"They cannot survive without fear": A heretic on leaving the evangelical church

In "Heretic," Jeanna Kadlec writes of the hard but necessary journey of escaping fundamentalist Christianity

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 31, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on October 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on October 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

"I was leaving the Garden, the evangelical church, and the only version of myself that 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-declared "recovering academic" Jeanna Kadlec weaves her personal experiences walking away from the faith of her youth with a larger meditation on the larger social and political damage wrought on the U.S. by the popularity of evangelical Christianity. In an era when the hardcore Christian set's hunger for power leads them to back faux-repentant sleazes like Donald Trump and Herschel Walker, that's an even greater need for her insights about how this religion wields so much control over its followers.

Why do people, especially women, stay in a religion that's so abusive? What does it take to leave? Kadlec can't answer those questions for everyone, but as someone who was fully immersed into young adulthood, only to escape after she discovered her lesbian identity while married a preacher's kid, there's much to be learned from her journey. 

Salon spoke with Kadlec about her book, the way evangelicals try to rebrand old-fashioned patriarchy, and how her pain of losing her community is spreading in the era of increasing GOP radicalism. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

In recent years, the percentage of Americans affiliated with a church has declined dramatically. It's almost exclusively due to people leaving evangelical churches when they grow up. So why do you think this is happening? And what do you think the impacts of that are?

The evangelical Church of the past few decades lost a lot of the flexibility that it had cultivated earlier in the century. It refused to evolve and reconsider the humanity of other people in ways that other parts of Christianity did, in light of the civil rights movement and the women's rights movement. In buckling down, and then really getting into bed with far right politicians, they accumulated a lot of power. They were able to do things like introduce abstinence-only education into public schools. They seemed to be very successful in trying to institute their own religious values into the mainstream.

Eventually, those kids that they were raising grew up. We had grown up in this really stringent environment that had no flexibility. And we had specifically grown up increasingly in churches that demanded an absolutely extraordinary amount of cognitive dissonance. Many of us, we're going to public school, we are exposed to different ways of living, we're exposed to people who have different ideas about how the world should be. We see that ideas like purity, no sex before marriage, the Rapture — all of these really extreme tenets — are not necessary in order to be a good person. For so many evangelicals who grow up and leave the church, we can't bear the cognitive dissonance anymore.

I was married to a man, but then I realized I was gay. There was absolutely no space in my religion for questioning, for doubt. It's very black and white, which is, of course, why it dovetails so well with the far-right turn that the Republican Party has taken. 

Why do you think evangelicals specifically struggled so hard to moderate? Members of the mainline churches, even Catholicism, are often more moderate or liberal even than their churches. 

With Catholics and mainline Protestants, there's a certain respect for people's privacy. Evangelicalism is predicated on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and also then on that impetus to convert others. They expect you to believe with your whole heart. It takes over your whole life. It's not only showing up in church, it's being a strong believer in your workplace. There is just such an emphasis on that outward demonstration of the "inward transformation." It's very difficult to be a nominal evangelical. It might be easier to step away and casually come back with other kinds of Christianity. It allows a more gentle relationship that isn't as monitored by the community. 

It probably predates this, but I noticed in the early 2000s that this idea of "complementarianism" started being pitched by evangelicals, seeming as a response to feminist criticisms of their rigid gender hierarchies. What is complementarianism? 

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 always in charge. A woman's ultimate job — as a wife, as a mother — is to submit to men. The word I would use for complementarianism is just "patriarchy." Or "sexism."  It's a term that some pastors and theologians came up with to defend the very unsexy idea that a woman'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 overturn of Roe v. Wade. Their rhetoric is getting put back into the mainstream. Anti-abortion advocates are framing forced childbirth as if it's a favor they're doing for women. There was one woman in the Washington Post who argued for instance, that 13 is an "absolutely phenomenal" age to be a mother. It's my impression that this rhetoric is fairly normal in evangelical circles. 

Seeing Roe overturned was devastating, but it was also not surprising. The way that I grew up, that was always the goal. The churches that I grew up in, [overturning] abortion was preached from the pulpit. That was a main issue. I came of age in the late '90s and early 2000s. Around that time there was all this fear-mongering in churches about how they were losing. That they were losing "God's country." Abortion was often held up as the singular issue by which they could take America back.

It was very consistent with the other things being preached around gender roles. The expectations for young girls growing up into women were marriage and motherhood. The pinnacle of being a godly woman was to get married and have babies. And obviously, we weren't going to abort any of those babies, because any pregnancy was God's will. There was never any discussion, never any acknowledgment of how pregnancy could happen outside of marriage, or how even married women may want or need an abortion. 

Anything that happens to a woman's body is God's will, which is just a coded way of saying that anything that a man does to you is God's will.

What's wild to me is that — in the pundit class of evangelicals, anyway — they're pivoting away from the abortion issue. Just as they won! They don't talk about abortion much at all. The energy is all geared towards this total meltdown over queer and trans people, people being non-binary. Their social media, their shows, it's all trans panic all the time. 

At this point, evangelicalism is just completely rotten. There's no redeeming what it has become.

They are so profoundly motivated by fear and targeting other people — specifically people that have significantly less power than those preaching from the pulpit.

With this Roe overturn, they got what they have been fighting for and fundraising off for decades. But now they need something new, because they cannot survive without fear, negativity and absolutely rampant hate. They have won on abortion, so they have shifted it to trans folks, and specifically to trans children. It's devastating to witness the lack of humanity existing within that church.

You write very movingly about how there was this grief over your lost faith. This is something that people who have not ever been in it don't completely understand. We want to believe it's easy to walk away. 

It's a grief I still have, even along with my passionate feelings about the devastation that the church is wrecking on this country right now. I still have a lot of grief for the people and those relationships that I had. Humans are social creatures. We crave belonging. Whether it was losing family or a friend group, or even if someone got fired from a job and you lost a coworker, losing people in your life you were once really close to is devastating. For me, so much of the grief of that loss of faith is tied up in the loss of the community. Members of that faith community didn't feel that they could continue to be in relationship with a lesbian who left my husband. I was not to be associated with.

Grief is really complicated. It's not so black and white as to say that, because someone belongs to this church, they're just bad. Or because someone votes a particular way, that they have never shown you love and kindness. Relationships tend to have more layers than that. Even if there's a breaking point, where that relationship is no longer possible, it doesn't mean that it's easy to let go of it.

I feel like it's something, because of Trumpism, more people these days are relating to than ever thought that they would have.

There are no clear-cut answers. Whether people cut off family is a really common issue in the queer community, too. With a lot of my friends, it's like, do you cut off Trump-voting family members? Do you not cut them off? What are the conditions under which you still speak to certain people? Who is it safe to still speak to? It's really different for everyone. It's following your own personal integrity and what feels emotionally safe for 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.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Authors Books Evangelical Church Heretic Interview Jeanna Kadlec