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  • Writer's pictureSharon Beck-Doran

It's Been Weird: Thoughts on Evangelical Deconstruction

It’s been a strange couple of years, am I right?! I’m tired of blaming things on the pandemic, but it really disrupted the whole world.

Actually, things were already getting weird. I thought it was the Donald Trump effect. History books will no doubt be unpacking all this for decades and centuries to come.

Adam and I were having dinner with friends sometime in late 2020. As we sat around the table and talked, I gave what I thought was fairly well establish consensus. “The thing about Trump is that he’s very polarizing. He has pushed a lot of people who were moderate farther to both the right and the left.”

“Not Trump,” our friend said, “Obama did that. Obama was the one who was polarizing.”

I can’t remember much after that, since I was looking for something, anything really, to change the subject. Nowadays I give advice on being curious and open to hearing what other people have to say. But this was me two years ago. Totally different person.

The idea that Obama was polarizing was new to me and honestly sounded a little weird. He was so cool. He played basketball and wrote books. Sure, he didn’t reform immigration like I had hoped. And the Affordable Care Act helped some people get insurance even though it did nothing to address the real problem—the rising cost of healthcare. But he is still so cool. Who doesn’t find that guy inspiring?

I guess it all depends on your perspective. The thing about perspective is that it can change.

I used to think George W. Bush was just the worst. I loved the SNL skit that parodied his press conference with Tony Blaire, then Prime Minister of the UK.[1] They made fun of his pronunciation of the word nuclear (he said nuk-u-lar) and had Bush trying to get Blaire to emphasize that he wasn’t coerced into entering the war in Iraq.

It’s been two decades. Now, when I think about George W. I’d say, he wasn’t such a bad guy. Sure, it could be that other figures by contrast have influenced my opinion. I have also experienced a change of perspective since then.

I still remember waking up on 9-11, hearing about the world trade center bombing. When congress voted to retaliate, I was not a fan. I was a young religion student at the time. We generally dislike violence. I would say things like, “Non-violence isn’t an effective strategy for nation-building or maintaining political power, but it’s what Christ calls us to as Christians. He did, after all, lay down his life on the cross.” Sounds like a religion student, huh?

I still think that war is to be avoided whenever possible, but my opinion of Bush has changed. I realize now what a difficult position he must have been in. Everyone felt so vulnerable. The loss of life was great, but the loss of our sense of safety was immense. All of these frightened people were demanding he do something. Our elected officials must have felt the American people had already made the decision for them. They had to fight back.

Also, I was the smartass walking through the airport checkpoints muttering that security is an illusion. No one is safe. We are giving up our civil liberties to make us feel better. Now I just pay extra for pre-check, appreciate the TSA’s efforts and keep my mouth shut.

In 2017, former presidents Bush and Clinton sat down for a conversation on leadership at the George W Bush Presidential Center.[2] The cordiality and mutual respect was refreshing to say the least. Over the years this caricature of a dopey Texan had morphed into a human being. I mean, he was a human being all along, I just hadn’t seen it before.

Did you know that George W. Bush is a very talented artist? Isn’t that so cool? The guy is president of the United States and then decides he’ll take up portraiture painting.

Anyway, my point is that our perspective can change over time. I still disagree with many of Bush’s decisions politically, but now I have more compassion for the difficult position he was in after 9-11.

George W. Bush was this bumbly guy from Texas. By contrast, Barak Obama was extremely polished and well spoken. By even more contrast, Trump would have nothing to do with political correctness and I think that had appeal to a lot of people. After four years of chaos, since we got what we asked for, only to (mostly) realize we didn’t like it as much as we had imagined, we picked the safest grandpa of predictability that we could find. I use “we” here very loosely, as in the collective citizenry, not necessarily you or I specifically.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already bracing for the next election. Lord help us all. I am seriously not looking forward to the 2024 political season.

All that to say, it’s been weird, right? From my perspective, and obviously, I have some bias here, Christian folks haven’t shown up as their best selves in the public sphere in recent years. I feel like it looks bad when church leaders like Franklin Graham dogmatically support the same candidate as white supremacists like the Proud Boys.

I do think a shift happened with the election of Barak Obama, but I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the significance. What I’d like to talk about is the push away from evangelicalism that has seen an uptick in the past few years.

A lot of folks who were raised in the church are doing this thing they call deconstruction. You might actually be doing it without knowing what it’s called. Podcasts are being recorded and books are being written about it. The real work is being done on TikTok. By work, I mean random people talking and sometimes ranting about deconstruction. I’m still working on figuring out that algorithm.

For some, deconstruction means they reject faith, God, the church or anything related. Most of these folks have been burned pretty bad and I don’t blame them. I don’t love the hateful things they say, but I get it. As unpleasant as it is to hear their criticism, sometimes there’s truth in the pain and value in hearing their stories.

Many going through this process of deconstruction have decided that they still believe in God. They are often in various stages of figuring out what that looks like outside of their faith tradition, be it evangelical, Mormon or otherwise.

The concept of deconstruction comes from this literary and philosophical idea of breaking down concepts and evaluating the changing nature of language. Recently, deconstruction is becoming a go-to to describe this process of questioning and reevaluating faith and the beliefs that people have grown up with. As with new-ish terms, it doesn’t always mean the same thing.

When I compare stories with friends who grew up in the church, our experiences have a lot of similarities. My husband grew up fundamentalist Baptist in Iowa. My friend, Sheralyn, went to an Independent Christian Church in western Kansas. I grew up on the west coast with a mix of Bible Missionary, non-denominational and Nazarene. While some of the nuances of the way we articulate our particular brand of Christianity differed slightly, the culture and practices were much the same. Our experiences are strikingly similar to the tiktokers out there, both those who are rethinking their faith and those who want to burn it all down.

We grew up with a literal view of scripture, that the Bible is the inspired inerrant word of God. Sexual purity was a big deal. Traditional gender roles were emphasized. Lots of energy was spent defining and avoiding sin. We were coached on how to win people for Jesus by memorizing verses like the Roman Road, which starts with everyone has sinned and ends with receiving God’s free gift of salvation. Anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality were the top political platforms. We were also taught that other churches were good too, but our church was the only one that was really truly spiritual. Or as Adam put it, other churches were nice but our church was correct.

The name that’s been given to this experience is evangelical. Because our churches tended to lack diversity, and to distinguish from the very different experience and faith tradition of black and Hispanic protestants, we have been given the label white evangelical.

I was curious about how we got here. Several people recommended the book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Our lady pastors book club started reading it last week. Du Mez points out that this term “evangelical” doesn’t always mean the same thing. She says that, “In recent years, evangelical leaders themselves have come to recognize (and frequently lament) that a ‘pop culture’ definition has usurped ‘a proper historical and theological’ one, such that today many people count themselves ‘evangelical’ because they watch Fox news, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican.”[3] Again, this particular term gets used in a lot of different ways, so I wanted to be clear about how I think of it here.

Du Mez makes another observation in the introduction to her book that I find interesting. She credits the marketplace and Christian merchandising for much of the unifying cultural experience that we grew up with. She explains that even as part of the Dutch Reformed Church, she grew up as a consumer of the same religious products. We were all wearing “No Fear” and “True Love Waits” t-shirts, listening to Amy Grant or DC Talk, learning to parent from Focus on the Family, going to Promise Keepers or Women of Faith, reading books like The Purpose Driven Life, watching VeggieTales cartoons, and I could go on.

Lifeway Christian Stores has been one of the largest producers of Christian merchandise in recent years. They are actually owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. To maintain uniformity of message, Lifeway, along with others, have acted as gatekeepers, deciding which authors were published and sometimes pulling books or CDs from shelves if an artist moved outside of the evangelical framework (ex. Jennifer Knapp or Rob Bell). There’s obviously a lot more to it than that we all shopped at the same stores, but I have to read the rest of the book to find out. I’ll keep you posted.

For a variety of reasons, culture has continued to shift. For me, it started around 20 years ago. I remember driving cross country and hearing Chuck Swindoll on the radio. He said that homosexuals were launching an all-out attack on families, and they were out to destroy marriage altogether. Pot calling the kettle black with all this talk of attack, I thought to myself. Even then, before I’d considered the question spiritually or politically, I knew what he was saying was a lie. Gay people obviously respected marriage and commitment or they wouldn’t be so eager to pursue it.

The questions many are asking aren’t just about gay marriage, but it’s the one that continues to get the most press. It seems to have surpassed women in ministry as the most recent controversy to divide churches, although that one didn’t get as much air time as I would have liked. Congregations are trying to decide what they believe about homosexuality and the implications to the way they read the scriptures. They are asking hard questions about whether they should be closed, welcoming or affirming. If the congregation chooses fully affirming, do they allow LGBTQ+ people to be ordained? Some might think these are all easy answers, but if you’ve lived your whole life thinking a certain way, any movement on this feels like a big deal.

Our thoughts and ideas change over time. Sometimes it’s slow and sometimes it’s all at once. For many, change is a natural consequence of life experience and living in relationship. We influence each other’s thinking. The people we are around, the ideas we are exposed to, for better or worse, have the power to move us and change our minds.

There are plenty of folks who were raised in the church to believe a certain way about certain things. Except their kid grew up and realized they were gay or wanted to be named James instead of Judith. Suddenly you’re confronted with this person that you love. It’s not an idea or a sin, it’s a human being. You’re forced to rethink some of the ideas you had before because here they are telling you they need your support. Even in 2022 the world can be very cruel to people who don’t fit the mold that they have been given. And that’s your baby, or your granddaughter or friend or uncle or niece and you can’t be the same person you used to be because they need you to love them in this new context, maybe even more than ever before.

Some may never move. I have friends who came out and their parents just can’t get past it. They don’t know how to have a relationship with their son or daughter because they chose a different way.

I know others who choose to carry their secret quietly and alone. The fear is too much. The challenge just feels overwhelming.

When I was recently introduced to this concept of deconstruction I was sure I’d never done it. I never tore anything down, I just went to college and learned some stuff. As I talked to my lady pastor book club friends, wrestling with the role of scripture and what I believe about salvation, I realized I’ve been doing it all along.

I learned it from my dad. When he was my age he had to rethink his faith and evaluate everything he knew. He left his tribe, the Bible Missionary Church, the denomination that had shaped and formed him. He found a new tribe and found new ways to understand and practice his faith.

In a world that often shut down dissent, my dad encouraged me to think and dialogue. Sure, I shocked him a time or two. I may have made him question his parenting choices on occasion. Nonetheless, he made it safe for me to explore ideas. No matter how many questions I ask or ideas I challenge, I will never doubt that my parents love me. I recognize not everyone can say the same. I realize what a precious gift that is and I’m so thankful to them because without their love I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

You know what makes me the most proud? My parents always loved people. Even when they were telling them to wear long skirts and throw their TV in the trash because it was worldly. It sounds kind of dumb now, but at the time they were sincerely trying to be helpful.

At 75 my dad is doing his own deconstructing, rethinking his ideas about sin and grace in a new context and a new way. My parents are rediscovering what it means to love people, but better. I couldn’t imagine 20 years ago hearing my dad say something like, “You know, I think we made too big of a deal about sin.” I might have fainted dead away. He would also like me to note that this is an oversimplification of his viewpoint.

Now, is my dad the progressive liberal democrat that I would prefer? Duh, no. He’s still the same person. But has he changed? He sure has.

And so have I. What keeps me grounded? I think love. I love God and I believe God helps me love other people. I hope that one day when I’m 75 I will still be learning how to love people better too.

[1] [2] [3] Kobes Du Mez, Kristen. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright Publishing Corp., June 2020.

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