In my last write-up I talked about my experience growing up in what is essentially the cultish-vein of Christianity: Evangelicalism.

There's no possible way to unpack all of these experiences in one post, even one that's over 2000 words long. So as we move forward I'll be sharing more about my experiences within fundamentalism. Today I want to talk a bit about politics.

When it comes to politics, Evangelical churches are exclusively conservative. To date I have never seen a church, Pastor, leader, or congregant be openly leftist and still be welcomed within the Evangelical movement unless they eventually agreed to change their position, or keep their political leanings to themselves. While some churches are more overt about their disapproval of “liberal” politics than others (shunning, preaching politics from the pulpit, endorsing exclusively right-leaning charities, etc.), they all are defined by their marriage to the Republican party. “The Religious-Right” is a term they embrace, despite its roots in segregation and white supremacy.

As a result, like almost every other child that grew up in Evangelicalism, I started my life extremely conservative. The problem was that I had no idea that I was a conservative. In fact, outside of academic debates around the dinner table (my parents are both poli-sci majors), politics was of little interest to me.

I defined myself as “Apolitical” up until very recently, as a result. In my mind politics were like sports. You could follow it, if you wanted to, and you could even play if you had the talent or the inclination. But they were a hassle for me, and I didn't enjoy conflict. So just like I ignored sports, I also ignored politics. I got very annoyed at people that insisted on talking about it all the time, though occasionally I would engage in an “academic” conversation on the matter.

For fun, of course.

I didn't understand why some people (namely women, POC, and LGBTQ+) would get so angry about it. I saw them as immature rabble-rousers that just wanted to stir up discord and create division.

This fit very neatly into my Evangelical upbringing, which taught me that what mattered above all else was “unity.” Disagreements were fine, but at the end of the day we should be “one body” (which is Evangelical speak for “conform and don't rock the boat”).

It never occurred to me that these people were angry not at me personally, but at the institution I belonged to which oppressed them. They were angry that a boot was crushing their neck, and the person stepping on them was saying “I don't care how this affects you.”

So what changed my mind? How did I become a “liberal” (as my old church would say), and a “commie” (as conservatives would say), and a “progressive” (as I would say)?

It all started with The West Wing.

Depending on how far left you lean, you may take issue with WW for its often neo-liberal stances, trivialization of race, and outright dismissal of any political position left of Bill Clinton. But this isn't really about WW as a political treatise; rather its about how WW helped me to break free of a toxic political stance.

Bear with me, please.

I started watching WW with my wife around 2010-11. It was a show we both enjoyed (rare in our home) that was entertaining, smart, and inspirational. To this day it remains a staple in our home for its quippy one-liners, hilarious situations, and often poignant observations about politics and the disconnect between Politicians and the citizens they represent. I've probably seen it all the way through at least 8 times (though I won't lie, we've started skipping the last season... blegh). And for someone that described themselves as “Apolitical,” watching WW was a significant step for me.

Art is a tricky, insidious thing. While a logical argument or a presentation of scientific data may never sway the heart or mind of an entrenched person, art has ways of weaving around that person's resistance and cutting right to the heart of the issue. Art is powerful in that it can single-handedly change a person's mind, often without them realizing that its happened. This is because our brains are wired for narrative, not facts. Narrative is what cuts through our defense mechanisms and logical bullshit.

As anyone who has ever seriously examined the “apolitical” stance can attest, it really is just a bunch of bullshit reasons to justify the fact that you don't want to engage politically. It's the height of privilege, in that only those who never have to worry about the ramifications of political policy can hold it without penalty. And it's almost always fueled by fear.

My fear had very much to do with losing my support system. I instinctively knew that being political in the way I wanted would lead to my ostracization from my religious and social community, unless I was willing to embrace the Republican platform. I wasn't, so I chose to take the more socially acceptable term “Apolitical.” I also had a deep distrust of government that was ingrained in me by my religious community.

But The West Wing gave me an alternative vision of government. Toby, one of the President's chief advisors, says it best when discussing the term “big government.”

Bartlet: What's on your mind? Toby: “The era of big government is over.” Bartlet: You want to cut the line? Toby: I want to change the sentiment. [pause] We're running away from ourselves and I know we can score points that way, I was a principal architect of that campaign strategy right along with you, Josh... But we're here now, tomorrow night we do an immense thing; we have to say what we feel: that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together... and where no one gets left behind. No one...gets left behind. An instrument of good.

The delivery of this speech by Richard Schiff is powerful, and I remember hearing this for the first time and thinking “...Is it actually possible for the government to do something good? For politics to make the world a better place?” That question haunted me for years to come. It set up everything that followed. While small, this one question began the disassembly of a toxic belief system which told me I had to believe in a Christian Theocracy or nothing at all.

I won't spend anymore space here talking about all the ways that WW has informed or inspired my politics, other than to say that Aaron Sorkin's aspirational, optimistic outlook on politics has been a net positive for me, despite the misgivings I've developed about some of the finer details of WW recently.

And this, I suppose, leads to my main point: progressivism is a spectrum. It is not a binary state that you either are, or aren't.

The most common critique of the left is that we eat our young. As uncomfortable as the following analogy may be, I believe it to be true having been on both sides of the political spectrum: we share much in common with right-wingers when it comes to matters of enforcing ideological purity.

I've seen leftists eviscerate allies because they didn't subscribe to their particular vision for a better world, or because they disagreed on how to get there. I've watched as feminists, anarchists, democratic socialists, communists, and liberals engaged in pettiness, vendettas, mob-mentality, unscientific assertions, and ostracization over issues where genuine disagreement and debate should have been embraced and encouraged, but were instead treated as a litmus test for whether someone was “in,” or “out.”

Say what you will about conservatives, but they know how to form a united bloc that moves in lockstep. Its why they've been so effective for so long. It's really the only thing animating the corpse at this stage. While they are awful at self-reflection and criticism of the group as a whole, they are extremely effective at moving together as a unit.

Am I saying that leftists and right-wingers are the same? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, despite our disagreements, leftists agree that humans deserve dignity, respect, freedom, and the chance for happiness. Right-wingers believe that authority trumps autonomy, that pluralism is bad, and that governance is an inherently corrupt exercise. These are irreconcilable differences, and there is really no way to equate the two movements, as some people have naively tried to do with horseshoe theory. Nevertheless, we share the tendency of right-wingers to insist on uniformity in belief, sometimes going as far as attacking our allies to enforce uniform belief and behavior.

Earlier today I had an exchange with a self-identifying “feminist” on Twitter. She was an exvangelical, like me, who was talking about how “side boob” is neither inherently sexual, nor should it be taboo and grounds for disqualification of leadership if a woman's outfit displays side-boob. If this sounds like an absurd conversation to have, I'll assume you've never been entrenched in an Evangelical church before. Someday I'll have to talk about some of the crap taught to me about “sexual purity.”

A commenter replied to this tweet with “No part of the human body is inherently sexual.” Out of a sense of curiosity, I replied “Genitals?” I legitimately wanted to hear the argument for this, and was confused how this would play out given the context of the original tweet. This is a conversation I've never had before (I've only been a progressive for 2-3 years). How on earth do you live in a world where someone can simply expose their genitals whenever they wish? What about issues of consent? What about triggers for sexual abuse survivors? It didn't seem very progressive to me.

The OP responded with a very curt reply. I can't see it, because I have them blocked. But it was something to the effect of “not even this.” I got even more specific, and continued to use question marks to show that I was genuinely trying to understand and not pick a fight. I essentially asked the questions above.

The OP quote tweeted me, essentially making me an example to her followers, and woke-shamed me for not understanding that “I never said you should wear clothing that exposes your genitals, obviously. That would create problems of consent. But some people never use their genitals sexually and have no desire to, and genitals have other purposes such as disposing of bodily waste.”

The comments, predictably, were a chorus of “get em girl!” and “you tell em!”, complete with gifs of (predominantly) black women making check marks with their fingers, snapping, and mouthing “ohhhhhhh shit”. When I confronted the OP on why they quote tweeted me, they said they “wanted to let their followers know how they felt about the subject.” They denied it was a “call out,” and minimized how it had made me feel. They told me I would know if I was being called out because they use a lot of swear words when they're upset. At no point did they apologize.

They gaslit me.

They are now blocked and I will (hopefully) never have to interact with them ever again.

What started as a misunderstanding on what was effectively two separate conversations (1, are genitals inherently sexual, and 2, should people be able to display genitals whenever they want as an extension of sexual liberation), and a request for clarification from another progressive (me), became a concerted effort to shame someone that's “not as woke as we are.” From there it devolved into a pile-on thread, not because I was wrong, but because the “leader” had quote-tweeted me (which in the Twitter world is the social cue for “this person fucked up, let's cyberbully them”).

I'm honestly not all that upset about it, actually. It sucks, but I've been treated worse and in the grand scheme of things their follower count didn't allow for much damage to be done to me before I blocked them.

But it was a reminder that, in the world of progressive politics, our worst interactions are often with ourselves. Ironically, I agree with them, now that I understand their position. I have asexual friends that are impacted by the belief that genitals are inherently sexual, and I can understand the topic with far more nuance now. It's too bad that, in the process, this person chose to attack me over what I didn't yet know, rather than putting in the work to educate me so that I could understand without injury.

It is not possible for a person to become “woke” overnight on every issue. It is not possible for a person to understand the nuance of every argument before they've researched the topic or been introduced to the conversation. And the fact that we expect every person we meet to know everything we do without putting in the work to educate them about the topic is damaging and wrong.

When we shame our allies like this, we weaken our platform. We weaken our ability to effect real, tangible change. Without our allies, we have nothing. The power of leftism is that we believe we are collectively stronger than we are divided. We believe amazing things can happen when a group of people unite behind a common purpose. We believe that a better world is possible, and that the only thing keeping us from it is our will to act cooperatively with one another.

To be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn't call out bad behavior by allies. We absolutely must. It's one of the most important things that separates us from right-wingers. But punishing genuine inquiry, or differences of opinion, or expecting someone to be just as progressive as you are, doesn't lead to a better world. It only leads to more pain from someone that was vulnerable enough to open up to you about how they think and how they feel. It divides us needlessly, and it leads to rigidity in thinking, which is antithetical to progressive thought.

In short: it's a betrayal of the very ideals you claim to hold.

#exvangelical #politics #leftism

The Sunday after I was born, my parents took me to church. I was dedicated to God, I was raised in the basement nursery, and as I grew I worked my way through the various, developmentally appropriate, stages and programs that every good Evangelical went through. My family attended various churches throughout the years, ranging in denominations from Church of God to full-blown Pentecostal. If those names don't mean anything to you, don't worry. Their exact definitions aren't really important for today's story.

What is important is that one of the earliest churches I attended devolved into a full-blown cult.

It started with a Senior Pastor having an affair. I don't know the full details, but someone found out. They blackmailed the Pastor. Suddenly, one morning from the pulpit, the blackmailer was brought up to the stage and introduced to the congregation as the newest member of the church's leadership (I was 5, so I don't remember if they were called Elders, Deacons, or just “Brother Jones”/“Sister Margie”). They were “going to be helping” with the services from now on.

What followed was a series of bizarre, downward-spiraling choices that plunged the church into chaos and madness.

The Pastor was forced out early in the process. His affair became public, as they almost always do. He and his family left the church, and the neighboring parsonage, unceremoniously. They went on to become a “Touring Gospel Group,” which is Evangelical-speak for: they were homeless and had become migrant workers, traveling and living in an RV they couldn't afford while the Pastor plumbed his church network connections to shill for spare change so they could come and “bless churches across the United States with the message of Christ” (and sell homebrew CDs and T-Shirts, of course).

Meanwhile, the new church “leadership” began holding church services in the dark. I don't mean mood-lighting either, I mean pitch black.

People would stand up in the middle of service and run around the sanctuary, supposedly at the prompting of “The Holy Spirit.”

They began engaging in “laughing services,” where supposedly the Holy Spirit would come upon people and cause them to laugh uncontrollably. This would go on for hours, and was definitely not a case of induced mass-hysteria.

This was around the time that my family went “fuck this” and got the hell out of kool-aid-ville. We heard later that they started forbidding people to speak to family or friends that weren't part of their “church.”

My father disconnected from church for nearly 10 years after this. I don't blame him. I'm in a similar place myself. He was extremely disillusioned with the whole institution of church. It had failed him on every conceivable level.

But church was important to my mom, so she continued to take my brother and I to various churches around town. We church-hopped for a long time before we finally landed at a new “home church.” Interestingly, most of the people in attendance were refugees from the cult church I mentioned above. The church slogan was “A safe place to grow.” I felt very welcome and at home with them. We had a common cause and a common origin story. There was a deep sense of solidarity.

I spent 10 years in that particular church starting at the age of 10 or 11. For the most part, my memories of that time are positive. But, as is a theme for most Exvangelicals, things eventually soured.

Sometime around 2004 the Pastor got a “vision from God” to sell the church building and build a new one on a plot of land just south of town. The vision, of course, told him that he would have great success and that the church would “grow” tremendously (i.e. more people would attend).

I've noticed that Pastors rarely get prophetic visions of personal failure, or visions of “you'll have minor to moderate success.” Interesting, that.

In any event, the old church building was sold and we started renting space from the local High School to host our services while the new building was built. During this time the Pastor “prophesied” that we would finish within 1 year. The entire construction crew, aside from a few contractors hired for some key jobs like foundation laying and well-digging, were volunteers. The Pastor made impassioned pleas to the congregation to come and “serve on the construction team.”

The congregation wasn't there for it. Construction ended up taking closer to 2.5 years, after which everyone was exhausted from having to set up and tear down the sound equipment before and after service on Sundays, to say nothing of the manual labor the few on the construction team actually put in. We never did get an answer on whether God had gotten the time frame wrong or whether the Pastor had just made it up.

The church did grow though. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the worship services, something the Pastor's son was incredibly talented at. If you've never been to a charismatic church service, it's hard to explain what it's like. Things are incredibly emotional and expressive, and for the most part I'd say these services were the healthiest part of my attending this church, as they gave me a sense of inner-peace that sustained me through some very difficult personal crises. People, in general, loved the worship at the church, and kept coming back for it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, however, I had my own personal “vision” from God on where he wanted my life to go. The Pastor was placing heavy emphasis in his sermons on “finding God's calling for your life.” This couldn't be something as simple or mundane as being an office worker. Oh no. “God's Calling” was almost always something sexy like being a missionary, pastor, or part of the worship team rotation. It always involved doing something specifically for the Pastor or his church.

I believed after sitting in many worship services and engaging in a lot of prayer and meditation that God was calling me to be a Pastor.

In my innocence I went to the Senior Pastor and told him about this. I was 17. I told him that I was going to withdraw my application to college and asked him to start training me to be a Pastor like he had with his own sons. In my mind it should have been extremely straight-forward. After all, hadn't he preached that God's word could not be countermanded by anyone, and that we should follow the word of God no matter what? And hadn't he spent the past 5 years training all 3 of his sons to be Pastors in various capacities? Obviously the next thing to happen would be him training me to become a Pastor.

He apparently didn't see things that way.

He visibly panicked and told me that, with my grades, I shouldn't throw away an education (probably the truest thing he ever said), but that if I wanted to become a Pastor he would accept me after I completed my degree at a local Christian College. At the time he was requiring his sons to get degrees if they wanted to be on staff, so this seemed fair to me.

None of them lasted longer than a year in school. He made them staff anyway.

4 years and $40,000 later, when I tried to hold him to his word, the Pastor claimed he had no recollection of this conversation but that he would “let me know” if an opportunity came up. He never did, though it didn't stop him from adding someone with no college education, experience, or character to the staff as “Men's Pastor” a month later.

By this point I was married, and my wife and I ended up leaving the church shortly after, and my attempts to reconnect with the Pastor/Staff professionally over the years have been met with silence and indifference (although the Pastor's wife did recently sign us up for email spam for her real estate business and try to sell us a house, even though we expressed zero interest in buying from her or anyone else).

Within the last few years it came out that one of the Elders was having an affair with the wife of the other Elder, his best friend. The two couples divorced, and the two cheaters got married and moved to Florida.

Full circle.

There's a million other stories I could tell, and likely will someday, but for the sake of brevity I'll state my point: there is no functional difference between the first church I discussed and the second.

While the first example was far more dramatic, the underlying principles, the way they got there, is exactly the same. Ultimate authority is placed in the word of God. This authority is subtly shifted away from a personal, lived experience of God to a man (it's always a man) in authority, who is given titles such as “Prophet,” “Pastor,” “Reverend,” or “Apostle.” This man becomes the source of authority, because only he can accurately divine what God is saying. God chose him, after all.

Some Evangelical churches try to deflect from this reality by saying “We just do what the Bible tells us to,” but this is a lie. It is impossible to “read the Bible literally.” You will always bring your own biases and interpretive lenses with you to anything you read. The question is how honest will you be about this, and where did you get these interpretive lenses from?

After graduation I tried to bring what I had learned in Bible College back to the churches I attended, for free, because I felt that people were misrepresenting scripture and that an education on how the Bible was created and how it should be read (yes, I roll my eyes at this too now) shouldn't cost someone $40,000.

I spent years trying to let people know “You aren't doing what the Bible says,” only to be met with indifference. I offered classes to the church free of charge. I talked with people one on one. I spoke with the Pastors about my concerns regarding their congregation, and in some cases people that were serving in leadership positions.

No one was the least bit concerned about what the book actually said, or whether their hermeneutic was logically consistent. This is because it was never about the written text to them, but about the Pastor's interpretation of the text. If the Pastor didn't preach on it, then it wasn't worth knowing. If there was a debate or question about something in scripture, they would say “Bring it to the Pastor, he'll tell us what to do.”

This is how cults form: When one man, or a small handful of people, are given license to dictate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of an entire group. When their word is beyond critique, and when challenging them leads to ostracizing, hostility, and shaming/shunning.

When one person can tell you “don't speak to your family, they don't believe like we do,” and you seriously consider it.

This is how cults form.

The fact of the matter is that every Evangelical Church in America is either a socially-sanctioned cult, or a few short steps away from being one. Even the “good” ECs are one bad decision away from causing irreparable harm to their congregation. The power structure of their denomination will always pose a danger to those beneath the anointed leader, and without this power structure the tenets of their faith fall apart under the weight of scrutiny, which threatens both the wealth and power of the anointed leader. This is a classic conflict-of-interest, where the interests and well-being of the Pastor are in direct conflict with those of his congregants.

Is it any wonder this keeps happening?

All told I spent nearly 30 years of my life in Evangelical Churches. I met some genuinely wonderful people who really were trying to make the world a better place. A few them I still count as among my closest friends. But my overall experience with ECs is that, from top to bottom, they are dangerous. Not always intentionally, but dangerous nonetheless.

I write about this because America still sees Evangelicalism as “wholesome,” “American,” and “family-friendly.” Bad experiences are downplayed, shushed, and gaslit away.

But my voice will not be silenced. Like my fellow Exvangelicals, I have a story. I have perspective. I've been behind the literal and figurative curtain, and I know what goes on in “God's house” after everyone leaves on Sunday.

For every good story you hear, there is an untold tragedy and horror story. For every person that finds meaning, another's life is torn to shreds. At some point you have to start weighing the scales and asking whether an institution is actually doing more harm than good.

I'm done asking. I have my answer. You should too.

#religion #exvangelical