June 26, 2022

Evangelical disillusion finds its way into book clubs

(RNS) — In 2016, Annelie Heinen’s frustration with evangelical culture exploded. The Iowan native had attended evangelical churches for more than two decades, but Donald Trump’s election brought her to what she now calls a point of “crisis.” She expressed her frustration to the group of mums she met once a week for toddler play, banging her fist on the table. When she and her family moved in 2018, she instead settled in a “progressive Lutheran” church.

“We were asleep at the wheel, and all of a sudden we have Trump in the White House and 81% of white evangelicals support him,” she told Religion News Service in a recent Zoom call. “I didn’t feel complicit then, but complicit in the larger narratives that set the stage for him.”

Four years later, the data remains stubbornly static and polls show little sign that white evangelical commitments to conservative politics and the Republican Party are waning.

But there are indications that in the past year the tally of racism, sexism and sexual abuse scandals in the white evangelical church is taking a toll. Extremely popular Baptist teacher Beth Moore announced this month that she is leaving the Southern Baptist Convention after nearly three decades, following a wave of black pastors who left the SBC in December after its presidents of seminary released a statement targeting critical race theory. Author and historian Jemar Tisby went public with the story of how he left evangelicalism in a “Pass the Mic” podcast episode two weeks ago, launching a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #LeaveLoud.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, right, and her book cover. Images courtesy of calvin.edu

And then there are book clubs.

The conversation that began in Heinen’s mother’s group in 2016 continued, most recently with a Zoom book club on Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s polarizing story about white evangelical masculinity: “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation”.

“Christians in America are more cultural than they are followers of Christ,” Heinen said. “My hope is that everything implodes spectacularly.”

Du Mez says that, based on feedback she’s received since the publication of “Jesus and John Wayne” last year, Heinen’s experience is not unique: “The book has become one of ways in which evangelicals have raised the issues they want to raise. This really fits with some people’s experiences.

“Jesus and John Wayne” is just one popular entry in a growing market for books that deconstruct evangelical culture and theology. The trend is led by books like Tisby’s story of white Christian racism and racist complicity, “Color of Compromise,” which rose to popularity after last summer’s racial justice protests, and criticism of Aimee Byrd of Evangelical Gender Standards, “Recovering from Biblical Manhood & Womanhood”. ” There is “The Myth of the American Dream” by DL Mayfield which criticizes the adoption of nationalist values ​​by evangelicalism. Mayfield herself wrote that she finally quit evangelicalism last summer during the racial justice protests.

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A new batch of deconstructionist and justice-oriented literature has just arrived. Tisby’s practice-focused follow-up, “How to Fight Racism,” was posted online Jan. 5, the day before the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Speaker and writer Sheila Wray Gregoire’s critique of evangelical sexual ethics, “The Great Sex Rescue,” was published March 2, and Baylor history professor Beth Allison Barr’s “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” will be released on April 20. On Monday, March 22, Anthea Butler, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, launched her own critique of evangelical politics: “White Evangelical Racism.”

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler.  Image courtesy of Amazon

“White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America” ​​by Anthea Butler. Image courtesy of Amazon

“My book is going to threaten,” Butler said in a phone interview. “Guess what, I wrote an entire book about how awful you are, because you need to know that.” this is what you want? This is what you have become.

Although the deconstructionist movement hasn’t reached the critical mass needed to move the needle in the polls, Butler says the mass of critical resources makes conversations harder to avoid: “What I can say with confidence about this moment is that it will be increasingly difficult for evangelicals to hide from their past or their present.

These questioning evangelicals often do so in isolation — but some are now looking for community.

Airline pilot and former U.S. Marine Justin Charles says he embarked on his own deconstruction journey a few years ago and is considering whether to start a group to dig into “Jesus and John Wayne” with members of his church in New Hampshire. He hesitates, as his attempts to push back when he sees trouble have not gone well so far.

“I mostly only bring things up in one-on-one and small group conversations,” Charles said. But in at least one Bible study group, “they look at me like I have two heads.”

Du Mez says isolation is normal and part of the reason the deconstructionist movement might stagnate. “The next steps are the ones that require a lot of effort. Are you ready to leave your church? Are you ready to throw it all away? said Du Mez. “It is important that this is done in community.

Book clubs are a community outpost where frustrations, when they arise, can be vented, and where deconstruction becomes a group project, rather than an isolated journey. It’s telling that they’re popping up in red states like Heinen’s Iowa, where exploring them could be offensive to a larger group.

RELATED: ‘The Deconstructionists Playbook’ Outlines Ways to Question Christians

In Casper, Wyoming, for example, Shelly Ann’s book club started as part of a larger church “justice group,” but met in a smaller, more focused group. since the start of the pandemic. Recently, the group worked on “Color of Compromise”, “Reading While Black” by Esau McCaulley and “The Brown Church” by Robert Chao Romero.

“If we brought this group back into the public space,” Ann said, “people’s heads would explode.”

The group has become a “lifeline” for some of its members, including Luanne Marshall, who is married to the church’s former senior pastor and said things would have been different without the group: “I would have made this trip anyway, but I probably would have been quietly dying inside. I’m not the kind of person who would get into conflict.

Group member Laura Gamble, who was raised in what she calls an “abusive and bigoted” Christian environment but spent her adult years in non-denominational, Southern Baptist and American Baptist churches, said she no longer identified with the gospel label.

“The soapbox issues with which evangelism is often associated reflect hatred more than love of neighbor, and somewhere along the way a lust for power and control has displaced the ethic Jesus laid out for us. in the Sermon on the Mount,” she wrote to RNS.

Leaving behind the evangelical label, Gamble, like Heinen, embodies a trend that is actually reflected in the polls: the number of evangelicals in America, and their share of the population as a whole, has been declining for at least a decade. , by Pew Research. If this moment of judgment does not reform the white evangelical church, it could hasten its decline.

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