Rachael Denhollander could have been a poster child for American conservative Christianity. Like many Red State Christians, she had been homeschooled and dressed conservatively. Her hair was long, dark, and straight, reminiscent of the encouragement in many conservative Christian communities for women to let their hair grow long and avoid cutting it. Thus Denhollander cut a sympathetic, or at least familiar, figure to Red State Christians watching the coverage of the Nassar case. True to her conservative Christian background, Denhollander said she forgave Nassar — and then asked the judge to give him the maximum sentence. To Nassar himself, she said at his sentencing hearing, “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.” She was the final person to speak, and as she did, a long-held dam was broken, and the mighty waters of justice came crashing through. For Denhollander, a trained lawyer and married mother of three who considers herself a conservative Christian, her outspokenness was costly. In her statement, she noted that speaking for sexual assault victims had “cost me my church and our closest friends.”
She told Christianity Today in January 2018 that Christians tend to “gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering but especially sexual assault, with Christian platitudes like God works for all things together for good or God is sovereign. Those are very good and glorious biblical truths, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, they ultimately dampen the goodness of God. Goodness and darkness exist as opposites. If we pretend that the darkness isn’t dark, it dampens the beauty of the light.” Denhollander had shined a light into the sickly heart of American evangelicalism and its own cover-up of sexual abuse and oppression of women. As she told Christianity Today, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim; there are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church.”
Denhollander went on to say that the reason she’d lost her church was her advocacy for other victims of sexual assault within the evangelical community. She was referring to the Sovereign Grace Ministries scandal. In 2012, Sovereign Grace Ministries president C. J. Mahaney and the ministry itself were accused of covering up sexual abuse within the church network. The suit was dismissed in 2014, though a former youth leader in the network was convicted of sexually abusing three boys in a separate case. Denhollander drew an analogy between the scandal at Sovereign Grace and the scandal of the abuse she had suffered:
The ultimate reality that I live with is that if my abuser had been [Sovereign Grace youth group leader] Nathaniel Morales instead of Larry Nassar, if my enabler had been [a Sovereign Grace pastor] instead of [a gymnastics coach], if the organization I was speaking out against was Sovereign Grace under the leadership of [Mahaney] instead of [Michigan State], I would not only not have evangelical support, I would be actively vilified and lied about by every single evangelical leader out there. The only reason I am able to have the support of these leaders now is because I am speaking out against an organization not within their community. Had I been so unfortunate so as to have been victimized by someone in their community, someone in the Sovereign Grace network, I would not only not have their support, I would be massively shunned. That’s the reality.
Denhollander’s words were all the more prophetic within the pages of America’s most prominent magazine for conservative evangelicals. For decades, women had been sublimated and objectified and silenced within American churches. But their liberation would never come from secular feminists. It would come from within the church itself, during the presidency of a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. But the rise of women in evangelical churches would not come easy. And many leaders would fall in its wake.
In 2018, Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard-Merritt found herself caught in the mix of surprising evangelical support for Trump and evangelical women’s awakening about sexual harassment and misconduct brought forward by the #MeToo movement. Raised by conservative Christian parents who had left their Baptist church to attend a fringe charismatic church in the small Florida town where she grew up, Howard-Merritt left conservative evangelical Moody Bible College to attend Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and seek ordination in the relatively liberal Presbyterian Church USA. Writing two books geared toward the church’s ministry to new generations, Howard-Merritt boldly stepped forward in her third book to write about abuse in the church and about helping people find ways to retain their faith in a loving God even after being hurt by the church. Her book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, was released just weeks after Trump’s inauguration — and not long before evangelical pastors’ sexual misconduct and church scandals would come to light during Trump’s presidency.
Before long, Howard-Merritt started to hear from evangelical women who felt betrayed by Trump. “There seems to be a sense that they thought they were standing for something, and all of a sudden it all went away,” she told me. “They realized it was all about power. And too many concessions had been made when they supported Trump.”
As the #ChurchToo movement grew, Howard-Merritt noticed that she received more letters from women questioning their evangelical faith. “There is a sense that evangelicalism is a house of cards,” she said. “If you start to question certain things, if you start saying maybe women should be treated with more respect, it starts unraveling.”
Howard-Merritt told me that this sense of betrayal is related intensely to the investment of evangelical women in purity culture. “They were told they needed to be morally pure, and there was so much pressure around that,” she said. “To watch the same church who upheld purity culture so highly and so strongly just turn around when we have a president who has gone against so much of what purity culture stands for—it feels like betrayal.”
I Am Damaged Goods
To understand the role of women in American conservative Christianity, in churches across America where the Trump vote was strongest, you first have to understand purity culture, a dominant more of American Christianity throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
At my public high school in Minnesota, we had the very public choice of two high-school health classes: abstinence only or abstinence based. I had no boyfriend and no intention of having sex, but something inside of me rebelled against the idea of a special class for me because of the lobbying of conservative Christian parents. Besides, I wanted to see the boys try to put a condom on a banana. I did, however, attend a special daylong retreat about sexuality, put on by a local church. My memory of the event is hazy, but I do remember being told of the importance of purity rings, given to us as girls to remind us not to have sex. That and the creepiness of the father- daughter dances were enough to dissuade me from fully committing to the conservative church youth group, though I still went for the guitars and the cute boys every Wednesday night.
In the early 2000s, Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was all the rage among my youth-group friends. Everyone knew somebody who was waiting until marriage to even kiss their boyfriend or girlfriend, and I even had a friend in college whose parents insisted upon old-fashioned “courting,” rather than college-aged dating. Harris, a homeschooled evangelical Christian, was young and earnest, like the type of guy I’d meet over and over again at Campus Crusades for Christ or Christian Campus House during undergrad at the University of Missouri. The Christian guys I met in college always knew what to say and what to do, at least according to the Bible or according to the conservative pastors we all listened to; they would hold open doors and ask for a first kiss if they were really bold. They were usually slightly nerdy and awkward, a bit unassured and unlikely to win a date in the non-evangelical dating pool, but among the evangelical students in college, they were the best of the bunch. Like some of these Christian guys I knew in college, Harris even wore a fedora on his book cover: fundamentalist-chic.
Again merely dipping my own toe into the evangelical dating pool, I ended up leaving my Christian Campus House boyfriend for the slightly more assured engineer I met playing pickup basketball. My old flame ended up marrying a girl from our Bible study. I’m not sure if they kissed before they got married, but I did watch more than a few friends from that world marry young. Sometimes I wondered if they’d have done so if the sexual prohibition had not been quite so strong. I am resolutely pro-marriage, but getting married in order to be able to lose your virginity is not what God intended either.
The purity culture movement is a movement by, for, and in support of men. Women are vessels to be passed from father to husband, to be given away glowing in white on her wedding day. Women, unlike men, are not naturally sexual beings, the purity myth says. They are to be projected upon, not to project themselves. But the purity myth faded in American culture. As of 2016, Harris had recanted the advice he became known for in I Kissed Dating Goodbye. When confronted on Twitter by a woman who said the book was used against her as a weapon, Harris apologized. He told NPR, “Where my book was used as a rule book to say this is the only way to do it, I know that’s not helpful. When we try to overly control our own lives or overly control other people’s lives, I think we end up harming people. I think that that’s part of the problem with my book.”
An Evangelical Reckoning
The 1980s saw the downfall of several televangelists, including Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, brought down by sex scandals. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the first year of Trump’s presidency would herald a similar reckoning. In late March 2018, Frank Page, the president and chief executive of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, announced his resignation because of an “inappropriate relationship.” Page was among the evangelical leaders who met with and praised Trump in the Oval Office in September 2017. That same month, the Chicago Tribune published a series of allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, America’s first megachurch. What makes the Hybels case unique is that Willow Creek had previously advocated for equality among women and men in evangelicalism, and Hybels’s wife, Lynne, had signed a statement of support for women who suffered sexual abuse in the church, called #SilenceIsNotSpiritual.
After responding to the sexual misconduct allegations before his congregation, Hybels received a standing ovation—a response that was not unique. The same thing happened in January 2018, after teaching pastor Andy Savage admitted before Highpoint Church in Memphis that as a youth pastor at age twenty, he had fondled and forcibly initiated oral sex from a seventeen-year-old youth group member, Jules Woodson, who later came forward, inspired by the #MeToo movement and by the fact that Savage had not responded to her email seeking an apology. While Savage’s church applauded, he told them that he hoped Woodson would receive the same “healing” that he had, insinuating the ripe old E\evangelical trope that women are defiled by sexuality, even sexuality that is forced upon them by men, even by men who serve the church.
The church not only fails women by covering up abuse of women in the church. In other cases, women who suffer spousal abuse are encouraged by pastors and priests to remain with their abusive spouses. Howard-Merritt said she gets letters about twice a month, sometimes more frequently, from women whose pastors told them to stay with their abusive spouses, something that happened to Howard- Merritt’s mother as well. She said people outside conservative Christianity often underestimate the sexism and limited choices for women in patriarchal and theologically conservative households. Practices like homeschooling and mistrust of mainstream media set up conditions where sexism and abuse can flourish, she added.
“A lot of the bias against women I don’t think is even conscious,” Howard-Merritt said. “Many evangelicals are very wary of women in leadership and could not vote for a woman as president.” In such an environment, how could American evangelical women challenge Trump on his comments about “pussy”? They were still fighting for the right to speak at all.
But in 2018, a sleeping giant was awakened. Evangelical women were finding their voices, not as a reaction to Trump per se, but as a ringing alarm bell about the ways American evangelicalism has diminished women. Their awakening would not elect Hillary Clinton. But it could lift up another woman for president someday, and it could eventually doom Trump and his conservative Christian backers, who relied upon evangelical women to win in 2016.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Trump.