In a recent newsletter, Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, offered up a frank discussion of a crisis of faith he had as a young man in an attempt to inform his fellow evangelicals about why so many people today are leaving religion. Perusing his essay, I was surprised to learn that Moore, who is about nine years older than me, and I had something in common that I had not expected: suicidal ideation caused by our former struggles.
While I appreciate Moore revealing such personal and private moments, judging from the rest of his writing, it appears that his experience has not led to a thorough understanding of why so many of us have found greater peace by leaving the faith communities of our youth rather than remaining in them. I say this because, in his newsletter, Moore chose to highlight the “problem” of “exvangelicals”—that is, people, especially but not always younger people, abandoning evangelicalism—as part of emphasizing how happy he is that he managed to hold on to his own faith.
In the probably vain hope of promoting greater understanding, I have decided to write an open letter to Moore so that he and others similarly situated might be able to gain a greater appreciation of not only why exvangelicals leave the faith, but are in fact healthier and happier as a result.
Moore’s discussion of exvangelicals—also sometimes referred to as “exvies”—was part of a longer lament about America’s rapid secularization. This subject has been on the minds of many commentators since Gallup released new poll results in late March showing a steep decline in the proportion of Americans who are members of religious institutions like churches, mosques, and synagogues, with that proportion falling below 50% for the first time.
Widespread (and quite misplaced) elite anxiety over the supposed horrors resulting from American secularization is a topic I intend to address in a subsequent article, but here I would like to focus on Moore’s treatment of exvangelicals and his expressed happiness that he is not one of us. Of late, a number of evangelicals have begun to comment on exvangelicals and the active conversations around the “deconstruction” of the faith in which we participate, but direct engagement with actual existing exvies seems to remain beyond the pale. Although evangelicals have arguably already lost control of their narrative in the public sphere, communicating with us exvies directly would require them to willingly give up full control of the conversation. It would require listening, when it is much easier to talk about us rather than to us.
The fact is that all-encompassing, missionizing, anti-pluralist approaches to faith like evangelical Christianity make equal dialogue between believers and those who reject their beliefs impossible. And so, while I do not expect Moore to respond to the letter below, I hope that he will.
You may be aware of me as a vocal critic of conservative, mostly white evangelical subculture, including, at times, specifically of the Southern Baptist Convention and of yourself, although after I published a piece about the internal SBC pressure on you and the ERLC coming from your right flank, there were some who imagined me as part of a “liberal media” scheme to protect you. The kernel of truth in that accusation probably lies in these words that I wrote at the time: “Despite holding some inherently inhumane positions, Russell Moore has attempted to be a humane person in his leadership role in the SBC. If he is purged, this will be another clear indication that humaneness toward members of othered groups, and those on the lower rungs of the Christian Right’s preferred social hierarchy, is utterly unwelcome in today’s American evangelicalism.”
You’re a man who has dismissed feminism as “heresy,” and yet, as pervasive concerns about domestic violence enabled by the patriarchal theology prescribed by the SBC have come to light in recent years, you have tweeted that wives who are beaten by their husbands should leave their homes and call the police. And, while you recently stated that you “considered suicide” at fifteen years old because you didn’t want to lose your faith, the way you describe your thinking from that time again illustrates a fundamentally humane side of your personality that even decades spent in SBC leadership roles have evidently not entirely extinguished.
“Not only were the televangelist scandals all over the news, but also I knew that this wasn’t the half of it,” you write of your fifteen-year-old self. “Just as those in political journalism have long known how to interpret ‘Sen. Smith has decided to spend more time with his family,’ I knew how to interpret ‘The Lord has called Brother Jones from the pastorate into itinerant evangelism.’“ You write about noticing overt racism among fellow Southern Baptists, as well as “ ‘Christian people’ who beat their children for listening to ‘secular music.’” These and other observations led you to ask “whether religion itself—or at least the kind of Christianity that showed up in the slogans all around me—might really be about something else: southern culture or politics. If so, I thought, that would mean that Jesus is not the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but a means to an end.”
Reading these words, I could not help empathizing with your teenage self. And it is to the sensitive, humane side of you that I appeal now in the hopes that you might be able to listen without defensiveness as I contrast my own trajectory with yours and lay out what I see as a few implications of the comparison. You see, I also experienced a crisis of faith as a teenager, and it intensified the suicidal ideation that was already a part of my life, and that would continue to be over the years, although thoughts of suicide come much less frequently now than they used to, and with much less intensity.
The reason I am now doing much better is that, after a decade and a half of struggling to remain in an authoritarian faith that entails fundamentally inhumane theology, I let go of it entirely. I stopped accepting that I needed to feel like an impossible person who shouldn’t exist, and I embarked—haltingly at first, and then with greater confidence—on a path of self-acceptance and truth-telling.
When, at age 33, I could finally come face to face with the fact that I am not just queer but transgender, the residual fear of hell that had continued to crop up in my life years after I stopped intellectually believing in hell simply dissipated. But I still felt isolated, since so few people in “the world” understand what it’s like to grow up in and leave a high-control religious community like evangelicalism, and so I began seeking out other exvangelicals online and helping to build resources and spaces for community discussion of the issues and concerns that many of us have in common.
Perhaps this is part of what you mean when you write that you may not have held on to your faith if you had been born later. We seem to have reached a real breakthrough with respect to the resources available to those who are deconstructing evangelicalism, and also with respect to the public visibility of former evangelicals, and thus the recognition of us exvies as “a problem” for you and your churches. And very clearly, we are a problem, from your point of view. Our very existence poses a dilemma for evangelicals, with your totalizing “biblical worldview,” and when we attain not just a degree of happiness but also a voice, we can no longer serve as convenient object lessons to help keep the youth in the fold. Quite the opposite, our visibility can help those wracked with guilt over doubt to understand that life, decency, and goodness exist outside the harsh strictures of the evangelical bubble.
While I wish you could truly hear us and accept us on our own terms, I want to thank you not just for recognizing the significance of the exvangelical movement, but also for being willing to validate some of our concerns about evangelical hypocrisy. I was also glad to read that you even recognize that many of us were among “the most committed” to our faith and our churches before leaving. That observation brings you so close to understanding something that I want to stress to you now, something that belies your odd conclusion that “We are losing a generation—not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are.”
In truth, while hypocrisy in the church is a huge problem, it is far from the only reason we’re leaving. We’re leaving because of the theology itself, a theology that in so many cases we tried as hard as we could to hold on to even as it was destroying us. And by the way, the existence of those visible discussions and resources for exvangelicals you seem to fear are contributing to the church’s loss of a generation? They are literally saving the lives of young people like you and I once were, pondering suicide as they face a crisis of faith.
Evangelicals hold to an anti-pluralist, anti-democratic theology of inequality that has contributed to abuse and trauma in so many cases. Why is it so hard for you to see, Dr. Moore, that you simply cannot have a prevailing doctrine of “biblical patriarchy“ without the pervasive abuse of women and children? Evangelicals also hold to a theology that simply makes no space for women who refuse to accept unequal status with men, for single women (except perhaps on the mission field), or for LGBTQ folks like myself who are told that our experience of ourselves is “rebellious” and that we shouldn’t exist. All the abuses inherent to authoritarian systems about which exvies have stories—and the scars to back them up—are logical consequences of evangelical theology and the culture it supports.
I thus found myself scratching my head when you wrote how, when you pondered the possibility that the gospel might not be true, you concluded, “It would mean that the universe is a random, meaningless void—red in tooth and claw. It would mean that the preacher who beat his daughter for dancing wasn’t an aberration but was instead the way the cosmos is, right down to the core. And that was a horrible thought.”
But is the preacher who beats his daughter for dancing really an aberration in evangelical subculture? Quite the opposite, for he accurately reflects the character of the authoritarian god of the evangelical cosmos, with his arbitrary and unjust social hierarchies and his insistence that eternal conscious torment for even the most minor of temporal infractions is moral. These beliefs are inherently abusive.
I cannot, and will not, believe in that god, and if I still believed in him, it is very possible that I would have killed myself by now. By contrast, a cosmos not being run by a divine abuser is one in which humans are free to develop ourselves in accordance with who we discover ourselves to be, to work toward a more just society, and to treat each other fairly and compassionately in conjunction with what we come to believe, rather than in spite of what we’ve been told we have to believe, or else we’ll burn forever.
And yes, yes, I’ve heard the sermons. My dad is a music pastor and worship leader; my mom teaches at the Christian school I graduated from. The head pastor of the non-denominational evangelical church we attended when I was in high school once stated from the pulpit that if there were no god, “the only question left worth debating would be whether or not to commit suicide.” Evangelicals are constantly pushing the trope that life outside their understanding of Christianity is meaningless, and, while I’m sure that many who make this claim believe it, this trope ultimately serves to control the flock through fear. It is an abusive tactic wielded on behalf of an abuser-god. It always saddens me to observe such internalized abusive theology from evangelicals who clearly retain some capacity for compassion—as happened with my Calvinist tenth-grade Old Testament teacher, who cried as he explained to us that, as far as he could tell from the Bible, there was no age of accountability, which meant that “aborted babies” go to hell.
That same pastor who preached about the meaninglessness of life without the gospel, by the way, pointed me toward books of apologetics when I came to him at age sixteen, concerned about my doubts. At some point I, too, read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, but neither it nor the book the pastor loaned me to read—I can’t remember specifically what book that was—resolved my crisis of faith. When I let the pastor know that I still had doubts after reading the book he’d loaned me, this man, who had at first seemed very compassionate and understanding, suddenly decided that I was the problem. “You must be harboring some sin in your life,” he told me. I must have opened myself up to the influence of literal demons, because otherwise the Holy Spirit would have made it easy for me to accept that the Bible was inerrant. It was a claim that was as morally offensive as it was fallacious, but at the time I took it seriously.
My treatment by that pastor contributed to years of agonizing anxiety, and it was only much later that I was able to recognize it as spiritual abuse. But it’s not like the pastor could have done too much better, though. After all, he only had inhumane theology to work with, same as you, Dr. Moore.
So, what are we to make of the fact that you are happy that reading C.S. Lewis helped you to preserve your faith, while I find Lewis unconvincing and am happy to have broken free of the constraints of an inhumane faith that was literally killing me? On this point, I want to highlight your stated motivation for reading apologetics: “I know that the reason I even went looking for C.S. Lewis and the others is because I had been taught the Bible—in a good, loving church. I had seen genuine love and community and authenticity there, week by week.” Dr. Moore, most if not all of us exvangelicals have also experienced warm, supportive church community—meals cooked and brought over when your family is going through a hard time, etc. We have seen acts of love and kindness from evangelical churchgoers. But we have also seen the vitriol such “loving” people reserve for outsiders. Meanwhile, church friends dropping people who leave their churches because they’ve adopted egalitarian theology, or who come out as queer, or who leave the faith, is so common that there’s a slang term to describe it: “holy ghosting.”
In other words, many of us spent years in evangelical communities and institutions being taught about Christ’s supposedly “unconditional” love, only to find that the love of evangelical Christians, at least, is often very, very conditional. And there are systemic, sociological factors in play here that I would ask you to consider, Dr. Moore. You are a straight white man, and thus at the top of the de facto (and, with respect to gender, de jure) social hierarchy of the Southern Baptist Convention. Divinely sanctioned patriarchy is designed for your comfort, and for the comfort of men like you. It relegates women and queer people—and, de facto, people of color—to a status of less than. Queer people have no space to exist within the SBC or broader evangelical subculture at all. Is it any wonder, then, that so many young people who fall into these categories, or who simply refuse, on ethical grounds, to countenance inequality, are leaving?
For what it’s worth, while I no longer believe in god, exvangelicals are not all atheists and agnostics. Indeed, some remain Christians. But instead of retaining a Christian theology that relegates members of marginalized groups to a lower status, and that usually accompanies a politics of fighting to deprive members of those groups of their civil and human rights, these Christian exvies embrace an understanding of the faith that is compatible with pluralism, as well as with the insights of feminism and critical race theory (which the SBC has recently explicitly rejected as incompatible with Baptist theology). If you really want to understand exvangelicals, you should ask yourself why even those who remain Christians must dissociate from your kind of Christianity.
I am sorry for the suffering of your teenage self, Dr. Moore. I truly am. And I am also sorry for my own suffering and frequent suicidal ideation that started in early childhood and continued well into my 30s. But while I recognize your suffering, it is self-evident that it is considerably easier for someone like you, a straight man, to paper over the darker sides of evangelical theology in order to embrace the “loving community” of evangelicals, than it is for someone like me, a trans woman, who would have to deny her identity in order to receive that same “love.” And so I appeal now to the compassion that you clearly do possess as I ask you simply to hear why it seems much better to me to adopt a worldview, Christian or not, that doesn’t have abuse embedded in its very foundations, than to try to cram myself into the theological box that made me want to kill myself.
Dr. Christina R. Stroop