These Evangelical Women Are Abandoning Trump and Their Churches
The #MeToo movement, pandemic, and protests for racial justice have divided the evangelical community from their strongman
Katie Loveland, 37 and a mother of two, was raised evangelical in Wyoming in the 1980s and ’90s. Her parents weren’t political, but they steeped her in Christian pop culture, like kids’ music by the Donut Man and Psalty the singing hymnal, as well as media from the fundamentalist organization Focus on the Family. When she was 25, Loveland moved to Helena, Montana, to raise her own family and began attending the small congregation at the Christian Missionary and Alliance Church. In 2016, one morning after she taught adult Sunday School, an usher in his sixties followed her into the church kitchen. He was tall and blocked the exit, looking Loveland up and down. “Do you have a twin?” he said. “Because I’d sure like to have that.”
Loveland wrote the man a letter — he’d been bothering other women, too — and reported the incident to her pastor, but the man continued serving communion. “It wasn’t this big, horrible thing,” she told me late last year, but it made Loveland begin to reevaluate the treatment of women within her church.
Around the same time, her church’s all-male board “decided what was needed in our church was someone to walk around on Sundays and carry a gun.” Loveland, who works in public health, was helping out in the church nursery, where older kids would wander in and out to play with the babies. The board’s decision made Loveland contemplate the risk of harm posed by an unlicensed, armed person in the church, primed to shoot.
The churches they once loved continue to support an administration they see as immoral.
On November 2, 2016, Loveland was among the minority of evangelical voters who did not vote for Donald Trump. That election result was cataclysmic for her. It “ground me into dust spiritually,” she says. Loveland saw clearly an underlying assumption among her congregation that men should be in charge, that they would protect the women. She realized evangelicalism was no longer the place for her.
Loveland and her family left their evangelical church and spent months looking for another congregation in Helena — one with female leadership. In the interim, when she posted on Facebook about immigration or the Trump administration’s immorality, she noticed her old youth pastor from her Baptist church in Wyoming would comment on her posts, castigating her. “He has no interest in my spirituality. His whole role in my life is to be my Facebook troll,” she said.
But what Loveland’s pastor-troll can’t see is a stream of private messages from more than two dozen peers, mostly women, who were raised evangelical and are also having crises of faith. Churches they once loved continue to support an administration they see as immoral. Two of Loveland’s friends are currently in a deep crisis over their church’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. They find that a refusal by some to wear masks comes across as indifference toward the health and well-being of their congregation and community.
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.
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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. “He could go around talking about grabbing women by their pussies, but women were shamed for any sort of sexual act before marriage,” Howard Merritt says. “The hypocrisy of it just became massive.”
In 2017, as American women witnessed the wave of accusations and resignations during the early days of #MeToo, poet and former evangelical Emily Joy launched #ChurchToo on Twitter. Sexual abuse wasn’t just present in the Catholic church or on the Hollywood casting couch — evangelicals were abusers, too. Megachurch luminaries fell, one by one. Pastor Andy Savage from Tennessee megachurch Highpoint resigned after Jules Woodson described on church abuse blogs how Savage, her youth pastor, sexually assaulted her. Bill Hybels, founder of Chicagoland’s Willow Creek megachurch network, resigned in August 2018 after a series of accusations. A month later, Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was fired as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president after the Washington Post broke the story of how, in 2003, Patterson discouraged a woman who reported she’d been raped from going to the police. In 2015, he tried to meet alone with another woman who’d reported sexual assault so he could “break her down.” In February 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a series of exposés uncovering more than 380 Southern Baptist Convention pastors and volunteers and their 780 victims.
Survivors and their advocates were treated as dangerous within these insular, deeply indoctrinated communities. Judy Abrams was stonewalled by her Florida evangelical community and the pastors who had been her best friends after their church’s youth pastor was arrested for sexually assaulting her daughter in 2018. (Abrams is being identified by a pseudonym to protect her children’s identities.)
Abrams’ faith once defined her life. Her father was a pastor, and since childhood, church shaped the rhythm of her week: Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening classes. She and her husband married young, and Abrams’ family started attending a growing megachurch connected to Assemblies of God and Willow Creek. It was the sort of place with high production value: smoke machines, a light show, pastors in skinny jeans.
During the lead-up to the 2016 election, Abrams’ pastor never explicitly stumped for Trump from the pulpit, but he’d talk about protecting life. His family was very conservative, and she knew he voted for Trump. In his way, he’d been telling Abrams’ family and the other congregants “how to feel without explicitly telling them,” she said. Abrams heard Trump describing how unsafe our country was, and she was “surrounded by people who believed only that.” She’d been brought up to believe Christians vote Republican. “If you vote for a Democrat, you’re voting to kill babies.”
During Trump’s first year in office, a new youth pastor moved to Abrams’ church. He was 32 and married. Her daughter was 16. The pastor started spending time with the Abrams family, getting to know their daughter and saying he wanted to mentor her. When she was 17, he started sexually abusing her.
In June 2018, the pastor publicly resigned, though privately he was effectively fired. A condition of his severance was staying away from Abrams’ daughter. However, the Abrams family wasn’t given these details until after his ouster, and he continued abusing their daughter. She finally told her parents about the abuse days before her 18th birthday.
After the youth pastor was reported to the police and confessed, Abrams turned to her lead pastor for spiritual solace, but he wouldn’t take responsibility. “I’m just like, well, my daughter was raped by your pastor,” she said. The church’s pastors had been her family’s best friends; they hung out together, went to dinner together. Now Abrams’ family was ostracized by their church, effectively shunned.
Today, when Judy Abrams reads about Donald Trump and sexual assault, she is baffled how she couldn’t see the presence of abuse before. “If it’s bad in the church, it’s probably worse everywhere else — and I know how bad it is in the church,” she said. She’d based her vote in 2016 on protecting babies, “but there’s no protection within your church for your own child.” In November 2019, the lifelong Republican officially registered as a Democrat, although she sees all politicians through a skeptical lens: The abuse of power is everywhere.
When Donald Trump delivered a stump speech at Liberty University in January 2016, he confirmed his neophyte Christian status by citing “two Corinthians” rather than Second Corinthians. Press coverage focused on the gaffe, but what received less coverage was Trump’s appeal to Christians who might be threatened by pluralism: “Christianity is under siege,” he said, and then exaggerated the church’s numbers. “If you look at this country, it’s gotta be 70%, 75%, some people say even more, the power we have… We have to band together.”
Within many American faith communities is a national origin myth that asserts America, like ancient Israel, has a special covenant with God. It’s “this very utopian ideal, that this is the promised land,” a shining city on the hill for European settlers and their descendants, explains Rev. Carol Howard Merritt. Such an idea becomes pervasive, she explains, because many evangelicals are homeschooled. “They’re not using the textbooks the rest of us are using.”
A 2018 Sociology of Religion study called “Make America Christian Again,” found that voters who agreed with certain measures of Christian nationalism — that the United States should be declared a Christian nation, the federal government should advocate Christian values, the success of the United States is a part of God’s plan, etc. — were much more likely to vote for Trump, even controlling for political ideology, sexism, economic satisfaction, and anti-Black prejudice. Once Christian nationalism was removed, no other religious belief or affiliation directly influenced voting for Trump, except for fear of Muslim people. The 2018 study noted that during the election, many conservative Christian leaders argued that “Hillary Clinton would make the United States godless and potentially lead to an apocalyptic future.”
The contortions of principle required by church leaders to justify Trump revealed not a broken, sinful nation—but what was broken within their churches.
The other motivator for evangelical voters was abortion. After Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016, a major anxiety for conservative Christians during the election was the future of the Supreme Court. In her book, Angela Denker recounts how she talked to Keet Lewis, former national co-chair for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, at the Dallas megachurch Prestonwood Baptist. Lewis saw Cruz as “the picture-perfect candidate,” a “brilliant lawyer,” “faith-friendly,” and while his candidate ultimately lost to Trump, he credits Cruz with negotiations that helped secure Trump’s Supreme Court nominations. According to Denker’s reporting, Cruz’s endorsement for Trump was contingent upon Trump’s campaign agreeing to choose from the Federalist Society’s list of approved Supreme Court justices.
What Trump lacked in Christian values, he more than made up for as a Christian strongman. Within evangelical communities, “there has long been an emphasis on female submission and male headship,” explains Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin College religion scholar with a new book on evangelical masculinity, Jesus and John Wayne. Men, the teachings go, were given testosterone by God to make them aggressive, to better hold dominion over women.
Among Christian nationalist voters who wanted a strong male leader willing to promote the anti-abortion justices they’d vetted, it’s little surprise Donald Trump became the “chosen one,” as Rick Perry described him on Fox News in November 2019. A common theological trope — that God often chooses imperfect leaders, such as Kings David, Saul, and Solomon — is often applied to Trump. The Trump Prophecy, a 2018 film, asserts that Trump is like the biblical King Cyrus, a nonbeliever appointed by God to serve the faithful’s ends.
As noted in the 2018 study “Make America Christian Again,” some Christians see Trump as a “tool” used by God in this particular historical moment, who will be dispensed with when no longer serving God’s purposes: “Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for America irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved.”
Kobes Du Mez is skeptical that the King Cyrus scripture motivated support for Trump. Rather, “it’s a kind of sanctified cover that’s placed on values that are already there… including this idea of grasping and wielding power.” Conservative evangelicals, she continues, “don’t want a good man. You don’t want somebody who upholds ‘biblical values’… They see this as a kind of cosmic war.” And in war, it’s the winning that matters.
Jordan Davis is African American and grew up in a historically Black and fairly traditional Southern Baptist church. Her parents were involved in civil rights efforts, but they were also conservatives opposed to abortion and gay marriage. So when Davis enrolled in a conservative evangelical Christian college, the worldview she had growing up was in many ways simply reinforced.
In 2016, Davis was 20. She loved that Trump talked about being a Christian. “He was one of those people who, no, he didn’t quote the Bible accurately, but he at least tried… He talked about abortion and how Christians need rights,” Davis says. “And it was all those key things that conservative Christians rally around that really got all of us fired up.”
Davis was a “sign-carrying, ‘Make America Great Again’ Trump supporter.” But she never went to any rallies. Her mother, also a Trump voter, asked her not to; she worried about Davis’ safety as a Black woman. Neither she nor her mom, then, linked the targeting of African Americans at the rallies with Trump’s rhetoric. There are bad seeds in any group, they told themselves. On election night, Jordan Davis and her mother were among the 8% of Black Americans who voted for Donald Trump. (Davis is being identified by a pseudonym, fearing harassment from her community about her current political views.)
Just before the election, one of her parents was diagnosed with cancer. But after they passed away, Davis slipped from comfortably middle class into poverty. It started to bother her how Republicans talk about poor people. Davis wasn’t lazy. She had a job and was in school. She was working as hard as she could.
“It became harder for me to reconcile the Bible verses about the poor and the downtrodden with Donald Trump and my college,” Davis says. Once you start questioning prevailing attitudes toward the poor, once you start looking at one marginalized community, Davis says, “you see discrimination everywhere.”
Looking back, she sees that her support of Trump helped her achieve acceptance within her vastly white evangelical campus. “It’s interesting,” she says. “How I could ignore the racist history of the Republican Party and especially the racism of Donald Trump?”
Davis has since transferred colleges and has become a Democrat. She still hasn’t found a church where she feels comfortable. Leading up to the primary in South Carolina, where she lives now, she did phone banking for Elizabeth Warren. She’s supportive of women’s rights and gay rights and is pained because, she says, “I almost don’t know how to express my faith anymore, because I live in the South.” Between Biden and Sanders, she’d preferred Sanders. She understands the appeal of Biden as a “safe” option, but “as an older man who has voted for policies that have actively harmed minorities, I don’t see him being the change Americans need.”
Davis still hasn’t come out to her friends as what she is now — a liberal. It would destroy her relationships. She’s still struggling financially and doesn’t want to sink her career prospects by letting too many people know what she truly thinks. But since the Black Lives Matter protests in the spring, she’s also gotten more involved in progressive activism and moved further away from some of her evangelical counterparts. “I still speak with some of them,” Davis says, “but not nearly as often or as intimately.”
What remains to be seen is how many evangelical foot soldiers will desert Donald Trump and how many have peeled away their evangelical identities over his first term. As the Democratic primaries faded, replaced with widespread fear over the coronavirus pandemic and a national uprising concerned with racial justice and Black Lives Matter, Katie Loveland has been watching friends of color move away from the white evangelical spaces they’d been engaged in.
“I see little awakenings all around me,” she says. ”People wrestling, struggling as honestly as they can but also steeped in their own subcultures and information circles that are hard to break out of. Trying to bridge these conversations, find common ground and shared values, is a struggle but necessary work.”
Earlier this year, Loveland’s family settled at an Episcopal church in a diocese led by a female bishop who has a PhD in public health. Attending a church with a highly educated woman in a leadership position during the pandemic has been healing, Loveland says.
In Ohio, Elaina Ramsey is now also working as interim executive director of an organization called Red Letter Christians, where Ramsey says she works “solely with evangelicals to shed light on how Christianity has been hijacked by nationalism and white supremacy long before Trump.” While Ramsey makes it clear that she herself never voted for Trump, some of her friends won’t say who they voted for in 2016, but “it’s clear that they regret not taking a more public and faithful stance against Trump until now.”
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During Angela Denker’s book tour last fall, after the audience dispersed, Christian Trump voters, many of whom were women with Fox News–addicted husbands, whispered to Denker they voted for him last time but won’t this time. They weren’t sure they could vote for a president at all.
Many though, continue to use scripture to justify their support of Trump. “In some ways the impeachment proceedings caused evangelicals to close ranks again,” Denker says. But over the course of this turbulent year, in Denker’s own rural Minnesota church, in a district that voted for Trump, she’s hearing “muted resignation that something is wrong in America, between the violent death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the ongoing rise in coronavirus cases and deaths.” She predicts former Trump voters from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who were less evangelical to begin with — working people with family members who are nurses or other frontline workers — will want a more competent leader.
Among the evangelical women voters Carol Howard Merritt has talked to, there are those who would rather not deal with politics or those who say they’ll still vote how their husbands tell them or as their pastors indicate. Still others say of their husbands, “Listen, I have to live with this man, so we’re not talking about it, but let me tell you, there is no way I’m voting for Trump.”
Howard Merritt isn’t sure the current shift will be meaningful enough in 2020 to affect Trump’s odds, at least among those still identifying as evangelical voters. The impact has been greatest on the church.
“I often tell my mom, ‘You guys won an election, but you just lost a generation.’” She adds, “It’s not like they’re all becoming progressives. They’re just leaving the church.”