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Nonverts:
The Making of Ex-Christian America

by stephen bullivant
oxford, 272 pages, $29.95

Nonverts—people who once identified with a religious tradition but now identify with none—are the fastest-growing group in surveys of American religion. They make up the great majority of those (now a quarter of the adult population) who say they have no religion. In this study, Stephen Bullivant argues, first, that nonverts set the measure of what it means to be secular in America; and second, that nonverts remain heavily defined by their former faith traditions, even or especially when they have become bitterly antagonistic to religion of any kind. He suggests that nonverts’ experience of leaving a religious tradition helps to explain the origin and nature of today’s “culture wars” over—for instance—the removal of monuments, the public free exercise of religion, and the overriding of parental rights in guardianship decisions involving minors.

Alternating between vignettes and aggregate-level analysis, ­Bullivant describes nonverts from four major Christian denominations and discerns some patterns.

First, he finds that Americans, religious and nonreligious, increasingly construct their political views around those whom they see as friends and enemies, rather than through ethical principles or ­reasoned argument. Donald Trump, Bullivant concludes, did little to damage the evangelical brand outside the constituencies that were already disposed to dislike evangelicals. Bullivant interviews two ex-evangelicals, Rhett and ­Melissa, who fluctuate between anti-­evangelical and anti-Republican sentiment with such fluidity that the two cohorts seem to merge in their accounts. One might legitimately wonder whether the reason Melissa describes Donald Trump as “probably one of the worst humans in the whole universe” has much to do with the man at all, or whether it is an expression of antipathy to her own former identity. Bullivant concludes that much anti-Trump sentiment among former evangelicals arises from the perception of Trump as overly sympathetic to their former coreligionists. The notion that support for Trump indicated a betrayal of Christian values by evangelicals naturally seems plausible to those who already believe that evangelical institutions are irredeemably corrupt—that, in the words of Rhett, “they’re all in on it.”

Darel Paul reached a similar conclusion in his book From Tolerance to Equality: Christians and LGBTQ people are seen as symbolic opposites, and friendliness toward the one is, in practice, generally associated with antagonism toward the other. In short, if you want to understand how Americans choose their political, religious, and social positions, the friend–enemy dichotomy will tell you more than anything else.

So why do nonverts leave the faith tradition in which they were raised? Here we come to Bullivant’s second striking insight. Journalists regularly suggest that the primary reason for dwindling congregations is the persistence of sexual and financial scandals in the American churches. But Bullivant—like Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in Soul Searching and Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell in American Grace—reaches a different conclusion. Nonversion, like conversion, is nearly always a deeply personal decision grounded in the ­individual particularities of one’s life ­experience and interwoven with one’s relationship to parents, friends, and spouse. As Nonverts finds, the key issues are very often those of sexual morality, gender roles, and political identity.

A common theme is that one’s sexual proclivities—or those of a close family member—are often the fundamental cause of a breach with one’s faith community. The public controversies surrounding sexual or financial malfeasance justify the decision after the fact. The anti-institutionalism of most nonverts disguises the essentially personal nature of these decisions, and charges of large-scale hypocrisy are symbols representing personal betrayal by specific faith leaders or groups. “They’re all in on it” is a convenient way to justify the transference of hostility on to total strangers who merely share a religious ­affiliation with a wrongdoer. Bullivant’s conclusion, that media-driven scandals are mostly “red meat” for the already anti-religious and not a significant source of nonversion, squares with the consensus of the scholarly literature as well as with the examples in the book.

Bullivant observes that nonversion overlaps in important ways with the rise of internet subcultures. The “extremely online” life, as it is sometimes known, offers engagement and escape, both into and out of worlds that would have otherwise been unavailable to individuals who find their bounded social lives intolerable. As the lives of ­Bullivant’s subjects demonstrate, web-based communities and networks provide alternative social groupings to replace the lost connections of former churches. Two homosexual ex-Mormons, for example, describe the centrality of gay social media in their nonversion stories and the continuing ­significance of online communities in their lives today, whether Reddit’s ­r/­exmormon or other more militantly atheist online groups. Even at aggregate levels of study, this relationship holds. Bullivant cites Paul McClure’s finding that non-religiosity is highly correlated to spending large portions of one’s social life online, and that “extremely online” behavior seems to be a driver of nonversion.

However, like many scholars born before the online era, Bullivant mistakes the internet for a medium of communication and therefore ­misses the deeper significance of cyber identity. For people born ­into the online world, it is no mere analogue to telephones or the old web of email, dial-up modems, and AOL. The modern web is a location, a place where one can be, and a region of meaningful human experience. It is entirely reasonable to say that one went to the grocery store and then went online, intending in both cases the same sense of the verb “to go.” And yet the web accommodates a different mode of experience and identity construction, making cyber identity a far more complex phenomenon than the one described in these brief sections of Nonverts. Bullivant’s foray, however, is an excellent starting point. Scholars in this area should examine the specific ways in which nonvert identities intersect with cyberculture.

The most significant weakness of the book is one it shares with much scholarship on this topic: It does not recognize that American secularism has a great deal in common with mainline Protestantism, that it constitutes a coherent, if yet ­unnamed, ideological perspective in itself. Seen in this light, what looks like “nonversion” may actually be a very small step between two similar belief systems.

Here Bullivant might have followed the approach of Callum Brown’s classic The Death of Christian Britain. Brown argued that Christianity had been supplanted in Europe by a worldview whose essential principles were the extreme privatization of spiritual belief, radical egalitarianism, social utopianism, therapeutic culture, and the notion of politics as the highest human calling. Though America seemed to have escaped the worst of this fate, it had not emerged ­unscathed. The worldview had colonized many mainstream religious institutions, most notably among mainline Protestants. These groups became utterly dominated by it after losing their more traditionalist members to theologically conservative denominations. As Christian theology was only accidental to the new values, elements of religious practice were gradually shed, while the fundamental worldview was preserved. Post-Protestant values had effectively supplemented older theological notions: Brown describes the revaluation of temperance in Britain, for instance, on the basis of health, weight loss, the prevention of drunk driving, and other self-help ­principles.

Many of these themes are already present in the vignettes of ­Bullivant’s study. In case after case, the nonverts of the book return to the same small handful of mainstream secular ideological arguments to illustrate their opposition to their former faiths. John invokes his libertarian political beliefs, Judy cites her BDSM and leather kinks, Dorothy describes her church as “intolerant,” and nearly all of these subjects name their LGBTQ identities as the seed of their discontent with religion. And yet, Bullivant treats “No Religion” as a null hypothesis or a state of contentless neutrality. He is right to point out that secularism comprehends many diverse beliefs. But that does not mean there are no commonalties worth studying.

It is no coincidence that ­many of today’s arguments about Christianity and secularism mirror the intra-Protestant debates of a half-century ago. As Hoge, ­Johnson, and Luidens have observed, mainline Protestants became increasingly apathetic toward doctrinal differences; many, indeed, were theologically illiterate. Post-1960s liberal mainline Protestantism and ­post-Protestant secularism had always shared a worldview through the medium of liberal theology, and they were already converging. ­Bullivant rightly rejects the notion that mainline Protestants were insincere in their religious beliefs. But he misses the way in which mainline churches de-emphasized supernatural, ­soteriological, and eschatological values, to the point that these values lost relevance or were abandoned altogether—­without, however, the churches losing their sense of Protestant identity or suffering any internal moral crisis.

To be a mainline Protestant was to believe in an alternative articulation of a perspective shared with the Nones, one that deprioritized supernatural beliefs or reduced them to representations of socio-political values. Take a person who once identified as a liberal mainline Protestant and now identifies as a Rawlsian liberal humanist. Has this person nonverted, or merely changed denominations? By and large, to change from liberal mainline Protestantism to secular liberalism has not involved the kind of personal or cultural disjunction experienced by nonverts from Mormonism, evangelicalism, or Catholicism—as evidenced by Bullivant’s frequent, yet never fully scrutinized, references to this recurring theme. It could even be said that liberal post-Protestantism always was these people’s underlying faith, and that they merely clarified and simplified their practice of it by shedding the unnecessary elements of church attendance and supernaturalism. If the primary reason to go to church was civil rights activism, what exactly was the purpose of maintaining a priest and sanctuary?

Today, the remnants of the liberal mainline remain with us as an explicitly post-Protestant culture that expresses itself primarily through political rather than religious symbols and behaviors. Bullivant concludes that the growing culture of anti-Christian transgression is merely a phase, the “ex-effect” of resentful nonverts, but his failure to identify the specific meaning of American secularism leaves the work of this book only half done, analyzing only where the nonverts are coming from. As Darel Paul so eloquently demonstrates, anti-­Christian sentiment has become a structural feature of the dominant secular social ideology, brooking no competition from any of its rival, contradictory belief systems. The absence of such transgressive affect in Britain results not from a paucity of nonverts, but from the fact that Christianity in Britain ­poses no threat to the dominant secular worldview and its power interests, especially in relation to sexual identity and gender. Paul’s description of the connection between the LGBTQ movement and the managerial revolution in American society, and of the web of influence among therapeuticism, Big Pharma, and transgenderism, provides an opportunity to pursue the other half of this research. It is not enough to know where the nonverts came from if we don’t know where they are going.

If this argument is correct, then America indeed remains a mainline Protestant nation, witnessing the never-ending battle between its establishmentarian and revolutionary-utopian wings, its Cavaliers and Roundheads, but in a new language and a new, secular political context. There is much work left to be done in working out the equivalences between mainline Protestantism and post-Protestant secularism, but certain parallels are clear. Today’s battles over transgenderism, critical race theory, and environmental apocalypticism bear a striking resemblance to the utopian millenarianism, puritanical temperance movements, and zealous social gospel of Anglo-American Protestant history, with immanent language substituted for the supernatural symbols of Christianity. Transgender advocates borrow “born again” concepts to describe the death of the old person and emergence of the new. The environmental movement proclaims the end of the world in 2010, 2012, 2020. Progressive groups, in their utopianism, frequently resemble the millenarian movements described by Eric Voegelin, which cycled rapidly between euphoria and paranoid, vicious pessimism. Those who dream of a post-scarcity, atheistic, Star Trek future are often those most bitterly disappointed in the present and most ready to sacrifice others in search of their perfect future.

Meanwhile, the old establishmentarians in the conservative movement tell the radicals, “This far, but no further,” like Anglican bishops negotiating over liturgical reforms. On the political left, a John Rawls can question the loyalty of Catholics and evangelicals (in his book Political Liberalism) with the anxiety of the Presbyterian minister crying out against “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!”

In this book, Bullivant has helped us to understand how we got to where we are. Next we must understand the task that lies before us, now that secular culture is not just the temporal half of a Christian society but the site of a distinct and competing belief system. It is no coincidence that major figures such as Max Scheler and Hannah Arendt have pointed to Augustine of Hippo as the most relevant of the ancient Christian writers. He knew what it was to live in a time of religious competition and transition. ­Nonverts describes the crisis well; from Augustine we can learn how to be Christian in this unfamiliar world.

Benjamin L. Mabry is assistant professor of political science at Lincoln ­Memorial University.

Image by Nikko Tan licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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