If you haven’t heard of Chrissy Stroop, you should. She’s one of the most important new voices in the LGBTQ and secular movements. In August 2017, with white evangelical leaders silent on Charlottesville, she launched the Twitter hashtag, #EmptyThePews as a protest against discriminatory churches, giving voice to the victims of evangelicalism— especially ex-evangelicals, or “exvangelicals” for short.
In 2019, Stroop continued this campaign by releasing Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church, an award-winning anthology coedited by Lauren O’Neal and featuring stories by survivors of hardline Christianity on how it failed to crush them. A PhD in Russian History from Stanford University and a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches and The Conversationalist, Stroop is currently writing a book with the working title, Children of the Culture Wars, which will examine the last several decades of the Christian Right’s history through the eyes of people mobilized for the culture wars as children who came to reject Christian Right extremism as adults.
We’re at an important moment in our country’s history. By the time this interview is printed, Donald Trump will have left office. In 2016, he rose to power thanks to the overwhelming support of white evangelical voters. What are some lessons the American public—and LGBTQ Americans in particular—should take away from the Trump years?
Chrissy Stroop: One big lesson is that religion—Christianity in particular —is not always benign. There are large groups of authoritarian Christians in America who seek to impose their will on the population without respect for democratic norms or processes, and they’ll do whatever it takes to gain and hold on to power. Conservative Christians are never content to let their rules just be the rules of their own community. Instead, they come after LGBTQ people through lawsuits and legislative initiatives by opposing equal rights ordinances, by pushing their propaganda into public schools, by working hard to reverse conversion therapy bans for minors, and by making sure that organizations like Christian adoption agencies can refuse to adopt to same-sex couples and still receive federal funds. They’re constantly trying to undermine our community and take away what rights we do have.
Another takeaway from the Trump years is that fundamentalism, or “high-control religion,” is very common in America and shapes our social realities in ways that people who aren’t raised in it might not be aware of. If you truly want to understand how the Christian Right can do harm in conjunction with political power like we’ve seen under Trump, you must listen to the people who grew up in these communities and saw how evangelicals operate on a more microcosmic level—how they think and what their goals and values are.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in doing research for her book, Jesus and John Wayne, came to a conclusion I had long since drawn: many evangelicals support Trump not in spite of their values but precisely because of their values. That’s something ex-evangelicals have been saying for years now, which is why we should be part of the public discourse.
Yet many mainstream religion reporters have all but ignored ex-evangelicals and downplayed the dangers of Christian nationalism. For example, Washington Post religion reporter, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, sugarcoated pro-Trump, anti-LGBTQ “Patriot Churches” as being “about loving Jesus and loving this country.” How have mainstream religion reporters worked as enablers for the anti-LGBTQ movement?
CS: I’m very critical in general of mainstream religion reporting because it insists on being empathetic toward the members of high-control religious groups who want to police not just the behavior of people who voluntarily join those groups, but literally of everyone. Religion journalists typically interview right-wing evangelical commentators who are very PR-savvy, who know how to finesse their messaging depending on their audience. Evangelicals use coded language and, a lot of times, these reporters don’t probe their rhetoric properly, or talk to exvangelicals, or use well-documented research provided by critical scholars. Instead, religion reporters often parrot what representatives of evangelical communities want the public to hear.
Many reporters who cover conservative Christians understand that they pursue policies that are very harmful to LGBTQ people but write this off as, “Well, unfortunately, that’s just what they believe God wants. These are their sincere beliefs.” Whereas a more nuanced, complex approach would see that people use God for power. Yes, these are sincere beliefs, but they believe in this kind of God, in this kind of Jesus, precisely because they need to feel superior to othered groups of people, including queer people.
With that in mind, do you think that being trans and queer helped you break free from authoritarian Christianity?
CS: I think it’s all very much connected in my experience. I couldn’t even recognize I was trans until I was 33. That delayed recognition is sometimes more common with trans women who are attracted to women, which I am and have always been. It was a huge revelation, though, that I could be attracted to men as well as women, and that also happened in my thirties. A lot of that was repressed from when I was young. As a small child, I couldn’t say, ‘I feel like a girl, exactly, and I didn’t have the language to express why or how I felt different— but I did always feel this sense of alienation, which caused me to live in my head as a coping mechanism. For me, something didn’t fit and it made me feel like an outsider, an observer. For a long time, I thought I was dealing with a purely intellectual struggle to try to stay in the faith and not change too much so that I wouldn’t have a huge fallout with my family but it was always much more than that, with the repressed queerness feeding into the doubts, cognitive dissonance, and my ultimate inability to remain evangelical and conservative.
I believe that if I had grown up in a healthier environment, I would have understood myself earlier without so much psychological damage. Instead, I was petrified of going to hell. Those beliefs kept me hyper focused on that rather than on figuring out who I was and the funny thing is that when I finally realized I was trans, the remaining fear of hell I still felt, despite no longer believing in hell intellectually, simply dissipated.
But you know, if I had just been a “normal” straight kid, I probably wouldn’t have had a problem staying a conservative Christian. Would I still be harmed by that ideology? Sure, because everybody is. It’s not a healthy ideology.
Why do you say that?
CS: Take the typical adult convert. This is someone who comes into the church environment after a life crisis: divorce, death of a very close loved one, drug addiction, alcoholism. People come into fundamentalist communities broken, and they’re promised that Jesus can fix them. Then they become very invested in this idea that Jesus has transformed them. Then they become enmeshed in this whole system of papering over how things are not fixed. And so you have all these cover-ups of abuse and sexual assault and all these things that happen because the community is so unhealthy. Fundamentalist communities are essentially the social expression of complex trauma, because, individually, fundamentalism is a misdirected, unhealthy response to trauma that is then perpetuated communally and generationally.
These anti-LGBTQ extremists suffered a setback with the defeat of Trump. What do you see them doing next?
CS: They’re still going to exert disproportionate power thanks to gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Electoral College, and Senate representation. So they’re not going to back down. They’re going to have control of a lot of states. They will still be pouring all kinds of dark money into the worst legislative initiatives at the municipal, state, and federal levels. These are very dedicated, very active people who will not go gently into that good night.
What do you hope to see from the Biden Administration and LGBTQ organizations to respond to the anti-LGBTQ movement?
CS: More inclusion of secular Americans. Even within the LGBTQ community, there’s still a whole lot of deference to Christianity. When you’re being deferential to one group, you’re not being equal toward everybody. In the Biden Administration, there’s still a strong tendency to focus on faith, which means to some extent caving to the demands of conservative Christians. I would like to see both major LGBTQ organizations and the Biden Administration place some atheist and agnostic queer people into important advisory roles. I’d like to know that the concerns of secular queer folks are being listened to. We don’t have to ask whether the concerns of queer Christians are being listened to in those organizations. They are.
Let’s hope the Biden Administration and LGBTQ organizations do the right thing.
CS: Here’s hoping.