Losing their Religion
A Roundtable Discussion
In the 1980s, the Moral Majority helped usher in an era of politicized Christianity in the United States. The breadth of Christian Right activity since then, from the evangelical Right, to fundamentalist homeschooling, to cross-denominational culture war collaborations, have been fixtures of PRA’s research and analysis.
But 30 years later, in the early 2010s, a second phenomenon has been taking place: a wave of people who grew up or lived their adult lives within conservative Christian settings beginning to leave. On social media, many have come together in new and growing “exvangelical” communities. LGBTQ people have formed support groups both within and outside their faiths. Abuse survivors have formed organizations and blogs critiquing the cultures that harmed them, some gathering around hashtags like #ChurchToo.
PRA brought together four people from backgrounds across the Christian or evangelical spectrum to discuss the landscape of leaving one’s faith community.
Tell us about yourselves and your experience leaving a conservative faith.
Akiko Ross: From 1969 until 2015, I was active in the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) as a lay leader, a Sunday School teacher and through various committee and church positions. In 1998, I formally resigned when the SBC elected Paige Patterson as its president. Patterson, part of the SBC’s fundamentalist wing, sought to remake the SBC into his own image, pronouncing that women must submit to their husbands, who would make all major decisions. Complementarianism had come to the SBC, and although many of us did not see scripture as Patterson did, because we were mostly women, our interpretations didn’t count.
When I renounced my membership, I could no longer be a “messenger”—representing my church at the SBC’s annual convention—and certain church positions were now closed to me. But I remained a Christian, bouncing around to different SBC and non-denominational churches every time I moved.
Although I was successful at leading women, teen girls, and singles, I began to notice some disconcerting things. By 2015, during the election cycle, my nagging doubts reach a zenith. I was leading a women’s group at the largest Baptist church in Clearwater, Florida, where, except for me, all the members were White. The women in my group seemed lost, depressed, and lonely. One woman said her life would be better if we had a border wall to keep out undesirables who were stealing all the good jobs. The others nodded along, saying things like, “Obama ruined the sanctity of marriage and life,” and “Obama didn’t care about White people losing jobs to ‘illegals.’” I realized I wanted out. I disbanded the class and walked away.
I saw the whole “Trumpvangelical” thing coming, but did not realize its size. As the lone Democrat in my churches, I had ignored many earlier cues in an effort to survive the dichotomy of being a Southern Baptist and a progressive. In 2015, I cut all ties with organized religion, and after the election, I severed ties with dozens of friends. It took until this election to know that my values—equality and justice for all—were not their values.
I am still a Christ follower, and Proverbs 31:8-9 still resonates with me today: be the voice for the voiceless, seek justice for the marginalized. In other words, just love your neighbor in the way that makes your neighbor feel that love.
I have worked in the legal field for about 30 years. After the election, I went back to school for a B.S. in Public Policy. I’m currently a junior, and my goal is to work on public education policy.
Heather Doney: I’m the eldest in a family of 10 children raised in the Quiverfull movement, a loosely organized set of fundamentalist Christian beliefs similar to the lifestyle depicted on the Duggar family reality TV show, “19 Kids and Counting.” My father was a non-denominational, part-time pastor and ran mission trips to Costa Rica and Haiti. In the late 1980s, we later began “home churching”: gathering to worship in private homes. I was pseudo-homeschooled until 9th grade, until my grandparents intervened and I was sent to public high school.
The beliefs I was raised with heavily supported patriarchy and a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. When I was a teenager, I decided that God was terrible for allowing women to be treated the way they were in the Bible—particularly the gang rape and murder of the concubine in the Book of Judges. I rebelled against the wholly domestic role for women that I’d been taught, and left home at age 17 to escape ongoing violence based largely on the Christian childrearing manual To Train Up a Child.
Today I live with my husband in Boston, working in public policy for at-risk populations. Although I still struggle with some residual effects of my upbringing, I would like to think it has also made me more understanding of the many types of suffering people can face due to abuse, trauma, or poverty. I am a content expert on homeschooling policy and child abuse, and have spearheaded groundbreaking advocacy work and research on the topic.
I am joining this discussion out of concern that leaders who adhere to abusive ideologies like the one I was raised in now hold positions of significant political power. But despite the high stakes, I believe that instead of passing judgment on people taken in by authoritarian religious teachings, we must encourage them to face intergenerational trauma in their own lives to avoid passing it on.
Samy Galvez: I was born into one of the most prominent Mormon families in Guatemala. Mormonism was introduced to Guatemala in the late 1940s. My father’s family joined early, in 1971, and my mother’s would follow a decade later, amid Latin America’s Mormon boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My father held very high positions in the Church from a young age. He became a Bishop when I was around three years old, a Stake President when I was about five, a Mission President when I was 17, and an Area Seventy (or regional authority) when I was 21. He continues to hold this position today, overseeing Church operations in Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
I served in a variety of church leadership positions during my youth. I later attended Brigham Young University, where I completed a degree in neuroscience. While there, I was called to serve as a Mormon missionary in San Francisco.
As the eldest child of one of Guatemala’s most well-known Mormon families, the expectations for me to continue in my family’s footsteps were high. But they also conflicted with my orientation as a gay man. While I came out to some friends in high school, I didn’t fully embrace myself until my mission to San Francisco, where I first met other LGBTQ Mormons leading admirable lives. I’d previously accepted negative LGBTQ stereotypes, fearing that embracing my identity would bring condemnation from God. Seeing happy, exemplary LGBTQ Mormons allowed me to envision myself as deserving the same rights and love as other people.
After my mission I became highly involved in LGBTQ activism, as president of BYU’s LGBTQ organization and a participant in various conferences, podcasts, and other activities to promote LGBTQ tolerance within Mormonism. Sadly, this work took a heavy toll on my personal life. After realizing that my work was unappreciated and mocked, I retreated from anything related to Mormonism. I now live as an atheist secular humanist in New York City, where I recently completed a master’s degree at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. I am currently interviewing for different positions in public health research in New York City, am engaged to a wonderful man, and am excited to travel the world.
Chris Stroop: I grew up mostly in Indiana, attending various churches across the Missionary, Baptist, and Wesleyan denominations. When my dad became the music minister at Traders Point Christian Church, we joined the Restoration Movement, not that I understood that history as a kid. What I did quickly learn was that denominational distinctions didn’t matter as much as the demand that “real” Christians take the Bible literally and devote themselves to right-wing political goals like banning abortion and opposing LGBTQ rights.
When my sister and I were old enough to enter school, my mom became a teacher at Indianapolis’s Heritage Christian School: an interdenominational school with strong Baptist and Calvinist flavors. The Christian nationalism there was rampant, from our mascot (the Eagles), to daily pledges to the American and Christian flags and to the Bible, to the wall painted with the words, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” Our elementary school talent shows ended with a sing-along to Lee Greenwood’s god-awful “God Bless the USA.”
In 1993, my family moved to Colorado Springs, when my dad took a position with a church plant under the umbrella of the Missionary Church. Colorado Springs Christian School, where my Mom taught and my sister and I went for two years, was even more fundamentalist than Heritage. We were taught that people of African descent are the descendants of Noah’s cursed son Ham; that evolution was wrong; and that sexual “purity” was paramount. At a seventh-grade class “retreat,” we were asked to signed purity pledges, which we did, fearing we might be suspended or expelled if we didn’t.
On a mission trip in rural Russia after high school, I developed an interest in Russian culture, language, and history. I was already then in an intense crisis of faith that ultimately led me, a few years after completing a Ph.D. in Russian history at Stanford in 2012, to finally become comfortable with saying I am non-religious.
Because my unusual combination of academic expertise and life experience gives me insights into the Christian Right, Putinist Russia, and the affinities and connections between them, I’ve been able to publish commentary and policy research related to current events (including here at PRA). Today, I’m a leader in the emerging “exvangelical” movement consisting of former evangelicals who are reclaiming our stories and speaking out against the abusive, authoritarian subculture in which we grew up. I have created viral hashtags, including #EmptyThePews and #ChristianAltFacts, that have helped “exvies” not only find each other and work toward healing but also expose the extent to which even “mainstream” evangelicalism is abusive and anti-democratic. My blog, Not Your Mission Field at ChrisStroop.com, mostly covers related topics and also hosts a resources page for former fundamentalists and spiritual abuse survivors.
What was your experience in leaving your church or community?
Chris: My process of deconstruction dragged out over a very long period, beginning with doubts that became irrepressible when I read through the entire Bible for the first time at age 16. I was afraid my doubts were temptations from the devil, and also that leaving would mean breaking with my entire social world. In my 20s, when I could no longer accept inerrancy doctrine and support right-wing politics, I dissimulated with family, torturing myself about whether I was protecting them or myself. I voted for Bush in 2000, with serious qualms; in 2004, I voted for Kerry, and have not voted for a Republican since.
My changing political beliefs puzzled my relatives. Later, when I vocally supported universal healthcare and opposed California’s anti-gay Prop 8, or criticized evangelicalism to my mother, I would sometimes break down and recant. Only in 2015 did I start publishing strong critiques of evangelical subculture, making it impossible to waver with my family. Multiple relatives accused me of being “brainwashed” and “attacking everything we stand for.” One close relative became estranged from me for a few months after the 2016 election, saying I was unable to “separate family from politics.” My parents and I are in a pretty good place now, but there have been some very rough moments.
Heather: Mine dragged out for a long time too. Like radioactivity, it has a half life, and lots of layers. I started leaving when I was still a minor, and had few rights. I faced severe repercussions, including being shunned within the Christian homeschoolers group my family belonged to, which declared me a “bad influence” for things like backtalking and wearing bright nail polish. At home, my parents threatened to throw me out—a terrifying prospect to any teen, especially one taught the world was full of spiritual warfare. Literature and journaling became a healthy form of escape, and they set me on the path to furthering my education.
I also did what most girls from my background do and found a boyfriend I thought would rescue me. Unpacking the patriarchy part of Christian patriarchy has been the longest and most painful part of the process, because I’d been lied to about love, sex and natural human needs. I hope any young women reading this know that they need to rescue themselves!
Time and living away have healed some wounds. Today when I see my mom and she brings up religion, I joke with her about it, telling her the difference between “heathen” and “Heather” is just one letter, and she’s the one that named me. She doesn’t find it particularly funny, but cultivating a sense of humor about this stuff has helped save my sanity.
Although I’m not close to my parents, I have love and pity for them, as their lives were ruined by this movement. They were sold lies and turned into middle management for their own lives and children. It is very sad and so unnecessary.
Samy: My family hasn’t really had time to focus on my leaving the religion because they’re still focused on my coming out as gay. This is a much bigger deal in their minds, so their discussions and interactions with me regarding the changes that have transpired in my life have all focused on that. Ultimately, we have come to avoid certain topics and be cordial in order to safeguard our relationships.
Most Mormons my age, including cousins and siblings, are very understanding and even supportive. There is always one extremist here and there but they are the exception rather than the rule. In general, millennials in Mormonism tend to be more understanding.
Akiko: I was raised cross-culturally by a non-religious father and a Buddhist mother, and we moved frequently as an Air Force family. I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere until I went to Vacation Bible School the summer I was nine, and was saved. Being Southern Baptist gave me a sense of belonging. But even so, there were cracks. I was so Republican in high school that I served as a “hostess” for the Party, wearing a slinky gown and introducing male Republicans to each other at parties. Later, when a Republican leader I worked for sexually assaulted me, I was nearly undone by it: being raised in the church’s purity culture made me feel that I’d become dirty and unworthy.
The cracks continued to grow when, as a lay leader in the SBC, I helped women leave abusive relationships, which the church didn’t really support. I had friends who were gay, atheists, divorced, or who had had abortions. My acceptance of them, and my refusal to evangelize to them, did not make me popular in church leadership, but they couldn’t deny that when I did Monday night visitations, people showed up the next Sunday. I wanted to give these friends a family that was supportive and encouraging. So churches allowed me to continue my work. However, I began to experience an undercurrent of hate—whispers and outright accusations that I must be sleeping around because men were always asking me out.
By the mid-2000s, I’d left a church that told me to return to an abusive husband; tried non-denominational churches that were basically SBC in disguise; and began to see that the church fears divorced women who speak up. The dam broke during the election. Evangelicals asked how I could call myself a Christian and be a Democrat, and tried to tell me that Trump fulfilled prophecy. I had a year in which I thought I had gone crazy. I was alone. The invitations to parties, game nights, baseball games, potlucks, and weddings all ceased. I lost friends going back 40 years. But I have gained a new community in the Exvans!
What other challenges did you encounter in leaving that world behind?
Heather: My leaving was an escape. I went to public high school, moved in with a cousin, then went to college and lived in the dorms. I couldn’t wait to be 18 and was glad to be out, but I was also griefstruck at first because I missed my siblings, many of whom I had helped raise and who I wasn’t permitted to see for a time. I was also very afraid of spending money; I feared that one mistake would land me out in the world alone. I ended up anemic a couple times because I was pinching pennies with regards to food.
I think better resources and policies for homeschooled students transferring into public school are needed. Perhaps a “buddy” system. And there needs to be options for college students who don’t have a place to go over breaks. Finding a place to live for a month was always stressful. For many who don’t go to college, or have parents who won’t let them leave, domestic violence shelters should do more to help. I’ve heard of people getting turned away because they are a daughter and not a spouse, even though they’re dealing with the same issues at home.
Chris: Being socialized in an evangelical enclave and then rejecting its ideology is psychologically damaging and socially isolating. I emerged with religious trauma and depression. The people I grew up with didn’t understand me, and neither do people who haven’t lived religious fundamentalism. I continued to be viscerally afraid of hell for more than a decade after I stopped believing in it, and only recognized that I am queer in my mid-30s. (I am attracted to women, which was part of the reason I didn’t recognize it earlier, although fundamentalist socialization that rejects the possibility of queer existence is a key factor.) I feel like much of my childhood and youth were stolen from me, and I still sometimes feel “weird everywhere.”
Getting comprehensive sex education and access to a community of people who have left fundamentalism could have helped immensely. I agree that we need more resources for those who need to escape from their families in a way that I didn’t, like safe spaces specifically for youth leaving fundamentalist environments. Ideally, I’d love to see an advocacy organization that could oversee that, and provide scholarships to people deprived of a good education, due to homeschooling or Christian schooling, to go on to college. Perhaps this organization could also provide remedial tutoring, and, in my dream version, it would also contain a library and archive to facilitate research on the Christian Right.
Samy: Ultimately, the most difficult aspects of my faith transition, besides my family, have been internal: constant self-doubt over my choices, and constant reevaluation to affirm them. It’s hard to unpack Mormonism, which tends to dominate every aspect of your life: who you hang out with, what you do on a weekly basis, what underwear you wear, how you spend money, what you consume. Given these restrictions, it’s hard to start from zero: you trust Mormonism to make choices for you, but now you have to be somebody outside of Mormonism. It’s a long process, and one I’m still working through, but also one that’s rewarding as I have built my own morality based on personal convictions rather than the dictations of a sect leader.
I also find that, although Mormonism has been abusive to me, it entices me back. I love talking about Mormonism, but it’s ultimately unhealthy and harmful for me to engage. Even this discussion has taken some emotional energy to open up and be vulnerable.
Akiko: When a community is also your social life, losing one means losing both. I’ve found a new community, but I don’t fit in as well as I would like. Because I was evangelical for nearly 50 years, having sex is still connected to marriage for me, and I struggle with this every day, as well as with simple physical affection, because part of me thinks I might cause someone to “stumble.”
I have been self-supporting since I was 18, and raised three children largely on my own. In evangelicalism, this was a problem because evangelical men don’t appreciate self-sufficient women. Even though I am out of evangelicalism now, I find I can’t date because this mindset overshadows the rational part of me that says there are men who embrace egalitarianism.
What would have been helpful to me is meeting other people with similar experiences and talking about coping skills and how to move on. I’m a big believer in therapy, but it’s hard to find a therapist who really understands how purity culture indoctrinates you, or that egalitarianism is real and obtainable.
Were there aspects that were positive or joyful?
Chris: There is something positive in the way I can now speak out about the harm evangelicalism (and any religious fundamentalism) does to people, which, as Heather mentioned above, has to do also with intergenerational trauma. My shorthand psychological definition of fundamentalism is a misdirected response to trauma perpetuated communally and generationally. There have been moments of joy in discovering the complexities of my gender and sexuality, but my sense of liberation is seriously tempered by the Trumpist theocratic coup we’re undergoing.
Heather: My family’s first church was a predominantly Black church in New Orleans, and though that church’s pastor helped lead my father into fundamentalism, I still think that experience has been meaningful to me as a White woman. There were some really good things mixed in with the bad, such as an exposure to Black liberation theology. For a lot of people, church is the closest thing they’ll get to therapy for trauma and stress; if they have an emergency, churches can be an important support in areas where government services are functionally nonexistent. I know how much beauty churches can hold for people, alongside the problematic or abusive teachings, and why disparaging them will get you promptly tuned out and prayed for.
I also find that a lot of the “homemaker” skills I learned in lieu of math and science make for excellent party tricks. I cook traditional Cajun recipes and crochet and sew and make candles and excellent pies and all kinds of other quaint throwback stuff with an ease that impresses hipsters. I don’t believe it was right to try to teach me how to make whole wheat muffins in lieu of long division, but I respect the idea of teaching both—to both girls and boys.
Samy: There’s joy in being sure of my moral and ethical principles and in realizing I am living a very fulfilling life. I have come to be more critical of oppressive structures and learn more about how to be empathetic toward others and their struggles.
Akiko: Today, I find joy in knowing I was an ethical Christian, and now an ethical Christ follower; in knowing that loving your neighbor is the right thing to do, no matter what, and that calling out oppression wherever you see it is just one way of expressing love.
Do elements of each other’s experiences seem familiar?
Chris: Definitely. It seems that for many of us, issues of gender equality matter a lot. For some of us, queerness is a factor in our inability to stay with the “traditionalist” religion we grew up in. Trauma and relationship issues are also, unsurprisingly, common themes.
Heather: I agree with Chris but think I grew up in what would be the tip of the iceberg and most of the other participants grew up in the larger hidden part, so we have somewhat different experiences and challenges.
My family used to be hard core “fundy.” No holidays and birthdays; no makeup or jewelry; no married women working outside the home. They didn’t vote, so I don’t have that in common with the other participants. But it isn’t that they weren’t political. They believed that Christians are meant to follow an anointed king who is part of the church and led by God. It was full-on dominionist Rushdoony stuff. I think the more “fundy-lite” side still moves us toward the same theocratic ends, but there’s plausible deniability about the intent, which can actually be harder to recognize and leave behind.
Samy: There definitely are commonalities, especially in the difficulties that arise from dealing with post-religious trauma and recovery and conflict with family.
Since I grew up in Guatemala, there are elements of my experience that arise from that culture, and not just religion. For example, while many Mormons in the U.S. have changed their views on LGBTQ issues in recent years, these changes have not happened in other countries. My family is living in a different version of Mormonism than U.S. Mormons, so there are more layers to my interactions with the church there, which perceives my sexual orientation as a U.S. imposition on their culture.
Akiko: I see some commonalities: Samy’s cultural experiences colored his religious experiences, as mine did. Chris’s struggles with “traditional” religion and relationships, while not like mine in terms of partners, is similar to how I tried to fit into my religion’s acceptable relationships.
On the other hand, compared to the fundamentalism Heather describes, I was a typical SBC evangelical. SBC churches celebrate the flag, the 4th of July, and every major holiday. We sang and danced, and drank wine away from church functions. I wasn’t so restricted from the worldly stuff, and dominionist theology was not part of my SBC churches. However, I realized in the 1990s that fundamentalists were taking over the SBC, and that they were enraptured with the Dominionist stuff, even if that wasn’t the case where I was.
What advice would you give to people leaving similar communities now?
Heather: People coming from high-demand religions can greatly benefit from therapy and journaling. Even if you leave physically, the underlying framework and unprocessed trauma needs to be worked on sooner or later. For me, it was being diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD that started me unpacking what had really been done to me in this movement. You’re on survival mode when you first leave and often have to put self-discovery on a backburner. You just want to pass for normal and not be weird. That leaves parts of your life almost unspeakable, unknowable even to people you want to be close to.
You can get to a point where it needs to be speakable, and then a point where it’s only one part of your story, because you have built so many other things into your life.
I wish so badly that we had a one-stop shop of resources for people who leave. Ex-Hasidic people have Footsteps, but there’s nothing standard for us because we are spread all over the country. Most therapists will be shocked to hear some of the things being done under the Christian label, and it can be hard to have your therapist look shocked or be misinformed. But good therapy can help you out of the remnants of black-and-white thinking and learned helplessness. I’d also suggest that people raised in environments that practiced guilting, shunning, and corporal punishment get more thorough medical checkups, with a special focus on the immune system. Way too many of us end up with autoimmune problems because of years having the body and mind on high alert, or not knowing how to live in moderation after we leave.
Survivors have to learn to take loving care of our whole selves. It is a massive amount of work to change these baseline settings, but totally worth it.
Chris: I hope that they know that they’re not alone, and that there are people and resources for them to find and connect with. I would advise them to trust their own doubts, which goes against the grain of fundamentalist socialization. They’re there to tell you something is wrong. Resist the gaslighting, much of which you’ve probably internalized and will need to dismantle, and find your authentic voice.
Connecting with survivors is crucial for many of us—not, ideally, as a replacement for therapy, but as another part of our healing. Some people are unable to afford therapy; others struggle to find therapists who can effectively help with religious trauma, as there are a lot of Christian therapists out there with proper credentials who nevertheless misuse religion in their practice. Other therapists simply don’t understand. This is also why the exvangelical community is critical. In coming together to promote exvangelical voices and stories, we are finally becoming visible enough to change the media’s approach to evangelicals.
Samy: The single most important aspect is to find a community that is fully supportive. Being or feeling alone can be destructive. The sooner you find that community and protection within it, the better off you’ll be. Of course your community cannot be the only protection from the trauma, but it’s an essential aspect for full recovery.
Akiko: First, you definitely are not alone and your experiences are the experiences of many others. Second, you should identify what affected you most and why, and be willing to share your experiences within a safe setting like a support group. Talking about it really does help.
Before I left evangelicalism, I went with my boss for lunch, and she stopped first at an Al-Anon group. At first, I was furious with her for taking me somewhere where people seemed weak and messed up. But as I listened to their stories, it dawned on me that they were like my own. I realized I had no self-worth because in the eyes of the church, I was less of a leader and teacher because I was a woman. I went into therapy, and my therapist said I didn’t have a fear of failure, but a fear of success. He was right. I learned that I was born to speak up, to lead, and to help others find themselves. That is what I want for everyone leaving evangelicalism: find out who you are and live the life that fulfills you, even if at first you’re doing it alone.