The Media Today

Q&A: Sarah McCammon on covering evangelicals and ‘exvangelicals’

March 27, 2024
Source: Sarah McCammon. Credit: Kara Frame

When Sarah McCammon, an NPR political correspondent and the author of the new book The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the Evangelical Church, watched Chuck Todd and Kellyanne Conway’s infamous discussion of “alternative facts” on Meet the Press in January 2017, she found that the exchange reminded her of her upbringing in the white evangelical church. It was not only the invocation of competing “facts” that felt familiar, but also Conway’s threat to Todd to “rethink our relationship” when asked about matters that might have appeared unflattering to Donald Trump and his administration. The idea that inconvenient truths were out of bounds resonated with McCammon’s personal history. By the time she worked in her first newsroom, she “was exhausted from trying to get my brain to conform to the contours of the supposed Truth” that she’d been taught, she writes in her book. And she was “beginning to feel deceived.” 

McCammon was raised in the eighties and nineties in a homogeneous white evangelical Christian community in Kansas City, Missouri. She was taught to fear God and not to question her faith, and that the consequences for those who didn’t fervently believe were, for now and eternity, “too dire to risk.” Such beliefs were then intertwined with politics, the Christian right having benefited from years of legislative success under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Indeed, the unwavering support of evangelical Christians helped create the powerful, entrenched Republican political engine that still pursues minority ideals, not least the overturning of Roe v. Wade, today. 

For McCammon, though, encountering more of the world through journalism—while developing a relationship with her grandfather, a gay, Harvard-educated neurosurgeon who was allowed only limited contact with the family—forced her to grapple with a worldview that was unraveling. Covering Trump’s first presidential campaign for NPR showed her that she was not alone in her cognitive dissonance. As the leaders of Christian politics aligned with Trump, many young evangelicals grew disillusioned with what they saw as an incongruent choice. In the years since, a growing number of people have left the church and found one another over social media, often using the hashtag “exvangelical.” As McCammon met more former evangelicals, she decided to write a book about the movement that she herself was a part of, exploring why so many felt compelled to leave and what their experiences had to say about the connections between white evangelicals and the state of conservative politics.  

Last week, I spoke with McCammon. We discussed how the media can better reach and report on evangelical Christians, how evangelicals came to endorse Trump at all, and the importance of understanding phenomena one doesn’t necessarily condone. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KL: What is an “exvangelical”?

SM: An exvangelical is somebody who used to be an evangelical and doesn’t identify that way anymore, which can happen for a variety of reasons. I became aware of the term while covering the 2016 presidential campaign and doing stories about evangelicals wrestling with the growing alignment between Trumpism, the far right, and the evangelical movement. It’s not exclusive to Trump’s moment, but I think a lot of the conversations that I’m writing about were catalyzed by it. 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Do you think your upbringing as an evangelical Christian led you to pursue a career in journalism?

Not all evangelical families are this way, but my evangelical family was very focused on not only our faith and theological beliefs, but our political ideas. My parents, many of their friends, and the evangelical leaders they looked to—James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Ralph Reed—saw their faith and politics as intertwined. So I grew up in an environment where ideas were important. There was a constant discussion about what to believe, how to live, what being a Christian—at least, our version of Christian—meant in the larger world. I grew up thinking about these things and, as I got older, I felt a discomfort with the expectation to serve an ideological purpose or goal. I felt there were lots of sources of cognitive dissonance for me and aspects of my upbringing that didn’t quite fit right. 

As I was trying to make sense of those, journalism felt like a place where I had permission to explore ideas, and that was part of the mission itself. I was excited about working in a space where I was encouraged to ask questions and to consider multiple points of view. I realized that journalism, and journalists, don’t always live up to that—and, of course, every publication has its own mission, purpose, history, and ideological sense. So I don’t mean to portray the journalism industry or reporters as these idealistic, perfect bastions of objective thought, because that’s not the case. But the ideals of journalism that I was taught about—fact-checking, not assuming, trying to understand different points of view, soliciting multiple opinions, seeking out perspectives that are not your own—that was taboo for me growing up. We have other perspectives—but I was supposed to arrive at a particular one. Journalism felt like the inverse of that. 

What does the media not understand in the way that it categorizes and characterizes evangelicals or the Christian right? 

Like any large group of people, evangelicals aren’t monolithic. Evangelicalism is an umbrella term, and it’s a useful one. The evangelical movement is made up of different streams of thought, strands of theology, and subsets which follow a spectrum of ideas that inform the way people think about the world and politics. Approximately eight in ten white evangelicals support Donald Trump or have voted for him in the last two elections—that means that two in ten did not. Those two in ten are interesting to me. Who are the people who still identify as evangelical but don’t embrace that ideological and political project? There is a lot of focus on the high-profile, influential leaders, and that’s for good reason. They’re very powerful. But there’s a lot of “rank” in the rank and file. Some people are very ideological. Other people are just following the crowd. 

Can you explain how the evangelical community adopted someone like Trump as their candidate? 

Trump was looking for a base of support, and evangelicals were looking for a champion for their ideas. As Robert Jones [the president of the Public Religion Research Institute] argues, the dominance of white Christianity has declined over many decades, and conservative white Christians have sensed an erosion of cultural power and what they see as a decline in the culture. They point to legitimate problems like poverty, and there’s this belief that Christianity is a stabilizing force and, without it, everything falls apart. There’s also a belief, prevalent in a lot of the Christian literature—textbooks, books, magazines, etc.—common in evangelical homes, that America was set up as a Christian nation: that it was specially ordained by God, and that we have fallen away from that, which explains the cultural problems and societal challenges we face. When evangelicals heard Trump say “Make America Great Again,” that resonated with an idea that they already held. They were willing to look past his moral behavior, his rhetoric, in order to achieve a larger objective, which they saw as literally saving the country. 

This has been a consistent pattern. In 2016, many of the Trump supporters or Republican voters I spoke to, including evangelicals, would talk about a binary choice between somebody who doesn’t support any of our policy goals—who’s going to let the country fall apart—and somebody where We don’t really like everything he does, but he’s going to fight for us, for protecting Christianity, conservatives, and Supreme Court justices. Quite simply, they saw Trump as somebody who would champion their cause. Then he did. He delivered on the number one policy goal that many evangelicals have been pushing for decades, overturning Roe. Fast-forward to 2024, and white evangelicals have been hugely influential in making Trump the presumptive nominee again. Pew just released data showing that white evangelicals don’t think that Trump is an evangelical—they don’t think he’s an especially religious person—but they don’t care. They see him as carrying out their goals, and existentially important.

Do you think “exvangelicals” will have an effect or influence on politics in this next election cycle? How do you think that the media should consider this growing demographic?

Right now, it is mostly a vocal critique that is developing its own language and an online community. I profile an extension church in Nashville that’s not a political project, but is gathering around a shared post-evangelical history and a desire to explore Christianity with a more open approach to theology. Most of the people in that church would be politically progressive. The exvangelical movement, to the extent that there is one, has a leftward or a liberal flavor. There are a lot of people of color, women, who feel marginalized by evangelical spaces. But it’s early to say what it means politically. The growing number of people who don’t identify with any religion at all suggests that a lot of those people are liberals, inclined to vote Democratic, but also that they’re not super politically engaged. 

What seems clear is that the white evangelical base of the Republican Party is declining for a bunch of reasons. Will it be replaced by an equally organized countermovement? That is harder to say. Over time, the Republican Party will not be able to rely on the same number of energized white evangelical voters that they have for such a long time.

Do you have any advice on how best to communicate with or reach Christian-right or evangelical communities—to understand and report on them more fairly or accurately? 

The conversations we have in newsrooms about neutral language are really important, and sometimes they’re frustrating to people on both sides of the political spectrum, because people want to call a spade a spade, a lie a lie. I don’t think we should shy away from that, but at the same time, thinking about how to say something in the most neutral, objective way possible—at least in the terminology we use—can help avoid shutting down a conversation before it starts. I covered abortion for several years and I feel like I almost speak two languages. I can hear how things will sound to liberals and to conservatives, because I grew up around conservatives and I know a lot of liberals. I’m not saying we should shy away from the facts, but sometimes you can say the same thing two different ways. This is why, when talking about abortion, I like using medical language. Some people will always object to your choice of words, but we don’t have to engage in unforced errors. 

When it comes to engagement with ideas and people, curiosity is really important. Some of the ideas I grew up around were painful, but it also made me curious about where they came from and how people got there. I think my parents’ view of gay people is really harmful, and I make that very clear. But I also love my parents, and I think they loved my grandpa even though they didn’t accept his sexuality. They didn’t love him in the way that I would want to be loved or that most people would want to be loved. It was a kind of love, but it was complicated. It’s important to understand how complicated people are and to be curious about how they got to where they are, even if they hold terrible ideas. Sometimes understanding the source is helpful for unpacking and disarming them. You can understand something without condoning it. That’s part of the work of history and journalism. 

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday—following several days of fallout, including a growing on-air rebellion on the part of top network talent—NBC News reversed its decision to hire Ronna McDaniel, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, as a paid contributor. “No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned,” Cesar Conde, the chair of the NBCUniversal News Group, wrote in a note to staff. “Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.” (He also apologized to “team members who felt we let them down.”) McDaniel reportedly learned of her ouster from news reports and is now said to be lawyering up—per Politico, she expects her contract to be paid out in full and is “exploring potential defamation and hostile work environment torts” against those who blasted her on air.
  • Yesterday was a busy day elsewhere in the media business. G/O Media, which has been shedding news sites of late, is now selling off The Takeout and the AV Club, with other properties, including the satirical site The Onion, reportedly up for sale, too; Static Media is buying The Takeout, while the AV Club will be acquired by Paste Magazine, which picked up Jezebel and Splinter from G/O last year (and formally relaunched the latter site yesterday morning). Elsewhere, WBUR, the Boston public radio station, announced that it is offering buyouts to staffers—and will likely have to make further cuts—after sponsorship revenue plummeted. And i-D Magazine, which the model and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss acquired last year, laid off ten staffers, per Puck’s Lauren Sherman.
  • The Washington Post’s David Kenner, Sarah Ellison, and Jonathan O’Connell report—citing financial documents leaked from a firm in the Cayman Islands and obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—that a member of Qatar’s royal family made significant investments in the right-wing US network Newsmax when Trump was president, at a time when “Qatar was facing intense diplomatic pressure from its neighbors and seeking allies in the United States.” The Post reports that top bosses at Newsmax subsequently directed staff to soften their coverage of Qatar, though a spokesperson for the network strongly denies that this happened.
  • CJR’s Feven Merid dug into pages on Reddit that are dedicated to scrutinizing online influencers who promote clothing and beauty brands, among other wares. These pages, known as “snark” subreddits, “are not well moderated, and often get details wrong,” Merid writes. “And they can be cruel: posts on these pages sometimes engage in body shaming and bullying. But these snark subreddits provide another utility. At a time when the influencer economy is booming, snark subreddits are often the only places taking a close inspection of how the industry and its most successful figures operate.”
  • And the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association said that it had discovered a “remarkably intact” steamship that sank in Lake Michigan in the 1880s—and that it had followed clues in contemporaneous news reports to do so. “Newspapers described how on July 9, [1886], the Milwaukee set a course to Muskegon, Michigan, to pick up a cargo of lumber as a nearly identical ship, the C. Hickox, left Muskegon for Chicago,” Stephen Smith writes for CBS. The two ships crashed—but everyone on the Milwaukee survived.

ICYMI: A crucial election for Senegal’s press

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.