There is a strange phenomenon taking place in American evangelicalism. It’s been chronicled in recent articles in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, my three go-to sources for vetted, reliable information. It’s also been documented by the Pew Research Group, one of the polling organizations I trust.
We’ll start with a study out this week. The Pew Research Group discovered that 90 percent of American atheists have been vaccinated, followed by 86 percent of Hispanic Roman Catholics (who knew), followed by 84 percent of agnostics, 82 percent of Roman Catholics (again, who knew) followed by assorted other groups in the 60th to 80th percentile. Who scores lowest on vaccination rates? If you guessed evangelical Christians, you are right. Only 57 percent of evangelicals have been vaccinated. Which brings me to the newspaper and magazine articles.
A few of the more influential evangelical megachurches in the nation have recently experienced the kind of backlash previously reserved for school boards in conservative states. Three elders in McLean Bible Church in the DC area didn’t receive the 75 percent of votes needed to be affirmed as elders. A group of conservatives made a concerted effort to sully their reputations with a false accusation that they intended to sell their building to Muslims (which by the way, one of our Orchard Group churches did while I was still CEO. Nobody seemed to care all that much at the time.)
A megachurch in Minnesota lost four of its pastors after being subjected to what they called “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” In that case, it seems the pastors were speaking “too often” about the need for racial reconciliation. Southern Baptists Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer have both been accused of supporting a liberal agenda. I don’t need to go into it here, but neither gentlemen would likely take a meeting with me. They have never supported LGBTQ+ rights or a woman’s right to choose. They are not liberals. Apparently, they are just not supportive enough of far right causes.
A New York Times article published last week showed that Americans are increasingly equating evangelicalism with Republicanism, as if the two were synonymous. One recent study showed that among Christian groups, only evangelicalism was growing. Upon closer examination, it was determined that evangelicalism is not growing. Lots of people are calling themselves evangelicals who are not, in fact, evangelical. The list includes Mormons, Roman Catholics, agnostics, and a whole plethora of others. In answering the survey, they self-identified as evangelicals primarily because they equated evangelicalism with their right-wing Republicanism.
I’ve been watching this politicization of the evangelical church since long before I transitioned. Back in the 70s, I had to attend (my music group was on the program) a far right-wing event in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. When speaking of feeding the hungry in Biafra, one of the speakers actually said, “The more we feed – the more they breed – the more there are to feed.” Yep, that was spoken at a Christian conference.
In the 80s, I was appalled to learn that the national convention of my denomination was trying to book a Republican president to speak for a main session. Main sessions were always reserved for sermons and worship, not political speeches. Thank goodness he cancelled.
While I was the editor-at-large of our denomination’s national magazine, I watched with alarm as more and more of our churches made a hard turn to the right. As a moderate evangelical, I became persona non grata within that group. Time and again, the editor with whom I worked, a good and decent man, had to defend me to the increasingly vocal right wing.
Since I transitioned, I have watched the entire denomination take a hard turn to the right. I feel for all of my friends who I know do not hold right-wing Republican views. Many of them are staying quiet, just like the Republican leaders in Washington. Job security is a real concern. Kids need to go to college and health insurance is expensive. I get it. Enamored with security, I stayed in the evangelical world far too long, afraid to tell anyone my political views, let alone my gender identity. I understand how frightening it is to leave the comfort of a good job and a lifelong community.
But to those friends I say it is time to leave. There comes a time when enough is enough, and you have to take a stand, come what may. I recently was on YouTube and stumbled across one of the television shows I shot sometime around 2007. I was in a field at McGregor Ranch, bordering Rocky Mountain National Park. In the third segment of the show, the camera shot was a close-up of my face, with golden aspen and a brilliant blue sky in the background. It was mid-September. I was talking about the importance of taking a stand and living with the consequences. I ended the segment encouraging the viewer to action, and repeated the words, “You must do the right thing, come what may, come what may.”
Seven years later I took a stand, and “come what may” brought about the end of my career. Was it worth it? Come on now, you know the answer to that. It’s on the dedication page of my book, “To all who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good.” Of course, it was worth it. Was it easy? Nope. Does it make me happy? Not always. But as the Jungian analyst James Hollis says, you can live without happiness, but you cannot live without meaning. And for me, following the truth brings meaning.
I am glad I am no longer an evangelical. I like the post-evangelical world I inhabit. There is room for mystery and complexity and differences of opinion, while still steadfastly focusing on Jesus. And yes, Jesus remains as controversial as ever. It turns out loving God, your neighbor, and yourself isn’t all that easy, or popular.
And so it goes.