I Kissed Capitalism Goodbye: a Case Study on Commerce—Deconstructing Joshua Harris' Course Launch
"When we know better, we do better." ~ Maya Angelou
If you are Joshua Harris, and all you read is this paragraph, that's understandable. Of course, you may read the full post, but if you leave this page knowing one thing it would be this: You are like so many business owners with religious trauma—you are brave and you are imperfect—you are human. I see so much of my own story in yours. I hope you’ll continue to de-center yourself, listen intently, and learn to apologize sincerely. Please consider deconstructing your relationship with Capitalism in addition to deconstructing your Evangelical faith. If you ever want to talk, I'm willing. My email is email@example.com
Founding Director, Peterson Consulting Group
In this story, you'll hear...
...some drama, some signature sass, and hopefully some opinionated but caring insights on business, the differences between commerce & capitalism, and why trauma is 100% relevant to both. I'm gonna talk about religious trauma and business, a lot.
You may or may not agree with me on any or all of these points or my approach. If this story resonates or showed you other lessons or you have questions, please share those. I welcome kind, courteous discussion on these subjects. I reserve the right to keep this online space safe for myself and my community.
If you're a business owner, this is a cautionary tale. My hope is that you receive this not as salacious gossip or the spilling of tea (although I could absolutely see how it might be interpreted as such) but my hope in telling this story is that you'll no longer have an excuse to repeat your interpretation of the missteps outlined below.
If you're new here, Hi! My name is Emily Ann Peterson. I'm gonna stay in my own lane here, which doing things kinda different as an anti-capitalist, neurodivergent, trauma-informed business coach. I'll speak from my personal experience with religious trauma.
If you did not grow up in the Evangelical Christian Church, I gotchu! I did my best to take out the church-y language because this story applies to y'all too.
If you have a history of trauma or spent time in the Evangelical Church, obviously, you're invited to read this post in whatever way that you feel is best for you. Please *consider* resisting the urge to skip past the parts you lived through. I promise those parts are relevant because they are. Your trauma is absolutely relevant to commerce and capitalism.
Pull up a chair. Snuggle in. Take a deep breath.
Want to *Watch* This Instead?
Once upon a time...
...a boy named Joshua Harris wrote a book titled I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
Joshua probably wasn't scheming to invoke religious trauma upon so many people when he wrote the book at only 19 years old. I Kissed Dating Goodbye simply met a need that was already brewing in the Evangelical community, for decades or longer. Harris just happened to be the one who picked up a pen to write about it and the book flew off the shelves in Christian bookstores. His book became parental spiritual fodder for Evangelical rape-culture (aka "Purity Culture") and ultimately contributed to the religious trauma of countless Exvangelicals—myself included.
According to Joshua Harris' LinkedIn, Wikipedia, and many news articles, on the heels of his author-fame in "the Christian Bubble," he declined to get a formal undergraduate education and instead took advantage of the opportunities given to him by powerful, influential white men in that bubble. So after graduating from homeschool high school, with nothing but a bestselling book under his belt, he too, became a powerful man in that Christian Bubble. Eventually, he became a lead pastor for a megachurch.
Now, most folx would think the story ends there, but something in him began to crack. What exactly caused the crack is irrelevant to today's story. But once it did crack, everything else seemed to crumble.
He could finally hear the enormous amount of pain and harm that the words in his books had caused in thousands of readers. So he issued a statement. He announced that his publisher had agreed to stop selling his books. He announced that he had deconstructed his faith. He announced that he no longer considered himself a Christian and that he's also no longer married.
In the land of E(x)vangelicalism, this was huuuuuge news—especially to people like myself whose formative sexual teenage years were shaped, restricted, and/or traumatized by his words. There was a big hullabaloo, lots of drama, people were pissed, unsatisfied with his apology, totally satisfied, shocked, horrified, clutched their pearls. The reactions across the Evangelical and Exvangelical communities stretched wide... but eventually things settled down and most of us forgot about Harris.
In the last couple of years, he made a clear career pivot away from Evangelicalism... sort of...?
Harris attended Donald Miller's marketing program. [I have maaaaany feelings about Donald Miller and his approach to marketing, those are posts for later...]
So now Harris offers his wordsmithing services via general copywriting for business owners and provides guidance as a "message-clarity coach for thought leaders and personal brands." Now, it would be one thing if Harris was humbly offering "clarity coaching" to others facing public backlash and modern cancel culture. He certainly has experience with that but... he's not.
From what I can tell on his websites, his coaching is offering to show "culture-shapers" how to "find their tribe" and "pick up their bullhorns." Sounds familiar, no?
<sigh> If only we could all have the AUDACITY of an Evangelical white privileged cishet male!
With all that audacity, Harris also created an Instagram following with over 38k people. I'm pretty sure many of his followers were like me, sticking around to occasionally keep an extremely leery eye on him.
He must've misread his audience because…
Last week Joshua Harris released an online course
For the price of $275 (or free, for those who were harmed by his previous works) someone could deconstruct their Christian faith with his guidance. Additionally, his marketing for this online course was... well, straight from the Donald Miller playbook.
To say that the Exvangelical community had feelings about this would be a massive understatement. There are SO MANY layers of how, why, and what ultimately ensued.
Trauma—whatever the flavor—is never cut and dry, simple, clean, impeccably easy to discuss, and especially true when we're talking about collective trauma. It's messy and it's personal.
After much uproar from the Exvangelical community, Harris took down the course and issued some refunds and a sort of apology.
3 Take-Aways That Apply to Any Business Owner,
...regardless of their experience with the Evangelical Christian Church:
1. Your trauma reverberates in your business.
in many ways, this course launch felt like I Kissed Dating Goodbye all over again. This is not a surprise to me because recreation of trauma is not abnormal for survivors. I'm guessing that he has trauma too. I personally know what it feels like to recognize that I've recreated my past traumas in my present life. It's horrifying and a really sucky feeling.
In some ways, I found myself asking if Harris had learned anything since his I Kissed Dating Goodbye debacle. Because to some it might look like Joshua Harris merely replaced one trauma for another—one church for another, Capitalism. He replaced one toxic pastor for another, Donald Miller.
BTW, Miller’s branding and marketing program gives me vibes that say, “Evangelicalism, but suck out the spirituality and replace it with Capitalism.” DOUBLE GROSS. [again, more on that in a different post]
2. Trauma survivors do not like being told what to do by their former abuser(s).
Many Exvangelicals especially don't like being told "the right way" to do anything. This shows up for me personally in things like the wording for a "free" event or if anyone drops anything close to an Amen near me—the hairs on the back of my neck go allll the way up.
So I’m not surprised that Joshua’s own Exvangelical community seemingly turned on him after they experienced further (re)traumatization from his words (aka his marketing, productizing, or evangelizing.) I’m also not surprised that applying the Donald Miller marketing approach to an audience like Exvangelicals is a recipe for a mass gag reflex or at least a mixed bag of reactions.
3. The Dunning Kruger Effect was in full swing here. This is a phenomenon that's honestly a good google term to table for later, but basically, it's this pattern where people who are new to learning a subject often have the most confidence, compared to people who are empirically more knowledgable. It's often those with more knowledge, who have less confidence in that subject because they are aware of how much remains for them to learn about that subject.
The fact that Harris would attempt to sell a) a course like this b) in this way c) by centering himself as a leader in deconstruction, echoes this. He showed us how much he still has left to learn, which is A LOT. And that’s okay! I just hope he continues to learn and figures out how to do that without harming others in the process.
What does this mean for business owners?
When I first heard this story, I went from feeling incredulous and heartless one minute (my activated trauma's reaction) to the next minute remembering the thousands and thousands of layers of nuanced evolution that trauma and spiritual deconstruction goes through in one person alone (my grounded self's reaction.)
I also remember that six years ago, I probably would've launched a course in the same way. 10 years ago? If I had the online skills that I do now and an audience size of 38K? I would've done exactly the same thing Joshua did. I was in the thick of my deconstruction then and I would've known no better.
So my heart was left aching—aching for those that Joshua Harris has now repeatedly traumatized, aching for myself 10 years ago as a freshly deconstructing ex-Mars Hill member, aching for all of us business owners who're left holding our livelihoods in one hand and a pile of dust in another. I even ache for Joshua Harris I can imagine that he has religious trauma too and public scrutiny isn't easy.
Most of all, I see how capable we all are of making mistakes that cause harm to others. This is one of many reasons why...
Our trauma is 100% relevant to Commerce and Capitalism.
Many business clients of mine are still coping with the long-term effects of their religious trauma. It shows up uniquely for each person. But I've seen a pattern that those of us who have experience in religions that promoted things like evangelism, missions, mission trips, conversions, altar calls, etc.—the day-to-day requirements of running and promoting a business can feel like exactly the same. It sucks because then we're stuck in this catch 22. The thing we love to do (our career or business) seems like it requires that we subtly traumatize ourselves every day, just to pay the bills. No wonder we avoid it and self-sabotage! Of course!
I *wish* and hope for all of us, myself and Joshua Harris included, for the full deconstruction of the enmeshed and co-dependent relationship between Evangelicalism and Capitalism. I hope that we continue to learn the *exact* line between commerce and capitalism… especially in light of our personal histories and personal trauma.
This is a really tricky, sticky topic because Religion, Patriarchy, and Capitalism are a whole different kind of holy shit trinity that we get to unravel as entrepreneurial survivors of religious trauma.
Commerce vs. Capitalism: 7 Differences
I've identified 7 differences between commerce and capitalism in this story. I'm sure there are more in there, but 7 seemed like enough for today.
Commerce meets a need in your community.
Capitalism exploits a need in your community.
I want to interject here for any helpers and healers or people who work in the mental health professions that if you are doing no harm, and helping your clients need their needs (even if those needs are related to their previous traumas), you're not exploiting their traumas by receiving a paycheck. You are being compensated for meeting their present needs. So please do not back away from your work of bravery.
I have no doubt that Harris had a genuine intention to meet a need with this course. We can't know how it affected each person individually, but it might've been who he was (a representation of the creators of that trauma) or the way he sold this course (a model of that trauma) that made this course launch feel exploitative and caused further harm to his community.
Related to this...
Commerce requires consent.
Capitalism lacks consent.
Marketing funnels, email opt-ins, spamming inboxes, lead magnets, scaffolded product ladders... all of that stinks of the same patriarchal, evangelical rape-culture that I Kissed Dating Goodbye preached about. Had Harris started creating this product from a place of consent I believe that much of this retraumatization we witnessed could've been avoided. For example...
Commerce is asking someone if they have a need.
Capitalism is telling someone they have a need.
Presuming that you know more than your customers? Positioning yourself as the only available option by not discussing other options with customers? Not asking enough questions of enough people to find what your audience really wishes from you? If that's how you're running your business, then I believe it's a safe bet that you're promoting capitalism, not commerce.
Commerce is trauma-informed.
Capitalism is traumatizing.
Doing no harm to others is a core piece of my personal philosophy of business and this stems directly from the harm I experienced from the culture of indoctrination, entrepreneurial missions, emotional manipulation, and the threat of eternal consequences (among other things) in the Evangelical church.
Personally, I do not believe it's enough to simply give refunds and apologize. That's way too late. The opportunity to apologize could exist well before a course or product launch. As business owners, we have to proactively prevent harm against ourselves and others. By putting systems in place that do exactly this; prevent harm. This might include a balanced schedule, having a hobby, staving off burnout with creativity, and actively incorporating customer care throughout every aspect of your business—from product development to copywriting.
For many, many, many business owners this prevention comes through a different form:
Commerce is surrounding yourself with checks and balances.
Capitalism is surrounding yourself with mirrors.
According to this 2015 Washington Post article, Barna Research reported: "about half of nondenominational pastors have a seminary or theology degree, compared with 72 percent of all Protestant pastors." Harris was unabashedly against getting a formal seminary education until that article trumpeted the announcement that he'd changed his mind and I'm glad he did.
But what was his reason for such a 180* change? I'll quote Harris directly, “I’m looking at my own training and saying: ‘I want to get a broader perspective. . . . I want to learn other ways of how pastors and other leaders deal with all these things [pastoral sexual misconduct]’. . . We need to learn from the historic church about ways that there is better accountability and responsibility.”
Uh... YAH. Not only that, but let's do more than learn from history, in the past, because those guys certainly didn't do a great job with things like sexual misconduct. Let's learn from listening in the present around us, now.
Because things get extremely precarious when an influencer or a consumer lacks checks and balances. (i.e. does my surgeon have an MD? does my business coach have business experience or a business degree? has my audience asked me to release a product like this, in this way?)
Let's do more of this as business owners too. Let's do more of this as consumers. Let's get informed. Let's get a diverse range of opinions before purchasing or launching. Let's get educated.
Like Harris, I too was homeschooled. I'm all about pioneering your education. Degrees aren't everything and academia isn't perfect (it's certainly not always accessible to those who are less privileged than others) But what remains is that getting outside perspectives from a diverse body of trusted voices sure as shit is important, especially when it comes to doing no harm to others. This is why formal training, certificates, professional licensure, board reviews, and peer-reviewed research exist and are legally required in so many professions.
Checks and balances, dude. Related to those checks and balances...
Commerce centers community.
Capitalism centers narcissism.
The flawed systems of checks and balances that I mentioned earlier are still better than some random guy from the internet with no business degree who, unbeknownst to you, may have traumatized thousands of people in a prior career but is now claiming to be a marketing expert and making promises about how "you, too, can change the world!"
I'm not specifically calling out Josh Harris here, although that generic scenario might apply to him. I *am* calling out the online business, self-help, and coaching communities that are notorious for polishing narcissistic turds and calling it a "life-changing, no, world-changing opportunity." They aren't the only industries susceptible to this, even Silicon Valley knows what it's like to get duped by Elizabeth Holmes, who, by the way, dropped out of Stanford.
From my observations (and academic scholars say this too), the most toxic, dangerous, and traumatizing religious and corporate environments are the ones that facilitate narcissism. The healthiest ones are those that foster psychological safety for everyone, top-to-bottom. A boss or business owner who has fostered psychological safety for his employees or customers has made it safe to disagree with or shut down their ideas. Why would that be a sustainable business practice?
Commerce is talking with your community.
Capitalism is talking at your community.
Marketing research is absolutely crucial to a business owner doing any kind of product development, product improvement, etc. But if that research is not from an accurate audience sample, that represents equity, accessibility, and inclusivity, then that market research not only becomes exponentially costly for that business (as Joshua has shown us), but more tragically, it becomes an opportunity for exclusion, trauma, and narcissism to thrive.
If Joshua had asked open-ended questions first from a quality sample of his audience, and then really listened to them, he might've heard how the Exvangelical community really wanted him to help, which frankly might've been not at all. Or maybe if he listened he might've found a group of ex-pastors going through a similar deconstruction journey to his own who felt alone and who might appreciate his experience and perspective.
Did Joshua Harris listen to his community? Did they tell him how and why they needed his help? Did he run this idea by anybody? If so, who were those people, and were they an accurate sampling of his audience? The response from his audience tells me, no. Clearly not.
Business is like life post-trauma: it's not always binary.
I know that I just laid out a bunch of binary, black and white classifications for commerce and capitalism. I'm 99.9% positive that running a commerce-centric anti-capitalist business is not as straightforward as we'd like it to be. Most things aren’t. Just like trauma and trauma recovery, there is sooooo much nuance to running a sustainable business.
There are heaps and heaps of additional points I wanted to make, but I've gotta draw a line somewhere with this post. Perhaps I'll make it a series and pick it up later, so if you have suggestions of other case studies that you'd like me to feature, let me know.
I'll close with this:
3 Things I Believe About Business & Trauma...
Your business doesn't have to feel triggering, overwhelming, traumatizing, and scary for you or other people. Your business does not have to perpetuate harm.
Your business can support and empower your continued recovery from trauma. The way your business is structured, the way it operates and is marketed can absolutely be there for you, not against you.
The tool of commerce has the power to help us dismantle systems of oppression (like capitalism) & cycles of trauma (like religious trauma).
Again, if this story showed you other lessons for your business or you have questions, I welcome kind, courteous discussion on these subjects. Just remember that I reserve the right to keep this online space safe for myself and my community and our healing from trauma.
photo of red room by Timo Wagner
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