicals” who have started finding each other, primarily through social media.  She devotes a few chapters specifically to this audience, discussing how to deal with “post-evangelical-cultural” trauma, healing and support, and lifts up several examples of post-evangelical leaders who are trying to reach out to those who have left, or are in the process of leaving, the evangelical church and world.

 

In assessing the overall status of evangelicalism, McCammon quotes Promise Enlow Council, a post-evangelical leader who also left her church and broke with her high-profile evangelical pastor-father: “White American evangelicalism—and the parallel universe it creates for many of its adherents—shapes virtually all aspects of life how people dress, whom they marry, sometimes the kinds of careers they choose, their politics, and whom they consider to be friend or foe.  It’s a culture.  It is a way of life.  It consumes everything….”

 

I have high regard for McCammon’s courage in laying bare her own story of growing up in and struggling with the evangelical lifestyle and culture.  Her writing not only provides a perspective on evangelicalism from the inside out, but helps those of us outside the evangelical “parallel universe” to better understand the dynamics of its hard-right turn in politics and its embrace of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement.

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