It was my 29th birthday and I was sitting on a couch in a strip club with a dancer named Heather hovering above me. She was wearing a silvery bra and a black thong. I was wearing a Harry Potter T-shirt and jeans. My friend had offered to buy me the lap dance as a birthday present. I'd taken her up on the offer partly because I was curious, but also because I had to prove to myself that my politics weren't just words, that I really had come a great distance from the fundamentalist Christian I was a decade ago.
When I turned 21, I wasn't sure if I believed in evolution. I was positive global warming couldn't be caused by humans, and I was never more aware of God's presence and work in my life. I hesitantly sipped a stout beer—my first drink ever—and proclaimed that I didn't know what the next couple of years would mean, but I was sure God had something awesome planned for me.
I was what you might call a fundamentalist Evangelical. I didn't go all the way into wearing ankle-length denim skirts and head coverings, but I held all the same beliefs: Women should dress modestly. We should all save sex for marriage. Homosexuality was wrong and evil. Jesus came to save us from the total depravity of our sins, and liberals who claimed to be Christian were lying to themselves.
I was raised as an Evangelical Christian and had been "saved" at five years old. This quickly became the most important part of my life. My old journal entries are filled with consternation and shame over wrong actions and sins done. In one memorable incident, I attended a dance at my state's political participation camp Girls State. The next day, I wrote: "I feel bad because I didn't act very Christian. I danced to 'Baby Got Back' and then sat and did nothing during 'I Touch Myself.' I failed you, God."
But some time around my junior year of college, things begin to shift. It may have been the liberal friends I made or the world not exploding into flames around me when I swore or drank alcohol. It may have just been my own curiosity about different religious traditions and variations within Christian theology itself. All I know is that when I was 22, I voted for a Democrat for the first time ever in my life, and confessed quietly to my roommate that I thought I was becoming pro-choice. Something shifted me away from my fundamentalist certainty and into the hazy realm of the moral gray.
Slowly, post-Evangelical millennials find a home in feminist discourse and thought. Some, like me, discover it through higher education.
By the time I ended up in the bathroom of an Old Chicago strip club, scrubbing a stripper's lipstick off my neck, I'd not only done a complete 180 on my political views, but I had published them in a widely read book and spoke openly about my sex life to practically anyone who asked.
I am a long way from my conservative roots, and yet, I find myself in good company. There's a large group within Christianity nowadays who can effectively be called "post-Evangelicals." We're millennials, mostly, who grew up in the fundamentalist Evangelical churches of the 80s and 90s, and who have disengaged from those beliefs. There's quite a few of us, considering as many as three in five young Christians leave the church by the time they turn 15, according to a recent national study by Barna, an Evangelical research group. We've found new ways of thinking and new ways of enacting our beliefs in God, usually resulting from the realization that gay people are, y'know, people, and that our former church is generally run by white, cisgender, straight men.
Many of these post-Evangelicals are women whose voices went unheard in the church. We grew up in worlds where we were told, over and over, that our roles in the church and in life were set and defined by God before we were even born. We were to be wives and mothers, and virgins until the time we could provide children. And many of us, raised in a post-sexual-revolution world, with women in careers outside the home and examples of powerful women on TV every week, found the predestined roles restrictive and chafing.
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Slowly, with baby steps, and quiet exploration, post-Evangelical millennials found a home in feminist discourse and thought. Many, like me, discovered it through higher education. We expanded our views of Christ and the crucifixion to include a political axis as well. We began to see the center of Christianity not as a pursuit of individual salvation, but as a theological, political force that demands justice in all realms.
This eventually landed many post-Evangelicals on the liberal end of the political spectrum, voting for the very people our fundamentalist background says are sending the country to hell. As we unravel the presupposition and boxes our faith put us in, we discover a brand new world, where conversations with friends weren't "witnessing opportunities" and where finding someone attractive didn't mean spending the next two hours self-flagellating.
One of the women I spoke to still fears pushback from her fundamentalist community for talking about her experiences (which is also why she wished to remain anonymous). She told me about her first experience at a Halloween party. She had grown up in a restrictive denomination—complete with rules about dress and manner for women, including mandatory head coverings. Halloween was considered a flirtation with evil, and was therefore banned. So she was in her 20s by the time she actually attended a Halloween party—and one with alcohol available, to boot.
"I was 25 years old. I was so worried about it," she told me. "I worked myself up so much that I had a massive migraine before going. But there were no orgies, no incantations, no drunken stupors, or horror. It was just a group of friends, having fun. It was eye-opening and freeing."
In the fundamentalist world, we're told horror stories of "secular" parties, of celebrating of the grandest debauchery. Friends who drink, friends who participate in "the culture of the world," are suspect, viewed as sinners justifying sin. So to discover that the world isn't going to explode, that you're not going to fall into a debauched world of orgiastic fervor, that parties are really just people talking to one another, is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.
Like many people with sudden, newfound freedom, we don't exactly know how to proceed. We're like Amish kids on an eternal rumspringa, discovering for the first time the world the Apostle Paul spoke about, where everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
There's a standing trope in popular culture of the freshman college kid who realizes that she's finally alone, she's finally away from her parents. She can do what she wants—like have ice cream for breakfast—and no one will stop her. Fundamentalist survivors are a bit like that. We're figuring out that we can have ice cream for breakfast, but we're still wondering if our mom is going to come around the corner and scold us. Except it's never just ice cream, and it's not an angry parent—it's the God of the universe sending us to hell.
Even after you've left the church, the fear is still with you. You think God's judgment is eventually coming to bear on all the sinful decisions you've made with your new freedom.
Staying in the church means that the scolding is never far off. New York Times bestselling author Rachel Held Evans has experienced this firsthand. When Evans dared to use "she" as a pronoun for God in a 2012 blog post, she didn't imagine that, two years later, the president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood would take that one word, that one phrase, and write diatribes about it. Owen Strachan called her heretical, dangerous, and all manner of terrible things—because she exhibited a faith that prioritized women and acknowledged a long tradition of calling God the Spirit by feminine pronouns. For fundamentalist Evangelicals, it is impossible to separate the subjugation of women and the holiness of God. We are in our right place when we are "submitting" to men, letting them take the lead. So when women realize that they have a humanity, a sexual drive, and a voice, our fundamentalism often falls apart. Many women move into post-Evangelicalism because our identities no longer sit neatly in the categories Evangelicalism proscribes for us.
But despite our efforts to leave behind the oppressive ideas of the church, some of them stay with you. In that poorly lit back room, behind a sheer curtain on a dirty couch, as Heather the stripper danced for me, all I could think was: I can never speak about this to anyone.
You're never without the fear that God's judgment will eventually come bearing down on you for all the sinful decisions you've made with your new freedom. This is the center of the struggle that former fundamentalist Christians face: We can never quite get away from the idea that we might be wrong, that God might punish us in the afterlife. And much of the church in America stands by with arms crossed, waiting for that judgment to fall.
Dianna E. Anderson is the author of Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity. Follow her on Twitter.