How Should We Then Live (with Evangelical Christian Nationalists)? Part 1.
The personal toll of Christian nationalism in white evangelical circles.
This is part 1 of a series of posts that inverts this famous question from Francis Schaeffer, and asks how we should live with white evangelicals—especially in light of their actions during the Trump administration, and because of the light shone on their longstanding beliefs and practices.
There’s a common refrain of lament in post-evangelical circles that goes something like this: “I wish my evangelical friends and relatives would see the harm they do, and how they alienate themselves.”
Leaving white evangelicalism is painful. Negative depictions of exvangelicals painted by people still within evangelicalism like to portray those who left as quitters, blasphemers, misled by “the world.” What those depictions fail to capture is that leaving is often a matter of last resort, after having spent years trying to reconcile their conscience or their identity with that of the broader evangelical circles they are part of at church, school, work, or home.
People who leave evangelicalism after such crises were true believers. They sought the Lord as they were taught, but as they learned more (about their selves, or the history of their faith tradition, or the history of Christianity, or the history of America) and spoke up within their respective spheres about what they learned, they learned that those dissenting views were not welcome. And quite likely, neither were they. So they left and lost relationships.
(It’s at this point where some people will interject with a “No True Scotsman” type argument specific to evangelicals. “That [person or group] was not truely evangelical. Here are 1,500 words in The Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, or New Yorker about the evangelicalism exemplified by my experience at Wheaton” or “the Bebbington Quadrilateral insists” or somesuch thing about the abolitionist values of 19th century holiness traditions. I have no interest in those conversations, because they are false equivalences. Perennial squabbles about what makes evangelicalism “evangelical” are distracting and dishonest in this context. So I will move on.)
Some relationships may still remain, but are strained. It may be a familial relationship, where one member still in the evangelical tradition maintains their righteousness, but has little curiosity about what caused the post-evangelical to leave.
These relational strains are cyclical and exacerbated during a presidential election year in the US. In a typical administration (and this is a distinctly atypical administration), the political presence and influence of evangelicals fades from view between election years. Not so under the Trump administration, where we have seen white evangelicals and other Christian nationalists empowered at a far greater scale, and their presence in the headlines and our headspace have been persistent.
But there’s still something about the way things get kicked up every national election cycle, and the way friends and family discuss evangelical politics. That’s what I’ll explore in part 2.
I was really surprised at how much this conversation on Twitter connected with my experience. I hadn't thought about it in such detail before, but it really resonates. I said on Twitter, but will repeat here... I think I have subconsciously avoided old friends because of not wanting to deal with all this.
There's not a one-size-fits-all experience. Lots of people exit their parents' religious culture quite readily and early without a lot of drama. Many feel great about it — no difficulties at all. I often wonder if that is the much larger group of ex-religious Americans. People who were raised in a purely secular context are still pretty rare. And if you look at the longer history and wider networks in a family you find people always moving in and out of religion.