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Opinion | The Day My Old Church Canceled Me Was a Very Sad Day

Opinion | The Day My Old Church Canceled Me Was a Very Sad Day


This week, the leaders of the Presbyterian Church in America will gather in Richmond, Va., for their annual General Assembly. The Presbyterian Church in America is a small, theologically conservative Christian denomination that was my family’s church home for more than 15 years.

It just canceled me.

I am now deemed too divisive to speak to a gathering of Christians who share my faith. I was scheduled to speak about the challenges of dealing with toxic polarization, but I was considered too polarizing.

I was originally invited to join three other panelists on the topic of “how to be supportive of your pastor and church leaders in a polarized political year.” One of the reasons I was invited was precisely that I’ve been the target of intense attacks online and in real life.

The instant my participation was announced, those attacks started up again. There were misleading essays, vicious tweets, letters and even a parody song directed at the denomination and at me. The message was clear: Get him off the stage.

And that’s what the conference organizers chose to do. They didn’t just cancel me. They canceled the entire panel. But the reason was obvious: My presence would raise concerns about the peace and unity of the church.

Our family joined the P.C.A. denomination in 2004. We lived in Philadelphia and attended Tenth Presbyterian Church in Center City. At the time, the denomination fit us perfectly. I’m conservative theologically and politically, and in 2004 I was still a partisan Republican. At the same time, however, I perceived the denomination as relatively apolitical. I never heard political messages from the pulpit, and I worshiped alongside Democratic friends.

When we moved to Tennessee in 2006, we selected our house in part because it was close to a P.C.A. church, and that church became the center of our lives. On Sundays we attended services, and Monday through Friday our kids attended the school our church founded and supported.

We loved the people in that church, and they loved us. When I deployed to Iraq in 2007, the entire church rallied to support my family and to support the men I served with. They flooded our small forward operating base with care packages, and back home, members of the church helped my wife and children with meals, car repairs and plenty of love and companionship in anxious times.

Two things happened that changed our lives, however, and in hindsight they’re related. First, in 2010, we adopted a 2-year-old girl from Ethiopia. Second, in 2015, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign.

There was no way I could support Trump. It wasn’t just his obvious lack of character that troubled me; he was opening the door to a level of extremism and malice in Republican politics that I’d never encountered. Trump’s rise coincided with the rise of the alt-right.

I was a senior writer for National Review at the time, and when I wrote pieces critical of Trump, members of the alt-right pounced, and they attacked us through our daughter. They pulled pictures of her from social media and photoshopped her into gas chambers and lynchings. Trolls found my wife’s blog on a religious website called Patheos and filled the comments section with gruesome pictures of dead and dying Black victims of crime and war. We also received direct threats.

The experience was shocking. At times, it was terrifying. And so we did what we always did in times of trouble: We turned to our church for support and comfort. Our pastors and close friends came to our aid, but support was hardly universal. The church as a whole did not respond the way it did when I deployed. Instead, we began encountering racism and hatred up close, from people in our church and in our church school.

The racism was grotesque. One church member asked my wife why we couldn’t adopt from Norway rather than Ethiopia. A teacher at the school asked my son if we had purchased his sister for a “loaf of bread.” We later learned that there were coaches and teachers who used racial slurs to describe the few Black students at the school. There were terrible incidents of peer racism, including a student telling my daughter that slavery was good for Black people because it taught them how to live in America. Another told her that she couldn’t come to our house to play because “my dad said Black people are dangerous.”

There were disturbing political confrontations. A church elder came up to my wife and me after one service to criticize our opposition to Trump and told me to “get your wife under control” after she contrasted his support for Trump with his opposition to Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Another man confronted me at the communion table.

On several occasions, men approached my wife when I was out of town, challenging her to defend my writing and sometimes quoting a far-right pastor named Douglas Wilson. Wilson is a notorious Christian nationalist and slavery apologist who once wrote that abolitionists were “driven by a zealous hatred of the word of Godand that “slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the war or since.”

We also began to see the denomination itself with new eyes. To my shame, the racism and extremism within the denomination were invisible to us before our own ordeal. But there is a faction of explicitly authoritarian Christian nationalists in the church, and some of that Christian nationalism has disturbing racial elements underpinning it.

A member of the denomination wrote “The Case for Christian Nationalism,” one of the most popular Christian nationalist books of the Trump era. It argues that “no nation (properly conceived) is composed of two or more ethnicities” and that “to exclude an out-group is to recognize a universal good for man.”

I do not want to paint with too broad a brush. Our pastors and close friends continued to stand with us. Our church disciplined the man who confronted me about Trump during communion. And most church members didn’t follow politics closely and had no idea about any of the attacks we faced.

But for us, church no longer felt like home. We could withstand the trolls online. We could guard against physical threats. But it was hard to live without any respite, and the targeting of my children was a bridge too far. So we left for a wonderful multiethnic church in Nashville. We didn’t leave Christianity; we left a church that inflicted harm on my family.

I still have many friends in the Presbyterian Church in America, people who are fighting the very forces that drove us from the church. In March, one of those friends reached out and asked if I’d join a panel at this year’s General Assembly.

I agreed to come. The P.C.A. extended a formal invitation for me to join a panel with three church elders to speak at a session before the main event. I knew the invitation would be controversial. Members of the denomination have continued to attack me online. But that was part of the point of the panel. My experience was directly relevant to others who might find themselves in the cross hairs of extremists.

The anger against me wasn’t simply over my opposition to Trump. It was directly related to the authoritarian turn in white evangelical politics. My commitment to individual liberty and pluralism means that I defend the civil liberties of all Americans, including people with whom I have substantial disagreements. A number of Republican evangelicals are furious at me, for example, for defending the civil liberties of drag queens and L.G.B.T.Q. families. A writer for The Federalist ranted that granting me a platform was akin to “giving the wolf a brand-new wool coat and microphone and daring the sheep to object.”

The panel was announced on May 9. On May 14, the denomination caved. It canceled the panel, and in its public statement, I was to blame. I was sacrificed on the altar of peace and unity. But it is a false peace and a false unity if extremists can bully a family out of a church and then block the church from hearing one of its former members describe his experience. It is a false peace and a false unity if it is preserved by granting the most malicious members of the congregation veto power over church events.

When I left the Republican Party, I thought a shared faith would preserve my denominational home. But I was wrong. Race and politics trumped truth and grace, and now I’m no longer welcome in the church I loved.



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