The Deconversion Playbook
Michael J. Kruger details the formula that Evangelicals like Jen Hatmaker and Rob Bell follow to explain and justify their falling into liberal religion. Excerpts:
Step #1: Recount the Negatives of Your Fundamentalist Past
The first place to start in every good de-conversion story is to tell about the narrow dogmatism of your evangelical past. You begin by first flashing your evangelical credentials—Hatmaker was a Southern Baptist who went to a Southern Baptist College—and then you recount the problems you observed.
For Hatmaker, her evangelical past included people who are afraid to ask questions, won’t let you ask questions, only give pat answers, and never acknowledge gray areas. She says, “I had no idea that we had permission to press hard on our faith.”
Of course, there are some evangelical groups that are like this. And it’s certainly possible Hatmaker is from one of these groups. The problem, however, is that Hatmaker’s language is a caricature of evangelicalism as a whole.
Many evangelicals believe what they believe not because they are backwater bucolic yokels who are scared to press hard on the text, but precisely because they have engaged the text and are persuaded it teaches these truths.
Indeed, it’s usually evangelicals who are actually reading both conservative and liberal arguments and weighing them against each other. There are plenty of liberal seminaries and universities that never have their students read a single conservative book. And it’s supposedly evangelicals that are in the intellectual echo chamber?
It’s for these reasons, I grow weary of claims that evangelicals give “pat answers.” Liberal complaints against “pat answers” are typically just veiled complaints about answers in general. It’s just another version of the tiresome trope, “Religion isn’t about answers, it’s about the questions!”
This is why Hatmaker often describes herself as merely exploring or on a “journey”—it’s a way to disarm a postmodern world who wants there to be no answers (all the while she is happy to sneak her own dogmatic answers through the back door—more on that below).
Step #2: Position Yourself as the Offended Party Who Bravely Fought the Establishment.
One of the major themes of Hatmaker’s interview was the relational-social trauma she experienced as she left the evangelical world. She says she was mistreated in ways that were “scary,” “disorientating,” “crushing,” “devastating” and “financially punitive.”
Of course, it’s difficult to sift through these sorts of statements. No doubt there were people out there who were cruel, mean and unchristian in their response to her. And such behavior should be called out for what it is. It’s wrong.
At the same, there’s nothing illegitimate about people criticizing her newfound theology. Much of the response to Hatmaker was simply vigorous opposition to her new direction that many regard as fundamentally unbiblical and out of sync with the entire history of Christendom.
Regardless, the tone of the interview very much set Hatmaker up as an oppressed minority fighting against what she called “commercial Christianity.” She is merely the victim of a powerful and cruel evangelical world bent on revenge.
Needless to say, some of this is difficult to swallow given the current cultural climate where LGBTQ-affirming people are embraced as heroes (including Hatmaker herself), and evangelicals are being fired, sued, and drug into court for simply believing marriage should be between a man and a woman.
And if one wants to talk about “satire” and “outrage” and internet “hit pieces,” Hatmaker might do well to observe the outrageous level of vitriol displayed by the LGBQT community, and its advocates in the mainstream press, toward any Christian who shows the slightest hesitation about our culture’s new sexual direction. The PC police are always on the prowl, ready to prosecute evangelicals who don’t comply.
On top of all of this, it’s a bit disingenuous for Hatmaker to complain about harsh and judgmental rhetoric when, as we shall see below, she turns around in this very interview and lambasts evangelicals with language that would make any good Pharisee proud.
Step #3: Portray Your Opponents as Overly Dogmatic While You Are Just a Seeker
Et cetera. I won’t quote any more, because I want you to read the whole thing. It’s very, very good. Kruger concludes:
While claiming to be non-judgmental, she declares the fruit of those who believe in traditional marriage as “rotten.” Despite her insistence that the Bible should be read without certainty, she offers all sorts of dogmatic claims about what the Bible teaches. While claiming her views are due to a deep study of Scripture, she offers only simplistic (and even irresponsible) explanations for the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, while disregarding 2000 years of church history.
Kruger is right about all of it. I am sure that Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Orthodox can tell similar stories about how the playbook works in their churches.
But let me ask: what is the difference between a “deconversion” story that is in some sense bogus, as Kruger describes Hatmaker’s, and one that is honest, however flawed. I find former Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell’s long testimony about how covering the abuse scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches cost him his faith to be valid. But then, I would, given that something similar happened to me. Nevertheless, what stands out to me about Lobdell’s case is that he clearly did not want to lose his religion. He clearly experiences it not as liberation, but as loss. There is nothing triumphalistic in his deconversion story. In my own case, my deconversion from Catholicism was the most catastrophic thing I have ever suffered internally — and I say that as someone who is grateful to God for Orthodoxy, and secure in my Orthodox faith.
That does not mean that I did the right thing, from a Catholic point of view. But I hope it means that I did not take my deconversion lightly. Only God knows, I guess.
But it is not fair to say that all deconversion stories, to be valid, must be told in a sorrowful key. Why shouldn’t people feel grateful to have been led out of falsehood into what they regard as truth? It isn’t right to say that deconversion stories that reach conclusions we happen to reject are therefore invalid or in some way inauthentic.
Here’s what I mean. I once had a lengthy conversation with a man who had been raised Eastern Orthodox, but who had become a fervent Evangelical. As a happy convert to Orthodoxy, it grieved me to hear this man’s story, but I had to concede that given his background (an all-too-familiar story of someone raised in a parish that seemed more concerned with worshiping ethnic identity than anything else), his deconversion from Orthodoxy made sense. I’m not saying the man did the right thing — I don’t believe he did — but rather that his deconversion was authentic in a way I do not believe that Jen Hatmaker’s is, assuming the facts as presented by Michael Kruger.
I would like to hear from readers who have insights as to how to discern the nature of deconversion stories. How can you tell authentic ones from the inauthentic ones? Does it matter? I think it does, for one big reason. It is no small thing to lose one’s religion. If someone is having a crisis of faith, they should question themselves rigorously as to why they are contemplating leaving their particular faith. One should not stack the deck, should not beg the question. There’s got to be a good way to do this, if one must do it at all, and a bad way. Let’s talk about the difference.
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