Earlier this month, Jonathan Martin jotted off a sad tweet. “I’ve lost count of the number of people who say they’ve had ministry jobs threatened/been fired for speaking out in some way in this season,” the Christian author and speaker wrote. Confirmation rolled in: one story from a church planter in California, another from a former worship leader in Indiana. These are “not people who would historically self-identify as progressives, at all,” Martin told me later. They’re “people who see themselves as being very faithful evangelicals.”
Donald Trump has divided conservative Christian communities. Most white Christians support Trump, or at least voted for him. Some who have spoken out against his presidency or his policies, though, have encountered backlash. For a small group of people working in Christian ministry, music, and nonprofit advocacy, the consequences have been tangible: They’ve faced pressure from their employers, seen funds withdrawn from their mission work, or lost performing gigs because of their political beliefs.
Many of these stories suggest a generational divide in the church. Young Christians who describe themselves as theological conservatives don’t necessarily identify as political conservatives, although some who do are also horrified by Trump. The issues they’re passionate about—whether it’s racial reconciliation or refugee care—might not match the priorities of their elders. And the pushback often comes online: Posts on Facebook, Twitter, or personal blogs might prompt a text from the boss or an outraged message from a church friend. For Millennials used to speaking their minds on social media, institutional rules curtailing their freedom—whether they’re standard policies or not—might be jarring.
America’s divided political environment has made many religious organizations sensitive about what their employees say and do. “A lot of church leaders are wanting to play it especially safe and not wanting staff members to speak out,” Martin said. This impulse, to quiet political disagreements rather than engage them, will shape how these communities evolve: as places welcome to all who share their creed, or only those who hold certain political beliefs.
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Joy Beth Smith joined Focus on the Family in May 2016 as the editor of Boundless.org, a website for single people in the church. The 28-year-old is fairly media savvy: By the time she started at Focus, she was shopping a book proposal and had bylines at magazines like Christianity Today. When her blog posts for Boundless started getting picked up—including a piece republished by The Washington Post in June—her bosses were thrilled, she told me recently.
But Smith was also pushing the Boundless audience. She commissioned a post about race that she described as “mild”—“it basically addressed that there are still racial divides,” she said. When Omar Mateen murdered dozens of people at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, she wrote a tribute post, which caused a “bit of a stir” among readers, she said: “I don’t know how you can get stirred up over lives that were lost, but people were. That’s kind of the conservative space we existed in and were working against at times.”
In October, Smith wrote a piece for The Washington Post about her experience with sexual assault, criticizing Trump for his derogatory comments toward women and Christian leaders for not speaking out. And that’s when she started getting serious internal pushback.
“The most protective approach for Focus is to leave the policy statements up to … the quarterbacks.”
Almost as soon as the article went up, Paul Batura, Focus’s vice president of communications, pulled Smith into a meeting with her supervisor, Lisa Anderson, Smith alleges. Batura asked Smith if she could have the piece removed from the Post’s website. That would be impossible, Smith explained; and besides, she had written the piece under her own byline, not as a representative of Focus. Batura told her to remove her affiliation with Boundless from her personal social-media accounts, and at the end of the day, she was given notice of an official conduct warning.
The next day, Focus leadership sent out an email to the staff clarifying the organization’s policy on political speech, according to documents shared by Smith. “The most prudent path for all of us—and the most protective approach for Focus—is to leave the policy statements up to Jim Daly, Paul Batura, the quarterbacks, or others authorized to speak on Focus’ behalf,” wrote Joel Vaughan, the chief of staff and human-resources officer at Focus. He added that “it is permissible of course—and often helpful—to agree publicly with positions Focus has taken, such as linking personal pages to Focus posts … or to Jim Daly’s blog.” A few days later, they asked Smith to take down several social-media posts about Evan McMullin, who she was supporting for president. The message was that “‘sometimes the wisest course of action is not to engage,’” Smith told me. “Of course, that’s what Christianity has been doing for years, and it hasn’t worked so well for us.”
At the beginning of November, Focus circulated a “spokesperson” policy, according to Smith. It stated that public-facing representatives of the organization were not allowed to comment on candidates for political office, and could only speak on political issues with Focus’s authorization. Smith was asked to take down more posts: Right after the election, she wrote a Facebook status lamenting transgender suicide. “It comes across as smug, disrespectful, and distinctly partisan,” a staffer told her, according to a text exchange Smith shared. “I think there’s a lack of wisdom in going at this on social. Please pull.”
On November 18, Smith’s bosses told her they didn’t think she could be a good spokesperson for Focus on the Family, according to Smith. She was given two options: She could resign, get a severance, promise not to take legal action, and sign a non-disparagement agreement. Or, she could choose to be fired. She chose firing.
In an email to me, Batura declined to comment on Smith’s situation “out of respect for the privacy of our current or former teammates.” In general, Focus “[advocates] for biblically relevant issues and [encourages] our employees and constituents to vote for those candidates who most closely reflect and represent their conscience and convictions,” he said. People who represent Focus “are not to ‘get out ahead’ of the organization on issues that could be relevant to the work and ministry of Focus on the Family or speak against an established ministry position,” he continued, citing the organization’s nonprofit status as the main reason for these policies.
Roughly eight months after she moved out to Colorado Springs to join Focus, Smith packed her bags and moved home to Illinois. She talked in only vague terms about the reason for her departure, but after she posted about it on Facebook, a woman in North Carolina named Shannon Dingle reached out. “I just kind of got a sense that it might have been similar to what happened to me,” Dingle said. “I knew how lonely it felt.” Smith, as it turned out, wasn’t the only one who had recently been through something like this.
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Dingle, 34, writes and speaks about welcoming disabled people into the church. She has a background in special education, and several of her six young kids have special needs: One is in a wheelchair, another is autistic, and another is HIV-positive. She started working with Key Ministry, a Christian disability-advocacy organization, in 2014, speaking at conferences and writing blog posts for the organization.
Even though Dingle and her husband attended a Southern Baptist church at the time, she had always held some politically liberal positions, she said. But she didn’t feel like that would be a problem at Key. “Most of our materials said we served Christ-honoring churches, and we let churches decide if that fit them or not,” she said. “It always seemed to me, from the beginning, that what mattered was that we agreed on the essentials. Anything else, in who we served and who we were, was totally acceptable.”
“For me, staying silent ... isn’t an okay option.”
As the 2016 election unfolded, political talk became more contentious, especially because Key was trying to develop relationships with conservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Meanwhile, Dingle was developing her own voice. On her personal blog, she often talked about racism and her support for Black Lives Matter. In July, she wrote about why she was pro-life and voting for Hillary Clinton. It was a post “I expected no one to read,” she said, but it got picked up and circulated widely by Slate and Daily Kos. “Having fun counting your blog hits tonight?” the organization’s president, Steve Grcevich, texted her, according to a screenshot Dingle shared with me. Just so you know, he told her, “I’m OK with you expressing your opinions.”
As the summer drew to a close, though, it became clear that her political writing was a problem. In September, Grcevich “offered an ultimatum,” Dingle said: “I could be more quiet politically and continue with Key Ministry, or if I continued to speak out on issues, I would be a liability.” So she resigned.
“For me, staying silent on where I stand on a variety of topics, including some that are contrary to conservative Christian opinion, isn’t an okay option,” she wrote in an email to Grcevich. “I’ve fought too hard to find and free my voice in the past year to stop using it in all the ways I feel can glorify God, serve the church, and engage nonbelievers.” Grcevich thanked her for thoughtful response. “I knew we were getting pretty close to a time when you’d need the freedom to express what’s on your mind and heart without having to think about the organizational implications of everything you’re compelled to say,” he said.
In an email, Grcevich told me that his concern was about maintaining relationships with a wide range of churches. “A substantial majority of the churches we serve tend to be theologically conservative—nearly 70 percent identify as nondenominational, Baptist, or evangelical, and we’ve historically served a number of Roman Catholic churches,” he said. The organization is hoping to start an initiative focusing on mental illness, he added, and conservative churches have historically “demonstrated the highest degree of suspicion of the mental-health professions.” It will already be hard for Christian leaders to embrace a mental-health program, he said, and “I don’t want our organization to say or do things that will make it even more difficult for our team to earn the privilege of serving their churches.” He said he was grateful that Shannon considerately stepped away from her role, which was her choice. Her work for Key had been “consistently excellent,” he said, and he hopes to work with her again. On a personal note, he added that he was “in awe of the faith Shannon and her husband (Lee) have demonstrated in adopting four children into their family, three of whom have significant health-care needs.”
“It seems like there is this silencing of evangelical women if we don’t stick with approved talking points.”
Grcevich also thinks it’s possible, even healthy, for Christians to express different opinions. “It seems to me that faithful Christians, living out life from a Biblical worldview, will have passionate debates and honest disagreements about politicians and political issues,” he said. “At the same time, it would be very difficult for us to have someone serving in a leadership position who disagreed with us on essentials,” including the authority of scripture, the sanctity of life, and a Christian sexual ethic, he added.
Dingle didn’t walk away with such cordial feelings. “It seems like there is this silencing of evangelical women if we don’t stick with approved talking points,” she told me. She felt pressured to leave and believed she would eventually be fired if she didn’t.
Staying silent in this kind of political environment “is more damaging to our witness and more damaging to those who don’t know Christ,” she added. “We don’t say the gospel is only for you if you don’t have disabilities, or only for you if you are part of the religious right.”
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Dingle’s story, along with Smith’s, represents a tension all nonprofits face: How should they handle political issues that arguably aren’t directly related their mission? Social-media policies, including the official policy at Focus and the implicit standard at Key, are not uncommon. Organizations may have a reasonable desire to control their image and message on sensitive issues, including the statements made by their employees. HR matters are also complicated: Many factors go into discussions about employee departures, which can sometimes be invisible from the outside.
What’s significant about these women’s stories is that they appear to fit a broader pattern. Some conservative Christian communities seem to have become allergic to political disagreement of any kind, especially when their members speak out about Trump or Republican policies.
Audrey Assad is a 33-year-old Catholic musician who regularly performs at theologically conservative churches and events run by conservative denominations. Last year, she performed at Onething, an annual gathering of 20,000 young adults in the charismatic Christian world. In recent months, she’s been outspoken on Twitter, advocating for refugees, highlighting police brutality, and criticizing Trump. The refugee issue is particularly important to her: Assad is Syrian American, and her dad and his family came to the United States as refugees.
“It’s sort of like shut up and sing—you should just be encouraging the body [of Christ].”
She’s gotten a lot of pushback, particularly from other Christian leaders. They’re “incensed that I would have the opinions that I do and demand that I reconsider them and post more about my kids,” she said. “It’s sort of like shut up and sing—you should just be encouraging the body [of Christ].” That’s been the hardest part, she said: being “belittled” by pastors and other leaders whom she respects.
“It’s a lonely hill to be standing on,” Assad told me. “A lot of Christians who are in public positions are afraid, even if they oppose things like the Trump administration or things that it’s doing right now. They’re afraid to alienate their base.” At some point, she said, she made a decision “to not operate under that principle—of fear of losing my base and their dollars.” This kind of political defiance isn’t an option for many people working in Christian ministry, though. “I know there are a lot of artists, in particular, who would like to be more vocal but who are scared to do so,” Assad said.
Take the story of Meghan Liddy, a 23-year-old missionary living in Ghana. During the campaign, she was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on social media. She got angry messages from people at the nondenominational church outside of Chicago where she grew up, she said, and was once targeted by a 48-hour wave of trolling by Christian groups for posting about her beliefs. When she wrote Black Lives Matter, she got an email from one of her biggest supporters threatening to pull her funding. They had been giving $300 a month, she said, which helps cover her living expenses in Ghana.
“I remember calling someone and asking, ‘What do I do?,’” Liddy said. She’s currently in the process of adopting two Ghanaian girls, and she worries about the organization she founded and runs, Family First, which offers assistance to families with special needs. “I was at this crossroads: Do I publicly let people take my funding and deal with it, and believe that God will continue to provide for me?” Liddy told me. “Or do I bend my beliefs in order to get funding?”
She ended up telling her supporter that she would keep writing about Black Lives Matter—and was immediately asked to return the most recent check she’d received, she said. Other churches have pulled their funds as well: $50 here, $100 there, Liddy said. “I’ve never gone without. There have been months where things are very tight—where at the end of the month, there’s about $1 in my account,” she said. “But we’ve never had an emergency situation where we weren’t provided for.” If she ran out of money, she said, she would “pray pretty hard.”
Sometimes, these conflicts have relatively low stakes. Stephanie Nelson, a former education pastor at a conservative Presbyterian congregation in the Southwest, said a couple once refused to teach a parenting class at the church because she was planning to use a curriculum on poverty written by the progressive evangelical Jim Wallis.
“What does this say about the larger tradition of which I am a part? Do I still have a place in it?”
Other times, these stories have happy endings. One 29-year-old former seminary student told me about moving from a large northern city to the deep South, where he does marketing for a missionary organization. The self-identified political conservative has written a number of Facebook posts critical of Trump in recent months, on issues like the refugee ban and Trump’s comments about women. An older board member of his organization pulled him aside and asked him to consider the effects of his statements, he said. She started a long conversation, rather than issuing an ultimatum. “I’m thankful that someone who disagrees with me chose to build a bridge rather than a wall,” he said. “Building bridges rather than walls is the only way to overcome polarization.”
Even so, he didn’t want his name used in this article. He worried that there might be negative consequences for his organization or job. That seems to be the case for many people in these situations: I exchanged messages with a number of pastors who weren’t willing to speak to a reporter out of fear for their employment. Those who were willing to talk seemed to have already lost enough that it didn’t matter.
Martin, who travels around the country speaking with church leaders, sees an even deeper issue. “People are struggling not just with the immediate consequences of finances—speaking events cancelled, and paying-the-light-bill kind of stuff,” he said. “It’s more like: What does this say about the larger tradition of which I am a part? Do I still have a place in it?”
In some conservative Christian communities, there is space for disagreement on issues like racism, refugees, and elections as long as people agree on the fundamentals, including same-sex marriage and abortion. But in many other places, this does not seem to be the case—it’s Republican politics all the way down. Those who disagree may have to choose whether to log off of Twitter and stay quiet, or start looking for a new job.