Exvangelicals and the limits of evangelical empathy
If there's one thing growing up evangelical taught me, it's to be suspicious of kindness from Christians. God may, theoretically, love us unconditionally. (Some restrictions apply). But Christian kindness, particularly from the most conversion-focused Christians, tends to come with goals, expectations and conditions that objectify those receiving the kindness. That is, conversion-focused Christians such as evangelicals treat other human beings as means to an end, rather than as morally autonomous equals. It's not always nearly so obvious as requiring that people listen to "the gospel" before receiving aid from a Christian foodbank or homeless shelter, but in some ways, the less obvious manipulation tactics may be all the more insidious.
In the interdenominational evangelical Christian school I graduated from, I learned about "friendship evangelism" — making friends with non-Christians with the goal of building up the kind of rapport that might allow you to convert them. That practice felt sleazy to me even then. But whether through friendship or other means, parents, pastors, chapel speakers at school and teachers all reinforced the belief that we Christians were all "called" to engage in "witnessing," that is, evangelizing, in order to "lead people to Christ." The pressure to witness caused me a good deal of stress as an empathic introvert, but I nonetheless did it on occasion, even handing out tracts in downtown Indianapolis with my senior Bible teacher and other students as a way of fulfilling one of the class's requirements. It took decades of processing before I could articulate that one of the things that most bothered me about proselytizing — besides the clearly abusive belief that God will torture those who don't "accept Jesus into their hearts" forever in Hell — is that this imperative to proselytize inevitably entails objectifying the people targeted for conversion.
The fact that some evangelicals explicitly teach that empathy is a "sin" generated some buzz recently. While I don't recall ever being taught that exactly, the evangelicalism I grew up in was explicitly anti-pluralist. We had the absolute capital-T "Truth," and anyone who deviated from that was "lost." Meanwhile, while we were taught that God loved us enough to die for us so that we could spend eternity worshiping him in Heaven, we also received the countervailing message that on our own we were inherently worthless and every bit as deserving of eternal conscious torment as "the unsaved." I later recognized these teachings as a kind of "negging," the manipulation technique used by abusive male "pickup artists" to make women dependent on them by undercutting their self-esteem. Indeed, I'm not the only person to point out that the kind of Christianity I grew up in is characterized by the dynamics of abusive relationships. It stands to reason that those who are capable of internalizing all this without facing constant, serious qualms will naturally have their capacity for empathy atrophy, if they ever had much capacity for empathy in the first place.
And this will bring me to the ongoing evangelical moral panic over exvangelicals, those who have left the conservative, mostly white evangelical Protestantism we grew up with for more humane religion or spirituality, or, as in my case, for no religion at all. As Blake Chastain, a podcaster and the creator of the popular #exvangelical hashtag, recently noted, anecdotal experience in online exvangelical communities strongly suggests that those who leave the faith are, more often than not, precisely those who took it the most seriously. In many cases, we tried to push for positive change from inside but eventually realized that was a dead end.
Evangelicals are, as a rule, unwilling to face those facts. Most evangelical responses to exvangelicals are petty and dismissive, invoking simplistic tropes that paint us as intellectually unserious, "angry," and motivated primarily by all that sweet, sweet "sexual sin." As Chastain points out, on a recent episode of Mike Cosper's "The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill" podcast, a Baylor University professor falsely claimed that exvangelicals point to marginal experiences rather than systemic issues. He also asserted that exvangelicals discussing our concerns in public "corrupts" our processing. Of course, that is precisely the sort of attitude that allows all kinds of abuse to proliferate in evangelical communities and institutions. Survivors coming forward and then finding and supporting each other is how rot gets exposed.
What I want to emphasize in this piece, however, is that even when evangelicals try to address their concerns about exvies in a kinder, more fair-minded way, they fail. Their failure is both one of empathy and one of theology, although which begat which in any given individual is a chicken and egg question. Really listening becomes impossible when one is already deeply emotionally invested in being correct about "the Truth," and that evangelicals are responding to exvangelicals at all is a sign that they feel threatened by our presence.
Believing that everyone else should believe exactly the same things you do about God is exhausting. It tends to result in hyper-vigilance, which is maintained by cultivating unhealthy habits of mind. "The heart is deceitful above all things," evangelicals tell themselves, quoting Jeremiah. And from the New Testament: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight." "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." "Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." These are the verses, memorized early and emphasized ad nauseam, that run through evangelicals' heads when they're confronted with the "temptation" to trust their doubts or open themselves up to the possibility that someone who rejects their beliefs might be worth listening to.
This internalized social disciplinary mechanism is in play when evangelicals consider exvangelicals, along with that objectifying imperative to attempt to convince anyone and everyone to become their sort of Christian. And so, when Pastor Ed Stetzer, a Wheaton College professor and until recently an editor for the prominent evangelical magazine Christianity Today, attempts to play "good cop" in the evangelical discussion of exvangelicals, he still falls short of understanding exvangelicals in something like our own terms, and his prose is rife with rhetoric that objectifies and renders exvangelicals as means to an end.
Stetzer's piece is centered around a discussion of Joshua Harris, a recently minted exvangelical who became an evangelical celebrity when he published what became the quintessential purity culture manifesto, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in 1997. Stetzer expresses personal warm feelings for Harris as well as regret that he's left the faith, romanticizing Harris's days as "the evangelical boy wonder." And frankly, this is already tone-deaf. Most exvies were not evangelical celebrities, and most of us were harmed in one way or another by the purity culture that Harris has only repudiated within the last few years. To be sure, Stetzer notes that Harris canceled a planned $275 course on deconstructing one's faith after widespread criticism from the exvangelical community, but nowhere does Stetzer consider exvangelical criticisms of purity culture, nor does he discuss why Harris himself came to reject it.
When it comes to the specifics of why people leave evangelicalism, Stetzer prefers to focus on Bart Campolo, the humanist son of progressive evangelical Tony Campolo, because Bart "made it clear that he embraced a Christian community, but not the Christian faith." This hints at the common trope that exvangelicals "were never really saved in the first place," and it is a useful launching point for Stetzer to ask parents whether they are properly "discipling"—the word I would use is "indoctrinating"—their children. But as Chastain so powerfully noted in his commentary linked above, it's far more common for exvangelicals to have been very serious, deeply convinced believers than to have simply participated in church without really having internalized or accepted the beliefs. Stetzer apparently doesn't want to face that.
Bart Campolo's story is also useful to Stetzer in another way, one that clearly illustrates the dynamic of treating people as means to an end. According to Stetzer, "Ironically and importantly, Bart stresses that what led him to identify as a Christian was the love that he saw between the members of the youth group he attended." Stetzer then points out how "love" can be used to win converts. "Loving people is often the first step in seeing them understand and accept the gospel. It can't end there, but even Bart acknowledged that it started there."
I've noticed that sometimes even mainline pastors think this way. Take the case of Ryan Burge, who has the odd distinction of being both a Baptist pastor and a sociology professor, who really showed his cards this summer by arguing that churches should hold get-togethers with free food precisely in order to get people to come to, and stay in, church. "I am a big believer that people come to church for the wrong reasons but they stay for the right reasons, and churches should do a better job giving them a lot of wrong reasons to come, whether it be free food or fellowship or whatever it is," says Burge. The context of his statement indicates he is recommending this condescending, manipulative behavior for what he thinks is people's own good, since the pandemic has many of us desperate for connection "and churches already have that built in." But behind these "good intentions" are clear assumptions of Christian normativity and supremacy, and a paternalistic failure to view as morally autonomous agents those who might prefer to find connection outside of churches.
As for Stetzer, after asserting that he believes Harris "to be earnest," he calls for evangelical self-reflection, which he says "should lead us to be more like Christ and less like our worst instincts." Stetzer then wraps up his comments with what amounts to an endorsement of the objectifying practice of friendship evangelism. "Honestly, many will face that moment when a family member or friend leaves the faith. For me, I plan to stay in relationship, continue to be a friend or family member, stay close to Jesus in my own life, and (yes) share the good news if and when it is appropriate."
At the end of the day, evangelicalism is a type of Christian fundamentalism. And any fundamentalist faith is a type of totalizing ideology, and thus destructive of human empathy and dangerous for democracy. The expectation of total submission to the strictures of the faith makes empathy for outsiders — and especially for former insiders — a threatening thing, and anything that a fundamentalist community insists is "the will of God" is something on which its members will brook no compromise in the political arena.
Because this is the type of fear-based faith that evangelicals espouse, they simply cannot truly listen to exvangelicals, no matter how warm and civil they may try to be in discussing us. Letting us speak for ourselves puts their narrow understanding of reality at risk. It is this totalizing aspect of evangelicalism that, I suspect, most of us exvies object to above all, since, after all, it is the root of all kinds of authoritarian evils. In the North American context, this authoritarian rigidity serves to uphold white supremacist patriarchy. It is also, of course, precisely the one thing evangelicals can't give up while remaining evangelicals.
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