Sep 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The Exvangelicals

Illustration of a stained glass window stylized as an EXIT sign.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Even as evangelicals maintain their position as the most popular religion in the U.S., a movement of self-described "exvangelicals" is breaking away, using social media to engage tens of thousands of former faithful.

The big picture: Donald Trump's presidency, as well as movements around LGBTQ rights, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, drew more Americans into evangelical churches while also pushing some existing members away.

What they're saying: Blake Chastain, the Exvangelical podcaster who's also credited with starting the use of the hashtag #exvangelical, tells Axios that, in the old days, people "might meet at a bar and speak in hushed tones about 'how weird that church was.’”

  • Now, Chastain said, those kinds of discussions are far more public and ripple across larger networks of people because of social media.

What we're watching: There's a growing subculture of the "deconstructed" — a buzzword with a range of meanings, from stepping back from a certain kind of Christian culture or politics, to leaving organized religion altogether.

  • Instagram accounts like "Dirty Rotten Church Kids” and "Your Favorite Heretics" are providing an online community for those questioning or rejecting the evangelical church tradition.
  • Podcasts including Exvangelical, Almost Heretical and Straight White American Jesus are garnering big followings.
  • Google searches for "religious trauma" and "exvangelical" are on the rise, according to Google Trends.

How we got here: There were always diverse views among evangelicals, but "Trump's four years in the White House made painfully clear just how deep these divisions ran," said author Kristin Du Mez.

  • Du Mez wrote the 2020 book "Jesus and John Wayne," which chronicles ideas about masculinity in the white Evangelical church and politics. It has sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • The differences within evangelicalism "can no longer be papered over with the kind of religious language of 'we're all in this together,'" Du Mez told Axios.

By the numbers: About a quarter of Americans describe themselves as evangelical protestants — that's tens of millions of people — according to polling by Pew Research Center.

  • 14% are white evangelicals, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, and the evangelical population grew among white Americans over the past four years.
  • There's no concrete data on the size or demographics of the exvangelical population, or how fast it's growing. There’s also no data that would quantify how much of that movement has been driven by opposition to Trump, versus other political and cultural trends.

In the past five years, the white evangelical church in America has faced its own MeToo movement (#churchtoo) and massive cultural shifts in its pews over LGBTQ rights and systemic racism.

  • Influential Bible teacher Beth Moore made waves when she chose to depart from the Southern Baptist tradition this year after taking heat for her outspoken criticism of Trump and addressing sexism in evangelical churches.
  • Joshua Harris, a once-evangelical leader and controversial author, announced he no longer considers himself a Christian in 2019 — and apologized to the LGBTQ community "for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry."
  • Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics coach Larry Nasser of sexual abuse, also publicly called out abuse in evangelical churches.

Deconstruction often begins with personal experiences of discrimination or abuse, researchers and experts told Axios.

  • "I was coming out as transgender, and queer. I'm also Latinx," said Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, a theologian and ethicist with a doctorate in religion. "And so I'm already not fitting in because of some of these markers. But then I was being pushed out and disposed of because of the questions I'm asking."

The other side: The establishment is struggling to deal with the trend.

  • Christianity Today published a critical review of “Jesus and John Wayne.”
  • Writers for The Gospel Coalition — another influential evangelical publication — recently released a book called "Before You Lose Your Faith," addressing the popularity of deconstruction stories.
  • The book was not written to "trash people who are deconstructing," but to offer a way to keep Christian beliefs, Ivan Mesa, who edited the book, told Axios. He said many people wrestle with personal doubt and that it is not all political, cultural or systemic.
  • "I think having a historical perspective also, you realize sin and brokenness has been part of the church across time," Mesa said, though he made clear he isn't minimizing issues of abuse.

Even relatively liberal Christian leaders have criticized the deconstruction movement.

  • "The deconstruction of Christianity is trending, but it’s not new," Justin Giboney, the founder of the AND Campaign and a Democratic strategist, tweeted last month. "American slaveholders also deconstructed the Bible for their own purposes."

The bottom line: Mike Cosper, podcasting director for Christianity Today, has been chronicling abuse in the Mars Hill megachurch. He told Axios that he's sensed hesitation among mainstream Christians to really grapple with accusations of people who are deconstructing.

  • "I think there's a fear that if we acknowledge and if we open the door too widely to acknowledging our faults and weaknesses, then there's sort of a slippery slope to losing power," he said.
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