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By Catherine Woodiwiss 9-12-2017

In the wake of violence in Charlottesville, writer and college instructor Christopher Stroop tweeted, “If you left Evangelicalism over bigotry and intolerance or this election specifically, please share your story w/ the hashtag #EmptyThePews.”

The hashtag quickly caught on, with many users expressing dismay over prominent Christian leaders’ silence or equivocation on the white supremacist- and Nazi-led hatred on display in Charlottesville, culminating in the death of activist Heather Heyer.

Other Christian leaders, including evangelicals, have offered robust condemnation of white supremacy, and have since urged evangelicals to reconsider support for Trump, in light of his refusal to condemn white supremacy in the wake of Charlottesville, his administration’s repeated attempts to enact a stringent ban on refugees, and last week’s announcement ending DACA.

Others have organized efforts to compel Trump’s evangelical advisory council to step down.

In a follow up piece for Religion Dispatches, Stroop explained why he started the hashtag:

“Noting that almost nothing will get most evangelicals’ attention apart from declining church attendance, last night I took to Twitter to exhort any wavering members of conservative evangelical churches, or indeed any churches complicit in Trumpism and white supremacy, to take now as a moment to leave those churches in protest, as publicly and vocally as possible.

…I believe that Evangelical pastors need to hear their message, and so do those still in the pews who may be harboring doubt and discomfort but who are afraid of leaving.

To that end, I created the hashtag #EmptyThePews, asking those who have left evangelicalism over bigotry to tweet their stories along with the hashtag.

…If you have doubts about your church’s overt or subtle white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and general toxicity, now is the time to leave and to do so publicly, in protest.”

Sojourners spoke with Stroop, a visiting instructor in the Honors College at the University of South Florida and co-editor of a forthcoming anthology of essays on leaving conservative Christianity, about why he created the hashtag and what he thinks it may change — if anything.

Interview lightly edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: You wrote that you took to Twitter "wondering if there could be a way to get the attention of conservative Evangelicals." Why is the threat of decreasing church attendance effective as an attention-getter for evangelicals, in particular?

Christopher Stroop, #EmptythePews creator: I grew up with a lot of urgent rhetoric around church growth, as well as a fear of secularization. …Evangelicals are obsessed with the possibility of losing the youth — which is why, for example, they're cracking down in an attempt to enforce fundamentalist beliefs and legalism at Christian colleges, and why there are endless blog posts and books about how to “keep” or “win back” the younger generation, and why there is so much rebranding in order to stay “relevant." 

The fact is, they have lost much of the youth — sociologists have identified the culture wars as a causal factor in the rise of the nones, now some 20 percent of the U.S. population — and I want them to know it. I want them to know why. I want them to get the sense that their power grab in this ugly election is not going to bode well for them in the long run. I want them to hear and feel our righteous anger. 

Sojourners: With #EmptythePews, were you calling people to leave churches that embrace or are silent on white supremacy, or were you hoping to highlight stories of those who already have left? Is this a storytelling tool or advocacy tool, or both?

Stroop: Both. I was hoping that by hearing stories of people who have left toxic churches, or left evangelicalism or Christianity altogether as a result of evangelical authoritarianism and embrace of Trump, some who are sitting in the pews (or folding chairs or theater seats) of evangelical churches but feeling some qualms, some doubt, some pangs of conviction, might be emboldened to take a moral stand and abandon those churches.

It's hard to leave your religious community. It's scary, and in hardline confessions where conformity is demanded of all, it comes with heavy social costs. Hearing that others have done it and are doing alright can be empowering. 

Sojourners: What tweets most surprised you? 

Stroop: This is one of my favorite #EmptyThePews tweets, for saying so much in such a pithy way. I don't know that my main reaction to it was surprise, but I appreciate its insightfulness:

Maybe what surprises me most is how widely the hashtag resonates. I couldn't have anticipated it going this viral. And it's been interesting to see ex-Mormons and ex-Catholics chiming in as well, and in a few cases former ultra Orthodox Jews. As far as I'm concerned, #EmptyThePews is for anyone who finds value in it. 

Sojourners: What kind of response have you gotten? (Any pushback?)

Stroop: There has been a lot of pushback, including from so-called progressive Christians who in this case, I think, are exhibiting very misplaced priorities:

People making themselves vulnerable by opening up about their experiences of abuse in Christian contexts should not be treated as a mission field. But lots of pushback means we are getting people's attention!

I've also seen a lot of clergy tweet that they are reading #EmptyThePews and trying to do better, including both mainline and evangelical Protestant clergy, so that's encouraging. 

…But most of the pushback has come from conservative Christians, neo-reactionaries, and assorted trolls either using #FillThePews or subverting the original intent of #EmptyThePews by asserting that Christians should #EmptyThePews of liberal churches:

Sojourners: Do you know of anyone who left their church as a result of the hashtag? Or who has left in real-time, using it?

Stroop: I’ve seen a couple of tweets to that effect. More talk about leaving after the election. I'm hoping the hashtag has "planted a seed.”

Sojourners: How does your project distinguish between white evangelicalism and evangelicalism broadly? Did you see a particular demographic using the hashtag more than others? 

Stroop: It’s been used mostly by ex-evangelicals, and I've seen it used by white evangelicals and evangelicals of color. Usually when I tweet critically about evangelicals I try to specify white and/or conservative. I have seen a number of evangelicals of color saying Charlottesville was the last straw for them, though, if not so much with this hashtag as in the "Exvangelical" Facebook support group.

Sojourners: What do you say to those who see issues within evangelicalism but don't feel called to leave, or those who feel justice is best served by staying? 

Stroop: "Progressive evangelical" is something that I can comprehend intellectually but that will never compute for me on a visceral level. I always wonder why they stay/keep the label.

…In the evangelical environment in which I grew up, "liberal" was an antonym for “Christian.” The internal logic of evangelicalism, it seems to me, leads naturally to the ends justifying the means and to a rejection of pluralism and democracy.

…Intellectually, I understand it's more complicated than that. I understand that the collapse of the evangelical middle has been painful to many, that the way evangelicalism has become essentially synonymous with fundamentalism over the last few decades has been painful for many.

I can't prescribe a particular course of action for anyone, but that goes both ways. People telling others they must stay in their churches and try to make them better is abusive. It's analogous to conservative churches telling battered women they must stay married to their abusive husbands. 

I do think some churches are irredeemable. But people should follow their own consciences. 

Sojourners: What led you to leave evangelicalism? Do you still attend a church, or identify with a faith? 

Stroop: Oh, so many things. I've written some about my deconstruction on my blog, Not Your Mission Field. Mostly I think it's that I always felt different and chafed at the enforced conformity — that I could not deal with good people being arbitrarily damned to hell, that the ways we experience ourselves should be more important than ideology and being right. The culture wars, the direct spiritual abuse I experienced, the disgusting anti-LGBTQ animus, the refusal to deal with race in a serious way. It's hard to sum up. I find evangelicalism to be toxic through and through.

Over the last few years, I've also realized I'm queer, and now I'm sure that's part of why evangelicalism gave me so much anxiety and why I spent so much of my life feeling "different" and uncomfortable in my own skin. 

Sojourners: Where do you see U.S. evangelicalism going in the next 5-10 years?

Stroop: Nowhere good, really. It's chosen its hill to die on.

At the same time, evangelicalism in its authoritarianism and predictable embrace of Trump has managed to steal disproportionate power (think signing on for gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Russian influence campaign, and the stealing of a SCOTUS seat). …They and the white nationalists now own the GOP. The Christian Right radicalized the GOP and broke America. The decent majority of Americans will not forget that.

Read more at #EmptythePews.

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Deputy Web Editor at Sojourners.

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