White evangelical Christians often paint themselves as the target of secular elites hell-bent on eviscerating society's traditional values and outlawing the preaching of the gospel. However, some of the most vocal (and effective) opposition to mainstream evangelicalism within the past five years has, ironically, come from those formerly inside the movement. Twitter hashtags like #ChurchToo, #ExposeChristianSchools, and #EmptyThePews have been discussed on prominent news outlets like Fox News, Christianity Today, and the New Yorker. These Twitter hashtags were birthed within the exvangelical movement, a group of former evangelicals who are voicing their grievances toward their past faith tradition and aim to present an (often secular) alternative to it. Compared to critics from outside of evangelicalism, who might be prone to caricature or surface understandings of the evangelical subculture, exvangelicals’ insider knowledge and first-hand experiences within evangelical families and communities that make them formidable―and deeply motivated―critics who are capable of encouraging others to follow them out the church door.
When Blake Chastain created the Twitter hashtag #exvangelical in 2016, he wanted former evangelicals to be able to lament the racism, sexism, homophobia, and hyper right-wing ideology they perceived as pervasive in their churches. He also wanted to provide support for others considering leaving evangelicalism. In the last three years, the hashtag has turned into the name of both a movement and its members as exvangelicals have started podcasts and blogs. The movement already has a substantial presence. During the peak of its run, Chastain’s podcast Exvangelical received 13 thousand downloads a month. Several exvangelical leaders have respectable followings on Twitter, such as Chrissy Stroop (48 thousand followers) and Emily Joy (13 thousand followers). Exvangelicals have also started more Twitter campaigns that have gained attention from people inside and outside the exvangelical movement.
Perhaps the biggest evidence of exvangelicals’ impact is that mainstream white evangelical thought-leaders haven’t been able to ignore them. These thought leaders have to accommodate exvangelicals’ critiques in order to prevent young evangelicals from opting out of the faith for a more secular alternative. Hashtags like #ChurchToo (a spin on #MeToo) ―started by poet Emily Joy—have been mainstreamed within evangelicalism. Growing up steeped in evangelical “purity culture,” Joy was sexually abused by someone in her church and felt compelled to speak out about how women are sexually shamed within evangelicalism. Christianity Today published a feature article about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist church mentioning the hashtag. The Southern Baptist denomination also held a meeting about changing polices concerning how to handle sexual assault cases within their ranks. The bestselling evangelical author, Beth Moore, wrote a blog post detailing her own sexual assault in the Church. #ChurchToo was able to become mainstream among evangelicals because Emily Joy was familiar with their movement. This made #ChurchToo hard to ignore, but if leading evangelicals do dismiss #ChurchToo, younger evangelicals are likely to apostatize do to the mishandling of sexual abuse.
Yet while evangelicals have mainstreamed some aspects of the exvangelicals’ criticisms, they’ve rejected others. Like other conservative Christians, evangelicals feel that they need to push back against the exvangelicals’ attempt to secularize their young people. Exvangelical leader Chrissy Stroop created the Twitter hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools to make apparent the bigotry she experienced growing up in Christian schools. Fox News featured segments criticizing the hashtag after journalist Dan Levin tried to collect stories for a piece featured in the New York Times. Conservative Catholic pundit Matt Walsh appeared on the news channel and said the hashtag is an example of the left’s bigotry towards Christians. Focus on the Family responded to the hashtag, saying that it ignores the good that Christian schools have accomplished. Yet while conservative Christian thought-leaders have tried to dismiss or invalidate Stroop’s criticisms, the fact that they were collectively forced to engage those criticisms reinforces the effectiveness of her insider critique―one they couldn’t ignore for fear of allowing secular thinkers to encroach upon their movement.
In recent decades, some younger white evangelicals have left that subculture due to its close connection with reactionary politics and what many perceive as authoritarian, conformist, and exclusionary tendencies. Former evangelical superstars such as Joshua Harris, Michael Gungor, and Hillsong writer Marty Sampson have recently left the religious movement. The exvangelical movement aims to provide these former white evangelicals with a voice and a new (more secular) community of like-minded peers. Exvangelicals refuse to conform to the narrative white evangelicals tell about themselves as victims of the bigoted coastal elites who don’t understand religion; they themselves were once evangelicals and understand their former religious tradition. The exvangelicals’ nonconformity forces white evangelicals to respond to their charges—either through adopting it as their own or pushing back against it.
Kenneth E. Frantz is a Religious Studies major at the University of Oklahoma. Twitter: @KennethEthanFr1
Samuel L. Perry is an assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the changing dynamics of religion, family, and politics in the United States. Dr. Perry has written for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. Twitter: @socofthesacred