For many progressives, it is tempting to dismiss white Evangelicals as racist, homophobic, and selfish hypocrites. And some of them are.
But I must always remind myself that they were trained to be that way. They were trained by their white Evangelical religious leaders who have three major goals.
- Protect their church from outside threats (physical, psychological, spiritual, or cultural).
- Save souls from hell.
- Make the laws in America promote white Evangelical Christian values.
And they will do just about anything to achieve those goals.
Sometimes it means putting on skinny jeans and a rock-and-roll light show to appeal to millennials who don’t think that church is “cool.”
Sometimes it means canceling Harry Potter or the scientific data for vaccines.
Sometimes it means fighting for the 10 Commandments to hang in a courtroom.
And sometimes it means showing full-throated support for a president who has affairs with porn stars.
And while racism, education, and sexuality explain many things, there is another key to understanding why 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Because if this cult-like support is difficult to understand, that’s probably because you have never been in a cult.
White Evangelicalism is a large part of our society, and of course, it would be a stretch to call it a cult. But it sure felt cult-like when I was growing up in it.
We were trained to obey our leaders. And white Evangelicals’ leaders told them to support Trump in 2016 and 2020. So they did.
And yes, Trump supported pro-life legislation and traditional marriage, which white Evangelicals have traditionally valued.
But so have Catholics. So why the difference in voting records?
Because white Evangelicals do not tend to tolerate this level of dissent.
I am now a pastor at a church that is capable of allowing church members to think freely. People at our church have political views from across the spectrum. They are free to think what they want and disagree with the pastoral team.
It is a stark difference from the white Evangelical church I was raised in.
I was used to not being allowed to think or act freely, and if my pastor had told me that Trump was “God’s anointed,” I would have voted for him.
Why are white Evangelicals Uniquely Susceptible to Cult like Thinking?
Because they are Trained Not to Question Authority.
Our white Evangelical church was filled with college-educated white-collar folks. Most adults in our Midwestern suburb commuted 30 miles into a very liberal city for high paying jobs.
But life at church was very different from life outside of church.
There was a phrase we often heard from the pulpit at my white Evangelical church: “If someone doesn’t become an Evangelical Christian by 18, chances are they never will.”
I didn’t understand this when I was young, but I do now. A young and impressionable mind is most likely to accept white Evangelical indoctrination.
I call it “indoctrination” because that is what it is. And I’m not taking potshots. I was a white evangelical until I was 25. I was trained from a very young age. I had a white Evangelical nanny, I attended pre-school at my church, and all our family friends were from church.
My brief time in a white suburban public school was simply no match against the trusted white Evangelical adults in my life. And I was not allowed (or frankly capable) of making friends outside our faith (unless I was trying to convert them).
I couldn’t because I was intentionally sheltered from controversial subjects and armed to the teeth with tricks to resist “godlessness” in the schools, media, and politics.
I’ll give you a short example of what this looks like up close, just so that you can see how the sausage is made.
In 2nd grade, our public school had a sex education class about good touch and bad touch, chickens coming from eggs, men in white vans handing out candy…pretty standard stuff.
But our local pastor felt this class was an appetizer for sexual immorality in our youth. So my parents followed his directions and had me “opt out” of the class.
This experience was one of the most shameful and radicalizing experiences of my young life.
I remember my teacher sternly telling the class, “Nathan’s parents don’t want him to see this video, so he is going to go to the library.” My face beat red as I was the only student who walked out of class and sat in the library.
This moment cemented my young commitment to white Evangelicalism. I was being publicly shamed by my public school teacher because of a choice my parents and pastors made.
This moment reinforced the narrative of “the world vs. the church” that I had heard about in the Bible. I was publically suffering for my faith.
And before you jump down my throat and say, “That’s not suffering! That’s not real oppression,” I will say that you are, of course, right.
But creating the conditions in which young white Evangelicals believe they are suffering for their faith is an essential step in creating fidelity to white Evangelicalism.
After this public shaming, I became a foot soldier for the white Evangelical culture wars.
Raising Children to Question the Scientific and Historical Community
Shortly after my parents took me out of the school (they didn’t want their kid to be publicly shamed for our faith!), they enrolled me in a conservative Christian private school.
Obviously not all white Evangelicals go to private schools.
But it is common in small or suburban towns to have white Evangelical pastors and parents making concerted efforts to control the curriculum at K-12 public schools. Continually pushing for creationism to be taught in science classes, abstinence only in sex ed, and eliminating critical race theory from history classes.
To give you a sense of the particular brand of “conservative Christian” school I went to, our nice white teachers used Bible verses as evidence in our science and history classes.
Our almost all-white middle-class student body was taught by a dozen white teachers who were very kind to us. And they worked hard to ensure that we students were kind to each other. There was zero tolerance for bullying, and everyone was included in sports teams and class trips.
Successful cults make compliant and obedient people feel loved and protected. And I was no exception.
My favorite teacher was my 5th-grade teacher. I idolized him. He was a white man with a big laugh and a big heart for students. He would stay late after school coaching my football and basketball team. And he would even give up his lunch break to play football with us during recess. He was generous with his time and took his role as a teacher seriously.
He was also famous around the school for his history lessons.
He especially loved the Civil War. We spent six months studying the Civil War. By the end of 5th grade, we were expected to know the names of every battle and every major general from the north and the Southern Confederacy.
On the first day of class, my teacher asked the class, “What was the Civil War fought over?” I had seen a few movies about the Civil War, and so I raised my hand.
“Slavery,” I said.
I waited for an answer from my teacher, football coach, religious mentor, and personal hero. “No,” he shook his head. “The Civil War was not fought over slavery. That is a very common misconception. It was fought over state’s rights.”
The Civil War was fought over states’ rights turned out to be one of the most damaging pieces of racial misinformation I would ever receive.
I would be deep into college before I realized that my 5th-grade teacher had given me only a partial answer.
Fifteen years later, I learned that “States’ Rights” was a rallying cry during the enforcement of Jim Crow laws that prevented freed black people from voting and integrating into public schools.
The truth is, the Civil War was fought over states’ rights… to keep black people enslaved.
But in 5th grade, I didn’t know any of this.
There was no internet, and no other teachers corrected him.
I looked down in the textbook published by conservatives in Texas, and it said, “The Civil War was fought over states’ rights.”
To further understand the extent of control of white Evangelicalism, we must also look at the system of misinformation. You see, the textbooks at my school came from a Christian publishing house in Texas. It was a Christian publishing house committed to erasing all discussion of racism and slavery from American children’s minds.
These textbooks and talking points were created by Republican and Evangelical leaders working together to reclaim the public discourse and morality after school integration and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This collaboration between Republican and Evangelical leaders is well documented, and you can read more about it here.
But again, in 5th grade, I didn’t know any of this. I don’t know whether my 5th-grade teacher did either. I don’t imagine that he knew.
I hope he didn’t know.
As I put my eight-year-old hand down, I felt the old shame I had felt after being escorted out of class during my sex ed lesson. I felt the sting of being wrong and letting down my hero.
And then I listened to my teacher and personal hero begin a long lesson about how the white southern farmers bravely fought to defend their “states’ rights.”
Why It’s So Hard for White Evangelicals to Integrate into Mainstream Culture
The rules in white Evangelicalism make it hard to engage with and learn from people from other cultures and perspectives. I was discouraged (and incapable of) integrating into the life of non-Evangelicals.
When I returned to public school in 9th grade, I was trained to publicly question authorities.
When my science teachers say that the world is a billion years old and my pastor says it is 7,000 …who am I gonna believe?
Am I going to believe my pastor, whom I have listened to since I was a baby? The man counseled my family after a bitter fight. Or am I going to believe some random teacher I see between 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. with a glass beaker and a book? And not even a single Bible on his desk!
During an evolution lesson from my grey-haired balding science teacher, I threatened him in front of the class of spreading un-proven ideas. He relented by teaching seven-day creation as an alternative. By 9th grade, I was already changing public discourse in small ways.
I didn’t make friends with non-white Evangelicals. How could I? I couldn’t go to parties. I couldn’t date non-Evangelicals. And I was at church three nights a week. There wasn’t much need or possibility of making friends outside white Evangelicalism.
And nothing puts a damper on a new friendship like telling a fellow teen that you think they will burn in hell forever.
But despite all this, I was still quite well liked. I was nice to people, and I wasn’t a bully, which was enough for people to like me at my high school.
But behind this fairly normal façade, I was living a white Evangelical double life.
I was fashionable, and I dated regularly. But on the weekends, I was deeply involved in an anti-masturbation and toxic masculinity youth cult where my youth leader was sexually exploiting me.
I was at the top of my class in most subjects. And before bed, I read the Bible cover to cover, believing it to be more historically accurate than any of my textbooks at school.
I would publicly tell women that they could grow up to be anything they wanted to be. And I went to a church where women were forbidden from holding any positions of power over men.
Why are White Evangelicals Listening to Donald Trump and the Mis-Information Rhetoric of Their Leaders?
Because They are Trained to.
When you create a category in someone’s mind, you can fill it, like a shelf on the wall, with all sorts of things.
So when white Evangelicals teach seven-day creation, they also create the category of “sometimes scientists don’t know what they are talking about.” And once this category exists in the mind, ideas like “COVID-19 is a hoax,” “anti-vaxxers are the only sane people,” or “climate change isn’t real” aren’t that big of a stretch.
When white Evangelicals teach that the Bible only contains literal historical fact, they also create the category of “sometimes archaeologists, journalists, and historians interpret things incorrectly.” And then they can re-write any history they like, from the Holocaust to the Civil War to the news they are watching on their phones.
When white Evangelicals reject the scientific and psychological data around LGBTQ+ identities, they create the category of “sometimes therapists and psychologists mislead people.” And then it’s pretty easy to add, “don’t take mental health meds” or “don’t report your abuser” into the mix.
Why Are They Not Abandoning These Leaders?
Because They Know the Cost.
The early voting data shows that education level is the key to support for Trump. But this only seems to apply if you decide to leave white Evangelicalism after you go to college.
Many young Evangelicals need access to higher education and some social distance from our pastors. Time and space to fully digest new information, engage with new ideas, meet new people.
When I went away to college, although it was a historically white Evangelical college, I finally met some freer-thinking people.
I had kind and patient professors who helped me read and internalize non-Christian forms of knowledge. They continually reassured me that I wasn’t losing my faith by engaging with philosophy and science.
I had a patient roommate from Kenya who was willing to be my first black friend. He helped me unlearn my racism and de-colonized my mind.
And even with all those guides to help me, leaving Evangelicalism was still the hardest thing I ever did.
I lost my job at my home church. The people who changed my diapers and taught me about the Bible told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore.
When my family supported me through this time, they lost friends and eventually felt that leaving the church was their only option.
I spiraled into a deep depression that lasted four years. It took years of therapy, a new community of post-evangelicals, new friends, and traveling the world for me to begin to feel any better.
Leaving a cult means leaving your whole life behind.
And it is only getting harder. White Evangelicals have really cracked down on universities to toe the line. At my college, most of the professors who helped me were fired in the years after I left.
Social media has allowed white Evangelical relatives and church members to continue to track and monitor the development of young people. So when young people post a picture of themselves at a Black Lives Matter rally or an article being critical of Trump — anything that questions white Evangelicalism — their posts result in a deluge of condemnation and possible expulsion from the community.
And any pro-white Evangelical posting often results in public shaming from non-white Evangelicals. This fraught dynamic makes it hard for white Evangelicals to make any public declarations that might lead to meaningful dialogue with people who hold other views.
What Do We Do Now?
As I watched the election results pour in, I thought about my 5th-grade teacher. I am still mad at him. I am sure he voted for Trump.
I am partially mad because of how stupid he made me look. How ashamed I felt when my black friend finally confronted me about my racist misunderstanding of the Civil War. I’m still angry because I had the right answer before I was trained in a racist white supremacist re-writing of history.
But how angry am I?
I wondered about how I am supposed to feel about him. How responsible is he for his actions? How morally culpable are people for their actions when they have been misled?
Is it justifiable to get his class canceled?
Should I be angry enough to tell you the teacher’s name?
Angry enough to tweet out the school’s name?
Angry enough to organize a rally and try to get him fired?
But before I get angry enough to do something, I slump into sadness.
I am sad that millions of young people around the country and I were robbed of an opportunity to understand the pain of our black brothers and sisters. I am sad that we never learned about the brave black men and women like Harriet Tubmen and Fredrick Douglas in my 5th-grade Civil War class. I am sad that I wasn’t given the tools to be a better ally to my black friends.
I am sad that I wasn’t taught healthy sexuality. I am sad that a predatory church youth leader was able to use my ignorance to sexually exploit me.
I am sad that millions of white Evangelicals never learned to think for themselves.
I am sad that when their pastor told them that Donald Trump was “God’s anointed,” they just believed their pastor and voted.
I am sad that it is so damn hard to get people out of this mindset.
How Can We Help Someone Stuck in White Evangelicalism?
We have to Access That Part of Ourselves That Still Feels Compassion.
We have all been told stories that we later found out weren’t entirely true. Maybe you remember when you found out the tooth fairy wasn’t real. Maybe you remember when you learned that the earth was 4.5 billion years old, not 7,000 and seven days old.
Maybe you remember when someone finally learned a family secret. A secret that unlocked some painful and confusing part of your past.
There is a particularly disorienting feeling when you hear a truth that shakes the foundations. Something that makes you go back and question someone you trusted.
It can be a liberating feeling, a sort of euphoria. Suddenly it all makes sense. We feel at peace.
But it can also be a deeply painful feeling. Anger for having been tricked or lied to.
Fear and isolation. Uncertainty about whom to trust. Shame for having believed the lie, having been so easily tricked.
I still blush when I think about some of the things I said when I was a white Evangelical. Some of them make me sick to think about.
The ways I thought about sex. The day I wore a “Straight Pride” T-shirt to school.
When do we allow Divine Grace to work its magic in our hearts? It’s a big question. One that our country is wrestling with.
Sometimes, white progressives will need to remove white Evangelicals from our social groups. Work to get them fired from their job or de-platformed from social media.
We can’t simply sit back and allow racist, homophobic, selfish hypocrites to continue to exploit and terrorize BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. Where is that line? It’s hard to know.
Maybe we start a conversation with a bit more compassion and understanding. Maybe we don’t go in ALL CAPS on someone who has been programmed through fear, shame, and conditioning.
If tweeting worked on everyone…it would have worked by now.
But there are moments where someone begins to question the narrative they were raised in. Moments in which they begin to ask some big and scary questions about who they are and what they have been told to believe.
And if you meet someone on the edge of a breakthrough, someone like me at 19 years old, whatever you do, don’t degrade and cancel them. It won’t work. We were trained for it. It fits right into our Biblical narrative about “the world rejecting us.”
And if you heap on the shame, keep in mind that is what controlled our lives in white Evangelicalism, and we aren’t looking for more of it from you.
Rejection can’t be the solution to the problem of cultish thinking in white Evangelicalism. It won’t change white Evangelicals’ minds.
And frankly, it is exactly what their white Evangelical leaders are hoping you will do.
Your rejection will likely reinforce everything that white Evangelicals’ leaders have said.
It’s certainly what the next Donald Trump is hoping you will do.
If you are in the process of leaving Evangelicalism or know someone who is and are looking for another perspective on this process. Consider listening to this conversation from former Evangelicals Micah J. Murray and Cindy Wang Brandt called Surviving Deconstruction.
*The church I serve is in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. It is not affiliated with the white Evangelicalism.