From the hearts of defectors

When I was a child, I was told a story at youth group that went something like this:

A man with a gun crashed a party, or even a church service full of youth like me. He lined the kids up, and one by one, held his gun to their foreheads and asked, his voice a raspy, hate-soaked sneer, “Are you a Christian?” Desperate for their lives, each of the kids said, “No.” And he spared them.

Until he got to the last one, however.

One more time, he asked, “Are you a Christian?”

And this brave soul, straightened her shoulders, leveled her gaze to his, and said. “Yes, I am.”

He shot her point blank, and she died. 

She chose correctly.

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 10:33)

At the time that this story scorched itself into my mind, I was only about twelve years old. I was so shy I didn’t have close friends at school. I was falling in love with gymnastics. I climbed trees and wrote stories every chance I got. I earnestly wanted to be a good person, and was so afraid of growing up.

Logically, I looked to the church for cues on how to relate to the world. How to be a light.

This was just one of many traumatizing cues it provided.

This was the age that I was taught by the evangelical church that the world would hate and revile me for my faith. I began mentally preparing myself for it, to lose jobs, friends, favor, for the day a man with a gun would issue an ultimatum, and I would have to courageously proclaim my love for Christ and take a bullet to the head. Because I was taught that even as a child, to lie to a crazed radical in order to preserve my life was eternally binding, and that God who was supposedly benevolent would turn his back on me. 

Yes, Christians face very awful persecution in some parts of the world. But in the United States of America, Christiandom holds power. So much power, in fact, that we would surrender anything, our bodies, our consciences, our lives, to preserve a status quo that actively harms us just because it tells us what we want to hear. We were primed to take a victim’s posture against issues and people that are asking us to confront hard questions, and pursue justice and accountability. Under fundamentalism, I was taught humanism was dangerous, and that modern social justice movements were misguided and inappropriate. If we were in the end times as we believed, then things weren’t supposed to get better. So, when we’re called out as part of the problem, or are at least asked to participate as responsible citizens, we either dismiss it as a trick or recoil and cry religious persecution. 

I’m seeing it more and more as our political climate continues to heat up. Like popcorn going off in the skillet, we feel the tension, and we think this must be the religious persecution we were warned about all along because it loosely impacts our religious expression. Instead of being the creative, courageous people of transformative hope idolized in my childhood, we buckle under some temporary safety regulations. As if postponing mass worship services will usher in the anti-Christ. As if fellow human beings demanding fair treatment could ever be against God’s will.

I’ve been strolling the wilds outside the fences of organized Christianity long enough to find that people don’t dislike American Christians for their faith in God. They hate that Christians are such jerks about it, that they exclude and guilt and patronize people, and actively justify their flawed moral elitism as divine work, punishing the sick and the poor who don’t suit their narrative, and rejecting scientific fact to get their way. In the sociopolitical sphere, people in the outside world are afraid of us. What we’ve become, what we will do. Because we’ve already taken it this far.

We were weaponized. We’ve been divorced from our bodies, our emotions sanitized and repressed, self-policing our thoughts to perfect obedience, and somewhere deep, we expect that someday we’re going to be martyred for our beliefs even though Christianity not only controls the core power structures of this country, but is racing toward authoritarian theocracy. In other words, we are becoming the same kind of threat as the Islamic religion-state scare that evangelicalism peddled in the early 2000’s. Except we welcome this version of it, because we believe we’re objectively, unquestionably correct. And we’ve become so certain in that, we believe we have the right to force others to come to heel.

Purity culture, disembodiment, and emotional abuse among other theological failings, have traumatized my generation while programming us to defend it. We ache for accountability but are shamed out of following through, as experiences that threaten evangelicalism’s message or influence are often controlled, silenced, or discredited. We assume, as we’ve been groomed, that the problem is just with each of us. I felt alone for years in the illegal feeling deep in my soul that something wasn’t right and that the church had betrayed me.

But over time, I found language, and I found others. And my parents raised me better than to see corruption and look the other way. So here I am, drawing my line in the sand. 

On the surface, evangelical Christianity is a champion of love and grace, but mired in the cultural fabric of too many Christian spaces there are vast libraries of unwritten rules, thought binaries wrapped in barbed wires, and threats of eternal damnation for people who stray too far from the rota. The church isn’t perfect, obviously, comprised of broken people, and I would argue it’s normal to feel unsafe in an organization of this magnitude at least once. But let me ask, were these feelings ever resolved? Did you ever speak up about it? How was it handled? Were you lucky, and your voice was heard and change happened, or was the reaction different, putting the onus of shame on you? Your lack of faith, your overreaction. Were you asked to accept submission and then pretend everything was fine again even as the abuse continued?

Granted, this is something found just as easily outside the church, but inside the church, pushing back against oppressive social patterns is often rebuked as rebellion against God by human beings in power, whom we are taught never to question. Speaking unsafe, nuanced truth for evangelicals, then, becomes not just a social hurdle, but we find ourselves putting our eternal souls at risk.

And for people who were raised under this framework, it’s not even a thought in our minds to consider calling out the dark corners of church culture. We were born into a spiritual army, after all. Fundamentalism asked us as young as six years old to take moral responsibility for saving strangers from eternal damnation, to be prepared to become a martyr at twelve, to grow up into adults unequipped to reckon with reality because the movement was supposed to be countercultural. We feel so much fear and arrogance toward the outside world, but we push it deep where we think people can’t see, because we’re not allowed to acknowledge that we’re afraid, or that we’re not sure everything about evangelical Christianity is ethical. Doubt is a slippery slope, and we’re so afraid of sliding that we don’t stop to consider that a God worth following can withstand the steepest of doubts. 

Keeping a soft heart in a cruel world is brave and necessary. The church taught me that. The church also demonized that when it started getting too serious, when I started listening to outsiders and realized it all sounded too familiar to ignore.

We were supposed to be the example. The light. I look at evangelicalism’s posture toward the world, and the posture it forces on its followers, and I don’t see light anymore.

I have watched the church attempt to destroy my friends just for trying to be their truest selves and take seriously what the church taught about claiming a life lived fully. I have watched gaslighting, deflection, and bitterness come out of the church toward people whose authentic, lived experiences didn’t fit in with what the church preached about how to find freedom. I have heard story after story of all forms of abuse being excused and protected just because the abuser was in a position of power in the church. Little by little, I became aware that this friction, this cognitive dissonance, wasn’t normal, or even acceptable. The harder I fought to keep my place in the fold, the further I felt myself slipping. And I began to wonder, maybe the backsliders weren’t at all what I was led to believe.

Despite my sheer level of indoctrination and mental programming to serve the narrative of fundamentalist religion, I couldn’t unsee it, and my questioning, the compassion that growing up with faith had suffused me with, sapped its most insidious messages and expectations of their potency.

Young people are leaving the church in a mass exodus. I’d always heard that statistic as a lament to the depravity of the world, or the narrowness of the path, but over the last several years, I’ve found it to be a canary in the coal mine. We who have been raised in this seriously wish it could have worked out. It can be devastating to have to leave the thing that informed our entire lives. We were Christians before we even knew what that meant. It was literally wired into the structure of our brains as we grew, but even still, staying was too high a price. We felt deeply that something is so wrong with the current climate that we would rather lose the entire non-negotiable framework of our identities than continue to be poisoned by it.

We walked straight into the open desert after truth because we believed. Because it was real to us. Because no matter how committed we were, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, has failed.

If you haven’t heard the terms before, or references to the harm it has done, it’s difficult to define concisely. But ask anybody about toxic church culture, of oppressive, unwritten rules, of direct or indirect emotional abuse as it relates to doctrine or church leadership, of mishandling of mental health crises, of things people don’t feel like they’re allowed to talk about, and you’ll start to get a glimpse of the ideological powerhouse that helped create the current sociopolitical climate. 

We were part of one colossal experiment where loyalty and obedience became the bottom line. Among those who have left fundamentalism, some of us have found homes in other church denominations, others have had to leave completely for our own recovery, still others hopped directly to new dogmatic groups out of habit and have yet to find our own way. But we are all part of an urgent, ongoing conversation.

I have been afraid to openly join that conversation, because I have spent enough years watching what evangelicalism does to people who criticize it, but I’m less concerned with being accepted by it now. I hold no more loyalty to the golden calf of ideological certainty, wealth, and control that fundamentalism has passed off as God. I am so incredibly tired of watching dutifully while people I love are ushered into the furnace, or bound and gagged in the pews.

And the longer I stay silent, the longer I continue to watch compassionate, good human beings who have worked so hard to remain loyal, find themselves instead crushed under the weight of spiritual victim complexes using voices that don’t sound at all like their own, letting fear and prejudice warp their connection to their community, people who feel the tension like a lit fuse, tolerating their life waiting for the apocalypse when they could be living and working for good right this very moment. I hear whole churches parroting the propaganda of power structures that will not hesitate to snuff them out as soon as they fail to serve its agenda.

We deserve so much better. I want so much better for my family and friends, for my community. I want us to be able to show up as our entire selves, to build a place of safety. Of hope. Of life.

When did we jump from pursuing goodness and truth, to outright worshipping authority?

Evangelicalism, the brand of Christianity that holds the most power and influence right now in America, is nothing to feed or celebrate. It’s hazardous. You have been deceived, and maybe you’ve felt that all along, deep down, but power is good at pointing out a scapegoat. We, as truth-seekers, as human beings, reserve the right to walk away, to reject the machinations of empire, to build a gentle, grounded faith worth embracing. Or, if the church we’re trying to save refuses to take accountability and grow, we also reserve the right to walk away altogether.

Wherever you land, whatever this piece has made you feel, I hope you can find the courage to sit with it. To examine how your deepest knowing responds, to get curious about what emotions come up, and where you hold them in your body. About how the church would actually respond if you told somebody.

I would invite you also to ask yourself: What parts of your story are you editing? 

You may find some things that don’t line up, some discrepancies whose implications scare you or fill you with grief or rage. It’s a fearsome process, full of unsafe and unsanctioned emotions, but once they’re allowed to run their course, the path to moving forward becomes clearer.

You’re not losing your mind, and you’re absolutely not alone. There are a lot of us out here doing this work, creating resources, connecting with each other, telling our stories.

Christianity provides a stellar starting point for humanism, justice, and stewardship, but in modern American culture, it has become about keeping and imposing power rather than walking with compassion and grace.

The grace to not know all the answers. To let go of the need to be right, to embrace nuance and paradox, and the vibrant, organic push and pull of what it means to be human.

Let us give ourselves the permission we’ve been waiting for.

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