When Conservative Christians Demonize Deconstruction

When Conservative Christians Demonize Deconstruction

This past week an intense Twitter war has been raging between conservative Christians (mostly white Evangelicals) and their critics over the nature and value of those who are “deconstructing.” In this blog piece, I plan to unwrap some of the messaging these white Evangelicals—mostly men—have been using to demonize those who claim the term deconstruction by those who have been leaving white Evangelicalism, especially since the 2016 election in the United States. Specifically, I’ll be looking at the rhetoric of a particularly enlightening acrostic of the word “DECONSTRUCT” by a guy named Nate who publishes on Twitter under the handle @theolojesus. (Please join me in an eyeroll at that particular name, especially once you’ve seen his damaging rhetoric!)

In the process, I’ll tie together and build on several strands I’ve previously focused on in this blog. I’ll also provide some encouragement as to why it’s helpful to keep speaking up against the toxic dimensions of this kind of demonization of deconstruction.

A Reminder of My Background

As always, I’m doing this work from a standpoint of a communication scholar who studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication, has studied authoritarian and fascistic rhetoric as well as conspiracy rhetoric, and grew up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate Protestant denomination in the US.

Defining Deconstruction

And yes, just in case some of you haven’t been privy to this debate or the idea of “deconstruction” as understood by those who have been leaving Evangelical churches in recent years, let me quickly define that before jumping into the analysis.

Those who have defined themselves as “deconstructing” from white Evangelicalism have done so mostly since the 2016 election (I’ve posted about my own journey with this kind of thing most clearly here and here).

Not a New Thing

Note that this doesn’t mean that the idea of disagreeing with churches and choosing to leave them is in any way new. In fact, one could argue that the Reformation has made that pretty much a centerpiece of Western Protestantism for several hundred years.

And Yet…

Nonetheless, this particular group of people leaving white Evangelicalism in particular, especially since the 2016 election, and claiming the term deconstruction for themselves. That’s sort of its own phenomenon.

The concerns that have people leaving largely relate to finding themselves deeply disillusioned with the unhealthy patterns of Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and militant masculinity in conservative churches, as well as other unhealthy patterns I’ve been talking about on this blog for a few years now.

And yeah, even this isn’t exactly something that started last week. But there’s been a big Twitter storm about it in the last week thanks to some hot takes by white Evangelical pastors. It was big enough to frame a bit of a shift in the anti-deconstruction rhetoric. So I thought it was a good week to dive into some analysis. Thanks in advance for giving me a few minutes for this.

Similar to Former Catholics—But Not the Same

Note that this group has a lot in common with Catholics who have stepped away from that church since the scandals broke about how the church enabled sexual abuse by priests. That’s a different, but related, problem.

Interestingly, while some of the same rhetoric has been tossed at those who have left the Catholic church over the abuse scandals, it’s not quite the same environment, and not one I know nearly as well. So in this piece I’m focusing more on those recently deconstructing from some or all of white Evangelicalism as outlined above.

Mostly White, but Still, A Varied Group

Some of the people who define themselves as enacting deconstruction struggle with deep spiritual trauma, though not all. Some end up leaving the church, Christianity and/or religion altogether.

Others end up doing what’s called “reconstructing,” which often involves staying in the church or holding to Christian principles, albeit usually in a more progressive form (though not always to the same degree, by a long shot).

Others are somewhere in-between. Or vary depending on the day.

Also, these folx come from a wide range of denominations, most of which—but not all of which—would identify as Evangelical. Most of them, though not all of them, are white–but many of them are learning to listen to and ally better with those who aren’t. Some of them are divorced, some married, some single. They range across the gender and sexuality spectrums. Some even come from non-Evangelical denominations (in fact, progressive Christians willing to speak out against these unhealthy dynamics are also painted in this group).

Hmmm…Sometimes The Demonization Doesn’t Quite Fit

It is, for instance, telling that Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian from the progressive side of the denomination I grew up in, who authored Jesus and John Wayne, has been targeted, along with others. After all, to my knowledge she’s still a member of the progressive sides of the denomination I grew up in. I knew many others who have remained members of that denomination while critiquing many or all of the problems of the disturbing rising tide of Christian nationalism coming from conservative Christianity.

And yet, to these conservative white Evangelical male pastors, these voices are part of the same threat as those who have left their own churches to deconstruct in various ways, up to and including leaving religion.

This isn’t to say that those who stayed in their churches and in Christianity are any better than those who haven’t. It’s just helpful to realize how ridiculously inaccurate the broad brush demonization of this deconstruction group as “godless unorthodox heathen-devils” by white Evangelical male pastors is.

And how much they’re telling on themselves in who exactly they’re including in their demonizations.

In fact, in line with typical fascistic and authoritarian rhetoric, anyone who disagrees with the current form of authoritarian white supremacist, militantly masculinist Christian nationalism is painted with the same devil term. That is and ought to be incredibly telling.

Not Easy to Characterize, and Yet…Easy to Demonize?

So yes, let’s be clear: this is not a single-minded group that is easy to characterize. In addition to referring to their process as “deconstruction” some, but not all, members of this group also sometimes claim the label of Exvangelical and/or Unfundamentalist. Again, these labels include a wide range of people who fallen in all sorts of places along these varied spectrums.

And yet, if you were to ask white Evangelicals who they are, well, the answer would likely fall along the lines of “sinful devils who are attacking us.” In other words, as I’ve been describing devil terms starting here, white Evangelical male pastors have been using deconstruction increasingly as a devil term.

That means that it’s a word that’s largely disconnected from its dictionary definition—and to be fought at all costs.

So Yeah, They Were Ostracizing on Principle Before They Were Demonizing the Term

In this case, this means a group to be demonized, shunned, and not listened to in any way.

NOTE: I’ve talked about some of the dynamics of this kind of thing before, here, when I talked about this kind of ostracism as experienced by Jen Hatmaker when she went public about affirming LGBTQ+ folx.

Congrats (or Something?). The Movement Has Made It Enough to Be a Threat, It Seems?

They weren’t tossing around the word deconstruction quite as cavalierly back at that point—probably because they weren’t actually listening to this community as much as they maybe should have been at that time (listening does tend to be an incredible weakness of authoritarian systems). But apparently now, a few years later, the voice of the deconstruction community has become too loud for even them to stop at ostracizing just a few authorial voices.

Nope, it’s gotten to the point where the entire name of the movement needs to be demonized. And in white Evangelical circles, that means that it gets made into acrostics. (If you grew up white Evangelical this is a bit of an in joke—and also a very real thing as you are about to see whether or not you grew up white Evangelical.)

Honing In on a Particular Example

Okay, so before I dive in, let me get specific about which part of the anti-deconstructionist rhetoric I’ll be focusing on. For this analysis, I’ve specifically chosen an acrostic of the word “deconstruction” by a Twitter profile with the rather less-than-humble handle @theolojesus.

Soooo much temptation to talk about god complexes here, but I’ll restrain myself from going down that rabbit trail and just give you the acrostic before discussing how it uses rhetorical techniques drawn from domestic violence abuse. (In fact, the same ones I wrote about a few weeks ago as used by the alt-right. Yay???? Or something?)

The Unhealthy Acrostic (Yay?)

Anyway, here’s the acrostic of the word DECONSTRUCT this eminent white Evangelical who calls himself “Nate”/@thoeolojesus produced as a way to make his small contribution to the demonization of deconstruction. Here it is:  

D – deny inerrancy of Scripture

E – elevate sinful desires

C – cultural lens on Scripture

O – operating by feelings

N – narcissistic

S – suspicious of Paul

T – twisting of Scripture

R – reject orthodoxy

U – unfaithful to the Word

C – catering to emotions

T – truth is relative

Sorry, Couldn’t Help But Laugh-Cry

So yeah, excuse me as I try to keep myself from doubling over in laughter—after all, it is pretty hilarious if also deeply unhealthy, this rhetoric.

If you don’t see this as funny, well, maybe you didn’t grow up among this community. I mean, the acrostic thing is a bit of a byword among Exvangelicals and Unfundamentalists. You’d sort of have to be there.

Also Deadly Serious

Now, note that doesn’t mean I don’t see the deadly seriousness of the contents and their unhealthy effects on real people’s lives. Anyone who’s been regularly reading this blog should understand that by now.

See, this kind of sh*tty rhetoric—not just the acrostic form, but the demonization of “outsiders who stray outside the fold”—has been a form of powerful spiritual abuse for a really long time now against those who have valid critiques of conservative Christianity.

Super Crappy Poisonous Fruit

And as anyone who’s looked at a wide range of statistics, from the homelessness and suicide rates among LGBTQ+ folx raised among fundamentalist Christians to the death tolls from anti-mask/anti-vaxx churches, this rhetoric has deeply harmed—and taken—many lives.

I’ve been repenting of the fact that I, as a former PK from a moderate Evangelical denomination, once participated in this kind of crappy assumptions about people from the inside.

And that’s the thing that gives the deconstruction movement a lot of its power, is the thing.

The Power of Listening

See, those of us who once participated in this rhetoric from the other side and are now seeing it from the outside know at least our bits of this culture inside AND out. And many if not most are actually willing to hold ourselves accountable for the unhealthy nature of how we’ve been complicit in these systems. We grew up listening to and participating from the inside. But we’ve learned to humbly listen to those on the outside, too.

And we’ve been working to share our critiques with both as we have time or energy to do so. And those critiques come from a powerful place of expertise, is the thing.

It must be super frustrating for these white Evangelical male pastors to have us out here critiquing with such voices of genuine expertise. No wonder they see us as enough of a threat to be making acrostics about how awful it is.

What Incredible Gaslighting This Acronym Illustrates

But yeah, the contextual backdrop of the apocalypses of the last five years, up to and including churches actually demonizing things such as the basic love for neighbor that can be shown by slapping a bit of fabric across one’s face to literally prevent deaths makes me laugh long and heartily at this list.

Because that’s what it thoroughly deserves in light of that context.

Exactly Zero Moral High Ground When Placed in Context

I mean, seriously, what a bunch of harmful sh*tty nonsense it is for Christians who have taken to championing the causes of white supremacy and militant masculinity over and against basic decency and love to suggest that it’s others who have left their ranks who are the ones who are being “unfaithful to the Word.”

And what a bunch of ridiculousness to suggest that those who are arguing that abusive Christians like Josh Duggar AND the entire system that enabled him desperately need to be held to account legally and asked to repent of their deeply unhealthy patterns are “elevating sinful desires.”

And as those who are arguing that people in their ranks should keep voting for and supporting actual authoritarian narcissists in “their camp,” the idea that deconstructionists are narcissistic is a bunch of wholesale hypocrisy, to put it incredibly mildly and to hold back on overuse of the swear words Evangelicals so love to demonize. (I talked about swear-policing first here.)

I could go on to, well, deconstruct, the entire acronym. But I’ve already extensively written on issues surrounding conservative Christianity and things like emotions and how they get demonized by militantly masculine systems like white Evangelicalism has become here, here, here and here, so I’ll send you there for at least those items before discussing how this entire acrostic illustrates a technique used by domestic violence abusers.

Hmmmm…These Conservative Christians Seem to Be on the “Wrong Side” Again

Let me be clear: this also is the kind of dangerous rhetoric that Jesus and John the Baptist called out as voices in the wilderness in no uncertain terms. The concept of whitewashed tombs particularly comes to mind.

You Know We Are Christians by Our…Use of Abuse Techniques??? (Hmmm….wait…)

And let’s be clear here: the technique being used here is one that abusers use to abuse in domestic violence cases. I last talked about it a few weeks ago when talking about the alt-right hashtag “DontTreadonMe.” And yeah, it ought to give you pause that so many vocal white Evangelical male pastors are so closely aligned with the same tactics the alt-right has been using. I talked about some of those recent overlaps here, among other spots.

So yeah, as a refresher, this abuse technique is called DARVO (it feels deeply appropriate to me, in a dark humor sort of way, that this technique should also make itself into an acrostic of sorts). The initials here stand for:

D – deny

A – attack

R – reverse

V – victim and

O – offender.

Lashing Out Abusively at Legitimate Critiques

In short, what this “DECONSTRUCT” acrostic is doing, in most cases, is lashing out at legitimate critiques of conservative authoritarian Christianity’s whitewashed tomb problems. It’s doing that by, well, attacking, gaslighting, and demonizing those they have hurt most.

<begin sarcasm> I mean, seriously, what better way to live out a Bible that repeatedly suggests that we should love our neighbor? That God is on the side of those outcast from society? That God is all about “binding up the brokenhearted”? <end sarcasm>

So yes, let’s be clear: I laugh at this “DECONSTRUCT” acronym, and I’m also pretty d*mned righteously angry and deeply sad about it.  

Because d*mn it reminds me how very far this group of conservative Christians has actually strayed from what Jesus taught.

Harming the Vulnerable

But more to the point, I am angry and sad about this acronym because it’s still the sort of thing causing all kinds of damage to real people.

And I can see it so clearly now.

See, not all of those who are deconstructing are not always fans of Jesus anymore, but they lately they are acting way more like him than the Christian nationalist pastors who are critiquing this group. That’s because they’ve had the courage to speak truth about the lack of health and moral integrity, to put it incredibly mildly, in this particular group that’s aligned themselves with the far-right.

Brave Enough to Step Away

They, like the actual Jesus (as opposed to, say, the dude behind the Twitter handle theolojesus), have in many cases been brave enough to step away from churches where they were promised that love was “unconditional” when they saw their ways unhealthily diverging from healthy patterns.

A Protest Against Rotten Fruit

So yes, the large bulk of the group claiming the term deconstruction who have left white Evangelical churches, did so, in large part, because they saw the church bearing bad fruit.

In many cases, they’ve tried to offer helpful feedback as they left. In others, they haven’t felt safe enough to do so.

But in large part, their choice to leave has been seen only with this clucking of tongues and even the good Christian folks often assuming the primary cause of leaving related to “a weakening of faith” or “an embrace of sin.”

Expert Voices in the Wilderness? Oops, Let’s Make Sure They’re Demonized!

In short, as it’s become clear that their voices are not going away, in joining the ranks of many others in and outside the Christian church who were deeply and rightfully concerned about the rise of fascistic Christian nationalism, these white Exvangelical Unfundamentalists needed to be demonized and ostracized.

And let’s be clear—this acrostic and other such bits of demonizing and abusive rhetoric aren’t really designed to reach those experiencing deconstruction at all, except maybe to try to hurt those still feeling the pull to the community.

On the whole, the acrostic seems designed to reinforce how awful those experiencing deconstruction are to the white Evangelicals who stayed. The purpose? To ensure that the social pressures and punishments on these those who left were the highest they could be.

Ridiculous, but Also Insidious and Awful

I mean, let’s be clear: the ridiculousness is part of the insidiousness.

See, as I’ve described before, growing up in a moderate right-leaning denomination with progressive-ish elements, we were open to reading about anything, but had all sorts of walls up block a good chunk of us from owning up to our own part in all of this mess.

I mean, we would have lots of laughter at the expense of those True Fundies creating this acrostic, mind you. But we would have had a harder time breaking our Nice façade to call ourselves to account for the ways we enabled and participated in this kind of ostracism ourselves.

After all, we were really invested in what I’ve been calling churchy exceptionalism (I wrote about this here and here). And so we tended to speak badly of people who left—and weren’t as active in—our churches, too.

We certainly weren’t comfortable enough listening to those whose critiques of Christianity transgressed our own particular boundaries either, especially when they related to the things we’d absorbed as moral disgusts we shared with the more fundamentalist sides of white Evangelicalism.

What, Then, Shall We Do?

So yes, I guess my response to this unhealthy “DECONSTRUCT” rhetoric is twofold:  

  1. We have to keep calling this crap out. It’s crucial. This is the time for all healthy humans to draw attention to the context of these words and how incredibly bad the fruit is behind them. Lives are literally at stake.
  2. People in more moderate and progressive churches need to look for subtle ways their behaviors may be enabling these sorts of unhealthy rhetoric. Listen better to those who aren’t comfortable in your churches, friends! And keep working to change their ways to make their churches more hospitable to those who might want to stick around. And yes, keep speaking truth to power about white nationalism. Don’t forget–even the more “progressive” denominations have a lot of political purple in their ranks.

This is a challenging topic for me to address, and this has been long, so I think that’s all I have for today. Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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3 thoughts on “When Conservative Christians Demonize Deconstruction

  1. I was sent this by a friend. Skimming through, I find that there is plenty to think about. I would like to add one thing. We can be assertive in loving ways. My grandchild goes to one of these Fundy churches and is so sure she is right and everyone is wrong. Her brother, who also attends, sees the problems with their theology. When they visit me, he will ask questions. I answer them in my progressively Christian way. Both children hear my answers. I can’t convince my oldest grand that she is wrong, so I tend to say, lovingly, things to provoke thought… like I’m glad you believe in “the Bible” but I was hoping that you’d believe in Jesus. Planting seeds with love might just be the way to engage. Just a thought. Assertiveness without loosing the love and compassion for all that Jesus taught. Trusting in the Spirit, I believe my grandkids will someday move more toward Jesus than their current church is teaching them.

    1. I mean, I absolutely agree with your point, but I would disagree that what’s being referred to here isn’t loving or that it would preclude such activity. To further understand my thoughts about that, I would recommend my post on The Complexities of Love and Limits (found here: https://assertivespirituality.com/2018/11/10/complexities-of-love-and-limits/) and In Praise of Empathetic Anger (found here: https://assertivespirituality.com/2019/08/31/in-praise-empathetic-anger-enacting-healthy-anger/). The most recent post on Assertiveness in an Age of Herods (found here: https://assertivespirituality.com/2021/12/18/assertiveness-in-age-of-herod-s/) would likely be helpful as well. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Welcome!

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When Conservative Ch…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 14 min