Interview with David P. Gushee, author of Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.

David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor Christian Ethics at Mercer University and the current president of the American Academy of Religion. He has long been known as a leading evangelical ethicist who has studied and advocated for stronger evangelical positions on everything from the Holocaust to LGBTQ inclusion in the church. His recent memoir, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism, tells the story of his life inside the American evangelical movement and his eventual exodus from it. This is a record of our conversation about his book. –Cynthia Eller, independent scholar

CE: What inspired you to tell your life story now?

DG: Over a decade ago, when projecting what I wanted to do before the end of my career, I expressed interest—to myself only!—in writing a memoir. By the summer of 2016 this had become an urgent desire. The immediate trigger was everything that happened after I wrote my 2014 book Changing Our Mind. That work called for full LGBTQ inclusion in the life of the churches and led to what amounted to my being banned from evangelicalism. By 2016, I felt the need to reflect on that episode in my own life as part of a longer and larger story about what has become of evangelical Christianity in America. Westminster John Knox, the folks who published this book, thought that was a story worth telling, and I am glad!

CE: The title of your book assures the reader that you’re still a Christian. Are you still an evangelical? 

DG: I’m certainly still a Christian—that is, someone who is trying to follow Jesus. But I’m definitely not an evangelical—that is, a socially and politically conservative white American Christian. That is what that term now means, and it is not who I am. 

CE: What were the first indications you had that you couldn’t fit comfortably inside an evangelical identity anymore? 

DG: It's a long story. I grew up Catholic, and became Southern Baptist via a teenage conversion. In my late 20s, when I was working on a PhD in Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, I took a job with Ron Sider, who taught at Eastern Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) and who led Evangelicals for Social Action. That was from 1990 to 1993. Sider was serious about his evangelical identity but he’s best known as a social justice evangelical, particularly for his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He became my guide into the “card-carrying” evangelical world, and I liked and identified with what I saw in him. Twenty-five years later, it was clear that space for his kind of evangelicalism had been squeezed out, at least in the US. Political conservativism, over-identification with the Republican Party, and a fallback into reactionary white-maleness…these were things that were going on within American evangelicalism for some time, but they really reached their apogee with the evangelical surrender to Donald Trump. For me, evangelical support for the US using torture in interrogations after 9/11 was strike one. Evangelical disinterest in dealing with climate change was strike two. Evangelical hardheartedness on LGBTQ inclusion was strike three. All of this was before Trump. 

CE: Do you think of yourself as having left evangelicalism? Or as evangelicalism having left you? Or, I suppose, evangelicalism having spit you out of its mouth? 

DG: I think that the Christian Right has won in squeezing out the evangelical left and even the evangelical center. They no longer have any meaningful place in the “movement.” I think that negative evangelical reaction to Barack Obama played a big role. But it was always the goal of the Christian Right to define both the GOP and evangelical identity in the way it’s now developed. I should have anticipated that even offering a serious exploration of LGBTQ inclusion would threaten my place in the evangelical world. I knew that it would be controversial, but I didn’t really anticipate the ferocity of the reaction. And I’m not the only one who has experienced that, for sure. I’m glad, in retrospect, that my farewell to evangelicalism came beforethe capitulation to Trumpism, so that no one calls on me these days to try to explain why “my people” can support him. Not my people. Not anymore. 

CE: I’m struck by the fact that you went to graduate school at Union Theological Seminary, well known for its liberal and even radical orientation toward Christian thought and practice. And now you’ve come to find that kind of theology and ethics very influential in your own thinking. Why do you think it didn’t resonate with you when you were a grad student? 

DG: I went to Union in 1987 when I was still a somewhat sheltered Southern Baptist kid of twenty-five, nine years after my conversion. I was certainly ready for a wider world, or I wouldn't have gone to UTS, but I wasn't quite ready for the liberal-radical theological/ethical/political ecology of the place. With the analytical tools now available to me, I would say that at the time I was still very much a white, straight, married, cisgendered American Christian dude. I I was politically progressive, but I was not prepared for the theologically-driven decentering of people like me. I had to learn to listen to others and not be in charge of every room I entered. I wasn't ready for that at the time. I’m so glad I went there, though. It planted seeds that have gradually borne good fruit. 

CE: Is there a particular audience you were hoping to reach with this book? 

DG: At one level the book was therapeutic for me. I needed to ask and answer the questions that I addressed in the book, especially whether I was still in any real sense the same person who committed my life to Christ at sixteen, or whether my critics are right: that I lost my way. I would say my main audience is people who find themselves in a post-evangelical place, and there are millions of them. I also hoped that the book would be of some value to scholars and historians of US evangelicalism. 

CE: Do you think there will be a sequel to this book one day? 

DG: I don't think so, because in a sense the book marks a farewell to trying to be a public theologian who is in the mix of all the important current discussions—you know, being “in the room where it happens.” The book tells the story of a person who was in that room for the better part of twenty years, and who is now ready for something different. My beliefs, dreams, and agonies have been very public for a long while now, and I’m now ready to live a more private life, and a more scholarly life.