"Act Like This is a War"
A conversation with Eve Ettinger about the threat of Christian fundamentalism and life as an "exvangelical"
When reporting on religious extremism in this country for the past few years, I’ve gotten invaluable guidance from a community that calls itself, quite simply, the “exvangelicals”—people who have left fundamentalist Christianity, for various reasons, and at various stages of life. They have a unique perspective on the religious far right, having once been ensconced in it, and now, often, standing in direct opposition to its goals. They’re also uniquely suited, right now, to offer insight into the apocalyptic political situation we find ourselves in—rights gutted in the name of God.
To gain further clarity on the post-Roe world and where we’re headed, I spoke to someone I’ve long admired. Eve Ettinger is a writer, a podcaster, and an advocate for the ethical and fair treatment of homeschooled children, a populace of tens of millions of children in the U.S. who often fall through the cracks—in some cases, suffering from parental cruelty, neglect, and lack of education. Eve also grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, which they explore in their writing as well as the excellent, chilling “Kitchen Table Cult” podcast. We exchanged questions and answers over the last week so I could glean a bit of their insight. This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed.
Talia Lavin: You were raised a Christian fundamentalist, but have left that community, which you chronicle in your writing and your podcast, “Kitchen Table Cult.” Can you explain a bit about your upbringing?
Eve Ettinger: I was raised in the Quiverfull movement by charismatic evangelicals who later joined Sovereign Grace Ministries. I am the oldest of nine kids, and grew up half in central California and then in Richmond, Virginia.
“Quiverfull” is a term I wasn’t familiar with until after I got out of that community, but it’s the belief that God should dictate the fertility/family planning of a couple and that they should surrender control over how many kids they have to God’s will. The intention here is to raise up an army of Christian children to save the United States from its sinful, secular ways—it’s easier to indoctrinate than it is to proselytize, I guess. The heart of this movement is political and aggressively against bodily autonomy for those with uteruses.
What did that look like in your everyday life?
Everything about my relationship to the world was mediated by our faith. Media access was limited or controlled, friends were scrutinized and often forbidden. My understanding of the world was shaped by anticipation of the apocalypse and Christ’s return (and maybe a rapture and tribulation, but who knows). There was a very firm sense that we were/are living in the end times and Jesus was going to want to take account of how much we had devoted our lives to his teachings and how seriously we took our faith. This meant heavy-duty indoctrination about having an inherently sinful nature, about how Christ’s death was directly because of my sins, and a close watch over all emotions as suspect. Purity culture was intensely part of all this, too.
In this world, I was a true believer in the way anyone who doesn’t see any other alternative is a true believer.
Do you feel that your childhood, immersed in fundamentalist Christianity, gave you a better insight into where we are right now as a country?
Ultimately the church, especially here in the U.S., is an engine of empire and craves power. There’s no redeeming that kind of bloodlust, and once you understand its true nature, American history makes a lot more sense. I’ve enjoyed the research part of the deconstruction [ed. note: “deconstruction” is a common term in the exvangelical community, a sort of self-directed religious deprogramming] process a lot—everything is connected and the history of Christianity in the U.S. explains so much about American politics overall. Abandoning my upbringing has been a process that taught me so much, and what I learned during that time feels extremely relevant to current events and unpacking how and why we got here. I know I say this all the time, but it’s really all so connected.
Nothing that’s happened in the United States in the last six years is a surprise to me or to anyone who’s spent time studying the religious right, and that’s kind of depressing to think about, but it’s true. A lot of ex-fundies are feeling that, too—the panic of, “Oh fuck I got out and now I’m gonna be back in it,” is palpable in our conversations as we watch the news, as we discuss what’s going on. Nothing that is happening is new—it’s all stuff that’s been done to people of color, disabled people, queer people, already. And so while I understand the playbook of the religious right really well from how I was raised, there’s a lot to where we’re at now as a country that cannot be understood without knowing that part of our history too. The systems and infrastructure for eliminating bodily autonomy of those not in the ruling class has been well-established before now.
The biggest thing that I feel like I can see because of my upbringing that other progressive folks don’t see is the organizing tactics and systems of the religious right and how they work. Kieryn Darkwater and I talk about this all the time on “Kitchen Table Cult,” and I’ve written some about it elsewhere, but the gist is that the mainstream left kind of sucks at coalition building and direct action and needs to stop assuming that the Republicans can be embarrassed into behaving graciously or playing nice. They’re not going to collaborate and the sooner we act like this is a war (because that’s how they talk about it and see it), the more we’ll be able to get done.
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The religious right is, of course, a juggernaut in U.S. politics, and I’m curious what that looks like in an individual childhood. What role did politics or political indoctrination play in the community you grew up in?
There was this huge movement when I was a teenager to train and prepare young Christian conservatives for leadership, for political activism and careers. There were groups like Generation Joshua and Teen Pact that ran civic education programming for conservative teens with the aim of getting them ready to run for office one day. Schools like Patrick Henry College and Grove City College were pushed on me and my peers as the best places to go for college if we wanted to change culture or get involved in politics.
Everything was deeply instilled from the beginning—it started with things like taking your children to the “March for Life” or protests at Planned Parenthood, and then it was missions trips and fear-mongering about child sex trafficking and Hillary Clinton being a ghoul, and then it was getting taught high school science courses with the premise that evolution was a myth and biblical creation was a scientific fact, that climate change was a liberal ploy to undermine capitalism. We had worldview training seminars and summer camps where we would get taught ways to take down various arguments against our beliefs, ostensibly to prepare us to be “in the world, but not of it”—but these things were more designed, I think, to squelch doubts in the minds of teens who were starting to interact with the outside world more and more, and who might start questioning the things they were taught.
Everything was political, even if we weren’t aware of it at the time.
How does the evangelical movement mesh with the right as a whole? People occasionally mewl about hypocrisy—the chief example being, of course, the community’s fervent embrace of a figure as debauched as Trump. What does it look like for a religious community to work hand in glove with secular power, and how do they transform each other?
The evangelical movement took over the right as soon as the right started cooperating with the Moral Majority folks. It really started when Phyllis Schlafly derailed the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, but she was Catholic and not evangelical. The evangelical right saw her success and began collaborating to get Christians out to vote for conservative candidates. Once they realized abortion could evoke strong emotions in voters who didn’t understand what was at stake, and they could get them to vote straight Republican on that single issue, it was a done deal. Everything we’ve seen since was bound to happen, it was just a matter of time. The long game that these fundamentalist or evangelical Christian leaders have played was incredibly shrewd. We see things like Christian leadership praying with Supreme Court Justices in the news now, but that’s now new—if you look at the history of the National Prayer Breakfast, you’ll start to see how everyone on the right has been leveraging faith as a point of political access for decades and how effective that’s been.
I think it’s important to note that fundamentalist Christianity is not the point of these collaborative, long-term efforts. It may be for some folks, but having watched how men in power in the church have consistently chosen power over integrity of faith to preserve their positions of influence and their own comfort, my money is on this being about control and terror over losing privilege and power. Fundamentalist values might be the engine getting us there, but it’s probably not the destination.
Then what is the destination?
When I talk about the influence of fundamentalism on the right, I always have to bring it back to explaining various systems of eschatology and various practices of interpreting the Bible. How a fundamentalist Christian is going to behave politically is often motivated and informed by these two things. Do they believe that their scriptures are the literal word of god, to be taken out of context and applied willy-nilly wherever they see fit because they believe that God speaks to them directly about how to interpret various passages? That’s gonna inform everything about how they interact with the world. Do they believe that the U.S. is a nation under a new covenant with God and that Jesus’s return is dependent on the U.S. being a Christian nation? That’s gonna affect everything, too.
These things constitute what’s called Christian Dominionism—the belief that (1) the U.S. is somehow chosen by God to bring about the return of Christ for the salvation/end of the world, which means that (2) American Christians have an urgent moral obligation to “restore” the U.S. to Christian values/teachings and bring our laws in line with Christian moral edicts, and (3) when they have done so, Christ will return and the world will end and Christians who brought this about will be richly rewarded in eternity. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but that’s the essence of it. It’s often more extreme than even this sounds—there have been Christian dominionists who are on the fringe of this (called Reconstructionists) who believe in instituting “Biblical” laws along the lines of stoning disobedient sons. Understanding the extent to which a fundamentalist Christian believes which things about reading the Bible and the end times can really clarify how extreme they’re willing to get with imposing their faith and particular beliefs on the rest of the community, how racist they’re gonna be, how misogynist, how they’ll treat children’s rights, and more.
I hate when people ask me to predict the future, but do a little crystal gazing for me. With the clarity you’ve gained from how you were raised, where do you see the Christian right taking the country from here?
Establishing extremist parental rights as a norm, preventing children from having safe and regular access to people who don’t think like their parents, destabilizing public education to the point where everyone bails for private education to survive and thus establishing religious-influenced education as some kind of gold standard. We’re going to see a lot more things spun in the manner of the moral panic around “Critical Race Theory” and the mythology that trans kids having access to the queer community is really kids being groomed by pedophiles, etc. I’m worried.
In my experience, political reporters in the U.S. do a remarkably bad job covering evangelicalism—it’s either undue deference, odd condescension, or both at the same time. I know you’ve felt similar things. But is anyone doing a good job covering the religious right?
I love Kristin du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne, and I love anything Kathryn Joyce writes. Covering this world honestly is really hard if you’re still playing nice with the leadership—and a lot of religion reporters don’t go as far with their coverage as I would hope because (I am assuming) it’s going to cost them information and access if they hit hard with their reporting. If you’ve left that world, you may get things others don’t, but you’re not going to have good access to moment by moment information because you’re now a potential threat. Other voices that hit really good notes on what it feels like to grow up this way or what this world means, when they write about it: anything from Lyz Lenz, Jia Tolentino’s one-off piece on her megachurch childhood, Garrard Conley’s memoir... I could go on and on. There’s really good fragments out there that collectively capture this universe really well, like various episodes of Behind the Bastards (a podcast by my friend, the journalist Robert Evans), but it’s hard to cover it cohesively because of the divide I described just now. You’re either in or you’re out, because everything in that world is us vs. them.
Eve Ettinger is a writer, editor, and educator in Virginia. They have written for places like Teen Vogue, Washington Post, Bustle, and serve on the board of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (which you should totally check out and support). Eve co-hosts the Kitchen Table Cult podcast and is working on a collection of essays.