deconstructing American Evangelical Christianity
September 20, 2018 11:12 AM   Subscribe

The Struggle For A New American Gospel
This past May, I found myself in the packed auditorium of the First United Methodist church in downtown Austin, listening to Bible stories. The creak of the wooden pews and the smell of hymnals summoned a rush of memory. Yet the hundreds of mostly young, tattooed people surrounding me suggested I’d ventured far from the old religion. The tales about Elijah, Mary, and the Roman centurion that evening were part of a live recording of The Liturgists, one of the country’s most popular podcasts on spirituality, with over four million listeners per month. Its creators, Michael Gungor and Mike McHargue, both based in Los Angeles, are former evangelical Christians who had abandoned their faith only to return via the teachings of mystics, and by embracing science, philosophy, and social justice. While they insist their show isn’t explicitly Christian, McHargue told me, “Helping Christians deal with feelings of marginalization, oppression, and alienation is part of our work.” It explains how I came to find them, and why I still felt itchy in the pew. For me, to sit in a church is to be vulnerable, and no passage of time could stop that.

‘This Is Not of God’: When Anti-Trump Evangelicals Confront Their Brethren, NYTimes
There’s a ‘red evangelicalism and a blue evangelicalism’: Faith leaders gather to discuss their common future, WaPo
The False Moral Superiority of Progressive Evangelicals In The Age Of Trump, National Review
The Problem With Us Evangelicals Is We’re Just Too Liberal
What Does It Mean To Be Evangelical?
The Progressive Evangelicals That Franklin Graham Calls ‘Godless’
Millenial Evangelicals DIverge From Their Parent's Beliefs, Eliza Griswold, New Yorker - "Among younger Christians like Colón-Laboy, it isn’t unusual to oppose abortion but support immigration rights. Many are no longer willing to ally themselves categorically with either the right or the left. Instead, they challenge all kinds of ideas of identity and tribe. The separation of families at the border, however, coalesced young Christians around a new level of outrage."

‘Progressive Evangelical’ is a Not-Quite-Right Name for a Not-Quite-Left Thing, Fred Clark, Slacktivist

Christians Turn To Podcasts To Say Things They Can't Say In Church, Michel Martin, NPR

"The Liturgists are a global community working to subvert the barriers our society builds around religion, race, gender, ability, and sexuality. Our work is centered around compelling discussion, non-judgmental community, and thoughtful, evocative art."

Michael Gungor (aka Vishnu Dass): twitter, site
Why Are People So Upset About What Michael Gungor Said? (2014)
Atonement tweet sparks blood feud on social media
The Evolving Faith of Lisa Gungor

"Science" Mike McHargue: site, twitter,
Tim Keller, Science Mike, and How We Believe
‘Science Mike’ McHargue: ‘Christians aren’t stupid, and atheists aren’t evil"
The profound awakening of podcaster Science Mike

William Matthews: site, twitter,
Worship leader and recording artist William Matthews says that there is a concerted effort to keep people of color from voting in North Carolina. But working alongside non-profit organization Color of Change, he refuses to watch the plan succeed.

Hillary L. McBride: site, twitter
Why You Shouldn't Hate Your Body, Even If John Piper Tells You To
Advice columns from Feminist Current
The Belief You Didn’t Know That’s Fueling Your Body Shame

Why I Stopped Listening to @TheLiturgists Podcast (and why I hope I can listen again sometime soon)
posted by the man of twists and turns (33 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

How To Deconstruct Your Faith Without Losing It
The Post-Evangelical Christian
Post-Evangelicals And Why We Can't Just Get Over It
It's Okay To Deconstruct Your Faith - "This time, deconstructing faith means deconstructing everything, because in America, faith is mixed with empire, whether we want to admit or not. "
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:26 AM on September 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

wow, great post, I'm done working for the day.
posted by skewed at 11:46 AM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

That National Review about the False Moral Superiority of Progressive Evangelicals is a trip. June 2017 seems like a long time ago, but even then it's completely disingenuous to pretend that Evangelicals held their nose to vote for Trump. Compare their embrace of him with Romney--no there's a close-pin candidate they could get behind but not love. Trump though, where there was coolness during the primary, there is only the warmth and fierce support of a group that realizes they've found someone who will say not only what they want him to say, but say the things they didn't realize they wanted to hear.
posted by skewed at 11:56 AM on September 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

My life henceforth will include a mild but lingering regret that I'll never encounter an occasion to use the wonderful phrase "itchy in the pew".
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:58 AM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

Has any President managed to violate all 10 Commandments while in the White House?
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:12 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

This post is amazing, I can’t wait to dive in. I am sure I will be left wondering, yet again, if will we ever achieve the Separation of Church and Hate.
posted by pjsky at 12:20 PM on September 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

Does any other religion play the role that American Evangelicalism has played in climate-change denial and general undermining of scientific knowledge? Asking for a planet I know.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:25 PM on September 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

"itchy in the pew" is a great phrase. I've felt that literally in small southern churches where they made unfortunate choices in upholstery. And I feel it to this day in other ways. I can't sit still for political speeches, even from the politicos I love, or for stand-up comedy. They remind me too much of sermons, and I've had enough of those for one lifetime.

Over at Facebook, there's a closed discussion group called Exvangelicals. It's been extremely useful for helping me come to terms with my past. Highly recommend it to anyone here who survived the church.

Anyways, what a great set of links. 1 Favorite isn't enough.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 12:30 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm an Austinite and my wife is a former UMC minister...

Trinity UMC is one of the most progressive churches in the country, and an awesome place. Progressive Christians have been around forever, but they don't get as much exposure as the loud-mouthed kinds of Christians. I'm glad the author found such a loving, accepting congregation.
posted by tippiedog at 12:31 PM on September 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

This is a great post! I've been following a lot of these disparate strands, and it's wonderful to see them pulled together here.

I grew up Southern Baptist, though in a church whose congregation had a lot of the professors from the town's Baptist university. It meant that I grew up missing a lot of the culture war strand of Southern Baptist life, and with a more progressive outlook than the label "Southern Baptist" would suggest. I moved away from the denomination as it doubled and tripled down on Republican politics and policies, but still described myself as an evangelical Christian.

Not any more. The fire of Trumpism burned away the last faint traces of that label from me. I held onto it longer than I should have because my childhood church's leaders and teachers nurtured my love of learning in general and science in particular. I also made the mistake of believing that the conservative evangelicals around me actually believed what they were saying about morals and ethics. The more fool, me.
posted by sgranade at 12:39 PM on September 20, 2018 [12 favorites]

I don't know. I think that in any discussion of Christianity and progressive politics needs to have at least some mention of Rev. Barber, who has been a strong leader on poverty, voting rights, and environmental justice.

Anyway, the UMC is my family congregation, and watching them figuratively sit on the pot without committing to a good shit for almost 30 years now has been annoying. (Personal disagreements on theology aside.) I suspect that they're likely vulnerable to the same kind of steeplejacking that happened with the Southern Baptists where a political faction got a majority and started kicking out the minority on issues of doctrine and politics. Even if it were not for those sticky disagreements on theology, the national body's waffling would be a dealbreaker.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

The United Methodist Church is VERY divided over issues related to homosexuals--marriage and allowing gay clergy. The only reason why it hasn't split yet is due to real estate: all property belongs to the denomination, so any congregation that leaves has to give up its property. (I know, how petty). But currently, the conservatives are devising a workaround to this issue so that they can split and keep their property. If that workaround is legal, then I expect the UMC will indeed split. And good riddance to the conservatives!
posted by tippiedog at 12:54 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Did anyone else get as far as the part where group hypnosis led to people freaking out and running for the exits? That is some pretty freaky shit for a Christian church?
posted by kozad at 2:01 PM on September 20, 2018

The weird thing is, not really? I grew up going to Evangelical services and while it was never as overt as "And now we will hypnotize you" they definitely cultivated an environment that encouraged freaky shit. Ever heard some random worshipper start yelling an Old Testament-ass prophetic message from God Himself in the middle of a worship service? I have. It happened a lot, actually, and rarely from the same person twice.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 2:45 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I could kind of understand why evangelicals and my church (at the time) were so gung-ho for Bush. I remember my dad saying he would win because God was on his side. I was baffled when they picked up for Trump, like, dude is a rapist, among many other things. Certainly not of God, you think God would let that turd into heaven, you think Trump ever once in life repented to anyone for anything, let alone Jesus Christ for his multitude of sins, ongong?

I hope these movements gain speed because the disconnect between Christlike values and Conservative Republicans has become an impassable chasm. If the majority of Christians would spare a single thought towards What Would Jesus Do in politics, we might have avoided some of the irrevocable damage Christians have spearheaded in the past several decades.

Jesus was fucking dope, be like that guy.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:09 PM on September 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Duterte insulted God, and is talking like a liberal ivory tower college professor from a fwd:fwd:fwd: email, yet religious leaders in the Philippines are wooed by him.
There is a theology of sovereignty at work here. Duterte and his ways may not be the best, but one only needs to discern God’s higher purposes to find comfort. To go against God’s divine will is futile. To be “ahead of God’s time” is not good.

What this engenders in relation to the War on Drugs is a moral and political position that distances itself from the issue and the victims themselves. The unfortunate reality though is that this theology of sovereignty is married to a theology of justice that exacts vengeance.

For what it’s worth, our study has surfaced the character of God in the minds of people. In Philippine society, God, as the journalist Paolo Affatato has keenly observed, is now the “avenger” who eradicates evil instead of redeeming the sinner.
So there is another example where power makes strange spiritual bedfellows.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:44 PM on September 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

He jumped down off the stage, his own voice cracking. “I believe God loves you,” he said. “And if you don’t believe that, believe that I love you. I truly do.”

He then offered hugs to anyone who needed one, and within seconds, a line of people, mostly women, streamed down to the front like an altar call, weeping and looking for solace.
Am I wrong to feel a little weird/cautious about that? Couldn't he have had all those people, I dunno, turn and hug each other? The ability to get lots of people feeling intensely emotional, and then to make it a physical experience with yourself, is... hmm... maybe a dangerous thing to play with?
posted by clawsoon at 4:08 PM on September 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

So there is another example where power makes strange spiritual bedfellows.

Putin bought off the Russian Orthodox Church by adopting homophobia and anti-feminisim as official policy so they'd turn a blind eye to his kleptocratic corruption.

Similarly, Trump and homophobia and misogyny, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

In the The Progressive Evangelicals That Franklin Graham Calls ‘Godless’ piece, the omissions from the list are unsurprising:

What has always been interesting to me is that for non-conservative evangelicals and Christians, the view of morality is much more broad than the narrow confines of people like Graham. Recently a group of evangelicals came together to publish a document they titled “Reclaiming Jesus.” It outlines six affirmations of what they believe (i.e., theology), which lead them to “the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith.” Not one of those statements of morality have anything to do with who a person has sex with—which Graham now calls private behavior when it comes to Donald Trump. Instead, they include moral statements against:

- Nationalism and racism
- Misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women
- Attacks on refugees, immigrants and people living in poverty
- The practice and pattern of lying
- Autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule
- “America first” as a theological heresy

I mean, good start, but given the history (and current practices) of evangelical Christianity, as a gay man I gotta say "I'll still treat your political machinations and activism as an existential threat, thanks. But bless ya for trying to steer the cult in a less-scary direction. Keep working on it."

And what I mean by that is this: it was one of the political forces that created the very situation described in this recent FPP:

The long run

Funnily enough, Jimmy Carter was more of a real-deal Jesus guy than Reagan ever was.

As a final thought, given that Liberty University features strongly in a bunch of the pieces linked in the FPP, you might enjoy a fellow Christian asking Jerry Falwell if he's ever been in a bathhouse:

Jerry Falwell and Troy Perry debate morality of AIDS (1983)
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:05 PM on September 20, 2018 [7 favorites]

Progressive Evangelicals my Aunt Fanny. What a load of nonsense.

However, the real Christian left is good, and Christian socialists are gooder.

There's no congregation that gets anywhere near either of these terms in existence near me, so I just don't go to church. I'd rather spend my Sundays with my God and my cats than with a bunch of false believers and hatemongers.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:49 PM on September 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

Making it all about myself for a minute, the mere presence of queer and trans people is not some kind of certification for how progressive your church is. They're there for their own faith, not to make you feel better about yours. Anyway, that sentence in the first article really bugged me.
posted by hoyland at 6:22 PM on September 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

I dunno if I'm just really feeling my Episcopal-raised/Quaker-aligned way right now, but there's something that really annoys the hell out of me whenever discussions of the current state of US Christian religion comes up and it's Evangelicals This and Evangelicals That.

It's like the religious version of feminist threads where somehow it ends up becoming All About Men and it's tiresome AF. There is such a rich landscape of Christian theology beyond Evangelicals.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:44 PM on September 20, 2018 [11 favorites]

You'd think progressive Christianity would be my jam as a former Evangelical kid, but nah. I still dig Jesus and even the mystical bits of the Bible but I keep avowedly Christian churches at arm's length. UU (in my church's case, a more atheistic flavor) is as close as I can get comfortably.
posted by emjaybee at 7:37 PM on September 20, 2018

Did anyone else get as far as the part where group hypnosis led to people freaking out and running for the exits? That is some pretty freaky shit for a Christian church?

Nope. Sounds totally normal for the Pentecostal Holiness cult that I grew up in. Except they were missing the speaking in tongues, prophesies, dancing in the spirit and rolling on the floor.
posted by blessedlyndie at 8:34 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've now read most of the links. Thanks for putting this collection together.

The name "McHargue" is perfect for someone who can't even agree with himself about whether he's a Christian or an atheist. Almost too perfect. If this were a novel, I'd roll my eyes at the heavy-handed symbolism.

Speaking of heavy-handed symbolism, his re-conversion story reminds me of that classic piece of Christian sentimentalism, the poem "Footprints". He heard the voice of Jesus say to him, "I was here when you were 8, and I'm here now," and next thing you know he was on a beach. At that point, I was half-expecting Thomas Kinkade to appear.

It sounds like a handful of young Christians have heard the criticism, "You say you're pro-life, so why don't you care about all lives?", and taken it seriously. That can only be a good thing. If someone shows up to protest the ripping apart of families at the border, perhaps it's best to be happy that they're there protesting and not ask them what they think about abortion. Quaker energy helped get slavery abolished, and maybe that God-loves-everybody energy can help make the world a better place in other ways, too. Hopefully they're young enough that God-loves-everybody will really sink in when they think about sexual and gender diversity. Hopefully.
Instead of a bubble, our beliefs should be like a Jenga tower that is built on a solid foundation (that of Jesus Christ and the “essentials” of the Christian faith). - Aaron Ross on Gungor
Lol. Not the best analogy. "Our beliefs should come crashing down at the slightest wrong touch, until we get bored with this game and decide to see if Monopoly is as bad as we remember it."
So the way I approach it is if that was just a brain state, I’m really grateful for it, but if it was more than a brain state, I want to be open to whatever the source or origin of that experience was. The way I know how to do that, and the way most humans express that openness, is through spiritual practices, and from what I’ve seen in neuroscience, that’s the best thing we’re aware of for fostering those kinds of experience — things like prayer and meditation and, indeed, participation in religious communities. - McHargue
And drugs. People also turn to drugs for these experiences.

Yes, I'm afraid that my reaction to most of this is cynical. Perhaps that's the result of my own Evangelical upbringing - one that I mostly enjoyed, and miss - in which Truth was considered the most important thing. When I learned that it probably all wasn't true, it wasn't enough for me - as a result of my church upbringing, ironically - that a good feeling or mystical experience or desire for meaning and community would mean that God Exists. I guess that puts me in the camp of atheists whom McHargue found he didn't fit in with.

I did read the Bible all the way through twice, though, similar to him. I'm not surprised that he didn't find the solution to his parents' marriage woes in the Bible's large collection of dysfunctional relationships. "Dad... uh... have you talked to Mom about maybe taking in a concubine?"

There is beauty and fascination in science and nature, yes, I'll agree with him about that, but it's still true even when it's not beautiful. Like:
What are some of the most compelling things you’ve found in your scientific studies that point you back to God?

Probably the first thing would be how ideally suited the human brain is as a host for beliefs about God, the way belief seems to be relatively inevitable a consequence of human consciousness, and the way our brains tend to develop in healthy ways when we indulge that belief, especially in a God who is loving.
It could also be that humans who had a tendency to believe in God genocided people who didn't, and that's why the human brain is an ideal host for the belief. That would be ugly, if it's true.

(Also, monotheism came late to humanity. "A belief in gods" would seem to come more naturally to us than "a belief in God." Even monotheistic religions are quickly populated with a host of quasi-divine figures in the absence of strict enforcement. "Bet you can't worship just one" might be an advertising slogan for the human religious brain.)

It'll be interesting to see where this goes. Will McHargue's travelling show, already flirting with triggering traumatic experiences in ways that he doesn't seem to know how to appropriately handle, turn into full-on emotional manipulation and then, in a few years, the inevitable sex scandal? Will he give it all up for a real job and fade into obscurity? Or will he be able to stay in this liminal space permanently, knocking down and building up his Jenga tower again and again?
posted by clawsoon at 5:15 AM on September 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks so much for posting this. I’m one of the former evangelicals he talked about. I get the sense there are lots of us, but we’re spread out and disconnected. There are some in my church, the Episcopal Church. But I wish we could figure out how to express our voices as part of a movement.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:24 PM on September 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

I should say I’m referring to the New Republic article.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:26 PM on September 21, 2018

So every act of analysis is now "deconstruction"? This is the world we live in, I guess.
posted by thelonius at 2:36 PM on September 21, 2018

I'm convinced that "deconstruction" was chosen to trigger conservatives.
posted by clawsoon at 2:47 PM on September 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Evangelical discourse is always weird for me because I grew up in an a church affiliated with American Baptist Churches, USA, a.k.a. what the rest of the Triennial Convention turned into after the the Southern Baptists split over slavery. So we were technically evangelical, but there was little to no actual evangelizing involved, and as a congregation we were pretty staunchly "let's all agree not to get too noisy about the parts where we disagree with each other". So I never really feel like it had anything in common with what people mean when they talk about evangelicals.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:45 AM on September 22, 2018

The False Moral Superiority of Progressive Evangelicals In The Age Of Trump, National Review

In David French's exceedingly tendentious opinion piece, I found this bit of myopia particularly telling: "[Evangelicals] Christians are learning to navigate an increasingly post-Christian culture and an even more post-Christian politics."

They're not navigating the world, they're retreating from it. This Twitter thread from former fundamentalist Jason L. Bauman lays out what it was like growing up in the evangelical parallel universe—home-school K-12, evangelical college, Fox News for information, Christian rock and Christian movies/TV for entertainment. (Threadreader version)

"Y'all know that stuff French et All are bitching about is bullshit right? Evangelical Christianity spent decades explicitly separating themselves. [...] That victimhood mentality French and his like push? It's a CORE part of this 'not of this world' ism. But now he's using it to complain that the world he despises, that he's separated him from, doesn't agree with him. [...] They wanted to remove themselves from the world and now David French and the thousands of conservative pundits in walled off enclaves like him are pissed that The World's decided to move on without them [...] It's an attempt to force people outside of the walls you built around yourself act like they live within those walls too."

No wonder people within the walls are debating the mentality that confines them there.
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:09 AM on October 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

A Religious Leader for the Resisterhood
That voice has intentionally separated her from other leading evangelicals, particularly her white male peers in Texas, who have become some of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. In contrast, Hatmaker has vocally and vehemently denounced the president and his administration’s policies as contrary to Jesus’ teachings. In the process, she has also challenged her audience to listen to, and support, those historically marginalized within her faith tradition: women like her, people of color, queer people, and sometimes even Democrats.

It’s a risky pivot for a pastor’s daughter who got her start by writing, in her words, “very predictable and incredibly safe” books and bible study guides for evangelical women. As the midterm elections approach and Hatmaker wades even further into the political conversation, her influence over white evangelical women — the same demographic who have overwhelmingly supported Trump — will be put to the test.<>
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:15 AM on October 16, 2018

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