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'The Exvangelicals' follows the lives of people who loved, then left the Church

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

NPR's Sarah McCammon loves Bible stories, especially those with strong women. The book of Esther - that's a favorite.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Vashti was the Queen's first wife (ph), and he wanted her to parade around for him and his friends. And she said, no, thank you. And then, you know, Esther was chosen as the replacement, and she helped save her people from - really from death.

RASCOE: McCammon is well-versed in scripture. She was raised as an evangelical Christian and left the faith tradition as an adult. Her background has intersected with her work, though. As one of NPR's national political correspondents, she frequently covers the Trump campaign and its evangelical supporters. Sarah McCammon has now written a book about the tensions within the white evangelical movement, and how those tensions cause many followers to leave. It's called "The Exvangelicals." The title comes from a hashtag used on social media. I asked her to tell us what it was like for her to grow up evangelical.

MCCAMMON: It was my whole world, and really by design. I think a lot of evangelical parents, mine and many others, felt like the world was fallen and sinful and something that children needed to be protected from. So my world was Christian school, church, Christian magazines, Christian books, Christian radio - just, you know, a sense that we were - the phrase was, we were in the world, but not of the world, that we needed to be different. We needed to be removed in some way.

RASCOE: Growing up in a very conservative church, you know, especially as a woman, there can be an emphasis on how you are to behave, where men are supposed to be the head. Women are not. What were you taught about your place in the world?

MCCAMMON: I was very much taught, like, when you get married and have children - not if. And a woman's sort of greatest role was to be a wife and mother, that women were to primarily keep the house, take care of the family, that the family was supposed to be led by the father who was the head of the household. And it was sort of this hierarchy of God, and then the father and then the mother and then the children. And we were also told - you know, there was a lot of emphasis on purity and modesty. And this was for both men and women, but particularly for girls. You know, there was an emphasis on covering up, making sure that you didn't tempt men. We were told that it was our responsibility to keep the men in our lives from looking at us the wrong way.

RASCOE: When did you start to question whether what you were growing up in was the only way?

MCCAMMON: There were lots of moments. You know, I was aware from going to the library or public television that most people believed differently than we did. The biggest source of cognitive dissonance throughout my childhood was my relationship with my grandfather. He was one of the very few people I knew who was not a Christian. He had come out as a gay man late in life after my grandmother passed away. And this was in the 1980s. This was during the AIDS crisis. This was as the Moral Majority was on the ascent, and my parents were enmeshed in both the evangelical theological movement but also the political movement. So, you know, my grandfather just lived across town, but we didn't see him much because my parents were concerned that he would be a bad influence.

RASCOE: Do you feel like your - and I'm not saying that it was just your grandfather, but that was part of the reason why you began to question? Because when you see someone close to you who doesn't fit in with what your religion or your worldview says is acceptable, that can make you ask questions. Was that something common to the other people that you talked about, where someone would say, this was my breaking point, or this is why I couldn't continue on?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, it was interesting to see what those different breaking points were. And they were different for different people. I mean, for some people that I talked to the last few years, the intensifying politicization of the evangelical movement has been too much. Whether it was the rise of Trumpism or feeling like their churches were not responding with adequate concern and seriousness to racial injustice or to the COVID pandemic.

RASCOE: You know, you almost can't talk about the evangelical movement without talking about it as, you know, the white evangelical church versus, you know, the Black evangelical church. You have a chapter where you write about race and evangelicals, and you also talked to some Black Christians who don't even consider themselves exvangelicals because they feel like they were never even really considered evangelicals.

MCCAMMON: Right. People like Dr. Jemar Tisby, who I interviewed for the book - he's a writer and podcaster - what he and others would say is that, you know, that inclusion can't just be about, you know, diversifying your pastoral staff. It has to really mean listening to the concerns and the stories of people who have a different lived experience. I think what the experiences of Christians of color call us to think about is the fact that some of these problems are systemic. They're not just individual. And I think you see that in, you know, the fact that while many white Christians and Black Christians - you could even say Black evangelicals and white evangelicals - hold similar theological beliefs, they vote very differently. And I think that indicates that the things that people prioritize are very different based on their lived experience.

RASCOE: You know, when you talk about people leaving the evangelical faith, you cite a statistic from 2018 that says a third of those who grew up evangelical leave the tradition as adults. That shows that the exvangelical movement is not small, whether they call themselves that particular name or not. But yet, looking around at politics these days, the evangelical movement seems more influential than ever. What do you make of that?

MCCAMMON: A couple of things - I mean, first of all, the decline in religiosity is true across most religions and certainly for white Christianity. But one of the things that that Rob P. Jones, who's an excellent writer and pollster with the Public Religion Research Institute, has argued about this, is that in many ways, the Trump movement is a response to that declining cultural and demographic power of white Christianity, that it's sort of the last gasp of the Christian right to try to hold on to cultural power. And I think you start to see that around the time I was born, around the early '80s, with the increasing mobilization of white evangelicals as a political force. You know, a lot of the rhetoric, as I document in the book, sort of harkened back to a time that was seen as more godly, where the country was a Christian nation, you know, once again, rhetoric that we're hearing more of now.

RASCOE: There was a line towards the end of your book that stayed with me. Quote, "I believe God can handle our questions." And that's a strong statement, because a lot of what you grew up with was being told not to question authority, not to question, you know, what you're being told. How is your faith now?

MCCAMMON: I think it's always evolving and changing. You know, as I say in the book, I feel that I'm forever shaped by my Christian background and that many of my values come from it. You know, I still pray. I believe in something bigger than me. And I feel like I am open. I also don't feel any need to persuade other people to think the same way that I do.

RASCOE: That's Sarah McCammon, NPR national political correspondent and author of the new book "The Exvangelicals." Sarah, thank you so much for talking with us about your book and for writing the book and for all the work that you do.

MCCAMMON: Thank you so much. Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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