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Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America

Russell Moore
Published by Sentinel in 2023

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis

Karen Swallow Prior
Published by Brazos Press in 2023

Russell Moore and Karen Swallow Prior may not fit the stereotype of an “exvangelical.” Unlike the angry twenty-something who takes to social media to announce that they’re resigning from church, Moore and Prior both devoted several decades of their adult lives to serving the church through teaching, writing, and (in Moore’s case) denominational administration. Both were deeply entrenched in Southern Baptist institutions—Moore as a dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and then as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Prior as a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, after teaching for years at Liberty University.

But they have recently left those positions and, though they haven’t left church, they’re nevertheless transitioning away from something. What exactly they’re leaving and what they’re transitioning into is the subject of their most recent books—Moore’s Losing Our Religion and Prior’s The Evangelical Imagination. American evangelicalism, Moore and Prior believe, has lost its way by acquiring a mass of cultural baggage that has less to do with Jesus or the Bible than with its own particular history and interests. A reformation is needed. But in order to know how we should begin this reformation, we need to know where we’ve been. Losing Our Religion and The Evangelical Imagination are thus part history, part lament, and part call to repentance.

Moore’s Losing Our Religion is the more directly personal of the two books. Though not exactly an autobiography or a memoir, it is Moore’s own story of how he became an evangelical Christian and why, during the past few years, he became disillusioned with what he saw in evangelical churches and in some of the highest echelons of evangelical power. For most of his life—from his childhood commitment to Jesus to his appointment as head of the SBC’s most prominent political agency—he was a true believer, a dyed-in-the-wool, born-again Christian who genuinely thought that what he was promoting was not “religion” but the gospel of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He says that he was therefore shocked when some of his fellow evangelicals treated him as a heretic for following what he thought Jesus would want him to do in two situations: the presidential election of 2016 and the SBC’s sex abuse crisis. In the 2016 presidential election, he spoke out against Donald Trump. And in the sex abuse crisis in his own denomination, he tried to demand accountability from the alleged abusers. Both of these actions put him on the wrong side of the culture wars, in the view of some Southern Baptists. “This is not how you play the game,” one Southern Baptist leader told Moore, in an effort to give him helpful advice. But Moore was dismayed. “I didn’t realize we were playing a game,” he wrote. “If so, why would I give thirty years of my life to it?” (7).

The result was a crisis of identity for Moore—and maybe even a crisis of faith. His relationship with Jesus had been so closely associated with the SBC that it was difficult at first for him to separate the two. “Had it all been a lie?” he wondered. “That began a period not just of questioning all my assumptions, but also of simultaneously grieving my lost religious home and my own burdened conscience, recognizing complicity in participating for so long in something that now seemed both inane and predatory” (10).

He began reexamining the meaning of “evangelical”—a word that, for at least a brief moment, he thought born-again Christians might be better off doing without, because of its negative cultural associations. “Evangelical,” he said, was not a very precise theological descriptor or even a mark of identity; after all, most Christians who could be described as “evangelical” prefer other designations, such as “born again” or just “Christian.” But if it’s an artificially imposed designation, made all the more problematic by its current political connotations, it nevertheless does offer a signpost to gospel-centered beliefs that are theologically true. Biblical scholar Fleming Rutledge was on to something, Moore thought, when she said that “an evangelical is one who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly” (20). Some people have said that an evangelical is someone who loves Billy Graham. Moore says that an evangelical is one who believes in altar calls—in the continuous need for repentance, revival, and rededication, all of which are predicated on the belief that we are sinners who stand in need of the redemptive grace that is given through Jesus Christ (18). That belief is worth maintaining, Moore thinks.

In fact, he argues that many of those who are leaving the church and becoming exvangelicals are departing not because they don’t believe this message anymore but because they think the church doesn’t believe it (41). This is not a new situation for the church, Moore reminds us; we saw something similar five hundred years ago when Martin Luther denounced the church’s sale of indulgences and called it to repent and begin practicing the principles of Jesus. Perhaps today another widescale reformation is needed, because without it the church will be in danger of losing the gospel (78–84, 252–254). And if we lose the gospel, we lose everything—not just in eternity, but even in the present, when people will have nothing to live for if they lose gospel-centered hope. Without a redemptive God, we will become a nation of tribalists, screaming at each other—just as a church that has lost sight of the gospel already has (37–41).

Moore’s remedy for all of this is therefore for evangelicals to return to the message of the gospel—the euangelion that gave them their name and original identity. Instead of defining “truth” by what people in our “tribe” proclaim, we need to return to biblical truth and the authority of Jesus Christ, which is the only authority that can save us from human authoritarianism. Instead of finding our identity in the culture wars, we need to find our identity in a genuine conversion to Christ. Moore agrees that many conservative evangelical churches have become conservative political organizations—and the solution to that is to quit engaging in fear-based political mobilization and return to the gospel principles that were once the central message of evangelicalism.

Moore’s own political views—or, at least, his opposition to Donald Trump— have been well known ever since he first publicly excoriated his fellow evangelicals for losing their interest in “values” in their rush to line up behind a profane adulterer who “built his career off gambling.”1 When he first made those comments, Moore expressed shock that his fellow evangelicals were betraying their principles. But in Losing Our Religion, Moore suggests that the problem is much deeper than evangelicals’ willingness to justify Trump’s immoral behavior—and deeper even than evangelicals’ Machiavellianism in the political sphere, as bad as that is. The problem is that evangelicals themselves are behaving in the same craven, power-hungry ways in their own churches, as the recent sex abuse crisis in the SBC demonstrates (165). They have become moral relativists who believe that when it comes to the culture wars, the ends always justify the means. And they have become “tribalists” who blindly parrot whatever slogans are identified with their tribe, regardless of whether those positions are diametrically opposed to the ones their tribe championed only a short time ago (66–101).

The remedy to all this, Moore argues, is not a new political program but rather a new reverence for Jesus’s authority. “The antidote to authoritarianism is authority itself, rightly defined,” Moore declares (75). “Political movements— especially authoritarian and totalitarian ones—almost always want to co-opt religion” (109). But when we take our identity from Jesus rather than from our political party, and when we resist the temptation to make a god out of our nation and its symbols (as Christian nationalists have), we will have the freedom to critique the sins that we see in our political leaders, and we will not identify the gospel with any political platform. Moore doesn’t go so far as to encourage Christians to boycott the political system entirely, but he does suggest that political power and partisanship are temptations that have ensnared far too many evangelical Christians. When Christians engage in politics, they need to “pay attention to means, not just to ends,” he advises (189). Jesus’s command to “turn the other cheek” still applies to us today, even when we’re fighting abortion or any other culture war battle. But Moore’s deeper concern is not with politics per se, but with gospel witness, which he thinks evangelical Christians have compromised by their political behavior. The church needs to reform its own moral reformation: “Maybe what the church is most called to do in this moment is not, first to preach repentance but to embody what repentance looks like so that a culture seeking forgiveness will know what the words even mean. That’s a matter of our moral credibility and our gospel clarity too” (201). Moore doesn’t explain exactly how to do that. He doesn’t give a step-by-step guide to how churches can deal with sex abuse in their pastorates nor does he suggest what political choices Christians should make in an election in which Donald Trump is on the ballot. Instead, he calls Christians to believe again in the gospel, because he thinks that when Christians’ lives are shaped by a cycle of trust in Christ, repentance from sins, and the humility and gratitude that comes from accepting God’s grace and walking in obedience, they will be repulsed by the sins of power politics that are so appealing to those whose lives are shaped by cultural anxieties and Christian nationalism, but that are diametrically opposed to the principles of Jesus. In other words, the remedy for our current evangelical crisis is to repent and live out the gospel—because if that doesn’t work, nothing will.

But, as Karen Swallow Prior argues in The Evangelical Imagination, American evangelicals often find it difficult to discern the difference between gospel truth and the inherited assumptions of evangelical culture. We filter the message of the Bible through the lenses of our own cultural traditions and presuppositions, and as a result, what we think are the commands of God are often merely human traditions—which, if we’re white American evangelicals, are likely to be the assumptions of several generations of other people who were white, American, and evangelical. For example, she notes, “evangelicals today, especially those who grew up within the contemporary evangelical subculture, might find it difficult to imagine how conversion could not be central to the Christian faith” (59). But in fact, the idea of a “born again” experience of conversion as it is understood by contemporary American evangelicals originated in a particular set of historical circumstances—namely, the early modern Puritan reaction against the perceived “complacency” of the established state Church of England. Other groups of Christians whose tradition was not shaped by that particular set of historical experiences did not develop such a strong emphasis on personal conversion. “Conversion has not been emphasized everywhere in the church or throughout church history in the way that evangelicalism stresses it,” Prior writes (59). Once modern American evangelicals begin examining their theology in a larger historical and literary context, they may be shocked to discover how many ideas and metaphors that they assumed were a direct application of biblical ideas are in reality products of an evangelical imagination that most of the world’s Christians have not shared.

Prior’s book is thus more sweeping in its criticisms than Moore’s book. Like Moore, Prior spent many years in conservative Southern Baptist circles. After teaching for years at Liberty University, she became a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Like Moore, she eventually decided to leave those circles; she is no longer teaching at Southeastern or at any other institution affiliated with the SBC. Like Moore, she is still a believer in Jesus, with theologically conservative convictions. She still believes there is value in evangelicalism. But perhaps because of her particular academic background in the humanities in general and the study of literature in particular, she suspects that the problem American evangelicalism faces today is not merely a symptom of our current political polarization or recent sex abuse crises in the churches. Instead, evangelicals are experiencing a problem that dates back centuries: the problem of a culture of their own making.

The culture that evangelicals have created is not entirely bad, Prior suggests. Like all subcultures, evangelical subculture has developed its own metaphors, stories, and ways of relating to the world and collectively, these elements form an “evangelical imagination” that is a particular way of seeing and understanding all of life. If we are evangelicals, we have probably inherited an “evangelical imagination” without even realizing it – and it probably influences our way of thinking far more than we acknowledge. But no matter how treasured our inherited traditions are (and, in Prior’s view, they involve some of the most central and long-lasting evangelical practices, such as devotional “quiet time” or invitations to “accept Jesus” as one’s Savior by “walking the aisle”), we need to probe the origins of each of these customs and subject them to critical examination. These practices, after all, were not enough to prevent a sex abuse crisis in evangelical churches and an attempted cover-up of sexual sins at the highest echelons of denominational leadership. They were not enough to prevent the sordid activities and political machinations that characterized the leadership at Prior’s previous employer, Liberty University. Prior is deliberately taciturn about these matters (which means that those hoping for any new revelations or gossip about Liberty University or the SBC from this book will be sorely disappointed), but she drops enough veiled hints to suggest that such experiences prompted her to do a lot of soul-searching. Having reached a point of crisis in both her own life and in the life of the larger evangelical community, Prior attempts a wholesale reexamination of every facet of evangelical identity in order to figure out what is worth keeping and what needs to be discarded. This is a deconstruction of sorts—except that for Prior, the end result is not exvangelicalism but rather a new, more critical understanding of evangelicalism that is neither a complete rejection of the tradition nor a wholesale defense of it.

In Prior’s view, the problem is not only what evangelicals imagine, but what they fail to imagine. White evangelicals, for instance, have for centuries imagined divinely orchestrated mass great “awakenings” to rouse people from their sin and produce repentance and conversion. But somehow in their celebrations of past “awakenings,” they failed to imagine the legitimacy of a mass movement of people who were “woke” and who came to a new realization of the sin of racism. They could easily imagine Jesus as a talking lion (in the form of the fictional character Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), but could not imagine him as a Black man. African American Christians, on the other hand, had no trouble seeing the connection between the violence that Jesus experienced on the cross and the violence that Black people experienced at the hands of lynch mobs or misguided law enforcement officers. Somehow this parallel fit with their religious imagination, but not with the imagination of white evangelicals.

But Prior’s critique extends beyond the issue of race and social justice. She also critiques evangelicals’ imagination of the salvation process. While evangelicals’ emphasis on the necessity of a moment of born-again conversion for every individual coming to God was a needed reaction against the lack of spiritual transformation in the eighteenth-century Church of England, it ironically led evangelicals in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to place “too little emphasis on formation, on sanctification,” Prior thinks. If getting people “saved” could solve the problems of deeply entrenched sin, “there would be no (or at least far fewer) Christians who have bought and sold slaves, abused their wives, aborted their unborn children, watched porn, or gotten drunk on power” (76).

Much of Prior’s critique of evangelicalism stems from her observation that evangelicals have imagined salvation as a dramatic event that occurs at a particular moment in time and have therefore turned a blind eye to their own need for continued repentance and spiritual growth throughout life. They have substituted sentimentality and emotional experiences for virtue formation. They have shown a failure of imagination in the areas where it really mattered—such as in their readings of apocalyptic prophecies, where they somehow failed to realize that biblical metaphors about the end-times were meant to be read as literature, not as rigidly literal descriptions. Worst of all, they have succumbed to the temptation of entrepreneurial empire-building, with the most successful practitioners of the art making millions of dollars marketing their supposed “authenticity” to naïve believers whose imaginations led them to blindly trust the testimony of others even when a greater level of spiritual discernment was required.

While Prior seems to try throughout most of her book to avoid any overt references to her own experience at Liberty University, she finally levels her criticism very directly at the “Falwell empire,” which she calls “perhaps the biggest evangelical empire to date” (216). Jerry Falwell Sr. “was one of modern evangelicalism’s greatest entrepreneurs,” Prior writes. “The satisfied customers are legion. For many years, I was one of them” (219). But “the kingdom of heaven is not an empire,” she eventually realized (221). Empires breed “institutional loyalty,” which was exactly what happened when evangelicals were seduced by the lure of Donald Trump’s entrepreneurial empire. Prior quotes a couple lines from Trump’s The Art of the Deal2—“I play to people’s fantasies. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular” (220)—and then argues that this is exactly what seduced evangelical Christians in the United States in 2016, just as it seduced evangelical Christians in Lynchburg, Virginia, on a smaller scale, when they were fooled by the promise of the “Falwell empire” (217–221).

The remedy for all this, Prior suggests, is to have the imagination to see past the trappings of our culture and to experience Christ: “to be caught up with Christ, in Christ” and to “be filled with a love” that is “powerful enough to love that person we would otherwise despise. It is to love the kingdom of God more than all the kingdoms of this world. It is to count all human empires as dirt, all our pretty platforms and performances as dung” (258).

It’s hard to imagine an authentic evangelical Christian disagreeing with any of this statement, which comes almost directly from the New Testament. In one sense, every evangelical Christian can agree with both Moore and Prior. To the extent that American evangelicals have exchanged the gospel of Christ for the idols of politics, power, or the biases of our culture, we need to repent and turn back to the Lord.

But despite all of their similarities, Moore and Prior are also proposing somewhat different paths to reforming American evangelicalism. Moore’s book is, as its subtitle proclaims, an “altar call” to evangelicals—which means that, like any good evangelical preacher (especially a Baptist one), Moore is calling his fellow Christians to repent and believe, and then to receive a new infilling of the Holy Spirit or a new sense of assurance and pardon. If evangelical Christians followed Moore’s advice, they would become more dedicated evangelical Christians, with a new love for others, a new determination to be soulwinners, and a new zeal for the gospel—along with far less desire for political power.

But Prior may be calling for something slightly different. In her view, the problem is not merely that evangelicals are not being true to their movement’s eighteenth-or nineteenth-century principles, but rather that those principles have overemphasized or even distorted some scriptural principles, while neglecting others. While her book says far more about the crisis than about a proposed solution, her vision for a reformation, to the extent one can discern it, seems to include a move away from the individualism of the evangelical movement and especially a rejection of evangelicals’ overemphasis on an instantaneous “born again” conversion that expects individual transformation without the long, hard process of repentance and sanctification. The evangelical church has forgotten this and has been blind to its own sins. It has too often pursued political and cultural power instead of finding its comfort and delight in Jesus. It has exalted its own way of seeing the world without realizing that large numbers of other Christians (such as Black Christians, indigenous Christians, and non- Protestant Christians) have often seen the world in a very different way. Now that white evangelicalism is losing some of its political power and influence, many white evangelicals are feeling a sense of loss. But perhaps this moment should instead be a moment for repentance and reformation. “Reforming must also be an ongoing process, not only for each individual believer through the process of sanctification, but for the church itself” (235). The end result, Prior suggests, might be a church that thinks less like white American Baptists and more like the majority of the world’s Christians over the past 2,000 years—that is, Christians who may have never heard about altar calls, the rapture, or the Republican Party, but who delighted in Jesus and wanted to follow him through the practice of repentance and obedience.

It’s important to note (as Prior does not) that the views she critiques may be more pronounced in some contemporary Baptist churches than in other branches of evangelicalism. Both the Wesleyan tradition, with its strong historic emphasis on holiness, and the Reformed tradition, with its doctrine of divine sovereignty in salvation and its practice of infant baptism, have not conceived of the moment of being “born again” in quite the same way that Baptists often have. The version of white evangelicalism that Prior is critiquing may not be quite as widespread as her book suggests; there may well be other evangelical imaginations that her book does not touch upon, just as there are other evangelical theologies. Nevertheless, it’s still true that if one follows Prior’s recommendations, the result will be something that looks very different in some ways from a stereotypical contemporary Baptist or nondenominational evangelical church.

But it will be a church that follows Jesus, Prior believes. Prior is still a Bible-believing, theologically conservative, Protestant Christian, even if her theology is no longer quite as traditionally Baptist as it might once have been. For both Prior and Moore, following Jesus is still paramount. That, in fact, is the key thing that differentiates them from many exvangelicals. Like exvangelicals, they acknowledge that the white evangelical church is facing a serious crisis of its own making and that it deserves severe excoriation. But, unlike many exvangelicals, they believe that the solution to this crisis lies in the gospel, not in simply repudiating evangelicalism. The gospel may lead back to a more authentic evangelicalism, as Moore believes, or it may lead to a critique of longstanding evangelical traditions, as Prior argues; but in the end, both Moore and Prior are still committed to following the gospel wherever it takes them.

The question that those who are disillusioned with evangelicalism need to answer is: Do we believe the gospel? If we do, the gospel will be the answer to whatever problems we see in evangelicalism, no matter how severe and pervasive they might be. Prior and Moore acknowledge that the evangelical crisis is massive. But the gospel is greater still.

Cite this article
Daniel K. Williams, “Two Visions for an Evangelical Reformation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 53:3 , 103-110


  1. Russell Moore, “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?,” New York Times, September 17, 2015, evangelicals-who-support-trump-lost-their-values.html.
  2. Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York, NY: Random House, 1987).

Daniel K. Williams

Daniel K. Williams is Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.


  • Linda says:

    Excellent article. My glib version of the problem with Christians is laziness. If we actually sat down and read the Bible on our own instead of leaning on and subscribing to the opinions of others, if we subscribed to what Jesus said and not what someone else said, we might not have these issues. A lot of deconstructors are “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” and losing Jesus in the process. Very sad. Where will they go now, once they’ve deconstructed their way out of their faith? See John 6:68.

    • Matthew says:

      I’m always leery of calling someone or some group lazy. I have trouble imagining Jesus looking at the man at the pool of Bethesda and being frustrated with his laziness for not trying harder to get into the water fast enough. In my experience, when someone appears to be lazy, it is either an issue of entitlement or despair. In the case of American Christians, perhaps one, the other, or both are true depending on the person. We have been told that we are right and good and better than those other people (atheists, Catholics, democrats, mainline denominations, drug-users, Muslims, etc.) and so there is little need to do more or become more. As the author shows Prior arguing, many no longer see a need for sanctification – for change. On the other hand, some Christians have found that their faith no longer “works” or that life simply seems overwhelming and feel no hope. The sense of futility can overwhelm the desire to engage with scripture. Laziness, it seems to me, is always a cover-up for something deeper going on that needs healing or repentance.

      But also, it’s quite difficult to simply read the Bible and discard the opinions of others. We will always carry cultural lenses into how we read, which means that we can see Jesus’s words quite differently depending on where we are and where we’ve come from. Just reading the Bible may not be sufficient, particularly if we don’t recognize the lenses we bring, have biases against other perspectives, and carry problematic assumptions and ideas into our reading. As the Ethiopian said to Philip, “How can I [understand] unless someone explains it to me?” We need to bring our brains, yes, but we cannot study in a vacuum. There simply is no such thing. Good and wise counsel with a sound, kind pedagogy – a form of iron sharpening iron – is invaluable.

  • Jesse Koepke says:

    Thank you for this article. The two books and the article itself put into words the wrestle and journey I’ve been on this year. This quote especially encapsulates it: “American evangelicals often find it difficult to discern the difference between gospel truth and the inherited assumptions of evangelical culture.”

    I’m eager to read both books, and to find the gospel behind the evangelicalism.