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The Price of Speaking Up

Shortly after Donald Trump's inauguration, Emma Green reported in The Atlantic about people who had been fired from evangelical ministries for voicing their political views. From a content creator for Focus on the Family to a missionary in Ghana funded by a nondenominational church in Chicago, Green spoke with a number of evangelicals who found themselves pushed out of their careers for failing to fall in line with the new Republican orthodoxy.

When Joy Beth Smith wrote a Washington Post article critical of Trump's behavior and his derogatory remarks about women, her bosses at Focus on the Family deemed her views politically incorrect and ordered her to have it removed.

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.”

Shortly after the election, Smith was told she could not be an effective spokesperson for Focus on the Family.

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.

Shannon Dingle worked for Key Ministry, a disability-advocacy ministry in North Carolina. During the runup to the election she encountered many of the same troubles as Smith.

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.

Dingle's boss, Steve Grcevich, at first seemed tolerant. But as summer faded into fall, Grcevich began to pressure Dingle to stifle her political views. His concern, he said, was due to the organization's new fundraising campaign.

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.” 

Dingle chose to leave the organization rather than muzzle herself.

“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.”

Audrey Assad is a Christian singer whose father came to the United States as a Syrian refugee. But when she started advocating on Twitter on behalf of refugees, she got a lot of pushback from her faith community.

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.

Meghan Liddy, a missionary in Ghana, found her funding slashed after she posted her support for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

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.

Other patrons likewise stopped giving. Liddy hasn't yet gone without, but some months have been very tight.

Four evangelicals, four stories of facing consequences for defying evangelical political correctness. But it's hard to ignore the other common factor: These are all women speaking out against the evangelical patriarchy. It's hard not to wonder whether the results would have been different if these outspoken voices had had a lower pitch.

Especially since Green ends her story on a mildly hopeful note.

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.”

I see one major difference between this example and the others. Two differences, if you count the result.

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