Home » Among the exvangelicals: Sarah McCammon on faith, Trump and leaving the churches behind | Books

Among the exvangelicals: Sarah McCammon on faith, Trump and leaving the churches behind | Books

by John Jefferson
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For Sarah McCammon, “it was really January 6, watching people go into the Capitol with signs that said ‘Jesus saves’ and crosses and Christian symbols” that made her finally decide to write about her evangelical upbringing and her decision to leave it behind.

“I wanted to tell my story,” she says.

As a national political correspondent for NPR, McCammon tells many stories. Her first book, The Exvangelicals, is not just a work of autobiography. It is also a deeply reported study of an accelerating movement – of younger Americans leaving white evangelical churches.

McCammon grew up in the 1980s and 90s in Kansas City, Missouri, then went to Trinity College, an evangelical university in Deerfield, Illinois. Now, she chronicles the development of her own doubts about her religion, its social strictures and political positions, while reporting similar processes experienced by others.

For many such “exvangelicals”, things began to come to a head in 2016, when Donald Trump seized the Republican presidential nomination with a harsh message of hatred and division – and evangelical support.

McCammon says: “When I was hired by NPR to cover the presidential campaign, I found myself pretty quickly at the intersection of my professional life and my personal background, because I was assigned to the Republican primary. I was happy about that, because I kind of knew that world.

It made sense. I figured I’d be covering Jeb Bush, his waltz to the nomination. But it didn’t turn out that way.

“So much of the story of the Republican primary became about Donald Trump and white evangelicals. What were they going to do? How were they going to square evangelical teachings with his history and his character?”

As McCammon watched, those evangelicals embraced a three-times married icon of greed, a man who boasted of sexually assaulting women while demonising migrants, Muslims and more.

For McCammon, evangelical support for Trump was then and is now a matter of simple power politics – about how he offers a way to tain a position under fire in a changing world – buttressed by the appeal of Trumpian “alternative facts” familiar to churches that have long denied the science of evolution, ignored the role of racism in American history and taken myriad other positions at odds with stream thought.

Sarah McCammon, an NPR correspondent. Photograph: Kara Frame

McCammon had “this whole connection to this world”, having grown up “in a very evangelical, very conservative family, very politically active”. But “in a lot of ways, I think I got into journalism to get away from some of that. I didn’t want to work in an ideological space, theological or political. I didn’t want to be an advocate, I felt very uncomfortable with the pressure to make everybody believe what I believed. And I did not even feel sure.”

Nonetheless, as Trump tightened his grip, McCammon was drawn back in, becoming “fascinated because I was in my mid-30s, I had some distance from my childhood and I felt I knew what questions to ask and anticipated some debates that would come up.

“So after 2016, I spent a few years reflecting on where the country was and what had happened: on the evangelical embrace of Trump. And as I thought more about it, I thought maybe there’s something I want to say about this. I wanted to tell my story.”

As it turned out, a lot of former evangelicals of McCammon’s generation were telling their stories too.

Like other modern social and political labels – Black Lives Matter and MeToo, for example – the term “exvangelicals” first came to prominence as a hashtag around 2016, the year the writer Blake Chastain launched a podcast under the name. Much of McCammon’s research for her book duly took place on social media, tracking down exvangelicals using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to share and connect.

But McCammon’s own story forms the spine of her book. Her parents re in the church. She and her first husband married in the church. It wasn’t easy to sit down and write.

“When I was finishing the draft, I sent [my parents] several key sections,” she says. “Frankly, the sections I thought would be hardest for them. I wanted to do that both as their daughter and as a journalist, because in journalism, we usually give people a chance to respond. And so, they didn’t want to be quoted.”

In the finished book, McCammon’s parents are quoted, one striking example a frank exchange of messages with her mother about LGBTQ+ rights.

“They’re not thrilled,” she says. “But I did take their feedback into account. They didn’t fundamentally dispute anything, factually …

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“I hope it comes through in the book that this is not an attack on my parents. I talk about my childhood because I want to illustrate what it was like to grow up inside the evangelical milieu of that time. And based on my conversations with lots of other people, I don’t think my experiences are unique.”

McCammon’s grandfather was surely close to unique: a military veteran and a neurosurgeon who had three children before coming out as gay. At first largely excluded from McCammon’s life, later a central influence, he died as McCammon was writing.

She says: “I make him such a central character because he was a central part of my experience of realising that there was a bigger world out there – when he was one of the only non-evangelical or non-Christian people I had any regular contact with, growing up. For my family he was always a source of concern and consternation and worry and prayer but also he was an incredibly accomplished individual, and he was somebody I think my whole family admired and was just proud of – at the same time that we prayed for his soul.

“And so that was a crack for me in everything that I was being told.”

Evangelical leaders pray with Donald Trump at the King Jesus International Ministry church in Miami, in March 2020. Photograph: Lynne Sladky/AP

McCammon still believes, though she does not “use a lot of labels”. Her husband is Jewish. Shaped by her Christian upbringing, she has “slowly opened up my mind, as I’ve gotten older”, through talking to her husband and to people in “the progressive Christian space”. She can “read the Bible when I want to”, and does.

Asked how she thinks The Exvangelicals will be received, she says “there are kind of three audiences for this book.

“For exvangelicals, or people who have wrestled with their religious background, whatever it may be, I hope that they will feel seen and validated, and feel like there’s some resonance with their story, because I think there is kind of a common experience, even though the details are different.

“For those like my husband, who when I met him had very little connection to the evangelical world, and are maybe a little confused by it, or maddened or frustrated by it, I hope the book will provide some insight and maybe even empathy, [helping] to understand how people think, why they think the way they think, and also the fact that evangelicalism is a massive movement and within it there are lots of different people with lots of different experiences.

“The most difficult one is evangelicals. I hope those who are still firmly entrenched in the movement will read it with an open mind, and maybe some empathy. I think there are a lot of boomer parents out there, not just mine, who are trying to figure out why their kids have gone astray.

“And I don’t think being an exvangelical is ‘going astray’. I think it’s about really trying to live with integrity. In some ways, it’s like: ‘You taught us to seek the truth. And so it’s what a lot of us are doing.’”

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