“I was leaving the Garden, the evangelical church and the only version of myself I had ever known. I was choosing who I wanted to be, but I had no idea who she was.”
In her new book, “Heretic,” writer and self-proclaimed “recovering scholar” Jeanna Kadlec weaves her personal experiences of drifting away from the faith of her youth with a broader reflection on the greater social and political damage done to United States by the popularity of evangelical Christianity. At a time when the die-hard Christian whole’s lust for power leads them to support falsely repentant sleazes like Donald Trump and Herschel Walker, there is an even greater need for his insights into how this religion wields such a control over his followers.
Why do people, especially women, stay in such an abusive religion? What do you need to leave? Kadlec can’t answer these questions for everyone, but as someone fully immersed in adulthood, to escape after discovering her lesbian identity while marrying a preacher’s child, he there is a lot to learn from his journey.
Salon spoke with Kadlec about her book, how evangelicals are trying to rebrand old-fashioned patriarchy, and how her pain of losing her community carries over in an era of growing GOP radicalism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In recent years, the percentage of Americans affiliated with a church has dropped dramatically. This is almost exclusively due to the fact that people leave evangelical churches when they grow up. So why do you think this is happening? And what do you think are the impacts?
The evangelical church of recent decades has lost much of the flexibility it had cultivated at the turn of the century. It refused to evolve and reconsider the humanity of other people the way other parts of Christianity did, in light of the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. By hooking up with, and then really getting into bed with, far-right politicians, they have amassed a lot of power. They were able to do things like introduce abstinence-only education in public schools. They seemed to have great success trying to institute their own religious values in the mainstream.
Eventually, those children they were raising grew up. We had grown up in this very harsh environment that had no flexibility. And we had specifically grown up in churches that required an absolutely extraordinary amount of cognitive dissonance. A lot of us, we go to public school, we’re exposed to different ways of living, we’re exposed to people who have different ideas of how the world should be. We see that ideas like purity, no sex before marriage, abduction – all these really extreme principles – are not necessary to be a good person. For so many evangelicals growing up and leaving the church, we can’t stand the cognitive dissonance any longer.
I was married to a man, but realized I was gay. There was absolutely no room in my religion for questioning, for doubt. It’s very black and white, which of course explains why it fits so well with the far-right turn the Republican Party has taken.
Why do you think evangelicals in particular have struggled so hard to moderate themselves? Members of mainstream churches, even Catholicism, are often more moderate or even liberal than their churches.
With majority Catholics and Protestants, there is a certain respect for people’s privacy. Evangelicalism is based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and also on this impulse to convert others. They expect you to believe with all your heart. It occupies your whole life. It’s not just showing up to church, it’s being a strong supporter of your workplace. There is so much emphasis on this outward demonstration of “inner transformation.” It is very difficult to be a nominal evangelical. It might be easier to walk away and casually come back with other types of Christianity. This allows for a smoother relationship that isn’t as closely watched by the community.
It probably predates that, but I noticed in the early 2000s that this idea of ”complementarism” started to be floated by evangelicals, seeming to be a response to feminist critiques of their rigid gender hierarchies. What is complementarism?
Complementarianism is essentially a “separate but equal” doctrine of how gender works within the church.
It’s this idea that men and women — and there are only men and women — are the two genders created by God, and that they fulfill separate but equal roles. We are supposed to believe that these roles are equal, even though men are still in charge. A woman’s ultimate job – as a wife, as a mother – is to submit to men. The word I would use for complementarism is simply “patriarchy”. Or “sexism”. It’s a term that some pastors and theologians coined to defend the very unsexy idea that a wife’s place was at her husband’s feet.
We’re getting a firehose of reminders of how evangelicals think these days, such as in reaction to the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. Their rhetoric is coming back into the mainstream. Abortion advocates present forced childbirth as a favor they do for women. There was a woman in the Washington Post who argued, for example, that 13 is an “absolutely phenomenal” age to be a mother. I have the impression that this rhetoric is quite normal in evangelical circles.
Seeing Roe knocked down was devastating, but it wasn’t surprising either. The way I grew up was always the goal. The churches in which I grew up, [overturning] abortion was preached from the pulpit. It was a major problem. I came of age in the late 90s and early 2000s. At that time, there was this whole fear campaign going on in the churches about how they were losing. That they were losing “God’s country”. Abortion has often been presented as the singular problem through which they could take over America.
It was very consistent with the other things being preached around gender roles. The expectations of young girls who became women were marriage and motherhood. The pinnacle of being a godly woman was to get married and have children. And of course, we weren’t going to abort any of those babies, because any pregnancy was God’s will. There was never any discussion, never any recognition of how pregnancy could occur outside of marriage, or how even married women could want or need an abortion.
Everything that happens to a woman’s body is God’s will, which is just a coded way of saying that whatever a man does to you is God’s will.
What’s crazy to me is that – in the evangelical pundit class, anyway – they’re getting away from the abortion issue. Just like they won! They don’t talk much about abortion. All the energy is directed towards this total collapse of queer and trans people, people being non-binary. Their social networks, their shows, it’s all the time trans panic.
At this point, evangelism is just completely rotten. There is no redeeming what he has become.
They are so deeply driven by fear and target other people – especially people who have far less power than those who preach from the pulpit.
With this reversal of Roe, they got what they fought for and raised funds for decades. But now they need something new, because they can’t survive without fear, negativity and absolutely rampant hatred. They won on abortion, so they transferred it to trans people, and specifically to trans children. It is devastating to see the lack of humanity that exists within this church.
You write very movingly about how there was this heartbreak about your lost faith. It’s something that people who’ve never been in it don’t fully understand. We want to believe that it is easy to walk away.
It’s a grief I still have, even with my passionate feelings about the devastation the church is wreaking on this country right now. I still have a lot of grief for the people and the relationships I had. Humans are social creatures. We crave belonging. Whether it’s losing family or a group of friends, or even if someone has been made redundant and you’ve lost a colleague, losing people in your life who you were once very close to is devastating. For me, much of the grief of this loss of faith is tied to the loss of community. Members of this faith community did not think they could continue to have a relationship with a lesbian who had left my husband. I was not to be associated with.
Grieving is really complicated. It’s not so black and white to say that because someone belongs to this church, he’s just bad. Or because someone votes in a particular way, never showed you love and kindness. Relationships tend to have more layers than that. Even if there is a breaking point, where this relationship is no longer possible, that does not mean that it is easy to give up.
I feel like it’s something, because of Trumpism, that more people relate to these days than ever thought they would.
There are no cut-and-dried answers. People cutting off their families is also a very common problem in the queer community. With a lot of my friends, it’s like, do you cut off family members who vote for Trump? Don’t you cut them? Under what conditions do you still talk to certain people? Who is it safe to continue talking to? It’s really different for everyone. It follows your own personal integrity and what feels emotionally safe to you. And that can also always change. But yeah, it’s definitely something a lot of us are going through right now. And it’s, it’s really hard.
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