In June 2015, I asserted here on RD that “we need to listen to the voices of those who have been harmed by the fundamentalist tendencies in evangelicalism,” and that “we need to center the voices of LGBTQ youth, such as transgender teen Leelah Alcorn who was driven to suicide by her evangelical upbringing.”
Almost two years later, white evangelicals are demonstrably the demographic most singularly responsible for bringing us the disastrous presidency of Donald Trump, a president who has rescinded Obama-era federal guidance for schools on the non-discriminatory treatment of transgender students. And despite the president’s historically low approval rating—he no longer has the support of even a majority of white men—white evangelicals remain broadly supportive of Trump, with regular church attendance indicating a higher rate of support.
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As someone who has written a good bit about the authoritarian ethos of white evangelicals—for example here and here—I’m among the numerous ex-evangelicals who are legitimately upset and, in many cases, even re-traumatized, by the unleashing of white evangelicals’ theocratic agenda at the highest levels of government. And I’m not alone in feeling the urgent need for a forum for ex-evangelical voices.
In 2016, in the same month as the GOP convention, Blake Chastain, a Chicago-based writer and creator of the Exvangelical podcast, set out to create a platform and community for those who “have been hurt in God’s name.”
An ex-evangelical from Indiana who attended Indiana Wesleyan University during George W. Bush’s presidency, Chastain conceived of the show in 2014, when, in his words, “through personal relationships and connections via Facebook, I watched as myself and others began to ‘liberalize’ or leave evangelicalism—or faith altogether. But we all shared a common sociocultural heritage.”
Recognizing the added urgency for his project, launched in July of last year, Chastain minces no words about the flaws of evangelicalism.
Episode 16 of Exvangelical is a passionate post-election rebuke of white evangelicals for their Trump support; as Chastain says, “evangelicals bear much of the blame.” When I asked Chastain if he considers American evangelicals to be fundamentalists as a general rule, this is how he responded:
I don’t know that all evangelicals are fundamentalists. But I do believe the caricature of evangelicals in the broader cultural is largely accurate, and the farther one “strays” from the core cultural and doctrinal tenets of evangelicalism (biblical literalism, “traditional” gender and family roles, anti-LGBT beliefs, etc.), the less…possible?…it is to be considered evangelical by that culture.
Ex-evangelicals harmed by those beliefs need spaces for expression and connection with others who understand our experiences, including the conflicted feelings and sense of isolation we often have. Per Chastain: “we need to find a way to build our own sense of community. Too many people feel alone” after coming to a place where they have “found evangelicalism wanting—and worse than wanting, guilty of some serious crimes.”
Chastain’s approach to Exvangelical reflects his concern both with community building and with individual processing. He often describes this processing in terms of “deconstruction” and “reconstruction,” concepts popularized by proponents of mysticism such as Steven Jones. Known on Twitter and YouTube as the Skeptical Mystic, Jones has been a repeat guest on Exvangelical.
As one might surmise from Chastain’s interest in mysticism, nothing about Exvangelical is rushed. Sensitive and compassionate, host Chastain takes time to build up to weighty discussions with his guests, lingering over their backgrounds and shared references to evangelical culture. Chastain edits out little in post-production, making for episodes that often run longer than an hour and a half.
The show’s model of unrushed, intimate talk about ex-evangelical stories and concerns clearly resonates with his audience. For example, listener Jessi Bennett told me that “listening to a podcast like this is like being part of an inside joke” in the sense that evangelical subculture is very distinctive and difficult to explain to outsiders. Listener Kendra M., who asked me not to use her full name, describes connecting with others’ stories via Exvangelical as “comforting.” Despite becoming an atheist in college, she has only recently begun to sort through “the lingering effects of being raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical world,” particularly the long-term damage done by purity culture. (For this reason, Kendra found episode 10, “Emily Joy & Hannah Paasch of The Flawless Project,” “particularly poignant.”)
I e-mailed Emily Joy to ask for her assessment of Exvangelical. After lamenting the difficulty of explaining to outsiders “the complete and total mindfuck that is Evangelicalism,” she observed, “we all share this set of incredibly strange and not-normal experiences, and it’s so cathartic to be sharing space with folks who just understand.” She added, “As Christianity in the United States is becoming more polarized between Trumpist MAGA types and those of us who barely recognize the religion we grew up in anymore, I think spaces like Exvangelical, where it’s okay to ask questions and answer them honestly, are important.”
Emily Joy, Hannah Paasch, and the Skeptical Mystic have all found a way forward within Christianity, like Chastain himself. So has Crystal Cheatham, who in episode 31 talks about growing up as a missionary kid in strict Seventh Day Adventism, coming to terms with her homosexuality, and her current work on the Our Bible app—a devotional app “for the rest of us”—which is one way in which Cheatham is reclaiming Christianity for members of the LGBTQ community. Chastain has also hosted Science Mike, whose work reconciling faith with scientific inquiry was recently profiled here on RD.
In addition to progressive Christians, Chastain does invite thoroughgoing nones on the show, occasionally even venturing beyond strictly ex-evangelical experience. Episode 24 features Lauren O’Neal and Niko Bakulich, the hosts of Sunday School Dropouts, a podcast billed as “an ex-Christian and a non-believing sort of Jew” reading through the entire Bible for the first time. While O’Neal’s background is mainline, specifically PCUSA, leaving Christianity for atheism has been a formative experience for her.
When I reached out to her for comment, O’Neal pointed to Pew data showing that nearly one in five American adults is a former Christian. “Given how common that sort of faith transition is,” she wrote, “I think it’s important that everyone, religious or not, hear those kinds of stories more often.”
A significant portion of a generation groomed from childhood to fight the culture wars is not only saying a decisive “NO” to theocracy and Trumpism, but also talking back about the ways conservative evangelicalism has harmed us. Exvangelical is a vital resource for those of us in that boat, and for anyone else who wants to understand how we as a country got so far out to sea.