What I Discovered Is Stunning: The Evangelical World Is Crumbling From Within

I'd been writing novels and literary nonfiction for twenty years before I dared to write a memoir about my flight from my evangelical past. That book became the bestselling CRAZY FOR GOD: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. I'd been so out of touch with the evangelical world that I'd lost track of the players. Put it this way: I'd never heard of Rob Bell.

I was expecting a backlash from the sort of people I'd worked with. I was only half joking when I told my wife Genie, "Pat Robertson will have me killed."

I'd dropped out of the machine in the early 1990s. Having once been the keynote speaker at the Southern Baptist convention, the Religious Broadcasters and the Christian Booksellers convention and having been one of the early leaders of the evangelical anti-abortion movement, I thought I'd be deluged with denunciations. Instead I got (literally thousands) of emails thanking me for "telling my story" as many people put it.

Turned out millions were fleeing former certainties.

What was that "story" of flight?

During my more than 20 year Rip Van winkle-like gap, while I'd been out of the loop writing books like Keeping Faith-a father-son story about love and the United States Marine Corps (it became a bestseller after Oprah interviewed me)  my novels Portofino, Zermatt and Saving Grandma, thousands of other former evangelicals had "fallen away" too, as my mother would have put it.

Some of us were now atheists, others were still religious but joined to new emergent churches. Others had found refuge in what I'd been raised to call "liberal" or "mainline" denominations.

Yet others were the "spiritual but not religious" types, doing their version of "church" on the beach or in the woods.

What we all had in common was that we were no longer "saved," as Billy Graham would have defined the word say back in the late 1960s when he used to visit my parents' mission of L'Abri.

We'd all burnt out on the politicized religion, the narrow theology too.

Lots of people who wrote to me were still "professional Christians" in other words, secret unbelievers but stuck in religion jobs. To put it bluntly: they quit believing, or at least believing in the old way, but were earning a living in a church or other religious organization and couldn't drop out for financial reasons. They were blunt about this.

Surprisingly I got hundreds of notes telling me people's intimate facts of unbelief and doubt that could get the person fired. Maybe they trusted me because I'd tried to tell my story honestly and they responded in kind. For instance one man wrote: " if it got back to anyone in my church it would end my and my families life as we know it."

For whatever reason I suddenly realized that as a spin-off from my memoir I was conducting an unscientific but nevertheless startling "poll" as it were.

What I discovered was stunning: The evangelical world is crumbling from within.

And it isn't just younger people dropping out becoming the "nones" (as in "none" when asked about religious affiliation). Thousands of people my age -- 50 and up -- people raised in the church, or were once fervent converts, once ministers or workers in places like Campus Crusade, were dropping out or secretly not believing while also clinging to jobs in places like Wheaton College or the Billy Graham organization and still collecting that paycheck.

Sure the big churches will keep going. Sure there is still big money to be made. But between the generational shift within the evangelical world on issues like women's rights and gay marriage, pitting the younger set against grandparents, and the wholesale loss of faith in the 19th century born-again Billy Graham simplistic one-sinner's-prayer-solves-everything-faith, and the secularization of the culture... I would not be buying stock in Franklin Graham's future, as it were.

Something else is happening too: The army of former believers, the dropouts, the heretics (like me), are still looking for community, faith and love.

And that is where my new book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace has -- in just a month since publication -- become my next unintended, and unscientific but real "test" of the religion waters. Why I... is generating a flow of Facebook messages, tweets and email that is amazing. Ever since the Washington Post reviewed it of course the word is out.

Here's one letter in my new book-generated "survey":

I am your clone. I am where you are, but with a different starting place. You have come from a religious position of meaningless certainty. I have come from a religious position of certain meaninglessness. From what I can see with unusual clarity (for me), there is remarkable congruity of my current spiritual map with the content of your courageous writing and brave publishing. Unbelievably, I agree; a miracle in this day and age. I am a poet... So very much, I appreciate and treasure your cogent statement on poetry... Your book has taken me over. I read it straight through and finished it at three am. I slept for four hours. I had to get out of bed with too little sleep because this demanded to be written. Thank you for being so vigorously honest. Thank you for the work you did to write this. Thank you for telling major publishers to f**k off by self-publishing this wonder-full revelation. The experience of it is exhilarating.

And this:

Thank you so much for your book. Just finished it. It took me to a place of tranquility and peace - the harshness of my [former evangelical] self-judgment being met by pure love... I am working towards this in my own days. My husband is going to read it next - we have very spirited conversations about church - left a largish Pentecostal one four years ago - he still gets annoying feeds on FB from people we love in the church about pledge day (pledging to the building fund) which make him see red. OK, well, enough chit chat. Thank you.

And this:

I was born and raised an MK [missionary kid] in the Philippines... My folks were Fundamentalist Baptists but studied at the very Bible Presbyterian National Bible Institute in NYC (later Shelton College) just after World War II. My father often mentioned that your father had spoken at their college... I grew up reading both your parents books... I consider myself a "recovering" fundamentalist/Evangelical. Every time I read something you have written... I know that you are also a "recovering" Fundamentalist/Evangelical because like me you have to consciously deal with the former mindset all the time and [learn to] empathize...

I kid you not: there are hundreds more.

Here's what I have been learning from the response to my new book:

First: the evangelical movement I grew up in is dying, people -- by the millions -- are looking for an exit

Second: it only looks alive because there are lots of people still pulling a paycheck who have to pretend to still believe -- few really do

Third: for the rest, from new converts to old hands, the evangelical churches are a way-station to changed minds, doubts and "falling away."

As for the religious right, it's the Tea Party/Fox News netherworld now. Politics has replaced religion altogether. Hard right politics are alive and thriving but less to do with Jesus than with the Koch brothers, Ayn Rand and American jingoism -- with a dose of libertarian "Don't Tread on Me!" selfishness thrown in.

My new book is not just being read but (to my surprise) being read as a sort of declaration of independence from all these versions of "faith."

What is emerging is that thousands of us recovering evangelicals now doubt our old theologies but we still crave faith and community. In fact, we long for community, love and even a chance to follow Jesus -- not as a god so much but as the best example of what we'd like the world to become...

What we share is not theology but the reward of the look of unconditional trust and love we see in the eyes of those who know us best.

  • Follow Frank on Twitter www.twitter.com/frank_schaeffer
  • See Frank's paintings http://www.frankschaefferart.com/