This week, RLC Interim Executive Director Elaina Ramsey was interviewed, along with other women, for an article published at Gen entitled “These Evangelical Women Are Abandoning Trump and Their Churches.” Read an excerpt here and find the link for the full article below.
In exit polls from the 2016 election, 80% of white evangelicals and the majority of self-identified Christians said they voted for Donald Trump. The thrice-married, profane, biblically illiterate, sexually predacious candidate mirrored no beatitudes. While some believers rejected Trump for lack of decency, for many Christian voters, his personal failings were not disqualifying — here, at last, was a president who could muscle forward their political interests.
In her 2019 book, Red State Christians, journalist and Lutheran pastor Angela Denker describes traveling across the country after the election, talking to Christian voters and trying to understand their relationship with Donald Trump. Denker argues Trump may not know much about the Bible or evangelical Christianity, but his rhetoric resonated with a civic religion common in many Evangelical churches, especially in the South, “with its unique blend of nostalgia, plus a little misogyny and dog-whistle race politics on the side.” There’s a degree to which many churches have adopted a Christian nationalism that has wrapped faith tightly in patriotism and relies, in some cases, less on the gospel and more on “God, guns, and country.”
Many Southern Baptist churches celebrate the Sundays closest to the Fourth of July and Veterans Day with as much fervor as Easter, with services that might feature the Pledge of Allegiance, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sermons on American exceptionalism, and video montages of war veterans. It’s a church-country linkage popularized during the Cold War, a perceived battle against threats to “Christian America” rooted in a dominionist theology that portrays the white European settlement of America as a fulfillment of God’s promise. Winning the culture wars and “restoring” Christian political primacy became a spiritual mandate, a restoration of God’s promise. By the time Obama’s administration championed same-sex marriage and birth control coverage, “Democrats sounded like foreigners to Red State Christians across the South and rural America,” writes Dennker.
Despite Obama’s regular church attendance, his administration’s progressivism was perceived by many evangelical Christians as sweeping the country far from an idealized nation of school prayer and father-headed nuclear families toward one that was liberal, predominantly non-Christian, and often not white. To Denker, it was no coincidence that Donald Trump, who kept dog-whistling Obama as being Muslim and not a U.S. citizen, became these voters’ candidate. “Actual church attendance and Bible knowledge mattered less than a politician’s ability to catalog their list of perceived cultural wrongs and manufactured fears.”
And evangelicals’ hold on the country had slipped. In an analysis conducted by political scientist Ryan Burge at Eastern Illinois University, between 2011 and 2019, about one in 10 men quit identifying as evangelical Christians, and nearly 17% of women rejected their former evangelical identity. Starting in 2016, online movements like #exvangelical and #emptythepews organized cohorts of millennial evangelicals who were questioning and deconstructing their church’s worldviews. In October 2019, Pew Research Center released data showing that the portion of Americans identifying as Christians shrank in the past decade from 77% to 65%. Less than half of millennials now call themselves Christians; 40% call themselves atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”
During the Trump years, #MeToo and #ChurchToo has ferreted out stories of rampant sexual abuse within Protestant church communities. Millennial and Gen Z evangelicals began publicly dismantling the purity culture that once controlled and shamed them. And for some, the contortions of principle required by church leaders to justify Trump in the name of political power revealed not a broken, sinful nation—but what was broken within their churches.
Elaina Ramsey, 38, was among an earlier wave of evangelicals who left the church in the mid-2000s, back when George W. Bush was reelected with the support of millions of conservative Christians. Studying at a Lutheran College in Columbus, Ohio, where Ramsey was active in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Vineyard megachurch, she started to realize that her willingness to condemn her gay and queer friends to hell said more about her than it did about them.
Her deepest crisis came during her last semester when she was raped by a trusted Christian friend. Ramsey blamed herself. She’d followed purity teachings outlined in books like megachurch pastor Joshua Harris’ 1997 Christian bestseller, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which advised waiting for any physical contact, including kissing, until marriage — anything else was sinful. The rape was her first sexual encounter. “I was taught that now I’d be too dirty and impure for any other relationship,” Ramsey says.
Graduating in 2004, Ramsey left Ohio to become a youth pastor in the South Bronx. “I thought I needed to go save a bunch of poor people,” she says. Instead, she learned about community organizing and “social salvation.” She started questioning her home church’s interpretation of scripture, like the focus on David in the Bible, “a man after God’s own heart.” Her church had never talked about how David raped Bathsheba. That’s when she understood that “it matters whose stories are being told, who’s telling them.”
When Ramsey returned to Ohio in 2017 to become executive director for the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, she found that some of her old friends had doubled down on their evangelical identity. But other college-educated friends had already begun deconstructing their faith for “one that’s much more loving and life-giving and liberating.” The majority were still religious but no longer called themselves evangelicals.
Evangelical women began interrogating purity culture before Trump’s election. In the 1980s and ’90s, evangelical women were raised with a theology that often demanded more than abstinence. Purity rings and pledges were common, I Kissed Dating Goodbye normalized waiting to kiss until one’s wedding day, and any girl who opened herself to sexual activity, or even thought, was seen as sinful. These girls came of age around the turn of the millennium, and some started asking why their bodies and sexuality had become such a central concern for their churches. As grown women, many sorted out their own sexual theology via personal blogs, read books like Jessica Valenti’s 2009 The Purity Myth, and Dianna E. Anderson’s 2015 book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity.
Purity culture wasn’t really about the sanctity of the family, but the subjugation of women, says Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, minister and author of the 2018 book Healing Spiritual Wounds. Women who had been taught not to even “front hug” male friends for fear of stirring their sinful sexual impulses watched as Donald Trump became entangled with evangelical culture.