To my friends on the religious right: A plea for sanity

An open letter to my evangelical friends:

When I left the evangelical church of my youth sixteen years ago, I did so with a wistful backwards glance. I would’ve left sooner, but I knew that my leaving would dramatically alter — if not end — several friendships that were incredibly valuable to me. It’s not that I couldn’t have kept hanging out with my evangelical friends, but I knew that it would become difficult — if not impossible — to be open and honest about my shifting beliefs, which would subsequently call into question the authenticity of the friendship. No longer would I be among those who have “the truth,” which meant I would be on the outside looking in — seen as backslidden at best and heretical at worst, which doesn’t make for great party conversation to say the least. But in the end it was a move I simply had to make.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reminded of the reasons I left evangelicalism all the more. With the rapid escalation of demonizing speech on the part of public figures valorized by Christians on the right (from Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” and “prostitute” name calling to Rick Santorum’s outlandish comments about phony theology and snobbery), along with numerous personal attempts to get Christian friends on the far right to provide a justification for their political values based on the red letters found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (which to this day none of them have done), I no longer grieve the lost evangelicalism of my adolescence like I once did. It strikes me as so strange that the vast majority of Limbaugh listeners identify with “born again evangelicalism.” I’m glad I walked away when I did, and it makes me wish I would’ve walked away sooner. While I do grieve lost friendships and remain thankful for the kindness and care still expressed to me by my old evangelical friends, I don’t for one second miss the ideological indoctrination that is evangelicalism’s constant undertaking. I vividly remember the first time I consciously thought to myself that my relationship with evangelicalism was headed for divorce: In my first semester at a private Christian college, the Rush Limbaugh radio show was played over the loud speakers at the student union. While running around the track for P.E. class, all you could hear was Rush Limbaugh’s booming voice. I had trouble connecting the dots of what Rush said with what Jesus said, and it wasn’t long until I started to sense the many growing issues I had with evangelical sub-culture. The next semester I transferred to a state university. It’s been declared to me on numerous occasions by my evangelical friends that it was at the state university where I “lost” my faith, where “I grew further apart from God,” etc. The truth of the matter, however, is that those things already occurred while under the tutelage of evangelicalism. You might even say that I had to lose my faith in order to find it.

There have been times when I’ve flirted with the idea of going back to my evangelical roots, or at least re-connecting with them in a substantial way. I’ve wondered if maybe I just happened to have some peculiar things happen all in a row that gave me a bad taste for all things evangelical. I’ve recently read books by evangelicals like Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo and David Fitch and thought to myself that if what they write about is evangelicalism then I want to get back on board. I’ve worked with local evangelical groups in some really important initiatives like capping the rate on payday lending in Missouri (where businesses can charge over 1000% interest), and I’ve been very thankful for their leadership. In the past few years evangelicalism has developed an increased awareness of social justice, recognizing that Christianity isn’t just about going to heaven when we die. All of this has encouraged me immensely.

But just when I’m optimistic again I’ll hear Mark Driscoll make yet another over the top sexist comment, and the evangelical community backs him up. Or I’ll listen to Franklin Graham et al. continually question the authenticity of Obama’s faith, or Mitt Romney disparage poor people. The rhetoric is troubling, and I feel like I’m back on that P.E. track in college. I’ve come to believe that the danger of the religious right is not in absurdist claims like a six thousand year old creation. It’s in the consistent valorization and celebration of rhetoric that is fueled by fear, animosity, hate, prejudice and sexism.

I would like to extend a plea to my evangelical friends both past and present: I know that the hard-line religious right rhetoric so popularized today hardly speaks for all of you. I know that the most dominant expressions of demonizing speech do not speak for all of you. I know that pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to win a nomination does not speak for all of you.

But here’s the thing: Those who are outside of evangelicalism don’t know that. They think that bigotry and sexism and prejudice must be deemed perfectly appropriate to everyone on the right, simply because that is precisely what is appealed to by the GOP (who we all know wins or loses based on the support of white evangelical Christians).

I am not asking my evangelical friends to change their mind on the issues. If you think that cutting taxes for the rich and cutting programs for the poor will lead to a rising tide that lifts all boats, fine. If you think a preemptive strike on Iran is the expedient thing to do, fine. If you think all of that correlates to what Jesus would do, fine. I’m not asking you to change your political ideology. Instead, I am asking you to hold the people in your tribe who are shaping public rhetoric to account, whether it be pastors, bloggers, politicians, media personalities or whoever. Let the public know that the name calling made by people like Limbaugh, and the outlandish accusations made by people like Santorum, hardly speak for all evangelicals.

Had I known that before, perhaps I wouldn’t have left the evangelical world in the first place. And neither would’ve the untold thousands of Millennials and Gen Xers who’ve gone on to do the same.

7 thoughts on “To my friends on the religious right: A plea for sanity

  • Phil, thanks for this entirely reasonable blog post. Experience leads me to believe it will likely be affirmed by the like-minded and rejected by the intended audience, but I pray that your kind call to take responsibility for the actions of their own tribe will resonate with some.

    You are missed, friend.

  • We´ll do our part if you´ll do yours, and “let the public know the name calling [and] accusations made by people like” Maher, Letterman, Olberman, et al hardly speak for all non-evangelicals.
    BTW, and I´m no evangelical, but, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written almost exclusively to record and relate Christ´s words and works to and among the contemporary Jews of his day (bound by birth to Mosaic Law) as a preparation for the coming Davidic Kingdom of promise. So maybe your friends (the ones you judged and abandoned before they could judge and abandon you as you supposed they would) haven´t given you a satisfactory justification for not linking their current political considerations to those four books of the New Testament because they wanted to spare you the embarrassment of such glaring ignorance.

    Keep this “plea” away from sparks or it´s liable to go up in flames it´s made of so much straw.


    • I anticipated a response like this, so let me clarify a couple of things. First, I will readily admit that there is plenty of name calling to go around, and non-evangelicals need to seek respectful dialogue as well. But it is important to point out that the people you invoke are not claiming to be speaking from a religious (read Christian) perspective. They are not the ones brazenly invoking God into the argument, all in an effort to say that religious freedom is under attack. Second, the nature of the argument utilized by those on the religious right tends to be in the service of sexism, homophobia, etc., and such claims are supposed to be Christian. I do not appreciate Christianity for such reasons, and if sexism and such are the values championed by those who claim to have God in their corner, then I want nothing to do with such a God (or religion). The point is that one side pretty much claims to be the mouthpiece of God.

      As a couple of asides, it is not as if I didn’t give my evangelical friends a chance before writing them off, as your comment suggests. What I described as possible is precisely what happened, and continues to happen today. And whatever your interpretation of the four gospels, your response has simply shown me yet another way that an ethical engagement with the teachings of Jesus is viewed as superfluous, impossible or unnecessary.

  • Rest assured Rush does not speak for all who call themselves Christians.

    For an excellent example of how a Christian should handle a morally questionable situation, see the story beginning in John chapter 8. Jesus called the woman to leave her sin, yet did not condemn her. That was a clear case of adultery; this case with Ms Fluke is far less clear cut (IMHO).

    Christians should take caution in Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23 claiming the name Christian is not the same as BEING one.

    I’ve met both Shane Claiborne and Tony Compolo and similar (eg: John Eldredge) and second your observation: they strive for an entirely different kingdom led not by party ideology, but by a King who became incarnate and showed what love and servant leadership looks and sounds like. And even a casual reading of the Gospels will confirm that what’s found there has little resemblance to modern political invective sprinkled with words.

    Your essay and observations are right on. Sadly, it may be that you rejected the Real thing in your quest to rid yourself of the counterfeit. But, yes, you’ve called it: that kind of talk and behavior is not what Jesus asked of his followers.

  • Hi Phil, I’m so glad I’ve come across your blog. We went to SHBC together back in the day and I feel like I could have written this post (although not nearly as eloquently). I, too, have felt twinges of guilt for turning my back on the evangelical tradition. My evangelical upbringing has caused me (and still causes me) to wonder if my progressive view of Christ’s love somehow denies me a chance for salvation. I often feel uncomfortable reading FB posts from friends who use overtly evangelical language, mainly because it makes me think maybe I gave up on God, or he has given up on me since I don’t talk or think like that. This post has encouraged and reassured me. I don’t feel like quite the prodigal child that I did a few minutes ago. Thanks so much for your words!

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