LISTEN: GPB Morning Edition host Pamela Kirkland speaks with author Sarah McCammon about her new book, "The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church."

Sarah McCammon

Author and NPR national political correspondent, Sarah McCammon speaks with GPB’s Pamela Kirkland about her book "The Evangelical Loving Living and Leaving the White Evangelical Church."

Credit: X / Sarah McCammon

Sarah McCammon, a national political correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR politics podcast, is also author of a new book, The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church. She spoke with GPB's Pamela Kirkland about the book and the movement of the younger generation of evangelicals away from the church.



Pamela Kirkland: Before we dive in, I wanted to ask you about the timing of the book. The book deals largely with the movement that we're seeing of millennial and Gen X-age evangelicals moving away from the church. Why do you think this was the right time for a book like this to come out, and why do you think it was important to mark the moment?

Sarah McCammon: Well, a number of things are happening at once. As a whole, the United States is becoming less religious. White Christianity, including white evangelicalism, is particularly on the decline. This is also a moment when it is possible in ways it wasn't when I was, you know, a teenager in the '90s or in my 20s, 20 years ago, to find other people who are going through similar experiences. You know, there's a whole online vocabulary and set of communities for people who are quote unquote, "deconstructing their faith." And that's happening in not just evangelicalism, but a lot of these spaces are former evangelical spaces. I noticed this right around the time of the 2016 election when I was covering the Trump campaign. I was doing a story about white evangelical women who were wrestling with the alignment of their religious faith — their religious movement — with Trumpism, particularly in reaction to the Access Hollywood video, in which, you know, Trump famously talked about sexually assaulting women. And some of the women I talked to talked about the sort of the — the betrayal they felt and the confusion they felt around how to process that. And one of them, quoted in the story, used the term "exvangelical." And I thought that is really interesting because that's a term that says, essentially, "I was once part of this community, and now, for whatever reason, I'm not." And I wanted to explore that in the book because I know what that feels like.

Pamela Kirkland: You even write in the introduction. "As a journalist, I'm used to telling other people's stories, but for this one, I'm unable to sit on the sideline."

Sarah McCammon: You know, it certainly wasn't something I looked for. I was assigned to cover the Republican primary in 2016. And, you know, after candidate after candidate fell out of that race, wound up covering Trump. And the big question was really, what was the white evangelical base going to do in regards to Trump? And so I found myself, you know, sort of unintentionally, in the middle of this intersection of my, my personal and professional life that I — I had not chosen, but nonetheless was fascinated by and felt like I had a unique perspective and insight, that I brought into — into my coverage. I did have this perspective. I did have this background. And I gave one interview about it to my former colleague for this publication, and suddenly it felt like everybody wanted to talk about that when I would do speaking engagements or just when I would meet people who kind of knew that about me. The questions were sort of, well, "How do you — how do you see this? How do you make sense of it? Why do evangelicals think the way they do?" And then ultimately, it was Jan. 6, 2021, when, Trump supporters — extremist Trump supporters — stormed the Capitol carrying signs that said "Jesus saves," carrying crosses and other Christian symbols. I felt like that was the moment to say something and to sort of bring it all together. And that's — that's where this book came from.

Pamela Kirkland: You document a lot of different reasons why different people have decided to leave the church. What similarities did you see in your reporting in the decisions to break with the church?

Sarah McCammon: The book is organized around these themes and these tension points, these points of cognitive dissonance. And some people experience many of them, you know, concurrently. But — but I think for some people I talked to, the Trump movement was the thing that sort of pushed them over the edge. For other people, it happened long before that. And, you know, my own story is — it is layered as well. I mean, it was a combination of — of sort of realizing that some of the things I was being taught in my Christian school about history, about race, even about science, just didn't add up and were missing really important pieces of information or were frankly, misleading. And — and I think, you know, the journey is a little bit different for everyone, but the thing that — the thing that seems to be very common as I spend time in these deconstruction and evangelical online spaces and talk to people and also read, you know, books and listen to podcasts that talk about this phenomenon, is this real sense of trying to make — trying to make sense of the world. You know, realizing that maybe something you've been told about — about people of other faiths or gay people, just doesn't match your experience of the world and doesn't match your experience of other human beings. And, you know, that was really true for me. My grandfather was the person that we would, you know, pray for every night at dinner, that he would be saved because he didn't believe the way we did. You know, I go into this in the book how I found out he he was a gay man who had been closeted most of his life, until much later in life. And that experience of knowing him, loving him, having to contend with difference, was something that forced me to rethink some of the things I was being told.

Pamela Kirkland: Your grandfather really is a beautiful through line in the book. And I wanted to ask you, while we still had a minute or two, where does the church go from here?

Sarah McCammon: I don't make a lot of predictions, as a journalist. I think I can tell you what is happening is many churches are shrinking. I just saw a press release the other day from an evangelical seminary calling for several weeks of prayer for the decline of the church and connecting this decline with a larger cultural decline, which is a big theme, you see in evangelical circles, this idea that America was once great and was once godly and Christian, and now it's in decline. And that is, you know, in some people's minds, tied into a decline in Christianity. Of course, what that conversation often overlooks is — is the really ugly parts of our history, including slavery and the oppression of indigenous people that also, I think Christians have to face squarely the fact that that was perpetrated by many people who called themselves Christians. And so, I think what we're seeing is some shrinking congregations. We're seeing data that says that the — the country is becoming less religious. Where that goes, I don't know, because I think that people do — many people do want some kind of a spiritual connection or a community or all the things that — that church provides. Some people that I talked to are finding that in spaces that they don't necessarily call evangelical, but are still very much identified as Christian, others are looking elsewhere. You know, I interviewed people who say they find meaning in art or in their, you know, yoga community or in just friends. And so, so people find that lots of different ways. I'm not sure that there's there's one answer to that question.

Pamela Kirkland: Sarah McCammon is the author of The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church. Sarah, thank you so much for spending some time with me today.

Sarah McCammon: Thank you so much.