Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
Four years ago, when Emily Joy was 22 years old, she finally started living the life she imagined “normal” people do in college. She drank beer with her friends in the Arizona desert. She went to parties. And she kissed a boy for the first time.
Then, one night, she and a friend—who, like Emily Joy, was homeschooled in the deeply conservative white evangelical subculture—decided to check themselves into their own “purity culture rehab.” Their wine-fueled plan was a prelude to overcoming what Emily Joy now views as the “traumatic” experience of growing up inculcated with forbiddingly rigid sexual mores and a perpetual fear of a punitive God. To recover from it, they needed to do the very things they’d always been told only sinners do. A partial list included: asking boys on dates, kissing them, and getting tattoos.
Growing up, Emily Joy was taught that “if you do these things, you’re bad, and God will be angry with you.” Over time, though, she became confounded by the “idea that there is a God up there that is so invested in all of this minutia that he’ll be angry at you and you might go to hell because you’re not a real Christian if you do these things.”
The oldest of seven homeschooled children in Central Illinois, and a graduate of the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Emily Joy never received any sex education. As a teenager, she attended a Focus on the Family abstinence curriculum at a family friend’s barn, where she received a purity ring and had to pledge she would not even hold hands with a boy until she was engaged. At Moody, the school emphasized biblical complementarianism, which demands that wives submit to their husband’s authority.
Emily Joy’s DIY rehab was just the beginning of “shedding the sex baggage” of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, a process familiar to what people like Emily describe as a growing community of ex-evangelicals in their 20s and 30s. These young evangelical defectors, who often feel isolated and adrift in mainstream culture, are increasingly finding fellow travelers online, through social media, podcasts, and spoken word poetry like Emily Joy’s, all of which grapple with the anxieties of extricating oneself from fundamentalism and then finding one’s way in the larger world.
The insular evangelical subculture from which these ex-evangelicals emerge is often inscrutable to non-evangelicals. But the internet has made losing one’s religion more public, and often more wrenching, than it’s ever been before. And for this community of ex-evangelicals, the personal is also intensely political. While their very public crises of faith have proved to be revealing about white evangelical culture, these former evangelicals have also shed light on our current political moment.
As the Christian right continues to consolidate power in the president’s administration and act as the heretical Donald Trump’s chief cheerleader, ex-evangelicals are calling out an authoritarian president, “fake news,” post-truth politics, and Trump’s symbiotic relationship with the fundamentalism they left behind.
“If you want to understand why the Christian right supports Trump,” says Christopher Stroop, 37, a writer, historian, and unofficial online elder statesman of the ex-evangelical online community, “talk to people who grew up in the Christian right.”
For these ex-evangelical renegades—or heretics, as their critics would have it—the Christian right’s relationship with Trump lays bare the hypocrisies that provoked them to leave the faith. As Emily Joy puts it, “intuitively, we’ve always known [the politics are] not about being fiscally responsible or saving babies, or some shit.” If you were raised on biblical literacy, sexual purity, anti-intellectualism, and a big dose of right-wing media, the Trump-evangelical alliance makes perfect sense.
Now 26 and an out bisexual living with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee, Emily Joy writes poetry that tackles head-on the authoritarianism and anti-intellectual, anti-science underpinnings of her upbringing and education. She was taught to “distrust doctors, science, medicine, or experts because they weren’t Christians,” and was introduced early to talk radio. Her mother listened to Rush Limbaugh every day in the kitchen at lunchtime—and that meant her homeschooled kids did, too. On television: “only Fox News.”
As a result, says Emily Joy, who was just 7 years old when the House of Representatives voted to impeach then-President Bill Clinton in 1998, “I knew who Monica Lewinsky was before I knew what sex was.”
Now, her work highlights the divide between the religious tradition of her childhood and the liberal Christianity she now embraces. “The evangelical God is authoritarian as fuck,” she says, pointing me to her poem, “Monster God.” Recorded as spoken word with an overlay of ominous voice distortion, “Monster God” says God “has a verse for every terrible thing he has ever done, and he is not sorry for any of them.” Instead, according to Monster God, “you are the one who should be sorry for asking questions.”
That embrace of authority lies at the heart of the evangelical attraction to Trump, says Kathryn Brightbill, now 36, who also was homeschooled and attended an evangelical college. Authoritarianism, she says, “is a plus for evangelicals” because they “tend to be authoritarian followers.” Since evangelicals “don’t like it when you question an authority figure” and “they view Trump as the ultimate strong man authority,” anyone who questions Trump “is a threat” to the “social order, to Christianity,” and “to the very foundation of America and American society.”
Blake Chastain, 34, the host of the podcast “Exvangelical,” says white evangelicals are drawn to strong personalities who claim to have all the answers. For them, he says, Trump is a prototype: an alpha male who is good at business and speaks “with authority.” Once Trump began giving voice to persecution complexes—from claims that LGBTQ rights and insurance coverage for contraception violate religious freedom, to broader declarations that “liberal media” and “elites” have vendettas against him—the Christian right could see Trump was giving voice to their anxieties. Evangelicalism, he says, “is very prone to cults of personality.”
Among the other features of Trumpism that stand out for ex-evangelicals—in addition to the authoritarianism—are the anti-intellectualism and “alternative facts.” For Stroop, who has a doctorate in Russian history, the affinity for “alternative facts” is the core of the evangelical world’s “tribalism.” Evangelicals, he says, “operate in a world of alternative facts. They have been doing fake news before it was cool.” His education in Christian schools, he says, featured “illiberal civics lessons” along with “theocratic politics,” coalescing in revisionist history about America’s founding as a Christian nation—and a knee-jerk affinity for Republican politics.
As a middle and high school student, Stroop says, “I didn’t have the mental toolkit to realize it was outside the lines of normal democracy.” At the time, “I believed propaganda and lies” about the Clintons; in 2000, he voted for George W. Bush because he believed abortion was an “American holocaust” and that Democrats “killed babies”—ideas that were “drilled into my head in elementary school.”
For many ex-evangelicals, opposing abortion was their entrée into political activism, even as young children. Brightbill says she participated in protests at abortion clinics with the far-right anti-choice group Operation Rescue as a young girl, and was first arrested at one when she was 12.
While this type of political protest was presented to young evangelicals like Brightbill as something God wanted her to do, at the same time, her homeschooling textbooks presented the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement as evil. She says some of the books taught that Martin Luther King, Jr. was “a bad guy,” and “that civil disobedience was wrong, that he was just causing trouble.” It was common, she says, for homeschooling textbooks to teach that the civil rights movement was “wrong and immoral.” After reading books she took out of the library, Brightbill says she told her parents their textbooks were racist.
Leaving an insular community, particularly one that teaches that outsiders are not to be trusted, and may even be evil, can be disorienting and isolating. Chastain says social media, particularly Twitter, plays a big role in connecting ex-evangelicals. His own podcast, and others like it, have affiliated Facebook groups that supplement the show; another Facebook group, called “Raising Children UnFundamentalist,” has more than 8,000 members. Chastain’s own podcast, which he launched just a year ago, features unedited and highly personal conversations exploring the experiences of his guests, who are frequently LGBTQ. He says a “very intentional goal for me of the show” is to “be in a listening posture and let people share their stories.”
On Twitter, Stroop has helped popularize the hashtag #ChristianAltFacts, along with #YouDontKnowEvangelicals, both of which have provoked Twitter users to describe—for the benefit of both their fellow ex-evangelicals and a larger audience—how their upbringing gives them insight into current Christian right political dogma, including creationism and other anti-science ideologies, opposition to public schools, apocalyptic conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the claim that God chose Trump to be president. More recently, the hashtag has become more blunt: #EmptyThePews.
When Trump got elected, though, it was precisely because of her training as a young foot soldier in the Christian right political army that Brightbill knew exactly what to do. “With Trump’s election, a switch flipped in my head,” she says, and she thought, “Okay, I know how to do this—protesting and resisting a government I don’t agree with is something I was trained to do during the Bill Clinton administration.”
Because of that training, Brightbill understands “how you’re playing a long game, and something may not happen overnight, but that’s okay. Doing street level activism and protest actually has impact.” Protests, she says, “are as much about getting other people involved in your movement as it is changing the broader society.” More recently, she has gotten involved in Democratic and progressive politics. “That kind of protest is second nature to me because I did it so much as a kid”—referring, she says, to “protesting and resisting a government I don’t agree with.”
In some ways, though, Trump’s alliance with the Christian right shows how much catching up progressives have to do. The people Trump has surrounded himself with demonstrate just how well the Christian right has played that long game, and how deliberately groomed protégés have ascended to the highest echelons of political power. Trump may be their anointed leader, but the Christian right has supplied many of his lieutenants, including cabinet secretaries like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, championed by the Christian right during his confirmation hearings, already has proved to be a trusted ally on the court.
Vice President Mike Pence “is the freaking Messiah where I came from,” Emily Joy says. “That’s who we prayed for.”
For many ex-evangelicals, that merger of white evangelicalism and Republican politics is why they left. Six days after the election, in which Trump won 81% of the white evangelical vote, a self-described “devastated” Chastain delivered an emotional soliloquy on his podcast, calling for a reckoning. “White evangelicals must own up to what they have supported,” he said. “They must sit in the discomfort. They must see what they have done. And they must repudiate the vile, racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric and not let it stand or become normalized.”
“In short,” Chastain concluded, “they must repent.”
Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist covering religion and politics, and author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and many other publications.