The Toxic Evangelical Variant
By Martin Thielen
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the evangelical church saved me in every way a person can be saved. They introduced me to Jesus. They became the family my childhood family could not be. They loved and affirmed me. They educated me. They gave me a vocation. And they gave me exceptional opportunities of service. Although I left the evangelical church years ago for a more progressive expression of faith, I’ve always appreciated the gifts they gave me.
However, these days, I barely recognize the evangelical church in America. Like the COVID Delta variant, some (not all) branches of evangelicalism have mutated into to a highly toxic force, doing great damage to the Christian faith, the American church, and the common good of humanity. Although this is not true of all evangelicals, a significant segment of the evangelical world exhibits severe symptoms of destructive, life-diminishing religion. Given that troubling reality, it’s past time to challenge this toxic evangelical variant.
Characteristics of the Toxic Evangelical Variant
- The toxic evangelical variant breeds perpetual anger. It remains constantly enraged over hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights, transgender bathroom battles, critical race theory, vaccine mandates, and whatever the outrage of the week is on its favorite cable television networks and talk-radio shows.
- The toxic evangelical variant denies the realities of science. It constantly rejects proven scientific facts including evolution, human-made climate change, and the safety and effectiveness of COVID vaccines. It often shares anti-science conspiracy theories from its pulpits and social media posts, making the world a more dangerous place.
- The toxic evangelical variant oppresses women. In the name of God and the Holy Bible, it promotes second-class citizenship for women. For example, it tells women to “graciously submit” to their husbands and insists that women cannot serve as ministers, even if they are gifted and called.
- The toxic evangelical variant hurts the LGBTQ community. It tells gay people they are an abomination to God. It places them in conversion therapy programs, causing deep emotional and spiritual damage. And it constantly fights against gay rights. All of which produce hateful prejudice and cruelty toward LGBTQ persons.
- The toxic evangelical variant engages in hyper-partisanship. A recent survey asked people what came to mind when they heard the word evangelical. The vast majority said, “political,” “partisan,” or “Republican.” We see that reality in its overwhelming and unyielding support of Donald Trump, who violates every value evangelicals claim to hold including character, decency, marital fidelity, truth telling, and family values.
- The toxic evangelical variant practices gross hypocrisy. It claims to be pro-life but supports the death penalty, gives its blessing to almost every war, and fights against gun safety. It claims to follow Jesus the compassionate healer but tries to take away health care for millions. It preaches love but promotes anger, division, and bitterness. And tragically, throughout its history and even today, it often nurtures racism.
- The toxic evangelical variant damages the reputation of Christ and church. When people look at the overwhelmingly negative attributes of toxic evangelicalism, large numbers of them think, If this is Christianity, I want no part of it. Millions of people, especially young adults, have left faith and church because of this poisonous strand of religion. Although the toxic evangelical movement claims that “saving souls” is its top priority, it turns more people away from Jesus than toward him.
- The toxic evangelical variant jettisons Jesus. In dozens of ways, the toxic variant of evangelical Christianity violates the life, example, spirit, and teachings of Jesus, including his call to love, kindness, inclusion, grace, mercy, compassion, and justice. Although it likes to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” it chooses to do the exact opposite. This untethering from Jesus, more than anything else, is the most tragic characteristic of today’s toxic evangelical variant.
Sadly (and I take no joy in writing this critique), many other examples of toxic evangelicalism could be given, including self-righteous judgmentalism, a spirit of anti-intellectualism, unbiblical anti-immigrant views, constant violation of the separation of church and state, and dangerous nationalism, equating love of God with love of America. As a former evangelical, I find all of this extremely heartbreaking.
How to Respond to the Toxic Evangelical Variant
- Run like crazy.
I once heard a story about a woman taking a walk in her neighborhood. She saw a little boy trying to ring a doorbell he couldn’t quite reach. Although he stretched with all his might, he could not push the doorbell. Being a kind woman, she walked over and picked him up so he could reach it. He rang the doorbell over and over and over again. “What now?” asked the woman. The little boy answered, “Run like crazy!”
If you are connected to a church or organization that promotes toxic evangelicalism, my advice to you is, “Run like crazy.” Staying will poison your spirit. For years, I attempted to be a moderating force in a fundamentalist denomination. But I utterly failed. The sad truth is, churches committed to religious-right fundamentalism will never change. I realize that some people—because of family, friendship, community, or employment reasons—cannot easily depart their faith community, even if it is toxic. However, if at all possible, you need to get out. Now.
- Adopt life-giving faith.
People who leave toxic religion can find healthy faith options in many other places. For me, that means progressive Christianity in a mainline denomination. But that’s certainly not the only viable choice. Many conservative and moderate faith traditions avoid the pitfalls of toxic evangelicalism. Other, nontraditional expressions of faith also exist. And people who don’t affirm any religious beliefs can still embrace life-enhancing spiritual values like love, mercy, honesty, reason, authenticity, generosity, tolerance, kindness, service, education, inclusion, justice, and the common good. These traits, even without an overtly religious component, are far healthier (and more like Jesus) than the toxic evangelical variant.
- Challenge the toxicity.
Toxic evangelicalism needs to be challenged, even when doing so is difficult. For example, when millions of people in the evangelical church conflated loving Jesus with loving Donald Trump, I (along with many others) publicly challenged that belief. I tried to do so respectfully but also firmly. It wasn’t a popular position in my bright red, religious-right community, and I paid a price for my minority stance. However, that dangerous coupling of hyper-partisanship and evangelical religion needed to be vigorously challenged. From quiet conversations to public forums, toxic religion must always be countered.
- Offer a better alternative.
In the end, the best answer to bad religion is good religion. Jesus understood that. In the face of the arrogant, judgmental, and legalistic religion of his day, Jesus offered a healthy alternative of humility, grace, mercy, compassion, and justice. He calls us to do the same.
Individual Christians and faith communities can offer a better alternative to the world than the toxic evangelical variant. Although we’ll never be perfect, we can promote a religion of grace, not judgment. A religion of love, not hatred. A religion of open-mindedness, not intolerance. A religion of compassion, not legalism. A religion of humility, not arrogance.
Years ago, before I retired from pastoral ministry, a young family visited my mainline United Methodist congregation. After attending for several months, they scheduled an appointment with me to discuss baptism and membership.
I asked them, “What attracted you to our congregation?”
They said, “The sign.”
I said, “What sign?”
They said, “The sign out front that says, ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.’ We thought all churches were narrow-minded and judgmental. So, when we saw your sign, we decided to visit. When we discovered that the church inside lived up to the sign outside, we wanted to become members.”