(The sounds of a crowd cheering play up for a moment, then are whisked away.)
Julia Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. This week’s episode is Part 2 of a two-part series. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, stop right there! Go back to last week’s episode, and listen to that first. It’s the story of how one man, political operative Ralph Reed, built the evangelical voting bloc over decades, and how he helped Donald Trump get elected. Now, for Part 2, Atlantic staff writer Emma Green is gonna take it from here.
(A sort of drumroll, like that of a timpani, plays up and brings the cheering back.)
Emma Green: The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated, thousands of people gathered for an event at Calvary Chapel, an evangelical megachurch in southern California.
Charlie Kirk: It’s a good group check. Jeez. [Audience laughter.] It’s amazing what happens when you keep your church open, right? (Cheers.)
Green: The pastor at Calvary had invited the conservative provocateur Charlie Kirk to speak to the congregation after Trump left office.
Kirk: My goodness, it was hard to watch yesterday. It was.
Green: This congregation is exactly the kind that the political operative Ralph Reed dreamed of all those years ago: a powerful church community that took its role in politics seriously.
Kirk: But this church did their part. [Audience whooping, then cheering.] This church registered voters. This church mobilized. (Fades under.)
Green: People in the evangelical world were trying to figure out what went wrong, and who was to blame.
Kirk: And if every church was as involved as this church—especially in this last election—uh, things would have looked a lot differently. (Fades under.)
Green: This part was not exactly in Ralph’s plan, though. The evangelical voting bloc that he had united was starting to turn on itself.
Kirk: You have pastors that are coming out, and they are saying, “We don’t like the culture war–Christianity thing. We’re not gonna get this involved in this election.”
Green: And Kirk had a message for everyone who sat this election out:
Kirk: (Emphatically.) You’ve grown way too comfortable as a Christian in this country. You’ve been way too part of the mainstream culture. Way too part of it. (Applause and cheering.)
(A down-tempo track, lightly R&B-esque, gives shape to a contemplative sonic atmosphere.)
Green: In the conservative Christian world, politics—not faith—has become the litmus test for whether someone belongs. And if you fail that test, the consequences are harsh.
Kirk: You have the Christian rapper Lecrae, who comes out and campaigns for Raphael Warnock.
Green: The guy that Kirk is calling out here—Lecrae—is legit Christian-famous. He won a couple of Grammys. He’s got almost 2 million followers on Instagram. A lot of evangelical kids grew up listening to him.
Lecrae: We all have a very unique opportunity to continue making a difference … (Fades under.)
Green: Last year, in the midst of a very close special election with the control of the Senate at stake, Lecrae performed at a “Get Out the Vote” rally in Georgia.
Lecrae: We are free. We are free now to vote. (Fades under.)
Green: It was hosted by Democrats, but Lecrae hadn’t declared support for any candidate or party.
Kirk: (Over audience applause.) Lecrae, who’s a Christian rapper, he wanted to be loved and accepted by the Democrat power establishment more than standing up for truth. The pro-abortion … (Fades under.)
Green: But to evangelicals like Charlie Kirk, this was a betrayal.
Kirk: That’s the guy who we’re listening to on KLUV. Lecrae, in my personal opinion, should never be allowed to perform at another church after advocating for Raphael Warnock. (Audience applause.)
Unidentified pastor: That’s very sad. Wow.
Lecrae: So Charlie Kirk gets on, and he’s talking to a pastor, and he says, “You know, this guy Lecrae is out there campaigning for Warnock, and he should not be allowed to perform at any church ever again,” right? And, um, I just thought it laughable. And I thought it was a picture of white supremacy.
(The music holds on a funky tremolo, then settles into a slower, quieter beat.)
Green: The architects of the religious right didn’t just build a political machine. They built an identity. But recently, that identity has begun to crack.
A number of evangelical giants have realized, either slowly or all at once, that their church isn’t really theirs—that the politics of the church no longer line up with their values.
Or maybe it was always that way, and they just chose to ignore it.
This week, the story of Lecrae, who watched his faith become politicized, and was forced to pick a side.
I’m Emma Green, and this is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The music comes up and then fades out.)
Green: Lecrae Moore moved around a lot when he was young, and religion wasn’t really a big or stable part of his childhood.
Lecrae: My only interaction with church as a kid was through my grandmother. She’d have a pulpit and a piano and these old gospel hymns and songs were sang. Some of them didn’t have words. It was just, like, humming, and tambourines and clapping. And just a lot of shouting.
Green: He didn’t love church. But he’d play along for his grandmother.
Lecrae: I remember her pulling me up when I was about 12 and just asking me to testify. And I didn’t know what to do or what to say. And so I just said, “Uh, I thank God I’m not in a gang.” And everyone shouted, “And praise God for that!” And I think that was, you know, a unique and kind of strange thing.
Green: Lecrae was a brainy kid. He just felt like this charismatic version of Christianity didn’t really do a whole lot for him. By the time Lecrae got to college, he had decided to figure out everything he could about God. He studied world religions. He started visiting campus Bible studies. He wasn’t sure about what he believed, but he was searching.
Lecrae: The Pentecostal leanings that I had kind of experienced as a child were primarily African American. The way they articulated things was very dynamic and charismatic. But as I moved into the cerebral, theological worlds, they were dominated with predominantly white men. And the books that were recommended—you know, from the scholars—were white men as well.
Green: Was that something you noticed or thought about at the time?
Lecrae: I had never paid attention to it. You know, I didn’t really pay attention to that fact. And I think I wrestled with some—you know, unfortunately—some self-hate in terms of my ethnic culture.
It’s not overt often, but it’s—subconsciously, you think that “white is right,” because the neighborhoods that look the nicest are white. The people who own the basketball teams are white. And so, clearly, the people who are talking to me and telling me about theology, if they’re white, then they must be right. And that was a subconscious idea that I had.
(An upbeat, rhythmic R&B line plays.)
Green: One day, Lecrae went to a Christian conference. And the way that the pastor described Jesus made everything click into place. The pastor connected all of this abstract theology with the world that Lecrae knew.
Lecrae: The pastor mentioned that Jesus was not a pushover. He was relating Christ to, like, a thug, a gangster. You know, he was like, “You want to talk about tough? Tough is being able to hang on that cross, and—and tough is being able to lay your life down.”
And it really resonated with me because of the machismo-bravado kind of upbringing I had—just to hear about a Jesus who was unashamed and unafraid to take on all of my sin, uh, struck me. And I remember that moment, just being overcome and overtaken and saying, “God, I’m sorry. Will you accept me?”
(Lecrae’s song “Take Me As I Am” begins to play as he raps, “Christ through faith …”)
Green: This was Lecrae’s moment of conversion—of being born again. He started going to an evangelical church and studying evangelical theology, and he started making music about his faith.
(The song continues. Lecrae raps, “It’s 5:46 in the morning. Tossin’ and turnin’, chest burnin’, sermons in my head keep reoccurring.”)
Green: Soon, Lecrae’s music—earnest, Bible-focused, theologically rigorous—was finding an audience with young Christians at church camps and conferences. He was starting to get popular, and performing all over the country.
Lecrae: It was as if every weekend, a bigger church in a white community was booking me out and, you know, I was a bit of an anomaly for a lot of these folks. For me to dress like I dress and to come from where I come from, but to be able to articulate scripture and dialogue on these weighty topics of theology was amazing to people in those circles. And so there was a sense of just like, “Man, I’m getting attention. I’m getting love.”
You’re talking about a kid who grew up in a disenfranchised environment, didn’t grow up with his father, idolized gang members, and—and just wanted to belong.
So you got these men telling you you’re doing a great job. And I remember being extremely shocked when I had a conversation with John Piper and he said something to the degree of, like, “And Lecrae’s leading in his area.” And I thought to myself, Oh, he thinks I’m a leader. And it was like, Whoa.
(The song keeps playing. Lecrae raps, “Take me as I am. I know the way I’m living is wrong, but I can’t change on my own, trying to make it alone.” As the conversation continues, the song fades out.)
Green: Did you have really strong political views at that time in your life?
Lecrae: You know, I … [Sighs.] I think, as it pertained to politics, I was the pretty typical Christian who didn’t have this worldview that included the “secular world,” so to speak. And so, you know, anything outside of the scope of Jesus in the Bible was pretty much not worth my time. And so I would say politics initially, for me, was like, “Meh. That’s—that’s the devil’s playground. He can have it.” And, um, I didn’t care much for it.
(Audience applause and cheering in the middle of a set.)
Lecrae: Hold on. Hold on now. Wait a minute.
Backup musician: What’s up, Crae?
Lecrae: It’s 60,000 people. We can do better than that, y’all!
Backup: Aw yeah!
Lecrae: Let’s try this again!
Backup: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah.
Green: Lecrae had plenty going on in his life already. His career was getting bigger and bigger. His songs made it to the Billboard gospel charts and started getting nominated for awards. He was pretty content to avoid politics entirely, until …
Barack Obama: If we are unified across racial and regional and religious lines, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. (Cheers.)
Lecrae: I was not a voter, but I know when Obama ran, it was monumental. And I never forget the feeling of, like, being so proud that a Black person had achieved these heights, but feeling as if I couldn’t share that in my Christian circles, because he was not liked, and I didn’t understand why. You know, I didn’t understand what it was. And so I was trying to investigate and see, like, what is it? What is it about Obama that these folks don’t like? And it would all kind of go back to abortion—which I never heard Obama say: “I’m for abortion,” or, you know, any of those things. I just felt proud that somebody who looks like me could become president. And so I voted for him.
You know, I—I didn’t know much about his policies. I didn’t investigate thoroughly. But I felt like it was almost like a—a civic duty [Laughs.] to do this.
Green: You know, you said that you felt like you couldn’t share that with people who were in your world. You had this world. You felt really affirmed. You felt like you were really being seen by these leaders in a certain way. But, also, you were going through this experience where you really were moved by Obama becoming president, and you felt like you had to keep that from the people who were in your life.
Lecrae: Right. Yeah. I—I think, when you are doctrinally oriented, and you are the type of person that’s looking to find a hole in someone’s argument all the time, it’s kind of like the Christian police, right? That’s kinda the tribe I felt like I belonged to. You’re not safe to talk about these things, because they’ll be attacked.
You know, it’s funny, because it was most of my Black friends who operated in the same space that I did. Like, a lot of my Black friends in evangelicalism—we all kind of had the same thoughts, um, but we just knew to keep our mouth shut. You know, we talked about it amongst each other, and then that was it.
You know, it was kinda like, uh, you know, the slaves get together in the kitchen and they talk about it and they go back out into the front room and they pretend like nothing’s wrong.
Green: Lecrae wasn’t ready to talk about politics publicly. But it became too difficult to stay quiet about everything that was happening in America.
Terry Moran: Small Florida town three weeks ago, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was shot down by a white neighborhood watchman who claimed self-defense and has not, at this point, been arrested …
Green: When Trayvon Martin was killed, the tragedy of it hit Lecrae hard. So he decided to take a risk and say how he felt.
Lecrae: I don’t really think I said anything visceral or divisive. I think I was asking a question about how we don’t, you know, kind of see each other the same. And I was kind of blasted and attacked. And I was like, Wow, this is crazy! I knew to stay away from some of the political stuff—but race, I didn’t think people thought was political.
I’m a Black person. I thought that Trayvon dying was terrible, and I thought all Christians would agree with me. And that’s when I found out we staunchly disagree, and they saw this as a political thing, whereas I saw this as a personal thing.
Green: Lecrae started to see a disconnect everywhere he looked. Evangelical theology didn’t necessarily line up with the way that evangelicals lived their lives. He saw evangelical culture paying a lot of lip service to loving people of all races, but evangelical politics often seemed to treat Black people as afterthoughts.
Lecrae: I never saw the type of politics that was proposed trickle down into my community from conservative Republicans. You know, and I read the books, and I wrestled with the stuff, you know, trying to be a—a “generous capitalist,” and I didn’t see those Christians. No one was trying to work on the environment, or help the young ladies who were, you know, pregnant, and already had three kids, and the father was in prison. And so it wasn’t connecting.
(Lecrae’s “Dirty Water” begins to play. It has a heavier beat than “Take Me As I Am,” angsty and energized. Lecrae raps, “Hold up, hold up, hold up. Y’all gone get me bowed up.”)
Green: He started to write lyrics about what he saw as hypocrisy in the evangelical world when it came to race.
Lecrae: I wrote a song called “Dirty Water,” which, when the song first starts, I toy with the idea where I’m saying, “Champagne, champagne. Celebrating my campaign. I just dug a well in West Africa.”
(“Dirty Water” continues: “I just dug a well in West Africa, but how many of my friends is African, huh?”)
Lecrae: And what I was saying is there’s just this idea in evangelicalism of, like, “Let’s go build a well in Africa. Let’s go …” You know, there’s a whole trend. But then it was, kind of, “Where are your Black friends?”
And then I said another line: “No habla español. Just show me tu baño! Ain’t trying to get to know you; I’m too busy reading Daniel.” Where I was saying, like, “You don’t speak Spanish. You just want what you want from the Hispanic people.” [Imitating the character in “Dirty Water”.] “Just show me where the bathroom is. I’m not trying to be your friend. I’m busy studying the word. I don’t want to be friends with these immigrants,” so to speak.
(The song continues: “The most segregated time of day is Sunday service.”)
Lecrae: And then I say, “The most segregated time of day is Sunday service.” Now, what does that say about the God you worship?” And I was just trying to poke at these ideas. But I don’t think people really grasped what I was trying to say.
Green: Lecrae was trying to stay apolitical, but by 2016, that was getting a lot harder to do.
(“Dirty Water” fades out.)
Lecrae: I saw the political realm encroaching closer into evangelicalism. It was almost as if the two were not separable. And it scared me. And I remember the idea of being called an evangelical almost meant you are a conservative Republican. And I wasn’t okay with that, you know. I think, I mean, most Black Christians are progressive Democrats—these are the choices that we’re handed—but I wasn’t okay with being labeled as a conservative Republican.
And it was because I felt like nationalism—which is what I felt like Donald Trump and his supporters were aiming for—the type of nationalism that they were supporting was the type of nationalism that would crush the heads of minority citizens. If to be a Christian meant I was that, then that was scary to me.
(The background track from “Dirty Water” plays quietly. It’s distorted and unsettling.)
Green: One night in 2016, Lecrae was performing a concert in upstate New York. It was his usual audience: mostly white Christians.
Lecrae: And people were wearing “Make America great again” shirts—all throughout the crowd, in upstate New York. So I was like, Why does this look so similar to Texas or Georgia or Tennessee? And I realized, Oh, this is the ‘silent majority’ that people are talking about. They’re everywhere in the country. Like, it’s not just in my backyard in the South. This is nationwide. And, I thought, Man, he’s gonna win. And it scared me.
Green: I wonder how it felt to give that performance. Like, you’re onstage and you’re looking out at a crowd of people who are wearing MAGA hats and MAGA T-shirts.
Green: Like, what’s going through your head?
Lecrae: (Inhales.) It’s kind of maddening, right? Because on one end of the spectrum, you’re internally wrestling, like, Am I a sellout? Am I doing the right thing? You know, How do I make a turn? And so you speak out more.
It’s like, Well, I got to speak out louder, because I got to keep doing these shows. And then you’re internally thinking, like, What else am I going to do? How am I going to make a living? Like, What—what do I do now? Do I stay quiet? You know, What do I do here?
Green: It was getting harder and harder to hold back—to keep quiet. So Lecrae started speaking his mind on social media, even though he knew it would be risky.
Lecrae: I remember putting up a post where it was kind of like—it was a picture of a Native American getting kicked out by, um, someone who looked like Andrew Jackson. It was a picture of the Trail of Tears, and a man who had been whipped, and a woman drinking out of a “colored only” fountain.
And I said—um, I posted—“Some people say America’s so bad, it’s going to hell.” And then I said, “I don’t ever remember it being a perfect nation.” And I remember, you know, it was just kind of like people were up in arms about that and bringing up the past.
You know, “You’re desegregated. Get over it. You should be grateful you weren’t exterminated like you were in other countries.” And, you know, it was like, that’s a—that’s a literal thing somebody responded with. Um, and just things along that line, I started to see more consistently.
And then I—I was just done. And I remember tweeting on Fourth of July—I believe it was 2016—“This is what my family was doing in 1776.”
(A soft background track comes in, somber and reflective.)
Lecrae: And it was a picture of slaves picking cotton. And that was, like … That’s when hell broke loose [Chuckles.] so to speak.
(A slow-moving piano melody plays notes sparsely over light percussion.)
Green: After the break, Lecrae has to decide just how much he’s willing to compromise.
Green: Lecrae had made a career turning his faith into music that drew a big evangelical crowd. But once he started speaking out against the racism and hypocrisy he saw in that world, the blowback was fierce.
Lecrae: You know, I was seen as a “race-baiter,” and I was seen as a “liberal,” and “Now you’re a leftist, and the political agenda has gotten to you, and we’re not buying your albums anymore.”
And on and on goes the pattern. You know, I think I lost about 30,000 followers in, like, a week on Instagram. And I started doing shows—and I mean, where there would be 1,500 people, there were 100 people. And so it was very clear that I had touched a hot spot and people were not okay with it.
It made me realize like, Man, this is—this is going to cost me. You know, this is going to be a blow to my career.
Green: It wasn’t just the fans, either. Lecrae had all of these mentors—big-name theologians and pastors who helped make his career. And after all the blowback, they started to abandon him too. All of these men—who Lecrae had looked up to, who he thought respected him—they more or less vanished from his life.
Lecrae: I didn’t get any, like, “Hey, man, what’s going on?” I found that everything was very transactional. People weren’t reaching out. They weren’t saying anything. They weren’t responding to me.
And then there were some—you know, and these weren’t friends, or people I looked up to, but they were just evangelical pastors—who outright would send me messages and say crazy things to me, like, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and “You’re causing division.” You know, that was really challenging, to see that. Most of the people were saying things like, “You’re being too political.”
Green: I wonder what you think they meant when they were saying to you, “You’re being too political.”
Lecrae: Oh, I know exactly what they meant—now. [Both laugh uncomfortably.]
Um, at the time, I was like, “What are they talking about? I didn’t even say anything about politics!” But, in America, those social ills are leftist agenda. And so, “How dare you be political?” You know, “Stick to the gospel! The gospel is what’s going to change this world, not you serving these folks,” right?
And that’s the constant reply I’d get, was “Stick to the gospel. Stay out of politics. Stay out of politics. Stop being political. Stick to the gospel.”
And the idea is that I’m somehow being brainwashed by the leftist media—the Democratic media—because I care for the plight of the disenfranchised and the racial minorities in the country. And so that was very disheartening.
Green: Did you have a sense of how it could be that people who you felt theologically aligned with—like, you believed the same things about Jesus—could nonetheless see politics, see Trump, so radically differently than the way that you saw everything?
Lecrae: Yeah, absolutely wrecked my faith. It drove my faith into the ground. Because I didn’t have any context. I didn’t know where else to go. You know, I—I bought into this idea that “white is right,” and “This is the theological sound space.” And now pastors that I had grown up being taught from—discipled by—were avid Trump supporters. And they came out and said, “We support Donald Trump.” And so I thought to myself, If this is who God is—and God’s people—then God must not be real, because this can’t be right. And so I took my people-hurt and made it a God-hurt.
Green: Did you ever feel like you weren’t a Christian anymore?
(A quiet, heavy droning plays underneath.)
Lecrae: I did. I remember lying on my floor and just saying, “God, if you’re real, you gotta show me something different.” And, um, there felt like there was nowhere to turn.
(The music crescendos to swallow the space for a moment. Then it backs off again.)
Green: I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be someone whose identity and art was so deeply intertwined with your faith, to feel like you didn’t have that anymore. You were—you were lost. You didn’t know where it was.
Lecrae: Yeah, it was, um—it was tragic. It was tragic to walk in the house and tell my wife that “hey, I’m not going to be able to lead Bible study for the kids anymore, because I—I don’t even know if this thing is true.”
Green: How did the people who knew you best react to that? Those best friends that you had who made music with you—you know, what did they say when they saw you going through such a hard period?
Lecrae: The crazy thing is, is that we were all in mourning. We had all grown up, you know, these unchurched kids who had gravitated toward conservative evangelicalism, and it had let us down, and it hadn’t cared about us or our story or our history, and its politics were crushing us. And we were all devastated.
And, you know, I have some friends who are no longer Christians now. Just so many different people, um, saying, “Man, this is traumatizing, and we can’t do it anymore.”
Green: Do you feel like you and your friends and these people who you talk with are the human cost of that tight tie between evangelicalism and conservative Republican politics?
Lecrae: Absolutely. Without a doubt, we were the sacrifice made. And what’s funny is I can hear the comeback now, saying, “No, the sacrifices are those babies in the womb.” And, um, it’s just funny to me because I know the—the mother and the father of those babies that you’re concerned about. And I know the struggles that they have, and no one is trying to change the circumstances that they live in so that they don’t have to make these terrible decisions.
I won’t say, “No one,” but that’s by and large not the way it’s done. You know, you vote for somebody who says they’re against abortion, even though they never change the laws surrounding it. And then you’re done. You don’t have to visit that neighborhood where it’s prevalent. You don’t have to talk to the people. You don’t have to counsel anybody. You just have to cast the vote, and you’re clean.
And, meanwhile, we all have to clean up, you know, the damage. And we’re left as, you know, kind of the shrapnel—we’re left with all the shrapnel from it.
(Soft keyboard music plays a quiet melody, awash with light but quiet at once.)
Green: Lecrae is not the only person who feels alienated from evangelicalism. And it’s not just Black evangelicals either. People from a lot of different backgrounds felt gutted by the evangelical world’s strong support of Trump, and the larger political culture that goes with that.
Beth Moore, the hugely popular women’s Bible teacher, called Trumpism “astonishingly seductive and dangerous to the saints of God.” Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today—the magazine founded by Billy Graham!—disavowed Trump in an editorial and caused an uproar. Pro-life women wrote articles announcing that their opposition to abortion couldn’t justify their vote for Trump.
White evangelicals consistently approved of Trump’s performance in office and they voted for him in large numbers. But those statistics obscure all the broken relationships, all the heated church email exchanges, and all of the empty pews left by the Trump era.
The political operative Ralph Reed built up evangelicals as a voting bloc for decades, and he played a key role in marshaling the evangelical vote for Trump.
Ralph Reed: My message to Christians isn’t “Hey! Everybody come over here and join the Republican Party!” But my message to Christians is to get involved, to be a citizen, to make a difference.
Green: Reed told me that compromise is essential to participation in democracy. And it’s worth it.
Reed: And there are some who are counseling, “Well, you guys, you know, because you’ve gotten involved in the Republican Party, and because you supported Trump, too many people see the church as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. So you should just go back in your stained-glass ghetto. Don’t be as involved. Don’t be engaged.” No. That—that’s not the answer.
Green: Hmm. Do you worry that that reputation of evangelicalism as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party turned some people away from seeking Jesus or from finding a church home?
Reed: Not if we do what I just said, based on Acts 16. If we’re doing all this good work of the gospel and the care for the widow, for the orphan, for the aged, the disabled, the poor, the stranger, the alien, then I’m not worried. Because you know what? If you’re doing that work, you’re going to be bumping up among liberals, and people will see that there’s more to us than just our political involvement.
Green: You know, there are so many major evangelical churches that are multiracial. But there’s also a tension point there, which is, you know, when I go out reporting, I have heard stories from people who are evangelical—and attend majority-white, often pretty Trump-y or Republican churches—Black brothers and sisters in Christ who feel unseen by some of the people who attend church with them. And I wonder if you feel like the kind of alignment between evangelicals and Trump and the Republican Party has contributed to that sense of alienation, especially that some Black Christians and other Christians of color feel from the evangelical church.
Reed: My sense is that our politics is very polarized. And so any constituency that big is, by its very nature—it’s not monolithic. Everybody doesn’t always agree on everything. And I think one of the things that I’m really excited about, Emma, is that the future’s going to look a lot different than our past. It’s not going to be as Republican, maybe. It’s not going to be as white. Um, the agenda is going to be different. Uh, it’s going to be more broad-gauged. We are working more on issues like human trafficking, criminal-justice reform, and poverty, and education reform. And, you know, again, I think that’s a bright and an optimistic future.
Green: I just want to pause on this moment. Ralph Reed, the architect of the religious right, told me that the future of his movement would be less Republican and less white. These are characteristics that have, in many ways, defined this group from the beginning.
It may seem like a contradiction, but, as Reed told me many times, he’s a political operative. It’s his job to keep track of the optics, and he’s aware that his movement maybe needs a bit of a rebrand.
Reed: It’s also about being more effective politically. So I think it’s not only important; I think it’s central to our mission, and if we fail to do it, we’ll fail in the larger mission.
Green: When you look back, do you have any regrets about the political identity you’ve created for American evangelicals?
Reed: Um, I’ve never really thought of it that way. Uh, we’ve made mistakes. I’m sure that, as in the affair of Malka, sometimes we’ve wielded this sword when we should have wielded a healing hand. There are times when we allowed our partisanship and our fervor to get the best of us. But, overall, far better to have shown some moxie and some zeal in trying to advance what was right than to be condemned by history.
(Softly atmospheric music plays up and wraps around Lecrae’s words like clouds.)
Lecrae: The saddest part for me is that, man, a faith that is so pure—that is so transformational—can still be convoluted by culture.
Green: Lecrae grew up in the world Ralph Reed helped to create. He became a Christian in a culture where politics and faith were always tied together. But when he started to reject the political part, he had to reconsider his faith too.
Lecrae: It really was a period of two years where I had to literally deconstruct my faith and then reconstruct it.
Green: Do you still consider yourself an evangelical?
Lecrae: I don’t. I—I don’t see “evangelical” as a noun that God gives us [Laughs.] to call ourselves by. I’m a follower of Christ. And long after the term evangelical goes away, there will be followers of Christ. And long before there was an “evangelical,” there were followers of Christ.
So it was kind of like I moved closer to those “evil liberals” that they warned me about and learned that there’s some amazing people there. [Laughs.]
And, um, and said, “Okay, this is not what you said it was. But it doesn’t mean that, just because I’m rejecting the hypocrisy of conservatives, doesn’t mean I’m going to embrace the hypocrisy of liberals, either.” So then you move, and you realize, okay, it’s a little bigger than you were told.
Green: When you look back at yourself, do you mourn for yourself in that younger part of your faith life and in your art career?
(The music shines, like chimes and the sound of water over rocks.)
Lecrae: I do. Um, you know, I think … Earlier on, I’d think I wish I kept my mouth closed, and I wouldn’t have gone through all this trauma. But now I’m like, Nah, ’cause if you would’ve kept your mouth closed, you wouldn’t never have found the freedom that you have.
I have long left needing to depend on evangelicalism to provide for my family. I have long left the needing of validation from white evangelicals to feel as if I’m a Christian or my theology is correct. Um, I don’t need that validation. I don’t need that financial security. And so, because of that, I’m free.
(The music plays up for a moment.)
Natalia Ramirez: This episode was produced by Katherine Wells and Alvin Melathe, with reporting by Emma Green. Editing by Julia Longoria and Emily Botein. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman. Music by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional tracks performed by Lecrae, courtesy of Reach Records and The Orchard.
Our team also includes Gabrielle Berbey, Tracie Hunte, and me, Natalia Ramirez.
If you liked this week’s episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thank you for listening.
(Birds chirp synthetically. The hum of a record played through static, then quiet.)