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Jon Ward says writing about the evangelical movement released bottled up emotions


Being an evangelical Christian in America today is both a religious and a political identity. Jon Ward grew up in that world, then broke away.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: How's it feel to have this out in the world?

JON WARD: It's a little scary.

FADEL: Our colleague Rachel Martin spoke with the Yahoo News chief national correspondent about his memoir out today.

MARTIN: When you read this book, you kind of can't ignore the emotional pain that comes through these pages. What was the process like for you to get into the right headspace?

WARD: It was cathartic, actually. There was a lot of emotion bottled up that I think was released in the process of writing it. I think it's just scary to make myself so vulnerable in a public way like this.

MARTIN: You are well-equipped to tell this story because it was also your own life. Can you describe the church and the congregation you grew up in?

WARD: My dad grew up Catholic. My mom grew up Presbyterian. They were both caught up in something called the Jesus movement or the Jesus revolution. And it was a national dynamic. A lot of people were looking for something fresh and new in religion, and I think they were also disenchanted with the way the country had gone during the late 60s. The style was kind of a rock 'n' roll worship service with a full band, drums, electric guitar and all that, and then some dynamic preaching. And my dad was one of the leaders of this group that was meeting. His high school best friend, C.J. Mahaney, was one of the top leaders.

MARTIN: So where did your faith move from there?

WARD: I've been in college for two years, and I've started to experiment with the really crazy lifestyle of occasionally having a beer.

MARTIN: Because that was not allowed, even though you were of age, right?

WARD: Yeah. It's hard, probably, to convey how pervasive and intense the fear of stepping outside of the lines is and the very real fear that there would be some very dire consequence for doing the wrong thing, which I think ultimately is embodied in the fear of hell. I went all in on church, cut off all my relationships with friends who were not on the same page as that and spent all my time going to church.

MARTIN: So when you were really committing your life to the church and to your identity as a Christian, how did that jibe with the rest of your life? I mean, you were a single guy. What was it like dating?

WARD: You've opened up a whole can of worms by asking about - I mean, when it comes to my professional life, it's, in retrospect, just hilarious how little I knew coming out of that world. I was very, very ignorant. A lot of us young men started, at the encouragement of some of the pastors or leaders, having these meetings where we would talk about how often we had looked at pornography and even greater detail about our terrible sins on the internet.

MARTIN: Because you had to share all this in a group, right?

WARD: Correct, yeah, sometimes in somebody's kitchen, sometimes at a Starbucks. And I - you know, I write about how I just remember trying to pull my chair as close as possible to the person next to me so that people - we could talk as quietly as possible.


WARD: And I just was sitting there going, like, why are we doing this in a Starbucks again? But when you're caught up in something, it's hard to pump the brakes a lot of times.

MARTIN: In the book, you describe a self-loathing...

WARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That came over you when it came to sex or any kind of even sexual thought.

WARD: Yeah, led to a huge sense of shame.

MARTIN: The pastor of your family's church was accused of covering up crimes of child sex abuse. By this point, you had already broken with the church.

WARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can you tell me what precipitated that?

WARD: By the time the sex abuse cases issue came to a head in 2012, '13, '14, I had been out of that church congregation for about a decade. And really, it was just a case of becoming exhausted from that cycle of failure and atonement.

MARTIN: When Donald Trump came along and white evangelicals painted him as some kind of savior, it was completely confounding to most people in the media and Americans who didn't have a connection to the evangelical church. But this did not shock you. Can you explain why?

WARD: There were some Christians, some evangelicals who painted Trump as, you know, God's man. But a lot of the evangelicals that I knew, both personally and sort of as public figures, were of the type that were repulsed by Trump and then came to a place of either trying to just sort of ignore politics or, as in the case of my own family, rationalized their way to sort of embracing him. And then once you get into the general election time frame in 2016 and beyond, I think tribal political identities overtake religious identities. And then you're into the presidency. And Trump was very good at provoking outrage, which further solidified his supporters' attachment to him.

MARTIN: So what was that like for you? Because you and your family did not agree on this. And it caused some real divisions.

WARD: What hurt the most was the sense that my integrity as a journalist was being called into question, not by some guy out on the street or on a blog or on Twitter but by my own family.

MARTIN: And this - we should say this is - your reaction was because Donald Trump started calling the media the enemy of the people. And your family didn't understand why that was such an affront.

WARD: It's hard for me to actually talk about this because it feels not just painful, but my dad - his response to that - I just felt like I was being met with explanations rather than empathy and support. But it did begin back in particular during that time when Trump was using that term with such a horrible history to be used to - as a pretext for violence.

MARTIN: That part of the book was so hard to read. It was clear you were still working out so much anger, and you did feel abandoned by him. Do you think - when you say he has heard you, did he, at any point, apologize? Or did you just not press for that?

WARD: I've tried to avoid saying a whole lot about our conversations. You asked the question directly, and I'll answer it. He did apologize for that, you know?

MARTIN: Jon Ward - his new book is called "Testimony: Inside The Evangelical Movement That Failed A Generation." Jon, thank you so much.

WARD: Rachel, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "REMEMBERING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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