Evangelicals in Moral Panic Over Exvangelicals

Principal Skinner from The Simpson's tries to ascertain whether he himself or the children are out of line. Skinner concludes that it is, indeed, the children.

Early last month, I expressed cautious optimism here on RD that conservative, mostly white evangelicals just might be losing control over the narrative about evangelicalism. Perhaps the best evidence that they have indeed lost control is that evangelical leaders are currently in a full-blown moral panic about the exvangelical phenomenon. In April, The Gospel Coalition—of which Tim Keller of “sex outside straight Christian marriage is dehumanizing” infamy is a prominent representative—published a book aimed at stemming the tide of deconstruction among evangelical youth. And in late May, within the space of a week, evangelical blogger Jordan Steffaniak and celebrity author Francis Chan both offered their “solutions” to the “problem.” In a fit of what sure looks like protesting too much, some of these panicking souls, including Steffaniak, can’t help but tell readers how glad they are to not be us. Such rhetoric belies an obvious, and frankly obviously desperate, attempt to keep the exvangelical bugbear within the confines of the moral object lesson.

Of course, the attempt to reduce leavers to an object lesson is no longer really working for evangelicals, and they know it. When anyone with access to the internet can Google exvangelicals and hear our reasons for leaving in our own voices, it becomes instantly evident that the “lesson” has got no more depth than a two-dimensional Bible character cutout slapped up on a Sunday school felt board. In their infinite fundamentalist fragility, of course, influential evangelicals (and wannabes like Steffaniak) can’t actually talk or listen to us without opening themselves up to doubt, further undermining their own credibility, or both. 

As a result, transparently contentless objections to the existence of ex-evangelicals are really all they have left. Well, that and the silly old apologist standby of “You really just left to have all that sweet, sweet, unbiblical sex, didn’t you?” Their protestations thus come across like one big, petulant Principal Skinner meme: “Am I so out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong.”

Russell Moore, who recently left his position as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm for a public theology position with Christianity Today, is one of the evangelical leaders giving voice to a but-for-the-grace-of-God-I-could-be-an-exvangelical sentiment. In fairness, Moore gives “the children” some credit in his lament on exvangelicals, agreeing that there is much hypocrisy in evangelicalism worth criticizing before coming to the nonsense conclusion that “We are losing a generation—not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are.”

In late April, I responded to Moore’s newsletter comments about exvangelicals in an open letter, asking him to talk to, rather than merely about, exvies. As I addressed the points he raised, I shared some of my own experience, including some things we have in common, like teenage suicidal ideation in connection with a crisis of faith. I suggested that, given the strict patriarchal nature of evangelicalism, his being a straight white man and my being a transgender woman might help to explain why he became comfortable settling into such a hypocrisy-riddled version of Christianity, while I am much happier and healthier with no religion at all. Predictably, Moore has not responded, despite repeated Twitter calls from Christian author and Belmont University theology professor David Darkone of the vanishingly rare evangelicals open to real dialogue with exvangelicalsto do so.

Dark’s exceptional openness notwithstanding, the general pattern continues. Most evangelicals aren’t so much interested in, as concerned about, the exvangelical phenomenon, and it’s patently clear that they’re afraid of engaging exvies in our own terms. In order to maintain a sense of control, they must refuse to decenter themselves and their “biblical worldview,” which means they must define and objectify exvangelicals as a problem to solve, as opposed to treating us as actual people with our own stories to tell. The problem with that stance, of course, is that it justifiably makes evangelicals look ridiculous to outside observers, now that exvies have gained enough visibility to get our perspectives heard in the public sphere. And evangelicals are not happy about that.

“We’re seeing the world look at evangelical Christianity as an absolute joke right now,” the above-mentioned Chan whined at a recent conference in the midst of a rant about exvangelicals. But instead of considering whether there might be good reasons for that, Chan decries the (former) evangelical celebrities—people like Joshua Harris, Abraham Piper, and Kevin Max—he sees leaving the faith. “It’s every day you can just jump on Instagram … and someone is saying, ‘I’m not a Christian anymore,’” he said, per Christian Post reporting (ellipsis in original). 

Predictably, Chan turns to the old apologist chestnut that these folks were “never really Christians” in the first place, invoking Isaiah 29:13—“these people draw near me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote”—to punctuate the point. His proffered solution is thus for churches to emphasize having an authentic “encounter with God,” which is just as vague and ultimately contentless as it sounds.

It’s ironic that Steffaniak offers precisely the opposite “antidote” by claiming that the people who leave evangelicalism simply haven’t been properly exposed to the “rich intellectual tradition of Christianity.” It’s even funnier that, while Steffaniak drops a lot of names from Christian history in his blog post, he doesn’t give us any examples of just what’s supposed to be so convincing about their theology. Meanwhile, many exvangelicals have made clear that we both took our spiritual lives seriously and dealt seriously with the Christian intellectual tradition, and still opted to leave evangelicalism for either better religion or no religion. In short, both Chan’s and Steffaniak’s takes are simply vapid, and that their soundbite “solutions” contradict each other just emphasizes the extent to which evangelicals are flailing in the face of a growing and ever more visible exvangelical movement.

Exvies can, and do, speak for ourselves. If evangelicals don’t want to be seen as ridiculous, they’re going to have to exhibit enough vulnerability and openness to stop objectifying us and start talking to us. For most of them, however, to do so would be essentially to cease being evangelical, so don’t hold your breath. I guess they’ll just have to get used to being viewed, deservedly, as “an absolute joke” while pumping out commentary on exvangelicals that is hilariously bad. As for me? I’m grabbing some popcorn. This stuff is even better than the Kirk Cameron version of Left Behind.