Russian history expert Dr. Chrissy Stroop is back with a follow-up interview. She is an author, editor, and Stanford Ph.D., not only an activist. One of the reasons I wished to have her on was to discuss and promote the book she helped to edit, along with Lauren O’Neal, Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. There is an exodus of people leaving authoritarian Christian organizations that use BITE model influence methods characteristic of destructive cults. Today’s religious media conglomerate which includes talk radio, television, and internet channels are a vast source of influence throughout the world. These are run by religious figures who have amassed huge fortunes from donations by true believers. Many of these pastors, preachers, apostles, and prophets preach a form of prosperity theology- give your money to the leader at their “church” and donors will be blessed and receive great wealth in return. Supposedly. But usually, they do not but they are told that they did not pray hard enough or that they had “sin” they need to confess. Faith must be total with no room for doubt. Unfortunately, when it comes to major media coverage of evangelicalism, wealthy and powerful evangelicals with institutions behind them have been framing the narrative. There is a need to share what is really going on in authoritarian evangelicalism, with its corporal punishment of children, misogyny, homophobia, and homeschooling curricula that denies science and teaches revisionist history. Readers of my work know I believe that the roots of violence in America begin with physically hitting young children to discipline them. Violence by authority figures, especially parents is traumatic and actually affects children’s brain development. It is important to provide a counter-voice to the respectable evangelicals that are spinning PR in the public sphere. Personal stories and narratives help to get rights for minority groups and gather empathy.
This anthology collects original and previously published pieces about leaving this form of Christianity, examining the intersections of queerness, spiritual abuse, loss of faith, and the courage needed to leave one’s religious community. It is a collection of diverse personal essays by apostates and survivors of religious trauma who boldly address the individual experiences and systemic dysfunction so common in conservative churches.
Chrissy and I previously discussed in a blog how Exvangelicals Find a Voice and Speak Out Against Authoritarianism. She shared her concerns that what she saw was a powerful group of people publicly defined as white evangelical Christians who were supporting Trump and who exhibited the characteristics of an authoritarian movement. While many might not identify with the term Dominionism directly–the belief that Christians should take over America and the world and make it Christian in a very narrow way–they were Christian nationalists pursuing a de facto, and sometimes explicit, Dominionist political agenda. The majority of white evangelicals appear to wish to create a theocracy and abolish the separation of Church and State, something the founders of our country explicitly wish to make sure did not happen.
Chrissy lives in Portland Oregon where Trump has been sending unmarked federal agents despite pleas from the governor and mayor to stay away. This has ratcheted up more demonstrations and there has been some violence and destruction of property. Since the murder by police of George Floyd, there have been continued peaceful protests there. However, some people wish to stir up trouble and cause violence. The vast majority are peaceful protestors. Federal agents were videotaped removing citizens from the streets and throwing them into vans, and they were detained for hours without a record of their arrest. This is very concerning show of force that Americans have felt was a move toward fascism.
As mentioned by Chrissy in her recent article, “BEHIND A RECENT STUNT IN IDAHO LIES A DANGEROUS THEOCRATIC MOVEMENT” there lies concern in Idaho, where COVID cases are very high. Fifteen Republican members of the Idaho House of Representatives went rogue, gathering in the House chambers for what they had billed as an ‘extraordinary session’ of the state legislature called to rein in what they claim is the overstepping of authority by Governor Brad Little, also a Republican, in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The gathering was protected by heavily-armed men. She sums up the situation, by pointing out the global implications:
Meanwhile, the spread of nullification and unchecked extremism in the Republican Party is hardly limited to the Northwest. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems far more concerned with preventing and punishing the destruction of racist monuments and with painting those protesting racial injustice as “terrorists” than it does with reining in the excesses of anti-government extremists like the American Redoubters, with whom the administration shamefully holds much ideological common ground.
It seems that Trump is testing his limits as to what he can get away with in his authoritarian and dictatorial regime. He is possibly setting the stage and could simply declare someone as a terrorist and disappear them. If people stand up to this behavior and speak out about it, more will recognize the dangers and there is a lesser chance this will become a reality.
In my research for The Cult of Trump book, I learned a lot about Evangelicalism and Dominionism. I recommend watching my interviews with Dr. Mary Theresa Webb & Dr. Warren Throckmorton. as they are both Christians who believe in a Jesus who taught love, forgiveness, compassion, and charity. Indeed in my opinion most Christians teach humility (not ego and pride) and responsibility (not blaming everyone else for one’s errors) and taking care of the poor and the downtrodden (and not the wealthy elite). There are some very wealthy, powerful groups directly linked to the White House that are trying to manipulate and exert power, such as The Family, Opus Dei, and the New Apostolic Reformation.
Chrissy shares what it was like for her growing up in this authoritarian evangelical world, which fits with the BITE Model and Influence Continuum. Today, Christian parents are being asked to pull their kids from public (“government”) schools where they can then be more closely watched and indoctrinated. And for those in Christian schools, they are very much authoritarian in nature. Bible classes have a narrow understanding that is linked to right-wing politics and the message that Liberalism is anti-christian is very much made known to the students. For many of these schools, they start their day with a pledge to the United States flag, the Christian flag and then the Bible.
Chrissy goes on to talk about women, sexuality, and LGBTQ treatment from within these types of groups. In her book, 16 out of the 21 essays are from women. It is important to note that in these fundamental religious groups, women are disproportionately harmed. So, as they leave, more women share their experiences. And, more often than not, these women are queer.
She shares what it was like for her as a trans person, not fully understanding what that was growing up. For many people raised in authoritarian religious groups, they are homophobic and even after leaving, have to strip themselves of that thinking. Also, we talk about JK Rowling and her public stance expressing concerns. This has led trans activists to call her (and me) transphobic. I know I am not and I do not believe Rowling is either, though Chrissy strongly disagrees. I do believe the authoritarian Christian Right has hated Harry Potter and seeks to turn their followers against Rowling. But from my point of view, if you grew up on Harry Potter books and movies, why assume the worst from its creator? I truly wish to understand Rowling more fully. I am interested in supporting the human rights of all. I wish to empower people who have been traumatized or abused or raised in homophobic institutions to get counseling and support so they can be who they choose to be. I am interested in promoting constructive dialogue and not just name-calling and further polarization. I asked Chrissy if she could say anything to Rowling, she said she would ask her to really listen to the trans community. Rowling has communicated that she has researched for years now, including speaking to trans people as well as detransititoners, a population of people who thought they were trans, took hormones, and even did surgery and then realized they made a mistake. My upset is that detransitioners have been treated like former members of a cult- denigrated, attacked, and minimized. Why can’t there be mutual respect and a desire to listen and learn? What I have learned after 44 years of activism is that taking a curious, respectful position assuming that I need to learn more, is the wise posture for all to take in this polarized world of information and disinformation wars.
Chrissy explained that from her point of view, many anti-trans activists argue that trans people are being gender essentialists. That they believe trans people are just men that want to enter women’s spaces or women that want access to male power and structures. This seems preposterous to me as an argument against trans folks. Rather, gender dysphoria is a real psychological condition and biological gender can be on a spectrum. I respect and support adults who wish to transition after doing at least a year of therapy with qualified professionals. (Chrissy finds the demand for a year of therapy to be unrealistic and harmful, all the more so when so many trans people are poor, many hospitals discriminate against trans people, and therapy is often inaccessible.) I have concerns about what is being done with children, I must admit. We talked a little about detransitioners and how their experiences are valid too. But, as Chrissy pointed out, she believes that gender is fluid. And that most gender-affirming doctors are ethical. She believes they ask probing questions to find out why a person wishes to transition. What is their motivation? How long has the person thought about doing this? And do the person understand what they should reasonably expect when they transition? Chrissy believes that no one transitions on a whim as hormonal, surgical, and social transition are not easy. (I have been researching and interviewing detransitioners and plan to do a future blog on this subject. Chrissy has expressed her discomfort with emphasizing detransitioning, as the small percentage of destransitioners are widely used to justify invalidation of trans experience and discrimination against trans individuals.)
But in my view, what is most important is to be human. Respect yourself and others. Avoid black-and-white and all-or-nothing thinking. For those raised in cultish environments, learn about cult mind control. Get therapy from those who have been there and now live fulfilled balanced lives. Move toward love and away from fear. Learn to connect. Listen. Find common ground. And promote and protect basic human rights.
I like and respect Chrissy so much! I truly enjoyed our interaction and I really wish to get to know her better. So we brought up a number of topics including corporal punishment, deplatforming, and cancel culture. Recently, Chrissy wrote an article about cancel culture, “NO “CANCEL CULTURE” ON THE RIGHT: HOW CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS PROTECT THE POWERFUL.” In it, she helps us to see that “if cancel culture is indeed a thing, it would seem that many of those who most deserve it aren’t getting canceled. […] Far from helping the powerless, the prominent crusaders against ‘cancel culture’ only enable the Right in its authoritarian impulses that protect (generally white, male, rich) abusers. Evolving social norms can be difficult for people to adjust to. But if prominent intellectuals are truly interested in wrestling with the harmful power dynamics exposed by #MeToo and #ChurchToo, they should start not by decrying ‘cancel culture,’ but rather by examining their own power.” For me, I am against cancel culture on the left or the right. I think it is a right to disagree and argue why someone is saying or doing something that is harmful. But I do not believe in doxxing, threatening, harming a person because they say things differently from yourself. Of course, if you do not agree with the ideology of a CEO or owner of a company, you are free to not buy their products- and tell others not to use it either. But not try to erase or cancel them.
My wish is that this blog is a step towards further understanding. Please listen to our conversation and let us know what you think.
Writer, Commentator, Journalist
Ph.D., History and Humanities (Stanford University)
Senior Research Associate, Postsecular Conflicts Project (Kristina Stoeckl, Principal Investigator), University of Innsbruck, Austria (https://www.uibk.ac.at/projects/postsecular-conflicts/team.html)