Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change #091: Blake Chastain on evangelicals and exvangelicals

Theory of Change #091: Blake Chastain on evangelicals and exvangelicals

Episode Summary

In previous episodes of our “Why I Left series,” we've heard the stories of people who have departed from various right wing political and religious traditions listening to the stories of individuals who have escaped these radical belief systems is important, but in this episode of the series, I want to put the pieces back together and look at the stories in the aggregate to see if we can find some broader trends.

And to help with that discussion, we’re featuring Blake Chastain, host of the Exvangelical podcast where he has interviewed many different guests about their own experience of leaving evangelical religious beliefs.

He's also publishing writing at the Post-Evangelical Post, which is a newsletter you can subscribe to on Substack as well.

The video for this episode is available


The transcript is automatically generated from the audio and may not be entirely accurate. It is provided for convenience purposes only. Some podcast apps will cut off the text before the end.

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Blake.

BLAKE CHASTAIN: Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, so, but before we get too far into the weeds here, let's start off with talking about the Exvangelical podcast that you are doing and what you do with it and how long you've been doing

CHASTAIN: Sure. So I have been producing the show Exvangelical since 2016. It is a show that's primarily focused on people's individual stories of why they have left evangelicalism, in particular, primarily white evangelicalism or white led evangelicalism. And really, my guests their stories sort of follow their biographical tracks with regards to starting in, say, like a three-act structure of starting in Act One.

The types of environments that they may have grown up in, the, what particular denomination, what their original experiences were growing up in it or if they were introduced to it later in life, then what led them to start questioning evangelicalism. And what may have led to their break or what has over the last several years been the common language that's proliferated [00:03:00] online and elsewhere is deconstruction what led to their deconstruction, whether it was 1 catalyst or sort of single traumatic event or death by 1000 cuts sort of thing.

And then finally, where they are now, I'm not. Primarily interest. I'm not interested in; I don't have a vested interest in people staying within the Christian faith or not. I'm just curious as to what led them to change their minds because that to me is the most fascinating thing. And there are so much individual and social consequence to making the choice to leave one of your faith of origin.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I don't know how it was for you, but when I was in Mormonism, that perspective, it was almost hard to imagine for me. To the extent that I thought about and the people that I knew thought about, sort of former Mormons it would just.

Just be interested in talking about it and not trying to de-convert people, just, having it kind of a neutral perspective letting people do what they want and not judge them for it. I mean, is that something that you came to over time yourself or?

CHASTAIN: I think so. I think that's something that I've sort of grown into as I've continued to do the show.

I do remember one particular instance. There used to be this phrase that I would say, regardless of what someone's perspective was or what, where they had currently landed, so to speak with regard to their relationship to religion or to[00:04:30] religious groups. And I used to say something like, if there is a God, I'm sure that they would appreciate it.

Or respect your decision. And then there was a guest that I had on that had landed in a more non theistic or atheistic place who sort of pushed back very, very, very politely but they objected a little bit to that language and framing and then, I received that and have since sort of stopped using that because it did feel like I was trying to shoehorn people into, keeping an open mind with regards to things.

And there are some people that for whom the continued engagement with religious or spiritual practices Is too traumatic for them to continue to try to access and for me to do that is unfair. So that is something that I have learned over time, but at the same time, I think it is utterly valuable to society at large to continue to talk to people who have disaffiliated because they have something to offer people who remain in religious groups.

And also, they are valid. Allies and political arenas where the opposition is something like Christian nationalism.

SHEFFIELD: Well it's also the case that, these Christian nationalist groups, they ally with groups that are secular as well, and they have no problem doing that. And I do think that is [00:06:00] something that the people who oppose Christian nationalism have got to kind of pick up on a little bit better that, you don't have to, you don't have to agree with everybody in 100 percent way in order to ally with them to go for a goal to preserve, I mean, to preserve freedom. That's really what we're trying to do here.


SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, so, so you've been doing it since 2016. Have how much hate mail do you get nowadays? Is it less or has it decreased over time or has it remained kind of consistent?

CHASTAIN: I, As far as hate mail, I mean, by and large I'm not as active on social media as I used to be my sort of extremely online phase began to peter out in 2019 or so.

So., I have not been, as, as much a part of being, say, on the front lines of that and trying to either punch up to more powerful people within evangelical spheres as I once was. So I may be known to a lot of folks who have paid attention for a while, but there have been other voices and other people who have built larger platforms than myself in the intervening years, and they are likely probably more recipients of that because just because of.

If you are building something off of one of the social platforms and build to hundreds of thousands of followers, then you will likely run into that more. I'm sure that people still within the evangelical fold see [00:07:30] me as someone that's maybe leading people astray or something like that.

But oftentimes... Oftentimes, their critiques are, can be very nonspecific and not necessarily tied to a particular creator or commentator, but just, decrying this deconstruction movement or whatever else as something, but I mean, it is I think those comparisons comparing The online deconstruction movements and things like that to evangelicalism is not apples to apples.

It is not a direct comparison because those groups have far more sway within our society and more resources and more organization.

SHEFFIELD: Well, okay, so for people who haven't heard the term deconstruction, what does that mean?

CHASTAIN: Yeah, so that essentially the way in which it has been used over the last several years is not necessarily the same way that you may have learned it within the context of say a philosophy class.

It's not as specific as, as the way that, Derrida may have used it when or other French philosophers may have used it. What they are, how they are using that term is by essentially saying they're questioning the beliefs that they inherited from their faith of origin. So, and that can mean, say, within the context of someone who is evangelical or Mormon, and [00:09:00] I, you can absolutely speak to a Mormon experience.

I think that is distinct enough that I don't really talk to ex Mormons on my show because I don't have that direct experience. But there just as a quick aside, #exmormon or #exmo is an even more popular hashtag on Twitter than #exvangelical is. By like, I think #exvangelical has around between 1 and 2 billion views and #exmormon has like over 5.

So, but what deconstruction means is essentially you are questioning those beliefs, whether it's the teachings with regards to how you relate to society. About purity culture and sexuality or any other number of things, whether it's a theological question and then questioning those beliefs and then oftentimes realizing that you no longer affirm those beliefs and that can have significant consequences for someone's personal identity as well as how they relate to their faith group.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. Yeah. Well, and I think one of the other things that probably I would suspect the former Mormon and former evangelical experiences have in common is that there are a lot of practices of the various churches that people sort of come to view them as doctrines deriving from the scriptures or whatever. But in fact, they are just customs.

And I think that discovering things in which you [00:10:30] might have had as a child placed extreme emphasis to you on that. 'This is very important. We're doing not doing this as a horrible sin.' And then you find out when you actually read the literature, it's not in there.


SHEFFIELD: So that is something that your guests have talked about pretty extensively a lot?

CHASTAIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean. One of one of my early guests was a friend of mine from college. I went to a Christian college and one of, one of the ways that he described that experience of having been taught a particular thing and then.

Learning from just living life after sort of leaving high school, college, these sort of protected places that often, would be called either the bubble or someone else called it a snow globe of sort of protecting people from the real world, so to speak, was that they were sold a false bill of goods and that they were The way in which they were taught to live did not function in any reasonable capacity once they were adults and say, married and doing and going about their lives.

One example is also. Even learning just historical facts around things like the teaching of the rapture, those things can be presented as eternal as having been part of the Christian tradition from the beginning, [00:12:00] but in reality. That teaching is only about 150 years old. It came about in the 19th century but so much of 20th and 21st century American Christianity is based on this teaching of the rapture and that the world is supposed to get worse and worse and worse, and then Jesus comes back.

So that de-emphasizes actually trying to make the world better. And that has a real impact on people's lives.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it really does. And you see it in a lot of different ways. But I think one of the most prominent recent ways that manifested was during the COVID 19 pandemic. I guess probably the most famous example of that was the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, who had said that, we don't take this COVID stuff as seriously here in the South, because we're Christians and we believe in an afterlife and we believe that we're saved. And so if we die, we're actually going to somewhere better than the current place. So don't worry about it.

CHASTAIN: And that's such a nihilistic take on this life that we have on this planet and.

Even runs anathema to say the response to the Spanish flu from Christian groups in the early 20th century, those things were brought up by a number of commentators who were trying to push back on that sort of inherent nihilism. The other impact of this can [00:13:30] be people that are sensitive to these teachings develop severe anxiety and question whether they're saved and whether once the rapture does come.

If they would be one of the people that would be spared it's something that, that several years ago was a trending topic on Twitter called rapture anxiety. And now as part of the, parlance and vocabulary that we use to discuss these things amongst former evangelicals, whether they use the term exvangelical or not to describe themselves.

SHEFFIELD: Hmm. Yeah. Well, okay. So I guess you're saying then that people said that that was very common to have rapture anxiety.

CHASTAIN: Yes. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And not just as a kid, but also as an adult as well.

CHASTAIN: Right. Right. Right. Because those things are essentially sincerely held beliefs or like, formative beliefs that, that formed when you were young and then as you are an adult and say, go about go about your life and you may be deconstructing purity culture and, or that sort of thing and engaging in adult sexual behaviors, and then have these thoughts that, oh my gosh, what if what I was taught when I was a child is true? And am I going to be am I going to be damned or something like that just because of the acting like a normal human? And so those things can crop up even if [00:15:00] you even if you cognitively no longer believe in those things.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and then of course it also crops up even if you, still do believe everything. Just the idea that you're not how do you really know that you're saved? Because I mean ultimately, there is no official standard that somebody can say, 'Oh, that's it. You did it. Here's your stamp.'

 And I think that in some ways, a lot of the evangelical intellectual theological culture in, in a lot of ways, it seems to me that it's kind of continually reinventing the wheel, and having to go through controversies that Christianity as a larger faith tradition went through thousands of years ago and already was like: 'Okay, you know what? We're done with this one. We don't have to think about it anymore.'

I guess my thought example of that would be the idea of universal grace and salvation, that was a doctrine that developed out of this lack of surety with 'well, what does it mean to have been saved? And how can you really know?'

And the answer that people eventually settled on was, well, actually, we can't know. So, Jesus died for everybody, regardless of whether they acknowledge him or not. And I don't know. I mean, do you think that some evangelicals are having to come around to that, that insight that, other people came to 500 years ago?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and I mean, that is a that is something that can cause trouble for people in, in [00:16:30] those evangelical circles. One famous example from within evangelicalism is that Rob Bell, who was Considered a celebrity pastor in the early, late nineties, 2000s. And around 2010, he wrote a book called Love Wins, and that's essentially what he, what the book was about.

It was about this idea that, that if God is loved and God saves everyone and pushes, push back on the idea of eternal judgment and hell and all of these things. And as a result. A number of the more conservative factions within evangelicalism pushed back and essentially tried to cancel him. That was not the terminology, that was not in our, our nomenclature at the time, but evangelicals have been doing things like this for a very long time.

And what happened to Rob Bell is he eventually resigned from his church. He, and this was a church that was more sympathetic to his type of view, but he was also pressured by more conservative people within the same ecosystem, media and otherwise, like John Piper, who wrote a famous tweet called, that said, farewell, Rob Bell.

And all of his books were pulled from. Christian bookstores, all of his books. So at Family Christian Stores, Lifeway, which is which was the retail bookstore chain managed by the Southern Baptist Convention, [00:18:00] they pulled all of his books and he was deprived of all those things and they've done it to a handful of other authors over time as well.

When Jen Hatmaker affirmed queer people. Publicly all her books were pulled from those types of locations when Ray Bolts in the 90s early 2000s came out as gay, all of his all of his CDs and music were pulled from stations. So, the boundaries of evangelicalism around theology and what is acceptable is very heavily policed and enforced.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it really is. And it has to be said, and I've said this a few times on this show, that the Christian right invented cancelling people for their opinions. This was their idea, and now they constantly say that they're the ones who are the victim of it, but in fact, they do it the most, even now. They still do the most.

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Yeah. There's a, there's even a there's even a, a book called The Radio Right, which looks at the rise of fundamentalist radio preachers in the sixties. And honestly, one of the first sort of consumer boycotts was around these hams that I forget, I think they might've been Polish hams or something like that.

I don't, I don't remember the exact context, but one of the first consumer, broad consumer boycotts was pushed and organized by listeners [00:19:30] to a conservative fundamentalist radio shows. And that book, I mean, the book is actually written by Paul Matsko, who is part of, I believe the Cato Institute and has, more conservative convictions than I do for sure, but the, the way in which he describes this is, it is categorically one of the things, and one of, one of the social innovations of these groups is to, to punish these people through consumerism and capital.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and it's also how they built themselves up. You mentioned Lifeway Christian stores being a owned and operated business of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I mean, in a lot of ways, the non evangelical Christianity in the United States has been sort of colonized, if you will, by evangelicalism. Because they have the megachurches, because they have the Lifeway Christian stores, because they have the TV networks, so they have the infrastructure to kind of push out their views into everybody else, and so as a result, they basically managed to sort of rebuild the other Protestant traditions in their own image to some degree, or just drive people out of Protestantism altogether is what it seems like.

CHASTAIN: Yes. Yes. And that's certainly true. A lot of 1 example from my own from my own sort of story is that I, I grew up going to United Methodist churches. And that is something that some folks would [00:21:00] consider. Okay. Okay. A mainline denomination, and it is in the historical sense. The one thing I do always say with regards to the experience is that it always takes on local flavor because it is broadly distributed across the country.

And that means that if you go to a small. Church in small town, Indiana, like I did, it's going to probably be a little more conservative as opposed to if you went to the Methodist temple in downtown Chicago, which will likely be more liberal or progressive. And one at that same youth group at the, at the youth group, I was exposed to things like Josh Harris's, I can stay and goodbye and to purity culture and to a number of things.

That are broadly evangelical and they were not necessarily tempered by the fact that I was in a supposedly more progressive denomination, one that does ordain women and things like that. And so that is absolutely the case that, that one of the ways in which they use soft power and influence is by generating materials that will be used by more progressive Protestants, and they may not they may not be as cognizant or were not at the time, so to speak to the types of messaging that is built into the material that they use.

I think they have learned those lessons since then. And there are responses to that. But [00:22:30] these evangelical publishing houses started in the late 19th century. And so they have been developing for a long time and are well established in our country.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it is interesting for me to see, because when I was a Mormon, I was definitely aware that this was happening. Because we didn't have Mormon bookstores where we could go and buy stuff.

And so, basically, if you wanted some Christian books, you had to go to one of these evangelical ones. And but on the other hand, if you're just some other flavor of Protestant and don't have these unique attachments and doctrines that Mormons do, it is harder to see that this is happening to you.

 I don't know if it was deliberate that they intended to do it this way either. What do you know about that?

CHASTAIN: I would say, I mean, I do think that that's at least within evangelicalism. I don't know whether there was necessarily something nefarious, but and I can't ascribe, something nefarious to. To evangelicalism at large. I do think that these publishing houses were, we're meeting a demand. And then over time, they also helped to generate to generate a sense of like an imagined community or a public to which they could create a market.

There's a book. By Daniel Vaca, who is a Brown University historian called Evangelicals Incorporated, and it actually looks directly at the evangelical book market and how it started in in the 19th century and developed [00:24:00] through to the present day and. He largely argues that that this sort of force did help to generate and codify the white evangelical culture.

And, then those things permeate through things like the colleges that were built in the 1920s the Bible institutes that started a little bit before that. And on and on, as all of these alternative institutions were built. And then over time, yes, they did bleed into other more progressive spaces and those sorts of things but I don't, I don't know whether they were looking to try to temper the more progressive wings of American Christianity or other political parties in particular.

Other geographical regions, or if they were just, pursuing these things because starting at around the time of the 1920s, they, these groups didn't really intermingle all that much like evangelicals. Isolated themselves in a lot of ways. And what I mean by that is there was the national council of churches and the parliament of world religions and all of these things that were started in the late 19th century, early 20th century.

And whether, and a lot of evangelical groups or fundamentalist groups weren't really participants and then develop their own develop their, their own groups like the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s. So, [00:25:30] in a lot of ways, they stopped operating in ecumenical or interfaith spaces and just continued to cultivate their own sense of identity and culture.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and it's also interesting to the extent that evangelicalism has also been southernized because there were flavors of evangelicalism in every part of the country, but at this point, the other ones functionally do not really exist. Everything is a southern evangelical culture pretty much.

And some people might dispute that, but it's like, well, where are your bookstores? Where are your mega churches? Where are your books that people are buying? They're just not there.

CHASTAIN: Yeah. And even places like Orange County which is a stronghold of a lot of evangelical culture in California, a lot of those people were transplants from the South.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially Oklahoma in the Midwest. But actually I'm glad you mentioned Orange County, because of course there is a controversy with one of the biggest churches out there, Saddleback Church, just got kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Saddleback Church of Rick Warren, because, he was like, 'Well, look, it seems like there's nothing wrong with ordaining women, and so I'm going to do it.' And so they did and it's another example of evangelicals canceling people who disagree with them.

CHASTAIN: Yeah, yeah, and there's a whole, there, there's absolutely a [00:27:00] whole well documented history of what within the Southern Baptist Convention is called the conservative resurgence in the 1980s and moving toward, forward to today, which is essentially people a number of recalcitrant I'm sorry, I was going to say recalcitrant, and I don't think that's the right word, but just very staunch conservatives who, who refuse to examine or question their, their theological convictions and believe that the, the only proper thing is to is to stand firm in their convictions, even if it means Thank You know, alienating women or people of color or queer people and disenfranchising them and blocking them from having authority in their faith community.

And that was absolutely the response to, to prior movements like evangelical feminism, which was trying to make space for women in these spaces and they were told no. And that's the. To me, that is the reality of a lot of evangelical spaces is that they, they may decry deconstruction or people leaving or disaffiliating and those sorts of things, but.

The reality is that people have been trying to make it work in these spaces for so long and they have been told no over and over for generations. And so now people are just deciding to [00:28:30] no longer participate. And that is a meaningful and valid choice when you have, are given no volition or control over your own fate in those places.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, and a similar thing is kind of happening in the LDS Mormon tradition as well. That people are trying to get the church to change its policies on same sex marriage or, or things like that, and continually being told no.

And so now when you look at, and it's tough to say because the Mormon Church is different in that they count you as a member even if you don't go to their church, up until I think you're 120 I think is when they take you off the rolls. But when you look at polls, asking people, are they practicing Mormon or a former Mormon, there's actually more former Mormons than there are practicing when you ask people.

But the response of the church has been pretty similar to, I think a lot of evangelical ones, which is that at first they denied that this was happening that people were walking away, and then eventually they started realizing: 'Oh, well, those, those communist academics weren't lying when they said this stuff. But you know what, it's okay because Jesus said that few there be that would find a way to the, to life. And so if that's how it is, well then, oh, well, I guess that's how it is.'

It's an [00:30:00] interesting perspective, isn't it?

CHASTAIN: Yes, absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: But it just goes counter to the whole idea that your goal is to spread the gospel, but you also don't care if people are leaving your church, like it. Do they see the contradiction? Do they see that? What do you think?

CHASTAIN: Well, I think you pointed out the way in which a number of these sort of worldviews can help discount the, essentially, the evidence to the contrary. So oftentimes, scriptures like that can be used as a validation of them standing firm, and so that, that can often be the case in these insular communities, is that they will I don't use the language of the remnant or that sort of thing to, to bat, to remain staunch in their in, in their convictions and to not question things because To do so, they fear may lead them along that, that terrible slippery slope that is, that is talked about in so many places instead of doing the more difficult work of trying to reform their own practices and beliefs, but many people are just in a, in a position where, where they would rather choose to affirm them, their fellow humans than to affirm the beliefs of a church.[00:31:30]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and you certainly see that with the continual growth of the religious Nones, as they're often referred to, people who have none of the above religious affiliation.

So while this perspective that we're talking about here, it certainly exists and is empowered to some degree, you look at some of the conferences that the Southern Baptist Convention every year has their big annual confab, and there still are a lot of people out there that are pushing for racial justice and reconciliation and things like that.

And it's interesting to think about, because the other thing that I think the Christian right has become more aware of demographics than they used to be.

Because they were growing largely at the expense of other Christian denominations. And now they're no longer growing. The Southern Baptist Convention keeps losing members. And it's become more political as they have lost members.

And that seems to me that a lot of the people who are the biggest Trump fans, they tend to be people who don't go to church, but they still have the evangelical identity.


SHEFFIELD: Do you agree with that?

CHASTAIN: Yes, yes. And there have been some, some studies and unfortunately I can't rattle them off, off the top of my head. But one of, one of them that does come to mind is that some folks who. Who utilize or identify with the evangelical label now, especially [00:33:00] since the age of Trumpism since 2016 has increased, even if their church attendance is non existent, they may actually adopt or relate to an evangelical label, but it is not necessarily one that is That is attributed to that church attendance or to church membership, but rather a broader sort of cultural identity that is not necessarily tied to evangelical beliefs and that is something that has remained.

A slippery and difficult part of using the term evangelical is that within academic circles, there's since the 80s, there's been this term the Bebbington quadrilateral, which is essentially four different aspects of evangelical theology. And David Bebbington was a historian or is rather a historian of.

British evangelicalism, and he was using it for, for his purposes, for his academic purposes, but it's been used since then as a sort of way to, to Allied, it will remove problematic evangelicals from, from and a pro evangelical framing. And this is something that that was done, in the, in the pages of the New Yorker and in 2017 or so by Timothy Keller[00:34:30] utilizing the Bevington quadrilateral to say these people who are acting badly aren't evangelicals because they don't, their beliefs don't fall into these four academic buckets.

Evangelicalism could be ascribed to more closely to what institutions are a part of. And now it's changing again because it's essentially a vibe. It's like, it's this identity that people ascribe to that isn't related directly to their church attendance or membership. So the, what the notion of what an evangelical is continues to change, which is fascinating.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but and another way that that's happening is, is the QAnon movement. I think a lot of people who, who covered QAnon, even they don't realize that the entire thing is based on evangelical theology just straight up. The whole idea of spiritual warfare and the evil, nefarious world, the world running these secret plots against everyone.

I mean, it's just, it is pure evangelical theology. But to that point though, this is another way that evangelicalism is sort of deteriorating because it is coming apart on the other side. So you got people who are leaving or saying, well, it doesn't work for me. I don't believe the ideas anymore, the doctrines, but then you got people coming out the other end who are [00:36:00] saying, I believe the ideas and in the identity, but it's just not as fun for me, so I'm going to go do QAnon instead.

And I've seen a number of stories of pastors of evangelical churches becoming alarmed and saying, my congregation wants me to preach about satanic pedophiles eating babies.

And to me, all of this kind of underlines the thesis of that book by Mark Knoll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. And the thesis being, of course, that there is no mind, was his point. I feel like some evangelicals are starting to realize that the critics were right, even though they may not be able to do anything about it. I don't know. What do you say?

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is the this is the difficult thing about moderate evangelicals is that yes, they're they really do not Have a place anymore, and there are people that may, really, really wish for those types of things to exist and for there to be a happy medium.

And I, I see that sort of in the, in the public career of Russell Moore. Russell Moore was. Got plotted in the, in the Wall Street Journal in the early 2010s for trying to be this, this new type of evangelical and even that language has been recycled several times new evangelicals as it was a term in the 1940s through the 1960s, people who were trying to resist the more [00:37:30] fundamentalist pole of these, of these groups, because the, but the history of evangelicalism is generally the history of the fundamentalists ousting the more moderate or progressive groups and being the ones that, that have most successfully held on to power within their groups.

So Russell Moore during, during his tenure at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission really did try to be a moderating influence within, within the Southern Baptist Convention. But during that same time, it was also overlapping with the Trump administration and a push within the Southern Baptist convention to be very contrarian.

And there were a number of black churches who were pushing to denounce white supremacy at as a statement of the Southern Baptist convention, which saw significant pushback, I believe in the 2017 convention and around within this same within this same timeframe, Russell, more famously resigned. And wrote a scathing letter that, that leaked to the, to the press that he wrote a scathing letter to the leadership of the Southern Baptist convention, talking about the sex abuse scandal, as well as the way in which it refused to refute white nationalism and other toxic aspects of their own faith [00:39:00] and their, and things that were prevalent within parts of the Southern Baptist convention.

And he was forced to resign. He was, his role was continued, continued to be more sidelined and in favor of these more reactionary positions. And he's now ensconced at, at Christian Christianity today and is has a place of leadership there. His, the person that he, one of the people that he replaced Mark Galley. He was the, he was the editor in chief at the time and said that he before he resigned, wrote an editorial saying, Evangelicals don't have to vote for Trump, and he was lambasted for taking that stance and eventually converted to Catholicism. So this is the reality for a lot of moderates, is that, that they, they are driven out as well.

And I wouldn't say that, that Moore is necessarily driven out, but his position is minimized. In comparison to those who may have more influence in this, in this present moment.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, the other thing, I guess the other sort of getting people away from evangelical denominations is the growth of Pentecostalism as well, which is another sort of de doctrinalizing [00:40:30] of Christianity. I mean, you watch a lot of these televangelist ministers, a lot of them almost don't even talk about Jesus.

They certainly don't quote the Bible. And they don't have much to say other than stuff that you could find in a self help book at the airport. But at the same time, some of them also, while they may sort of dial back the theology, are very much still a hyper political and hyper partisan.

And that basically became how Donald Trump managed to get a toehold among evangelicals. And I think people forget that, and it's important to note that, the sort of evangelical establishment, they wanted Ted Cruz and then it was only the Prosperity Gospel Pentecostal types who went for Donald Trump at first.

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr. Like those were the people who were his early ambassadors amongst evangelicals. And it was, you're right. It wasn't until around June of 2016 that the other leadership within. Powerful or elite evangelicals really started to fall in line on behind Trump after he made a number of promises.

SHEFFIELD: And yeah. And, and to be honest, he kept a lot of those promises to them.

You still see these articles about why are evangelicals are voting for Trump? And it's like, guys, did you pay attention that Trump did what he told them he would do? Like they were the only group that he ever told the truth to seems like [00:42:00] pretty much. And so, it obviously makes sense for them to do that.

I mean, Trump is in many ways just like them in that. He's a guy who doesn't go to church. He's a guy who has a Christian identity rather than Christian beliefs. And I think that's probably going to be the future of evangelicalism in the United States and probably around the world.

Can they do anything to stop that? I don't know, what do you think?

CHASTAIN: It's a great question. And I think a lot of people are thinking about that. And I, I know that certainly 1 thing that that is, that is utilized in a very interesting way within, within evangelical circles is the reality that the majority of evangelicals people who identify as evangelical are in the global South now, or in other parts that are not the Traditionally considered the West, whether that's in the United States or Europe or elsewhere because of the rapid growth of either charismatic expressions of, of Christianity or of evangelicalism, which may, could be historically traced to the missionary work during, especially over the last couple of centuries, but has It's turned into a has become over time, a local type of faith.

And also it's Christianity has been a global faith for millennia. So, but a number [00:43:30] getting back to how global evangelicalism is used to deflect from the criticism of Western or American in particular evangelicalism, I do think that that is a tactic to. To try to not look internally at the ways in which all of these types of things are continue to, to blossom and grow within our local Evan our, our context here in the United States and other parts of the West That essentially now is we, we talk about more in the terms of Christian nationalism and I would rather talk about Christian nationalism within.

Particular context like evangelicalism, because I think that can oftentimes let, let these groups off the hook if they're not trying to push back against these things and saying that they are not part of their faith or their understanding of, of good faith. And even though to an outsider.

Statements of declaring or stating that you're a Christian against Christian nationalism may seem like, may, may not seem very meaningful. It can be very meaningful to the people of faith within those communities to see those. Within their own ranks resist or reject those things.

And I think that [00:45:00] a number, the sort of issues that these groups face often are the same that, that even sort of more broadly, I would say that the media faces or other parts of our society and that Even though more institutions, their institutions and their, their say, say, for example, comparing the mainstream media to the right wing media ecosystem.

I don't again. I don't know that those are apples to apples to apples. And I'm, I'm. And I would love to hear your sort of take on that, given your experience within, within those ecosystems. Because I think some people think that, well, oh the right wing is pushing back against the mainstream, more progressive or liberal media, but the, the reach of these things are

When you compare them, they're, they're not the same and, and they're not the same. In what way? They're not the, you mean by that? Well, what, I mean, like, I think people underestimate the reach of conservative media. People within, within progressive spaces may under Can routinely underestimate the reach and effect of the right wing media ecosystem.

And I think sometimes it's people who have left one thing and moved to the other that have the insight that some people who've always stayed in one [00:46:30] particular ecosystem do not have.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, I think that's definitely true. Because a lot of people who had always been progressive and maybe, either in any tradition, faith tradition or non tradition, they look at things like the Daily Wire or they look at people like Andrew Tate or somebody like that, and they said: 'These people are idiots. They're stupid. They say nonsense. They have no idea what they're talking about.'

And they're right to say that. It's true, you don't get good information from these people. But the reality is, millions of people do get information from these people. And you can mock them, you can deride them. You can say they're morons, but nonetheless, they have more influence than the Atlantic. They have more subscribers than, I don't know, the New Republic. And in many cases, they have more YouTube views than CNN even, a lot of these people.

And that's just the reality. So a lot of people, it is hard for them, I think, to take it seriously because intellectually, it's not serious, but politically, it's deadly serious. And they can't see that because of that.

I mean, there's that phrase, the banality of evil, and I think that that certainly applies in this case here, that authoritarianism often is idiotic at the same time. And certainly that's the case with Donald Trump.

CHASTAIN: So yeah, I appreciate your comments [00:48:00] on that. because I do know that that is part of your experience as having been part of that media ecosystem and now operating in a different one.

SHEFFIELD: Well, Yeah. And that is definitely a point that I do try to make to people is to get them to understand that. Look, you don't have to take it seriously, but lots of people do.

CHASTAIN: Lots of people do, exactly.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the same thing is true with these-- and I do, like I've seen similar tendencies in the religious realm, like when people look at someone like Ken Ham, the creationist activist or any of these other guys, the things they say are ridiculous and absurd, but millions of people love this guy and they want his stuff to be in public schools. They want it to be in public school.

And so you have to take this stuff seriously. And you can see that also with some of the stuff that this evangelical college up in Michigan, Hillsdale College, they have created a program with Charlie Kirk and Turning Point Faith, and now there's Turning Point schools to get this explicitly Christian propagandist stuff in.

And to be clear, it's also explicitly right wing evangelical flavored Christianity, it's against progressive Christianity and all that, and get it into public schools. And now they're in Oklahoma, they're in Florida, and I think one other state as well. And so this stuff, it really matters, even though the beliefs are ridiculous and not supported.[00:49:30]

CHASTAIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I, and I mean that, that is absolutely the case is that that oftentimes we, that's how we view other people's beliefs, right?

As, as absurd or as incredulous, but those, those beliefs you have to. Take another person's beliefs. You have to try to understand them. And I think doing that is, is valuable. And that's why I think try also understanding how people change their minds is So fascinating.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, speaking of that, though, now let's talk about your own journey, if we could for a little bit.


SHEFFIELD: How did you get into the idea of leaving evangelicalism?

CHASTAIN: I mean, I was. I was the sort of kid that was, that was all in, so I was, I was born and raised in, in, in Christianity and, and I mentioned earlier that the tradition, United Methodist tradition and, there were certain things that, that made questioning other parts of evangelicalism easier because of that one example being that the, the church Had always, or at least in my lifetime, had ordained women, and that is not something you mentioned earlier, that Saddleback was excommunicated or removed from the Southern Baptist Convention for the very same thing.

So in some, in some traditions, that [00:51:00] is considered... Wrong or heretical or whatever sort of unorthodox, whatever type of adjective you want to use, but it's not something that is part of orthodox belief or practice. But I, I was all in, I was sort of just always a religiously oriented kid at in high school.

Like I was. A 90s kid. So, 90s youth group culture was really powerful. I think in the 90s, like Newsweek had like a cover story about, Christian kids and their, their rock festivals and stuff and, and all of these things. So it was sort of a cultural moment at the time. And I was heavily invested and at the ripe old age of 17 felt a call to the ministry and chose my school as a result.

So I went to Indiana Wesleyan and during my first full week of school is when 9 11 happened. And that really changed the tenor of a lot of my experience. I was a double major in history and biblical literature, and a lot of my initial. Faith crisis was around the fact that in my history class, I had essentially, I couldn't say this at the time but the, the head of the department was teaching a type of Christianity or Christian theology called Christian Reconstructionism that is really based on things like biblical worldviews and [00:52:30] all of these other aspects presuppositional thinking and, and all of these other things that are part of that And in my Bible classes, I was reading the Bible in Greek and learning about how the Bible was developed over centuries and also having, my first sort of independent political thoughts and during the run up to the war in Iraq I felt a lot of inner turmoil and had my first genuine crisis of faith over the fact that Well, this person that we're learning about is called the Prince of Peace and was killed by the state and all of these things, and here are a number of my colleagues and professors championing this this run up to war. And really trying to wrestle with, like, the just war theory from a custom and other things like that.

And that is when I really started to feel a divide between myself and some others. And this is as a white guy. So, like. And as far as like the pyramid of privilege within evangelicalism, I was at the top just by virtue of, of birth and but I still felt like, like even voicing moderate leanings felt risky.

And then when I voted for John Kerry in 2004, the first election I was, I was eligible to vote in, I had friends like praying for my soul and then [00:54:00] after that that's sort of, That sort of continued to develop and I, I felt a distance from evangelicalism and went through some period of time where I was after graduating where I was what people would call unchurched.

I wasn't attending regularly. And then in grad school, I did get married fairly young. And then in grad school, I discovered a type of theology called Creation Care Theology, which is essentially looking at narratives of ecological stewardship and the biblical narrative and other parts of the Christian tradition, and really Had sort of revitalized my, my faith in a way that I wasn't expecting and I pursued that for, for a while at the same time, we also through circumstances of, of friends and other things ended up going to a ended up going to a fundamentalist sort of storefront church in Chicago and was there for several years and even though like we never became full members my family, because we were egalitarian and that became a sticking point eventually after we stayed for several years and we tried to talk it out with the pastoral leadership there and they wouldn't budge.

They essentially agreed to having a number of discussions around the issue, and then those talks fell [00:55:30] apart, and we had to leave, and there was essentially, there's a term called holy ghosting, where, like, we left and we lost all of our local support group because we were no longer a part of that.

And that was a lot of grief and that, that happened in 2014 and that's when I started to really consider. Why so many people that I knew from my school from my college had left evangelicalism, even people that I was only connected to online, that I saw the things they posted and they were not in alignment with evangelicalism, they were in alignment with a more progressive view of the world, a different type of view of the world.

And that is when I started to explore the idea of having a show about it and, and at the time it felt like the right sort of medium to do that would be podcasting as opposed to say, like launching a blog in 2014, 2015, 2016, no one was really reading blogs anymore at that point. And so the idea was just that, that people could tell their story in their own words.

And then over time. I could build a body of work that would show the various narratives or the various commonalities between all of these individual stories. And that's where my, my work really, really started. And then since then have [00:57:00] had, I have continued that work throughout the, the ensuing years.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well I appreciate the background there. And I appreciate what you're doing. Having to talk about this stuff, it's exhausting for the people who have to live it, but it's probably even more exhausting for those of us who have to talk about it.

And I don't say that very often, but I think it's worth pointing out everyone.

CHASTAIN: Yeah. Yeah. I'm sure like I'm sure whenever you've had to talk about leaving Mormonism, like it, you're sort of picking at a wound in a lot of ways. Things that aren't easy and sometimes even holding space for other people's stories can be discouraging or difficult and have impacts on you in a way that you don't really anticipate.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and also just seeing people who are being harmed by their beliefs, but they can't see it because they're in the bubble. But I mean, we're both proof that people can leave the bubble. I mean, there's no guarantee, of course, that anyone will escape it, but people can, and you shouldn't necessarily give up on them, if you don't want to.

CHASTAIN: Right, right. Yeah. Especially if you're in relationship, in relationship with them already. Sometimes they, they need time. Sometimes they need to see other people thriving in ways that they're not able to in their environment. You never know exactly what the catalyst might be.

SHEFFIELD: [00:58:30] Yeah. And often, the best argument is a life well lived in many cases. Because according to these fundamentalist traditions, you can't have a good life. Your life will be miserable and horrible. I mean, that's part of the threat of keeping people in is saying that your whole life will be ruined if you're not succumbing to what we tell you to do.

And then when seeing people who have a good life and are pleasant and that shows that that's not the case, that those are not valid arguments.

CHASTAIN: Right, right. Absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Well, so Blake where can people find your stuff for people who want to keep up with you?

CHASTAIN: The best place to go. Thank you Matthew for asking is post evangelical post. com. So that's my, my newsletter and it is hosted on Substack. Most of it's free. There is a paid tier as is often the case with Substack.

But yeah, post evangelical post. com. I post every new episode of Exvangelical and other writing and, and everything else. I pretty much left Twitter or X or whatever we're calling it, so that's the best place to follow me. I'm dabbling in some of the other Twitter alternatives, but head over to Post Evangelical Post to keep up with my work.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Sounds good. Right. Well, thanks for being here then.

CHASTAIN: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us for the discussion, and you can always [01:00:00] get more episodes if you go to theoryofchange.show. I've got the video, audio, and transcript of everything, and if you are a paid subscribing member, you get complete access to the archive, and I appreciate everybody who is supporting the show in that way. And if you are not able to do so, please do give us a nice review on your favorite podcast platform that is helpful to get more people to see the show and tell your favorite podcast about what we're doing here as well.

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.