I am not a Southern Baptist any more. I cannot tell you how strange that feels to write. There are reasons I've not said or written it before, but the biggest is that it is painful.
This is not some happy resolution I've come to. It's more like a divorce, or death. A divorce because for so long I was happy in the Southern Baptist Church. It's where I learned to love Jesus and the Bible and people. So many fond memories--from childhood up to the last few years--are there: Sunday School teachers who helped me grow, learning about missions in Girls in Action, Kool-Aid and cookies at Vacation Bible School, church camp, visiting the nursing home, youth choir tours, playing the piano, getting married there, raising my kids, leading groups of women, singing on the praise team, directing the adult choir, teaching Sunday School myself.
I've been involved in every imaginable way and loved it. It was part of my identity. Whatever problems or disagreements arose I dealt with from within the church, which I saw as an extension of my family. Like marriage, I never considered leaving an option.
I would not leave now, except that staying is no longer an option. I cannot stay and be honest. Because in my heart and soul I am not a Southern Baptist. Not any more.
I don't know what I am, other than a follower of Jesus.
I believe following Jesus is what matters. I have few if any other essentials to describe my faith. Besides that, I find it easier to say what I don't believe. I may not know exactly what to call myself, but I know what my faith is not.
I wrote last week about the moment I heard the "Access Hollywood" tape of Donald Trump describing how he grabs women. I sat in my living room with my four kids when the story suddenly spewed out of the television. It came without warning. It shocked and alarmed us all.
After the initial jolt, however, I realized it really wasn't that surprising to hear him say those things. What little I knew of Donald Trump up to that point was not incongruous with the person he was on the video. It fit. It's an image he cultivated. It is who all of America knew him to be.
What did surprise me was how the church--not just Southern Baptists, but evangelical Christians overall--reacted. I expected it to end his chances of ever becoming president. After all, I was there in the 1990s when Bill Clinton fell from grace, when Southern Baptists rejected one of their own because of his highly publicized sexual immorality. And I was one of them.
I never liked Clinton much before that, even if I did like a few of his policies. But I sure couldn't stand his making a mockery of his family, and dishonoring our country in front of the whole world. It made it worse that he was from Arkansas. I remember how American evangelicals reviled him; he was even impeached.
And yet a few years later those same people--my people--made excuses for Trump. The church I trusted was suddenly ready to forgive and forget not only his multiple infidelities to multiple wives, unlike Bill Clinton, but even his boast about doing something criminal.
My children, to whom we have emphasized respect, self-control, and consent, saw a man who derides those qualities elected to the highest office in the land. For four years they watched this person lead their country, while the evangelical denomination we belonged to--our brothers and sisters in Christ--cheered him on.
Looking back, I recognize that moment as a fracture, a crack, the opening of a gulf that in a few years would span the Grand Canyon.
In 2019, local Democrats approached me to ask if I'd consider running for office. The Republican incumbent everyone--including me--loved was not running for re-election, and in her place, the governor had already selected a friend of his to run.
This candidate, a three-star general, was not from around here, had no real ties to the community, and hardly anyone knew him. "We need someone we know and trust," said these local people. So I said yes.
Part of my rationale was that I wanted my kids to see something better than what we had going on in Washington--the noble calling politics should be. I thought I could answer that call and help the rural district that is our home. Party didn't matter to me. I voted for a person. I figured it wouldn't matter to voters in my district either. I was wrong.
While some of my biggest supporters were friends in my local church, this experience revealed the huge gap between Southern Baptist political dogma and what it meant to me to follow Jesus into politics. I realize now how naïve I was to imagine people would be able to reconcile my Southern Baptist identity with the label of Democrat. I think most--not all--who knew me personally did. But around the district those who did not know me could not.
Conservative Christian identity such as that of Southern Baptists was--and still is to a large extent--completely enmeshed with loyalty to the Republican Party. Regardless of who leads it. To me this is antithetical to being a Christian. I believe character matters more than conservative judges. And I don't believe Jesus belongs to any political party.
Sometime after my epic failure as a candidate I met up with Sen. Jim Hendren, who had decided to leave the Republican party, his political home. Much like my family and the Southern Baptist church, his family has deep Republican roots. His uncle, the governor, remains steadfastly dedicated to the party.
But Hendren realized--after the attack on the Capitol Jan. 6--that Republican was a label he could no longer wear. In a move as heart-wrenching for him as it was brave, he declared his independence. I am sure it came at great cost.
It has cost me to leave my church. I still love it for all it meant to me, for so much good that I experienced there. I still love Southern Baptists. My parents, who have been my spiritual guides all of my life, are like Asa. They won't leave; won't surrender the Southern Baptist denomination to what it has become on the world stage. I respect that. People like them can save it if anyone can. I wish I had the desire to try, if only so we could all still go to church together as a family.
But even given the autonomy of the local church, any willingness to be associated with the current Southern Baptist Convention is dead in me. After its leaders defended Trump's overt misogyny, then adopted his fake news regarding critical race theory, demonizing it as anti-American indoctrination by evil public-school teachers, I am finished. There are too many ways the denomination represents what my faith is not.
Like that other more famous big-haired Bible thumper from Arkansas, Beth Moore, the gulf has become too wide for me to bridge. So here I stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon looking across at a church I love, but must leave. I can do no other.
Reflecting on this experience reveals to me a tendency to live my life mostly working within systems, believing as an individual I could don a label without fully being defined by it. That's the world I wish we lived in.
But in the world as it is, maybe it is unrealistic to expect people to believe I could run as a Democrat without embracing everything in the party platform. It certainly feels unrealistic now that I thought I could authentically inhabit my own niche as a Southern Baptist, one who drinks a little wine and dances, loves gay people and public schools, and cannot possibly support Donald Trump.
Maybe we need a new system, one without so many labels. I just know I don't fit into any established political schemata or Southern Baptist church. I'm a refugee, crossing spiritual and political borders in search of a home. And I still hold on to the promise of Jesus that after every kind of death, there comes a resurrection.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.