Things are afoot in Christian America, by the numbers, but also anecdotally. I have increasing numbers of friends who were raised evangelical but are now disillusioned with that culture. They are asking a lot of questions, reconsidering their beliefs, reexamining things. This is a cultural phenomenon big enough to have a name–“deconstruction.” It has accelerated significantly–again, by the numbers but also within my friend group–since Trump’s election in 2016.
For me, Trump’s election was the final phase of this process rather than its beginning. In my case, I never felt fully comfortable in evangelicalism, but my official departure began in earnest with the disintegration of my first marriage, my study of American history as a doctoral student, and my wider exposure to the non-Christian world (how shocked was I to discover there were a lot of deeply loving, kind, amazing–very Christ-like–people in that camp!). I did much of this spiritual work quietly, “in the closet,” not wanting to put my head up for fear of bringing judgment and condemnation from my evangelical circle. But once most of those people went the way of Trump–well, their moral authority didn’t mean much to me anymore. That’s not to say I don’t still love and respect many of them, but their spiritual judgment has lost its sting.
In addition, I have become more open as I’ve witnessed more friends embarking on this process, the initial stages of which can be pretty unsettling. I decided I want them to know they aren’t alone and they’re going to be OK. If that’s you, I want you to know that.
I’m not arrogant enough to give “advice” per se–uncertainty is probably the hallmark of much of my beliefs these days. But I can pass on what I’ve learned for myself, what has helped me, what has brought me through to a place of unprecedented peace in my faith walk, so I thought I’d pass that on. Here goes.
1. Do not fear. Let’s just start there. If God exists (and it’s totally OK and normal to question that! I myself still have many atheist days/weeks/months), he is love and grace, full stop. A loving and merciful being would never expect you to have all the answers to questions that honestly can have no certain answers in this life. He is not threatened by your doubt in the least. He gave you an analytic mind and a curious spirit and wants you to use them. When you feel afraid, remind yourself of this.
2. Take a break, take a walk. Stop praying, Bible study, going to church, doing all the Christian things if you need to. If you’re spending all of that time being angry, frustrated, filled with anxiety and guilt anyway, there’s really no point. Those things will be there for you when you get back from whereever you need to go. Get out in nature, read poetry, listen to music, take up art, meditate, serve your community, invest in your relationships. God is in all those things, too. More of God might even be in those things, quite frankly. One of the biggest revelations I’ve had is that God is so much bigger than a narrow Christian culture. God is in all things and through all things and in very unexpected places and unconventional hearts.
3. Get back to basics. When you are ready to reengage with the Christian God, start with the Gospels. They are the center of the faith. They don’t have all the answers to every theological question, but they will show you how to live and love. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You can have no idea what you believe about God and still follow Jesus. Study his actions, read his words, interact with people the way the Gospels indicate he would.
4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. One thing I believe to the core of my being is that white evangelical Christianity and Christianity are not the same thing. Of course, there is a lot of overlap, I’m not saying white evangelicals aren’t Christians (that is not for me to say, for one thing). I’m saying that a lot of what we who were raised in that culture were taught as Gospel Truth, essential to the faith, is actually just cultural preference. The most extensive, well documented example of this was recently provided by historian Beth Allison Barr regarding gender roles. There are many, many examples. You can be a Christian and be pro-choice, anti-war, socialist, LGBTQ-affirming, evolution-believing, Democratic-voting, welfare state supporting, social justice promoting. You can even be anti-American and a Christian. I’m not saying you should be all those things, but I’m saying you can be. You’ve been given an entire cultural program that is in some cases clearly extra-biblical, if not flat-out unbiblical, even by evangelical standards, and in many other cases is ambiguous. You can leave evangelical Christianity without leaving Christianity. And frankly, based on what I’m seeing these days, leaving evangelical Christianity may get you much closer to being a Christian, although, again, that is not for me to judge. I just know that for me, if I was going to remain a Christian, I had to completely exit evangelical Christianity. I’m now a theologically liberal Methodist, and it’s liberating.
5. Expose yourself to different Christian cultures/biblical interpretations. 21st century white evangelical Christianity and its insistence on biblical “inerrancy” is such a tiny sliver of Christian experience and belief across the centuries and around the world as to be barely a blip. It is definitely, absolutely NOT the end all, be all, and I really beg you to learn more about the rest of Chrisitianity before deciding you’re done. Study church history. Try different denominations and churches. Right here in America, we have Coptic churches, Greek Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, liberal, conservative, and on and on and on. I’ve also learned an awful lot and been inspired by the words of Black American Christians, who bring a really different perspective to the faith. Do some Christian tourism and see what you learn.
Same goes for biblical interpretation. “Inerrancy” is a pretty new idea and is as much a gatekeeping/power-preservation device as an approach to the Bible, as made clear by the intense cherry-picking that goes on within theologies formed around inerrancy. Learn about more expansive, more curious, more open approaches to the Bible that put it within human history, experience, and culture. I highly, highly recommend two books to start with, Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? and Peter Enns’s For the Bible Tells Me So. Your mind will be blown, and you’ll be freed from a buttload of baggage. You may end up loving the Bible more, not less.
6. Being angry is normal; try not to stay there too long. As you start to dig into the roots of your evangelical experience and expose its cultural assumptions, it’s going to make you mad. You’re going to see that you have been deceived, most of the time not intentionally, by well-meaning Christians who have simply handed you what they were handed. You’re also going to be confronted with personal pain acquired in and from these deceptions and other negative things about your experience. It’s all going to piss you off royally. And that’s fine. But I urge you to observe and acknowledge your anger and try to move on. I’ve been in some exvangelical spaces that are incredibly bitter, and the end result is that people become just as judgmental, self-righteous, and fundamentalist in their critique of evangelical Christianity as any evangelical Christian they may have encountered. Which brings me to another key point–
7. Don’t judge the experience of those who are happy in evangelicalism. One of the things that probably enraged you about your evangelical past is that you weren’t believed when your experiences didn’t align with the needs of the culture. The worst example of this is of course how sexual abuse victims have been treated in the evangelical church, but if you’re like me, your life is full of many more mild episodes of gaslighting. But if you want people to believe you, you need to return the favor. And the fact is, for many, many evangelical Christians, their faith is a deep well of joy, peace, love, and meaning. They thrive in that context, they are made better in those churches. Many lives have dramatically changed for the better in white evangelical churches. I’ve seen this firsthand. Look, life and people and experience are complicated. Just because something was painful and negative for you does not mean it is for everyone. All people, institutions and cultures are a mix of good and bad. For you, the bad outweighed the good, but allow that for others, it’s the opposite. And I’m talking mainly about the realm of personal faith and experience here, not the societal role and impact of the white evangelical church, which is another whole discussion. Others’ experiences don’t have to be a lie for yours to be true.
8. Get comfortable with uncertainty for the long haul. If you have some notion that you’ll go through this process and emerge with all the answers to your questions, you’re going to be frustrated. That’s not the point of faith, just generally. Your goal really is peace, not certainty, and peace is absolutely attainable, particularly if you recognize this early on. I wrote a whole other post about this.
9. Expect some people in your life to freak out. Like a wild animal, those types of folks are more afraid of you than you are of them. They live in a a world of rigid belief about things that are fundamentally uncertain. They may come across very self-assured, but on some level, they probably know they live in a house of cards. Your questions and doubts are a threat to their sense of security, and they will go into fight-or-flight mode in the face of your story. Be gentle with them, be gracious, be kind. Don’t take it personally. Your loved one is telling you you’re going to hell because they are afraid and they think that is what they have to say in order to affirm their own faith. Try to have compassion, it will blunt your anger at being judged.
10. If you end up completely losing your faith, keep an open mind. Remember, atheism is also a kind of faith. Faith is a really long trip, and just because you land somewhere today doesn’t mean that is your permanent home. Instead of I don’t believe in God, maybe it’s I don’t believe in God right now. Faith has a way of showing up again. Keep that possibility in your heart. Maybe it’s more hope than faith that you end up with. Hope is a good thing, too.
I love you, friends. I’m some years ahead of some of you in this, and I can tell you for sure that, not only will you be alright, you’re going to be better than you’ve ever been. Take heart, and keep going.