I think that in many ways, my exit from American evangelical Christianity and the deconstruction of my faith were inevitable. (Deconstruction is a term that originally applied more to philosophy but has recently come to include the process of examining your faith through a more critical lens and dismantling it in some form or another.)
Unlike a lot of stories I’ve heard of people who grappled with their faith and deconstructed in some way, I didn’t have a rigid and tyrannical home life or some deeply horrific church trauma. I wasn’t raised in a home that used the church’s worldview and beliefs to control me or beat me down. If anything, my parents may have given me too much leeway sometimes. Regardless, I continue to have a really great relationship with my parents because they have always just been normal, decent human beings. One of the most important things I learned from their example was to be good to people. And that’s probably why I was never going to stay in conservative, fundamentalist Christianity long-term.
For a lot of reasons, I’ve always been an insatiably curious person. Just ask my mom: One of my favorite books as a child was a book called “Why?” about why various things are the way they are. I, to this day, consider the book “The Way Things Work” one of the most foundational books I’ve ever read. I love learning new things and understanding the how and why of everything around me. So as a Christian, I’ve constantly asked myself those same questions about my faith.
While I was safe in my small bubble of small-town conservative evangelicalism, I was given a whole host of easy answers that emotionally resonated with the worldview my church presented. But even then, I outright rejected the more ridiculous premises. A sermon series about why Disney is actually aligned with the devil because you can draw three sixes in the Disney logo? Nah, that’s silly. Rejected. The word “saviour” has to be spelled with seven letters because that’s the divine number? Lol get real, that’s ridiculous. Rejected. If I had never been pushed one way or another in my faith, I probably never would have jumped into the fundamentalist deep end to begin with. I was too analytical in taking apart the information presented to me to just sign on board to something like that.
But along came something called “apologetics” that claimed to have all the nerdy, logical, science-y answers to the toughest kinds of questions. The world is obviously older than 10,000 years old? Nope, here’s an anecdote about how carbon dating is flawed, allowing you to reject it wholesale. Adaptation within a species is an observable piece of what is known as evolution, where, over astronomical periods of time, one thing gradually becomes another? Hah, get real. Here’s more anecdotal “evidence” that you can weaponize to just ignore all that. So on and so forth. These kinds of stories resonated with the faith I had accepted emotionally, and they allowed me to feel intellectual in my faith while ignoring the overwhelming evidence for anything my faith tradition wanted to ignore.
With my intellectual superiority complex satiated, I was primed to be drawn deeper into fundamentalist ideology and rhetoric. Eventually, I graduated from a private Bible college and started working for churches. This took me outside my small hometown to the suburbs of a big city. But these suburbs were still, themselves, very conservative politically. They did, however, give me more opportunities to meet and interact with real people with different lives and worldviews than me. Perhaps I had been too quick to judge these people, who were not all that different from me after all. Eventually, I had to leave my position at a church there to protect my family’s mental and emotional well-being. This and other experiences in church ministry helped me to see more clearly how flawed evangelical churches really are. Despite claiming to be led by “men of God,” they can, in fact, be led by anyone with a strong enough personality. If you can find a good, genuine pastor, that’s amazing. But the odds are more stacked against you than you think.
Throughout that whole process of Bible college and church employment, many people who knew me could tell you I still bucked the norms. I asked questions that didn’t have quick and easy answers. I rejected outright ridiculous things, just within the context of what was acceptable to disagree about. So I dived more and more into my own study of the Bible. I had to know more than what people were comfortable talking about.
One thing in Biblical studies that has always fascinated me is the question of what the original audience of a particular text understood it to mean. If the Torah was meant for ancient Israel originally, what did ancient Israel think it meant? I started to learn how interpretations of different parts of the Bible had changed over time, shifting because of the changes in the culture of the audience or because different Christian leaders couldn’t agree on the meanings of the texts. At first, I was uncomfortable with the history I was learning. I was taught that the Bible meant one thing, and it meant it forever. And yet I could read with my own two eyes the history of how teachings like the Rapture weren’t even started until the 1800s. Or how Baptists used to use Paul’s writings to defend slavery and segregation (it’s a big part of Southern Baptist history) while no one today would say such a thing and be taken seriously.
So the shaking of my faith didn’t start because of religious trauma. I simply read more than just the narrow band of what was acceptable to the church traditions I grew up with. I gradually moved away from what is known as conservative evangelical Christianity, feeling that it was far too comfortable with accepting as eternal truths teachings that were only decades or centuries old.
Then 2020 happened. I watched in real-time the murder of George Floyd in a 9-minute video which left no doubt as to what really happened. I watched fellow Christians reel in shock and horror seeing the video, and then I watched as the propaganda machine worked quickly to convince those same Christians it wasn’t such a big deal. I watched the churches I knew so well start to shift towards standing up for Black Americans before quickly caving into the pressure to just bury such notions and return to the status quo. I watched as the kinds of churches I associate with reacted like petulant children to the global pandemic and the lockdowns. In the city in California I lived in, I watched OTHER faiths go well out of their way to meaningfully help the community during the lockdowns while the Baptist churches and similar traditions just grew angrier and angrier that they weren’t allowed to meet like they wanted to. I watched churches act like it was the end of the world that they had to watch church on a screen, even though my own wife had been doing that for years before the pandemic because of chronic health issues. They never cared when it was her dealing with it, but now that it was them, it was unacceptable. I watched churches all over the nation tell on themselves over and over again. The plight of Black Americans was less important than their own comfort. The health and well-being of other people was less important than their desire to do church one certain way. The plight of countless sexual abuse victims inside churches was less important than protecting the brand and image of those churches.
And of course, I watched how the evangelical church at large had grown increasingly attached to the person of Donald Trump. A man so obviously wicked and vile, yet churches and Christians across the nation held him up as a near Christ-like figure. While I had voted for him in 2016 because I was still a “vote down the line” Republican, I could not, in good conscience, vote for such a horrible man again. So I voted 3rd party in 2020 and then watched in January 2021 as Republicans, many of whom followed the same kind of Christianity I had, lost their ever-loving minds. After reading the book “Jesus and John Wayne” I was no longer surprised by that kind of thing. The kinds of harm that I had been seeing the church perpetuate with my own eyes for only a few years has actually been the MO of the dominant forms of Christianity in America for a very long time. Structuring power through identity politics and manipulation is the name of the game, and a lot of church leaders play it—some unwittingly, but too may quite willingly.
And so, while I consider myself a Christian (and I have no ill will against my friends who are still firmly in the camps I walked away from), I can no longer hold to a whole lot of beliefs that I once did. I now follow Christ because of what I find valuable in my faith, not because of some kind of ideal that it’s empirically true. Rather, in the Bible, I find virtues that make me want to help other people—virtues that push me to be more selfless, more giving, and more understanding. The church, throughout history, has been more than comfortable disposing of teachings that no longer suited its purposes (slavery, polygamy, different interpretations of the creation story, women not being allowed to wear pants, etc.), so I don’t feel bad doing the same.
I am who I always have been, someone who thinks we should treat each other well without judgment, that we should be responsible for our own selves, and that we should lift up those who need lifting up. It’s just that my faith is no longer an obstacle to those ideals, but a partner with them. A good person recognizes when they’ve done (or consented to) harm to others and makes a change. And that’s the kind of person I want to be.