I Created the Hashtag #EmptythePews Because It’s Time for Evangelicals To Walk Out of Toxic Churches

Have you been waiting for any prominent conservative evangelical leaders to withdraw or temper their Trump support over the president’s refusal to renounce white supremacy—by name, unequivocally, without whataboutism, and without contradicting himself five minutes later? If so, I hope you’re not holding your breath. The racist terrorism that just took place in Charlottesville and the president’s utter failure to respond adequately do not seem to phase his evangelical supporters in the least.

Yesterday, as a steady stream of CEOs protested the president’s pandering to white supremacists and neo-Nazis by resigning from his business advisory councils, white evangelicals by and large stood by their man. A number of commentators took to Twitter to point out that America’s elite capitalists are showing more of a conscience than prominent conservative Protestants. Former George W. Bush strategist and ABC News political analyst Matthew John Dowd tweeted:

Meanwhile, prominent evangelical Trump supporters were either praising Trump or tweeting about anything and everything that had nothing to do with Nazis in Charlottesville and how the president’s Tuesday news conference made white nationalist  and former KKK grand wizard David Duke very happy. Today, President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Franklin Graham—a prominent Trump supporter who prayed at the inauguration—finally tweeted that “One race is not superior over another,” but he has mostly avoided mentioning Charlottesville, with a couple of notable exceptions, including this one, which is far from a resounding denunciation of white supremacy:

Meanwhile, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., who is a member of Trump’s Evangelical executive advisory board, decided now would be a good time to lavish praise on Trump via tweet for “jobs returning” and “North Korea backing down,” and Trump’s “bold truthful stmnt about charlottesville”. The tweet in question is the only one that comes up in a search of Falwell’s Twitter for “Charlottesville.”

Prominent Southern Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress—his First Baptist Dallas choir performed an ode of sorts called “Make America Great Again”at a Trump rally in honor of veterans that took place in Washington, D.C. on July 2nd—is also a member of Trump’s Evangelical advisory board. And like Falwell, he has defended the president’s remarks on Charlottesville that placed blame “on many sides” instead of overtly condemning white supremacy. Jeffress’s only tweet (as of this writing) mentioning Charlottesville calls Americans to “pray for peace” without mentioning white nationalism or racism. Jeffress told Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody, however, that “there is not a racist bone” in Trump’s body.

The word “unhelpful” does not begin to describe Jeffress’s comments, but a large majority of white evangelicals, living in their enclave community of “Christian Alternative Facts,” are almost entirely impervious to criticism or shaming from the outside. Can decent Americans of all confessions and none mount a response to evangelicals’ complicity in white supremacist violence that will get their attention?

Noting that almost nothing will get most evangelicals’ attention apart from declining church attendance, last night I took to Twitter to exhort any wavering members of conservative evangelical churches, or indeed any churches complicit in Trumpism and white supremacy, to take now as a moment to leave those churches in protest, as publicly and vocally as possible. The idea struck me because I have observed over the last couple of weeks—anecdotally, to be sure, and mostly in the Exvangelical support group, an online safe space for ex-Evangelicals founded by Blake Chastain—many people stating that evangelical Trump support was the final straw that led them to leave evangelicalism behind. I believe that Evangelical pastors need to hear their message, and so do those still in the pews who may be harboring doubt and discomfort but who are afraid of leaving.

To that end, I created the hashtag #EmptyThePews, asking those who have left evangelicalism over bigotry to tweet their stories along with the hashtag.

The call elicited a powerful response, with the hashtag trending last night and today and getting the attention of clergy.

And I’d now like to reiterate some of the points I made in the thread that launched the hashtag here:

Leaving Evangelicalism, or indeed any fundamentalism (most of today’s U.S. evangelicalism qualifies as fundamentalism by an academic definition), is hard. It’s scary. Some people continue going to toxic churches out of inertia and/or social pressure, and leaving has real social consequences. However, there is life after evangelicalism—there are ex-evangelicals at work building supportive community—and there has not been a more urgent time to take a strong moral stand in America in decades.

If you have doubts about your church’s overt or subtle white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general toxicity, now is the time to leave and to do so publicly, in protest. You don’t have to stop being a Christian if you’re not able to embrace atheism, agnosticism, or some other form of nonedom. You don’t have to stop going to church (there are great progressive churches out there!). But if your church said nothing about Charlottesville last Sunday, or defended Trump’s whataboutism, are you going to sit there in silent complicity? Please don’t. Take a moral stand, and make yourself heard. #EmptyThePews