This week, Ana (@anamariecox) talked with Sarah Jones (@onesarahjones), a staff writer for The New Republic who covers social inequality and religion. Ana wanted to have Sarah on the show after learning about her story — Sarah grew up homeschooled in a Christian fundamentalist family and went to a Christian college before becoming an activist for secular causes and covering religion. That upbringing meant she had a very secluded childhood in a rural area near the Cherokee National Forest, rarely leaving the house to do much other than going to church.
“For a few years we didn’t have tv, we didn’t have internet access, we just had a radio and got the newspaper. And we went to church. We usually went to church 2-3 times a week, or more, depending on what was going on,” Sarah said.
She took on many of her parents’ beliefs, like Biblical literalism and an antagonistic approach to abortion rights and rights for LGBTQIA+ people. However, by the time she attended high school she started to question the worldview propagated by her parents and church environment. Her conservative politics started to ebb before the religious beliefs did, because of her opposition to the Iraq War, something supported by those around her. Her worldview continued to shift through reading more, and connecting with people on the internet, learning the big, bad world she’d been taught to fear wasn’t so bad after all. Finally, she had her ah-ha moment.
“I had found this really good church in college… and I remember sitting there, and we were all singing a hymn, and I remember thinking, if I don’t believe here, I’m not going to believe anywhere. I just don’t believe any of it, anymore,” Sarah explained.
From then on, she stopped attending church and faked her way through the mandatory religious activities she had to complete to graduate from her Christian college. Her newfound atheism posed other difficulties to her desire to keep her head down while finishing school — she survived an attempted rape, and her assailant knew about her atheism. That influenced her decision not to report it to the school.
“That could have gotten me expelled. I felt I didn’t have a lot of choices at the time,” she said.
Although she didn’t report it to the school, she did eventually file a Title IX complaint against it. The entire experience left her deeply angry, and one of the reasons she wound up as a secular activist was that it was a worthwhile outlet for that anger.
From there, the conversation turned as Ana asked her what influence — if any — her Christian roots and the values she was taught growing up inform her desire for social justice today.
“My upbringing is still part of me, and it wasn’t completely bad even though I made a different decision. My parents raised me to be a person of conviction, they raised me to have very strong beliefs, to be willing to suffer for those beliefs,” Sarah said.
Ana also talked about where her belief in social justice comes from — her father, an activist — and how although he was an atheist, those beliefs run parallel with what she sees in the kind of Christian communities she wants to be a part of.
Ana then asked Sarah about the closure of the Religious News Service, which she recently wrote about, and the general decline of religious news coverage.
“I think it’s really concerning, and like every religion reporter I’ve spoken to in the last three years has said, basically, that,” Sarah stated.
She went on to explore some of the topics those nonexistent religion reporters now miss covering. Among them, how is Donald Trump continuing to change evangelicalism? Why do evangelicals continue to support Trump? What are the ways demographic change is changing the face of evangelicalism?
Ana pointed out that it also perpetuates stereotypes of America as a mostly Christian nation, without acknowledging the nuances in Christianity as well as the other religions present in this country. She then asked Sarah what she’d like to see more of in religion coverage. The answer: how evangelicalism will change as it gets less white, and whether there really is a resurgence of the religious left.
They also talked about one of the consequences of not covering religion, that other things like wellness trends and Silicon Valley get covered similarly to religion. “This idea that if you just eat a certain way, drink a certain juice… I hear that Gwyneth Paltrow is really into different waters, and then you’re gonna be fine. And then Silicon Valley, I hear this persistent belief almost in profits, looking for the next Steve Jobs, like he’s going to pick up the torch for the faith. That’s fascinating to me,” Sarah said.
To close out the show, Ana asked Sarah if there’s anything others should take from her experience on how to engage the religious right.
“You have to take them seriously, you have to assume that they believe exactly what they’re saying, and not treat them like they’re small-town dupes who’ve bought into hokum, and it makes them less serious as a result,” she said.
When it comes to Trump supporting evangelicals, she also wants people to consider that it has become about more than just religious belief, but a cultural identifier as well.
At the end of the show, Ana answered a listener question about reckoning with depression as a person of privilege.
Sarah mentioned this New York Times piece.
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