“A work of raw honesty and deep insight.”— Kristin Kobes Du Mez, New York Times best-selling author of Jesus and John Wayne
Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation
Jon Ward’s life is divided in half: two decades inside the evangelical Christian bubble and two decades outside of it.
In Testimony, Ward tells the engaging story of his upbringing in, and eventual break from, an influential evangelical church. Ward sheds light on the evangelical movement’s troubling political and cultural dimensions, tracing the ways in which the Jesus People movement was seduced by materialism and other factors to become politically captive rather than prophetic.
A respected journalist, Ward asks uncomfortable but necessary questions, calling those inside and outside conservative Christian circles to embrace truth, complexity, and nuance. He recounts his growing alarm and grief over the last several years as evangelical conservatives attacked truth, rejected personal character, and embraced authoritarianism and conspiracism. He shares his search for a faith that embodies the values he was taught as a child.
Ward’s experience and reflections will resonate with many readers who grew up in the evangelical movement, as well as all those who have an interest in the health of the church and its impact on American life and politics.
Advance Praise for TESTIMONY
“Ward is consistently clear-sighted and perceptive as he charts a genuinely fascinating personal and spiritual evolution. This will resonate especially with Christians wondering about faith’s place in modern American society.”
“With raw honesty, deep insight, and a self-deprecating sense of humor, Jon Ward offers an insider’s view into the white evangelical world in which he was raised. Rubbing elbows with prominent figures and at one time seemingly destined to take up the mantle of leadership, he instead chose to walk away from it all. Through his eyes we see the inner logic of that world, what draws people in and what drives people away. Testimony will be illuminating for those who’ve walked this path and for those struggling to understand the world of conservative evangelicalism from the outside.”— Kristin Kobes Du Mez, New York Times best-selling author of Jesus and John Wayne
“Testimony will be for this generation and moment what Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz was for that moment. This is a work that will connect.”— Michael Wear, Author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America
“In Testimony, Jon Ward dissects the cultural world of evangelical Christianity from an insider’s perspective while employing his skills as a journalist to question its ethos and impact. He narrates an experience that will feel deeply familiar to many evangelicals while also illuminating the contours and context of the movement as many within it embraced Trumpism. Testimony demonstrates the power of truth — no matter who it comes from or where it leads. This book will make you ponder, discuss, and testify about your own journey and beliefs.”— Jemar Tisby, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism; Professor of History at Simmons College of Kentucky
“Ward’s personal story, of faith and family and things left behind, is also the story of how our culture came unglued. Testimony is a deeply moving book, and deeply important.”— Matt Bai, Author of All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid
“An Illuminating work that shines light into the fissures of our painful journey as Christians facing spiritual abuses in the church. Jon’s honest expose allows healing in us, and his journalistic insights bring a generative path toward the New.”— Makoto Fujimura, Artist and Author Art+Faith: A Theology of Making
“Jon Ward’s honest, meditative, and beautifully written memoir shines a bright light on the often-obscured links between religion and politics in America.”— Yuval Levin, author of A Time to Build, Director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute
“Jon’s meticulous reporting has always brought nuance and life to his writing about politics; his thoughtfulness about faith is the secret weapon he’s now sharing with the world. He appreciates the complexity of belief and the deep human desire to connect to something larger than ourselves; that compassion makes his dissection of American evangelism in the age of Trump — its myopia and fatal incuriosity — deft and devastating.
“Even as he recounts his disillusionment with conservative Christianity, Jon remains a witness: Someone who seeks and documents the truth, even when that means turning his sights on himself. This book is honest, vulnerable, scrupulous, and surprising; a must-read for anyone seeking to navigate the fault lines of our polarized moment.”— Ana Marie Cox, New York Magazine columnist
“Jon Ward’s TESTIMONY: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Generation is the book I’d been waiting for. I suspect there are millions more like me who will resonate with Jon’s powerful witness. And while the book holds important and meaningful content, it also functions in an atypical way. It’s an antidote to loneliness and heartbreak. To read it is to participate in a circle of trust where you are not alone, you’re not going crazy, and all is NOT well. This is a form of setting things right — a move toward rightness. Any words on a page that can achieve this good goal are worthy of our attention and gratitude. I’m listening and grateful.”— Charlie Peacock, Grammy Award-winning music producer and Founder/Director Emeritus of Commercial Music Program, Lipscomb University School of Music
For additional photos and more of this story, follow along at the book's Instagram account @testimonythebook
I was raised in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, DC. We lived among the sprawling federal government workforce, full of middle-class families who commuted into the city each day. But we cocooned ourselves inside our church culture so tightly that we could have been anywhere: the plains of the Midwest or rural Appalachia. My dad and his friends were the pastors of this church, which he and his friends started in the mid-1970’s. He was the son of an All-American football star at the University of Maryland, and my mom was the daughter of a World War II veteran and a mother who was a meeting planner for the National Association of Counties.
I’m the child of a religious revival, a bona fide spiritual phenomenon that swept the nation in the 1970’s. My earliest years were saturated by this fixation with euphoric experience that had captured my parents’ generation. They were swept up in something called the Jesus Movement, which had begun at the end of the 1960s and spread throughout the country in the 1970s. My childhood was dominated by the story of this revival that they and their friends experienced in the years before I was born. And at the center of that revolution was this same thing I was taught to pursue: a personal, profound, emotional experience of God. But my Dad also schooled us in the book of Proverbs, which taught me to “search for [understanding] as for hidden treasure.”
The Jesus Movement was a special time. Those teens and twenty-somethings felt close to God and to one another. They came together and sang songs, broke bread, and held each other. They felt drawn into something big. It wasn’t just historic. It was eternal. It was life-changing. The Jesus Movement planted seeds of a radical Christian community. It promised to produce a Christian presence that had a prophetic edge in American life: captive to neither political party, speaking and acting boldly for the poor, the weak, the unborn, the neglected, and the downtrodden. This Christian presence would not be swayed by the appeals to fear used by demagogues over the ages.
In the 1980’s, my dad became active in protesting against abortion. My father’s path mirrored that of millions of White evangelicals in America. The shift wasn’t accidental; the Republican Party had identified abortion as a way to consolidate religious conservatives. They were able to merge religious conservatives like my father with cultural conservatives from the South who held on to their White supremacist views. Some scholars have argued that it wasn’t abortion that brought evangelicals into the Republican fold during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, they say, it was racism and a reaction against the gains of the civil rights movement. But abortion was truly at the center of my parents’ worldview.
Throughout the 80’s, we were ensconced in the suburbs, going to a small school run by our church, which helped the leaders police nonconforming thought and behavior. Everything in our lives revolved around our church congregation, with the exception of our sports teams. Mom had her sixth child, and eventually a seventh. She was expected to stay home, and she did heroic work taking care of us all, even as she was marginalized. Our church culture had been created from scratch, out of nothing, just like the suburban landscape. There was no connection to the past, and little attempt to draw from the wisdom of tradition accumulated by previous generations. A vague emptiness washed over me as we drove endless loops through the suburbs. The more insular we became, the more incapable we were of discerning the complexities of the world outside our church bubble. We were ever more vulnerable to manipulation by those who told us that existential threats lurked around every corner. We were fearful, combative, and antagonistic members of the body politic, rather than stakeholders interested in and able to contribute to the greater good. We were well versed in private character, but completely unaware of the need for public character.
Around my 20th birthday, I became a religious fanatic. I was obsessed with living on an emotional high because I had been taught that this was the way to please God. I devoted myself to a strict behavioral code and to the hardcore Calvinist teachings that were newly in fashion in our church in the late 1990’s. I had a clarity about my purpose in life, and I took extreme measures to pursue it. But it was short-lived. I strained to live up to the exacting standards of moral perfectionism and endless self-examination, and I came to loathe myself. These were some of the unhappiest and loneliest years of my life. I was caught in a cycle of chasing emotional intensity, then failing to live up to an impossible standard of behavior in which I was taught to doubt my every motive and act. This led to depression and self-condemnation, and I strained to pull myself back toward a more righteous posture. I was suffocating under the weight of religion.
I was saved from fundamentalism, hubristic certainty and hopelessness by journalism. In 2001, I managed to get an unpaid internship at the Washington Times newspaper in D.C. I worked my way up to a desk clerk and then a reporter on the city desk. For the next few years I wrote about potholes, weather, zoning, local government, crime, and the like. I was apprenticed in a lengthy process of learning how to pursue facts. In Christianese — the often inscrutable dialect spoken inside many churches – I was being discipled in how to exercise discernment. But I also had a lot of fun. In 2003, I wrote an article about three college students who papered their dorm wall with cereal boxes. “Cereal has bonded these three young men and alienated their fourth suite mate, a lactose intolerant senior who they now call ‘the other guy,’ ” I wrote.
By 2007, I was covering the White House for the Times. During President Obama’s second White House press conference, I was called on to ask a question and pressed him on whether he’d wrestled with the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and whether “scientific consensus is enough to tell us what we can and cannot do?” Obama said it was not, and that “there’s always an ethical and moral element.” My three years covering President Bush and President Obama took me around the world on Air Force One, and forced me to study up on global affairs and presidential politics. Around this same time, some of the leaders from my childhood church, such as Lou Engle and Che Ahn, were becoming more aggressively political and more clearly partisan actors in league with the Republican Party.
In 2009 I went to work for Tucker Carlson at The Daily Caller. I left a little over a year later, after I lost confidence in Tucker’s pledge to run a serious news organization. In 2011 I started at the Huffington Post, and started traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina ahead of the 2012 presidential election. I met Americans all over the country, asking them questions, listening closely to understand what they were thinking, and then trying to convey all this to our readership in my writing. Back in Washington, I felt more confident challenging politicians as I grew in my understanding and experience. In Maryland during this time, the church of my youth was disintegrating, as a culture of control, arrogance and insularity crumbled under the exposure of misdeeds and mishandled sexual abuse cases.In 2014, I was hired by Yahoo News.
My concerns about Trump’s fitness for the presidency never had anything to do with politics, partisanship, or ideology. “Trump is a dangerous threat to the foundations of our Democratic Republic that have for 240 years guaranteed all Americans freedoms of speech, thought, religion, commerce, and the press,” I wrote in an e‑mail to loved ones in the summer of 2016. My warnings about Trump’s scorn for the Constitution and the rule of law were dismissed as mere liberal bias. The 2016 result caused me to reflect deeply on how our politics had come to this point, as well as how in the world Christians had thrown in their lot with such a man. The deep fear that drove so many evangelicals to Trump was, to me, the opposite of how a confident faith could help Christians to stand for what was right. If so much of American Christianity had shown itself a fraud, how deep did the rot go? In 2020, I saw people I knew and loved departing reality and preparing to embrace authoritarianism. As I labored to combat a dangerous torrent of lies, my integrity was attacked by family members. It was a painful time of reckoning.
Since the 2020 election and the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, I’ve continued to work at Yahoo News. I’m still seeking to understand and explain the systemic causes of big problems, and to talk to those who are trying to come up with solutions. I’m working to make our politics more productive and our democracy more secure. I do this in my writing for Yahoo News, on my Border Stalkers Substack, and on my podcast, The Long Game. This is how I seek to live out my professional calling in a way that is Christian: generative, life-giving, and for the common good. Personally, I have been inspired by Mako Fujimura’s call to be “open to questions of meaning, reaching beyond mere survival, inspiring people to meaningful action, and leading toward wholeness and harmony.” There is a crisis of discernment in the American conservative church, caused by a failure of discipleship, and the church has lost its saltiness, its prophetic edge and independence in matters of public life and politics, as well as its spirit of mercy and sacrificial love. But there are sparks of light that signal a change.
For more photos and parts of the story, follow along at the book’s Instagram account @testimonythebook