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An 'exvangelical' on loving, leaving and reporting on the culture of Christianity

Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on Oct. 25, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Samuel Corum
Getty Images
Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on Oct. 25, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon grew up in Kansas City, Mo., in the 1980s and '90s in an evangelical Christian community that taught her to fear God and never question her faith. She was "saved" at age 2, baptized at 8 and raised watching Christian movies and reading Christian books.

"The sense was just that the secular world was full of sin and was lost," she says. "I knew very few people who were not evangelical Christians."

Then, in high school, McCammon participated in the Senate Page Program, which meant moving away from home and living in Washington, D.C., for half a year. One day Sina, a Muslim friend and fellow page, asked her something that shook her belief: Did she believe he was going to hell because he wasn't Christian?

According to McCammon's faith, the answer was yes, but she couldn't bring herself to say that to her friend. Instead, she remembers, "I just said, 'I don't know. I think that's between you and God.' And I think in that moment, when I said that, I realized something about what I actually believed."

In the decades that followed, McCammon found herself quietly moving away from the evangelical church. But her personal and professional lives converged during the 2016 presidential campaign. As an NPR reporter covering the Republican National Convention, McCammon was struck by the support Trump garnered among white evangelicals — approximately eight in 10 of whom supported Trump in 2016, and again in 2020.

"There were all of these questions around their support for Donald Trump," McCammon says. "How would they deal with the cognitive dissonance, the apparent conflict between everything Trump seemed to stand for and what the movement said it stood for?"

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Sarah McCammon is a national political correspondent for NPR.
Kara Frame / MacMillan
Sarah McCammon is a national political correspondent for NPR.

Those questions came to a head for McCammon onJan. 6, 2021, when she saw people with crosses and "Jesus saves" signs participating in the insurrection on the Capitol. "That was the moment that I really wanted and needed to say something," she says.

McCammon's new book, The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church, is a deep dive into the social movement of young people — including herself — who have grown disillusioned with the church.

"We know that white evangelicalism as a movement is on the decline," she says. "According to the Public Religion Research Institute, about 14% of the population is now a white evangelical. If you look at data from the early '90s, around that time when I was entering youth group, it was close to one in four Americans were white evangelicals. ... So we know that the numbers have dropped dramatically."

/ MacMillan

Interview highlights

On the difficulty of defining "evangelical"

It's a term that sort of vexes demographers and pollsters and academics, and there's debate about what it really means. But for me, as someone who grew up in that world, it refers to ... a broad subculture that encompasses many different streams and stripes of conservative Protestant Christianity. That can include charismatic worship, people who sort of raise their hands and worship and believe in miracles and speak in tongues. And it can also include ... sort of more buttoned down, even fundamentalist approaches. ... So it is a massive category. But, the way I experienced it growing up was that we all kind of unified around a belief in Jesus and the Bible. We didn't even call ourselves evangelicals. We just called ourselves Christians. And we believed that that meant something about the way we were supposed to live, and also, for many of us, about the way the country should be.

We believed we had the truth and we had a responsibility to share it. And that had both spiritual and often political implications.

On growing up with a Christian worldview

I was educated in private Christian schools from preschool through my bachelor's degree. This term, "Christian worldview" is something you see ... a lot in evangelical literature. There's a real emphasis on this idea that we see the world differently. And really the implication is that those of other faiths see it wrongly. And so it was important that children — that I and my siblings and my peers — it was important to our parents that we be raised with a literal view of the Bible, with a view of the family that was very traditional: a mother, a father, monogamy, fidelity, sexual purity before marriage. And, it was important that we share those ideas with the rest of the world. Evangelical has built into the word the idea of evangelism. We believed we had the truth and we had a responsibility to share it. And that had both spiritual and often political implications.

On her community's beliefs about pregnancy and abortion

For us, abortion was viewed as literal murder. It was viewed as the taking of a human life. And that's something that I think is important to understand when you understand the politics around this issue, why there's such intensity. Certainly there are people who support abortion restrictions who do allow for exceptions in certain cases. But the fundamental belief among a lot of evangelical Christians is that from the moment of conception, a child is a human life and should have the same rights as any other person. And, as we're seeing, that does shape, not only how people view abortion, but also things like in-vitro fertilization and potentially contraception. Of course, when I was a little child, I didn't know any of the science behind it. I didn't know how complicated these decisions can be. I just knew what my parents believed and what my church taught.

On Kellyanne Conway saying the Trump team had "alternative facts" about the 2017 inauguration crowd

What it reminded me of was sort of the refusal to absorb or incorporate information that contradicted the narrative that we believed in that contradicted our ideology. I thought about the approach to science that I saw growing up and the refusal to accept the overwhelming consensus around the history of the world and the age of the Earth. And there is really interesting research around this, that evangelicals report fewer factually correct answers about, for example, the history of religion in the U.S. and, there's other polling that indicates a greater openness to conspiracy theory thinking. And I think some of it may be rooted in simply an approach to knowledge and an approach to secular knowledge in particular.

On filling in the gaps left from her upbringing as she distanced herself from the church

I think back to a time early in my career when I was doing one of my first stories for Nebraska Public Radio, where I started out in public radio, about science. And it was this really cool story about these this fossil of these two ice age mammoths that had been found in western Nebraska underground, like, locked together, fighting over a female. And I love this story because it was so nerdy and so interesting. But as part of reporting that story, I had to talk about the fact that this fossil was 20,000 years old. By this point, I'd accepted that that was the case, but it felt really weird to put it in a script. It felt like, what if my parents hear this, and there were moments like that, too, writing about viruses and talking about the millions of years of evolution that have shaped the way viruses replicate and change and mutate, just all these little things that are probably normal to most people that to me stuck out as, "Oh yeah, that's not something I'm supposed to believe in."

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.