There’s no question that “Deconstructing My Religion,” CBS’ 26-minute special that aired Dec. 2, was supposed to be ground-breaking. Instead of footage on the evangelical juggernaut, here were folks who had actually left those beliefs and lived to tell about it.
But after sitting through the presentation and re-watching parts of it, I realized it wasn’t news, it was simply a diatribe with three talking heads talking about how they left white evangelicalism. I say “white,” because no ethnic minorities are featured. There’s the requisite academic patched in near the end and a few snatches from people at conferences and panels.
As I watched, I kept on wondering: What is the purpose of this show? There was no survey data presented. There were no alternate points of view. If you wish to view this documentary, don’t watch the version off the CBS site, as it’s full of ads and constant interruptions. The YouTube version is way better.
It started with a nine-minute monologue by Linda Kay Klein, now 39, who became born again at 13. I’m guessing that was about 1991. Her major gripe was the “sexual shaming” she endured. More than one-third of the show was her complaining about how her rigid upbringing constrained her ability to sleep around later in life.
A narrator intones:
“Sex outside of heterosexual marriage in evangelical culture is considered a sin. In the 1990s, an entire industry was created to support this message and it continues today.”
Lord, are they kvetching about purity-themed Bibles, purity pledges and the like again? That complaint was run into the ground some time ago. The “True Love Waits Bible” was published in 1996, 22 years ago. Get over it.
One reason why CBS gave Klein so much air time is because she just came out with “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free,” published by Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS.
Of course I am very envious of how Klein got a free 26-minute book trailer on prime time. Guess it’s who you know (and who you want to attack).
We’re not told where she grew up, which is pretty important to the narrative, IMHO. If she was in the South, then maybe purity pledges were all the rage down there. However, in places where I lived in the ‘90s (Pittsburgh, northwestern New Mexico and northern Virginia), I was covering religion much of that time and I never ran into them. So it’s not like the entire American evangelical culture was involved in this stuff.
Also, readers should remember this: America’s abortion rate peaked in 1990 at 1.6 million terminations. So yes, evangelicals were panicking on how to curb their lusty offspring. Even if some evangelicals went overboard with the purity thing, look at where the popular culture was at the time. Eight years later, things had not changed much. Thanks to President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, we were all discussing oral sex.
Fortunately, Klein heard of Sarah Lawrence College, which she eventually attended and where she was liberated from her repressive upbringing. Well, sort of liberated. She was still angry that her outdated beliefs conflicted with her sex life.
The scene then switches to two guys: Blake Chastain, coiner of the term “exvangelical” and host of a podcast by the same name. Note to producers: Chastain doesn’t presently attend an “Episcopalian church.” It’s an Episcopal church. (Episcopalians are people. Episcopal is an adjective for the denomination).
This time we’re told they were raised somewhere in the Midwest. They talk about the “devastating sociological impact” of feeling afraid of hell, being “left behind” in the Rapture, pressure to convert others, being part of the purity culture, all of which “has long-term psychological effects on many of us who grew up in the thick of it …”
Then they showed a clip from “A Thief in the Night,” a 1972 film about the Rapture and Second Coming.
Look, 1972 was the year my teen-aged self personally became an evangelical. And I never saw that film, nor would my youth group leaders dared to have shown such dreck to us. Maybe that’s because I spent my later teens in the Pacific Northwest instead of, say, Nashville, but no one I knew watched that thing.
I’m guessing Chastain and Stroop are way younger than I am and were teenagers in the 1990s. I find it hard to believe churches were still showing that film two decades later, much less that there were huge swaths of evangelical youth who were harmed by it.
We then segue into a (you knew this was coming) segment about evangelical support of Donald Trump and how evangelicals hate gay people, are racist and also sexist. There’s nothing in this program supporting these allegations but who needs facts at this point? We then see a clip connecting evangelicals with the violence in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago, using a quote from First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffries as proof of racism. Why is Jeffries supposedly representing all evangelicals? Heck, he doesn’t even represent all Southern Baptists.
By this point I was realizing the show had no intention of offering a competing point of view. Had the topic been on people becoming evangelicals, you can bet money there would have been quotes from opposing naysayers.
We hear from Julie Ingersoll, a professor at the University of North Florida, about how evangelicals are in political ascendancy; all about “authoritarian threads in this tradition;” “privileged whiteness;” how all this is “problematic for democracy” and so on. There’s a ton of accusations; lots of film clips of nasty evangelicals but no new information.
I could expect such agit prop from an indie source, perhaps, but to have CBS come up with this kind of program is just depressing. There are talented folks out there who could have put together a better program. One is a producer from Religion News Association circles and she’s very talented. We both won Wilbur Awards this past April, so I know she can do good stuff.
Also, I published a book 10 years ago called Quitting Church, so I know there are problems in the evangelical camp. Although I didn’t have the budget of a TV production backing me, I took the time and trouble to document and prove my assertions. That’s called journalism.
So, I am curious if CBS is going to follow up with prime time TV specials about young Orthodox Jewish adults who have left the fold (even Netflix has gotten into that) or disenchanted 20-something Muslims or ex-Mormons? They’re all out there.
And if you’re going to do a piece about ex-evangelicals, respect your audience enough to provide contrasting points of view. I know I’m shouting in the wind here. That journalism train has left the station.
To paraphrase the X-Files, another ‘90s phenomenon, the truth is out there. CBS could have at least make an effort to portray more of it.