Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation

Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
Brazo Press
Reviewed by: 

Testimony challenges the narrative that Evangelical Christianity is the gateway drug to White Christian Nationalism.”

Google “C. J. Mahaney” under “News” and you’ll find a list of stories about conservative churches distancing themselves from their support of a religious leader/sexual predator. The prodigious rate at which Evangelical churches produce monsters and frauds undermines the idea that Christianity can be a kind religion. Increasingly, recovering conservative Christians are working to save “real” Christianity. Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Failed a Generation by Jon Ward is one such attempt.

This memoir lays bare the snarling, foaming White National Christian movement as nothing more than a collection of people who can’t see past their backward upbringing. The frustration is that many of these, Ward particularly, stand out as bright people with a truly astounding blind spot in metaphysics.

As he explains early in the work, “testimony” has special meaning for Christians. It is an account of what God has done in their lives. “Apology” would have been just as apt a title. Besides an account of how God works in his life, Ward provides an explanation, or more pointedly a defense of, the faith.

Ward reveals the dark side of growing up Evangelical, hoping the community can salvage it. He writes about his naïve complicity in furthering Mahaney’s power by pretending to be struck down by the Holy Spirit. During a prayer session, the sexual predator laid his hands on Ward’s head and prayed. When Ward didn’t have the sense to fall away on his own, Mahaney pressed his thumbs into the young man’s forehead and Ward relented and “felt” the power.

Throughout the work Ward builds the tension by reporting from inside the center of the Evangelical movement that has done irreparable damage to American culture and democracy over the last 50 years. We wait for the moment of realization. We wait for Ward’s “character” to get it. Early on, it looks as if he’s on the verge.

“For them, faith was a belief that they could call down miracles from heaven to heal the sick or predict the future or change world events. Leaders like Larry Tamczac, Lou Engle, and Che Ahn didn’t come across as charlatans. There were very sincere. But early on in their lives they got locked into a particular type of faith ministry, and they build audiences and followings based on that brand and that kind of faith. At that point, their livelihoods and incomes became dependent on catering to those same types of Christians. Personal evolution or growth became constrained by their business model.”

The difficulty is that the penny never drops. Those people were in his life while he was still a teenager, and 20 years later, Ward goes to work for Tucker Carlson. It’s not just a testimony to how easy it is to fall into the monied world of self-righteousness for profit, but also a study of how well-trained Evangelical youth are; they let their lives happen to them uncritically.

Ward provides a sometimes cringingly honest account of watching yourself carried into the absurd without the will to resist. A small cadre of male 20-somethings meet in a Starbucks before church to confess to one another the number of times they’d masturbated the previous week and what they intended to do to drive that number to zero. The humiliation is supposed to be the cure, but from the outside it reads like a person who got off on hearing young men talk about masturbation proposed the idea.

At every turn, Ward struggles with his inner repulsion at the movement and his outward simple acceptance.

For Ward as for many other writers in this new apologetics genre, the very noble aim is to reform Christianity into what it should have been. January 6 and the overturning of Roe v. Wade has resulted in a rise of what I’ll call honest Christian evangelists, although “True Scotssman” probably would do just as well.

It appears to come from the righteous anger anyone feels at discovering they’ve been led astray. They don’t struggle with their faith so much as they struggle with its bastardization. It is possibly something the West hasn’t seen since Martin Luther: fury at the corruption of a beautiful idea. 

Whether it is too little too late is another question altogether. As C.bJ. Mahaney and his ilk successfully dissuade followers from reporting sexual abuse to the police, apologies get harder and harder to accept.

It is clear Ward wants to reform the perception that true believers are either abusers or abuser apologists, but it is a tough sell.

Testimony is a fascinating look at the cultural pressures that power religious fundamentalism. A normal person stays mostly normal while his “official” beliefs go all the way off the rails. It highlights tenacious Christian faith in a way the author might not have intended.

A young man of superior talent and intellect realizes he just doesn’t have the capacity for hate that he believes recently has co-opted his religion. It’s a view that history just doesn’t support. The sheer brutality of religious conquest is too well-documented.

Testimony challenges the narrative that Evangelical Christianity is the gateway drug to White Christian Nationalism. It convinces us that the author genuinely wants this to be the case, that the Evangelical movement which has (demonstrably) since its conception fed on hate, ignorance, and fear somehow was hijacked. It’s a project doomed by facts and history.

Where the book really shines is in the prose and the journey. It’s an account of a person whose Christian faith ran on a parallel track with his Christian experience. In addition to calling attention to that tension, it succeeds it bringing out Ward’s struggle in the way great memoirs tend to do. The Ward of the present understanding of the uncomfortable feelings and confusion his young self dealt with well and poorly is what makes this work a gem.