Jeanna Kadlec was a good Christian girl. She was an active member of her youth group, studied the Bible regularly, adhered to the tenants of purity culture, and she was a virgin on her wedding night.
But years into her marriage to a pastor, she realized she was not sexually attracted to her husband. She was a lesbian.
In her book “Heretic,” Kadlec chronicles her experience of getting divorced, leaving Christianity and finding a new, more queer, spiritual community.
Reckon: Who do you hope reads your book? Did you have a certain group of people in mind when you wrote it?
Kadlec: I wrote the book for my younger self, who desperately needed this book 10 years ago. Even what I consider to be the incredibly common story of a woman getting married to a man and then realizing she’s gay wasn’t really available like this 10 years ago.
I wrote this book for the younger me who was so depressed, felt so isolated, and so trapped. I didn’t know anyone like me, and I really needed that encouragement.
Reckon: It’s bizarre to look back at the fervor of the purity culture movement in the 2000s and see the range of everything that unfolded in both evangelical culture and larger culture.
Kadlec: Yeah, we were treated like little “soldiers for Christ.” It was framed as a culture war and a holy war, and evangelical leaders used language associated with victory in battle. Being an evangelical in the United States definitely comes with a war mindset.
Reckon: As a teenager, you were very serious about your faith. You also were very committed to the ideas outlined in Christian purity culture, yet you were still pulled aside and told your body was “too tempting” for boys in your youth group. What does this constant criticism of your body do to a devout Christian girl?
Kadlec: It puts you in a mindset of shame. Getting pulled aside both public both privately but especially the experience of public embarrassment enforces the ideas that no matter how hard you try, no matter what you’re studying, or what you’re doing, or where you’re volunteering, how often you are reading your Bible before bed, none of that matters if your body is wrong. For a teenage girl, your body’s always going to be wrong.
What I’ve learned by talking to so many of us who grew up in purity culture, is that it creates a culture that works to diminish girls until they are shamed into silence and shamed into smallness. It also discourages girls from taking those big swings for themselves or even for Christ, which in theory is the thing the that you’re supposed to be doing as a Christian. It really puts you in this horrible shame mindset.
Reckon: In the book, you talk about the pushback you received from both your Christian community and the academic community while you were working on your Ph.D. What do you think of both Christianity and academia’s confusion about a spiritual women in higher education?
Kadlec: I think folks in my program, the majority of whom were not religious in any capacity and hadn’t grown up in areas of the country where religion wasn’t so engrained into the every day culture. They had a naive belief that church and state were genuinely separate. Many of them believe only stupid people are religious.
Then on the other hand, you’ve got folks in the evangelical church who’ve been drinking the Fox News Kool-Aid for a really long time, who believe universities are where your children go to get indoctrinated by the liberals. Both of these groups have a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of educational institutions, and also what the role of faith can be. It is really ironic given that education was important for the Puritans. They had a really high emphasis on literacy because it was democratizing. They believed if everyone could read the Bible, then everyone could understand God’s word for themselves. There are interesting breaks in church tradition and church history where we see different ruptures in beliefs about having a life of the mind and a life of faith.
Reckon: You talked about the 2000s cultural phenomenon of young celebrities like Jessica Simpson and the Jonas Brothers embracing purity culture by wearing purity rings or making purity pledges. What can we learn about purity culture from the fallout of these public proclamations?
Kadlec: The US is still pumping a wild amount of money into abstinence only education, like they’ve just they’ve named it different things over the years, it’s still going Republicans in Congress are still advocating for it. And it’s still making a ton of money. So, what have we learned? I think very little, although more states have divested from abstinence, because they’ve seen that it obviously doesn’t work. You can’t tell teenagers to not have sex. It just doesn’t work. You have to teach them about safety. Part of the reason abstinence worked for me was because I was gay. It was easy for me to not have sex with my ex-husband because I didn’t really want to have sex with him.
I don’t think we’ve learned anything from the young celebrity embrace of purity culture. Jessica Simpson tried to have a Christian singing career first, but her tour was canceled because she was seen as too sexual. Managers said, “you’re making boys lust, you can’t tour.” She had these personal faith commitments, but because the industry she was in was being highly sexualized, she was put in an extraordinarily unfair position. Purity culture and hypersexualization of teenage girls really perpetuates a lot of rape culture and misogyny.
Reckon: What was most surprising to you about exploring your queerness and your spirituality outside of evangelical Christianity?
Kadlec: I really took baby steps in exploring myself and my beliefs. It wasn’t like I came out and then I “went crazy” which is how it’s sometimes portrayed in media. That’s great for those people who do have that experience, but it took me years to begin exploring.
The conditioning goes so deep. Just because you come out and leave the church doesn’t mean that those decades of learned behavior and ritual. just go out the window. I didn’t just cut the brake lines. It took a really long time to unlearn a lot of that. In hindsight, that’s what was surprising to me.
Reckon: There’s often a lot of queer trauma in stories about queer people leaving Christianity. How does exploring your queerness bring you joy?
Kadlec: Dating and having sex with women was incredibly validating for me and allowed me to realize I am definitely gay. There are plenty of folks who are ACE and sex isn’t the most important thing for everybody, but for me, it is a really important thing. Dating women was life changing. I remember on my wedding night being really underwhelmed by having sex with my husband, but once I started having sex with women, I realized what everyone was so up in arms about.
I had always been told that radical love and acceptance was happening in church, but it actually wasn’t. Church love comes with conditions, surveillance and this feeling that you can’t fuck up. Queer love and community [are] so joyful, inclusive and accepting. That love was radically life changing for me.
Reckon: What do people get wrong about formerly devout Christians who leave the faith?
Kadlec: Something I’ve been told by too many people to count, including my mother, is that I just didn’t know Jesus. I think some Christians have an inability to conceptualize why someone may reject Jesus. Rejecting Jesus as is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which is an unforgivable sin, which condemns you to hell. People don’t want their loved ones to go to hell, and that’s understandable.
Whereas I’m sitting over here as someone who was so incredibly devout, so I find the “you just didn’t know Jesus” line funny to me. For me, that’s wrong, actually. I did get to know Jesus and I actually do have a problem with him.
“Heretic” is available to buy in physical and digital formats from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop or your local independent bookstore.