This summer I visited twelve independent bookstores to speak about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. These were public talks sponsored by the stores. I had no idea what kind of people would show-up. I expected verbal sparring at nearly every stop. I girded my loins (to use a biblical phrase) and prepared each night to face Trump voters who I expected to respond to my book with angry dissent. I tried to anticipate every pro-Trump talking point and prepared myself to answer to each one of them.
Things did not go as I expected. I ran into a few rabid Trump supporters. I also ran into many sober-minded, even thoughtful, Trump voters. And, as you might expect at a book talk at an independent bookstore, I met a lot of folks who occupied a political space that is left of center.
But each night I also met people–sometimes many people–like Elizabeth Baker of Katy, Texas. Here is what Baker had to say recently in a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post:
I don’t sleep through the night anymore. I suffer from near daily panic attacks and almost constant anxiety. The source of my joy, my security and my identity has vanished, leaving me with an angry grief that almost no one in my immediate circle understands. I have relationships that were once life-giving but have turned toxic. I feel manipulated, deceived and abused. And why?
The church that raised me is gaslighting me.
I am a 39-year-old, white, straight, suburban mom. And I am a Christian ― at least I think I still am. I grew up in a privileged bubble, in deep red Republican country, where identifying as a Christian didn’t set me apart from the majority of my peers. Being a Christian certainly wasn’t any risk to my life or reputation. I spent my childhood in Sunday school, church camp and youth group, learning Bible stories about heroes who battled a giant with a slingshot, survived a lions’ den due to unshakable faith, and led an entire group of people out of slavery and into a promised land.
The church also taught me the story of Jesus, the son of God, whom God sent to earth as a defenseless human infant. Jesus spent 33 completely sinless years on this planet, only to be brutally murdered as a sacrifice for me, because of me. I was born with my sinful nature and no matter how good I try to be, how many prayers I pray or Bible study gatherings I attend, I am ultimately a sinner ― and the wages of sin is death. According to the church, I deserve death, simply for existing.
But the church also claims there’s good news! Even though I deserve death, Jesus’ bloody crucifixion and subsequent bodily resurrection saves me from a fiery eternal hell ― all because I believe this supernatural story and earnestly accept the gift of his grace. And because of this sacrifice, I owe him a lifetime of gratitude, worship and a commitment to follow his commandments (even though, because of my human flesh, I will always ultimately fail him).
Night after night men and women like Baker waited in line for me to sign their books and tell me their stories. One young man thanked me for writing the book and then said that he felt more at home spiritually in the bookstore that night than he usually does at his own evangelical church. His eyes were filled with tears as he told me about the like-minded people he met in the audience and how freeing it was to talk to them. It was clear that many of these folks had a lot to get off their chests about evangelicalism and they saw me as a sympathetic ear. Sometimes I tried to offer encouragement, other times I joined them in their lament, sometimes I prayed with them, but most of the time I just listened. (And if you know me, listening is not always one of my strong suits. I’m working on it, though!).
I did not expect this.
As I read Baker’s piece, I thought again about all the people I met this summer. Here is another taste:
It simply does not matter to the evangelical church that Trump is racist and that his dehumanizing rhetoric is emboldening radicals and costing Americans their lives. Americans are dying in mass shootings at the hands of white supremacists, while the church is celebrating the nation’s return to traditional values. For Christians who reject the MAGA mindset, this is absolute crazy making.
No wonder I live with crippling anxiety and spiritual trauma. The church that warned me against moral relativism now calls me a heretic when I apply the very principles they taught me to real situations, with real stakes for real people. I don’t know where to turn or whom to trust. Is any of it true? Have I wasted my life on a religion that hurts more than it helps?
I stopped attending church regularly almost two years ago, but I am more invested in my spiritual life than ever before. Although I’ve lost the majority of my local Christian community, save for a few precious friends, I still cling to the true teachings and example of Jesus to inform my politics and moral code. I now understand that Scripture pays more attention to serving the needs of the oppressed than to regulating their lifestyle. Sin is not as much about my behavior as it is about my inability to love people well.
Meanwhile, I’ve diversified my bookshelf, podcast subscriptions and Twitter feed to include voices speaking truth to power from the perspective of marginalized people ― the same voices that the Trump administration continually tries to silence. I’ve joined online communities of people also working through spiritual trauma and gaslighting by the evangelical church. This fall, I attended the Evolving Faith conference, a gathering of more than 1,500 people in different stages of the deconstructing of their faith. As I’ve worked through my grief and anger, I’ve discovered I am not as isolated as I once believed. My hope is to someday find a local church again, one that is progressive, open and affirming, but I am not actively searching.
I wish the evangelical church would wake up and realize how many of us there are out there feeling manipulated and abused. This community of wanderers is dealing with grief both privately and collectively. Together we weep, we rage and we try to rebuild what’s left of our shattered spiritual lives. Healing is slow and it’s painful. I’m working hard to separate the true, worthy parts of Christianity from the bullshit. I do hope to return to church someday, but I will never again be gaslighted by an institution that sells out Jesus for political power.
Read Baker’s entire piece here. There are a lot of folks out there who will recognize her spiritual struggles because they are also their struggles. Perhaps Trump really is changing the course of American Christianity