‘Exvangelicals’ Memoir Explores Faith-Science Gap

May 29, 2024
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BookShelf: ‘Exvangelicals’ Memoir Explores Faith-Science Gap

“The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church”
By Sarah McCammon 
St. Martin’s Press. $30

Image of The Exvangelicals book cover

Reviewed by Tom Henry

First, a disclaimer: Sarah McCammon’s New York Times bestselling book, “The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church,” isn’t an environmental book per se.

Nor does it try to be one, even though McCammon is a former member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a two-time SEJ award winner for her radio reporting.

Still, it’s a great read that can be useful to a lot of environmental journalists, and for good reason, given our profession’s long-standing interest in exploring the nexus between the faith community and science.

Religion talks to many people in ways that news articles don’t. Or, perhaps, can’t. Trying to better understand why should be important to us as communicators, not just for academic research but to better help us do our jobs.

It’s a fascinating challenge and a tough nut to crack, learning what clicks with people of all faiths.


Unflinching, yet sensitive

McCammon, now a national political correspondent for NPR and co-host of The NPR Politics Podcast, puts readers squarely into the world of conservative evangelicals in this unflinching, yet sensitive and unapologetic book.

It makes a case for how and why the conservative evangelical movement aligned with the far right as it gained traction decades ago, and why its power as a voting bloc may be weakening because of defectors.

Those who have left the evangelical core after being raised in it, including McCammon, are known as exvangelicals. In short, they are former evangelicals who have become disillusioned by leadership at the top and the direction that hardcore evangelicals have taken their followers.

The book’s strength comes from McCammon’s highly personal memoir and writing tone, explained through her observations and the close relationship she developed with a loving grandfather who was distanced by other family members because of his homosexuality. 

McCammon offers plenty of examples of how she came to question the religious beliefs she grew up with, how she felt betrayed by her faith as it became more radicalized and her lack of guilt after making what appeared to be an inevitable split.

She calmly and rationally explains her observations, intellectually showing how her life and those of others evolved more through a gradual self-awakening.


Her ‘unraveling’ not about Trump’s rise

Her story isn’t a rant per se, nor does she attribute it to the evangelical movement’s hard shift to former President Donald Trump.

“The beginning of my own ‘unraveling’ is difficult to pinpoint, but my shift away from the evangelical community had nothing to do with the rise of Donald Trump,” she wrote. “People sometimes ask about the moment it all started for me, but the truth is there were many moments, many tiny threads being pulled one by one, rather than a single cataclysmic breach.”

In her book, she said she was not alone in rethinking her faith or leaving the tradition “because of concerns about racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.”

One sociologist who was raised as a conservative Christian and still considers himself as “loosely evangelical” told her he thought Trump’s 2016 election would lead to the end of the evangelical movement as a political force. Instead, it resulted in a doubling down of it.

A resounding 81% of white evangelicals are believed to have voted for Trump in 2016, largely because of his anti-abortion stance.


When science is ‘a fairy tale’

The book traces influences such as Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority political movement of the 1980s, James Dobson and his controversial teachings through his Focus on the Family group and QAnon, as well as lessons from the more recent anti-science movement, especially as it applied to the COVID era and vaccines invented to thwart off the virus.

“When you’re taught that science is basically a fairy tale, and you’re taught not to trust scientists, then why would you care if the world is burning around us?” asked one of many exvangelicals McCammon quoted, Jocelyn Howard, a 2006 Bob Jones University graduate.


One exvangelical expressed

dismay at how much science

is suppressed or kept out of

conservative Christian schools.


Howard expressed dismay at how much science is suppressed or kept out of conservative Christian schools on the grounds it is “liberal propaganda.”

McCammon tackles the subject of “alternative facts” in one chapter. She said the evangelical movement’s disingenuous response — or more appropriately, lack of one — to the high-profile death of former Minneapolis resident George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement was a breaking point for many others in that faith community.

The disillusionment and guilt — or at least tension and anxiety — of leaving behind longstanding religious beliefs has become the focus of an emerging subject of mental health known as religious trauma. Not all people necessarily abandon their fundamental beliefs about religion, but reimagine their relationships with it, McCammon wrote.

As one writer told her, many people with deep ties to the evangelical movement have found themselves “increasingly at odds with their community over politics, issues of racial justice and gender equality, and the pandemic response,” McCammon wrote.

The rift widened with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, where crosses and signs bearing the name Jesus were carried near gallows set up on the Capitol lawn. Pew Research Center data that year showed a growing tendency among Trump’s white supporters to adopt an evangelical identity.

“In the end, their own movement was redefined as a reactionary, angry, white Christian, storm-the-Capitol movement,” Mercer University ethicist David P. Gushee states in the book. “People who don’t have any idea about classical evangelical doctrines, but by God, they like Trump and they’re white, so therefore they’re evangelical. That is a complete collapse of moral and religious identity that evangelicals brought on themselves.”

McCammon bites off a lot with this book, but does so eloquently and with evenly paced writing. She offers insight that can be useful for all communicators and observers of human behavior, including environmental journalists.

Tom Henry is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and a former SEJ board member.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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