Why I’m Leaving the Evangelical Church

Poster by Scott Erickson

In November of 2016, Donald Trump was elected the next President of the United States. This did not surprise me. Having lived for most of my life in the American West — Colorado, Oregon, Utah — and growing up in a predominantly conservative Christian family, I was used to the type of folks who resided in smaller rural areas of the country. I was familiar with the “real” America that existed outside the urban islands inhabited by the coastal “elites.” I lived in the supposedly liberal city of Portland, Oregon for a couple years, but I now live in Salt Lake City, Utah, a very red state filled with smiling Mormons. So, I was not shocked when the news broke in November.

What did shock me in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, however, was the news that 81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump. In effect, my people. Perhaps I shouldn’t say shocked. Pained is a better word for the emotion I felt.

“Are you okay?” my pastor asked me the next Sunday, the torment in my soul apparently visible to the outside world.

When I told him, no, I was not, he asked why.

“81% white of Evangelicals voted for Trump,” I said. “I’m not sure I have a place in this group anymore.”

In some ways, it was the final nail in the coffin of my “Evangelical” membership. I had found the culture wars, the rise of the Religious Right and The Evangelical-Political Complex of my people tiring, but not altogether troubling. Now however, I have come to see the conservative Evangelical church in America as a threat to what it ironically fears those more “liberal” Christians are in danger of, i.e., distorting and selecting portions of scripture and disregarding others. And it is this inconsistency and hypocrisy that has forced me to consider leaving the American Evangelical Church.

The term “Evangelical” is of course a broad, very unspecific term, containing a plethora of beliefs and political spectrums. It’s what my friend Neisha calls a “plastic” word. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The specific theology of each Evangelical Church can differ on many things though, and the churches considered Evangelical stretch from the Southern Baptist’s to non-denominational, charismatic, and reformed churches.

However, since the election of 45, and some years before, I have personally talked and met with multiple people who have either left the Evangelical Church or are currently leaving because they can no longer accept the more staunch, black and white theology it professes — specifically with regards to the role of women in the church and the affirmation of LGBTQ individuals. While on the surface, many of these churches sport tattoos, rock music, and a trendy hipster exterior, underneath this flashy veneer often lies the same foundation of conservative fundamentalism. There are many prominent former Evangelical leaders, pastors, and writers, who have more or less been blacklisted by the Evangelical community for daring to question certain beliefs. From Jen Hatmaker (whose books were pulled off Christian bookstores after her LGBTQ affirming stance[1]), to Rob Bell (exiled for questioning the idea of hell) and Brian McLaren. These people were all more or less shown the door when they dared to question issues that, even by the standard of many Evangelical Christians were not even considered salvific, but peripheral. Still, a line in the sand was drawn. McLaren’s latest book is called The Great Spiritual Migration and in it he explores some of this shifting landscape in American church culture — how it includes everyone from the oft-blamed millenials to working pastors and priests (McLaren, perhaps more than anyone else, has a pulse on where the American church is headed).

Many conservative Evangelicals see this line-in-the-sand as a last stand against the secularism eroding away America. They see themselves as the last guardians of scripture in a world of liberals that would be too happy to bend the Word of God to justify same-sex marriage and growing multi-cultural tolerance. While the theological splits often come down to LGBTQ affirmation or the question of women in leadership, the real issue is with interpretation of scripture. And so churches, as almost any organization has the right and necessity to do, come up with a list of values, goals, and vision for their church. This is to be expected and I have no problem with it.

I find it troubling though, how a large majority of White American Christians, most of them Evangelical, can take a hardline “Biblical” stance on gay marriage, women in leadership, abortion, etc., and yet overlook concern for the poor, the death penalty, and the ego-mania and misogyny of Donald Trump (whose favorite book of the bible is “Two Corinthians”). I find it troubling how these Christians can give a pass to the very anti-Biblical notion of American nationalism rooted in white supremacy and genocide, how they can ignore the harmful effects of gentrification and neo-liberalism. When a political reform of healthcare benefits the rich and not the poor, when sexual sin is deemed a greater sin than of greed, pride, power, and money. Because at what point is my staying in such an organization an act of complicity with injustice?

I’m not saying these same inconsistencies and problems are true for everyone or every Evangelical church. A lot of American Evangelical Churches are doing wonderful, things and are filled with folks living out a life of generosity, humility, love, and service. Just recently, the Southern Baptist Convention, voted to condemn any alt-right white supremacy outright.[2] More actions like this are needed.

This means I will be leaving the church I helped start 6 years ago. I will be leaving, I hope, on good terms. I only include reference to my leaving to show you that I’ve really tried to make it work, but now it just feels like I need a break.

My point is not to point fingers at the Evangelical church as a whole, but to call for reflection. Because when the ideals of brotherly love, grace, and mercy are traded in for the gods of power, theological dogma, and nationalism, I feel like I can no longer recognize the faith I grew up with.

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/october/lifeway-stops-selling-jen-hatmaker-books-lgbt-beliefs-chris.html

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-southern-baptist-convention-alt-right-white-supremacy/530244/

  1. Addendum to “Why I’m Leaving the Evangelical Church.” Edit. More Thoughts.

This will be short, but necessary. A few weeks ago I wrote an article titled: “Why I’m Leaving the Evangelical Church.” I do not disagree with anything I wrote in there. BUT, I do think it’s hard to write about a whole group of people and not devolve into “labelling” or be accused of it. I am still wrestling wth many of these issues, no answers or claim to self-righteousness here — if I ever do that, well, I hope I never do. While I believe there are a variety of issues that need to be called out, and fiercely, in the Evangelical church, I am incredibly grateful and impressed for the way The Church as a whole has really stepped up in condemning the recent events in Charlottsville and DT’s reaction, or lack of. We still need more. I believe there is a lot of silent complicity in our pews. However, I, as a good postmodernist, know how silly and trite and simplistic it is to put boxes and labels around people or organizations. We protestants do love to make up a bunch of different denominations, including the catch-all denominations of “non-denomination” and “Evangelical.” It does make it challenging to write about. Maybe I will become full on Catholic. Isn’t it all the same? So, once again, to reiterate, reflection and conversation is what I’m aiming for, even if I can get a bit “political” and agitated at times.

I am pretty much done with a lot of church these days, but also, maybe just need a break.

I changed the wording on some of the article, like the ending. Because I think there’s one thing all writing should attempt, clarity.

Anyways, thoughts. All the thoughts. But I’ll cut it here.