An Atheist in the Land of Jesus: Living a Compartmentalized Life

compartments

I live in rural northwest Ohio. I have spent most of my life living in rural communities. I am, in every way, a country boy; that is, in every way except my politics and religious beliefs. It is a well-known fact that it’s rural people who put Donald Trump in the White House and delivered solid Republican majorities to Congress and state legislatures. Here in Ohio, virtually every major state office is occupied by right-wing, pro-life, anti-same-sex-marriage, white Christians. Go to the major cities and college communities and you will find progressive/liberal/Democratic/socialist political beliefs. Drive ten miles outside of town, and everything quickly turns from red to blue. Here in Defiance County, almost three out of four voters vote Republican, and in the last presidential election, Donald Trump won by a sixty-four percent to twenty-nine percent margin. (Seventy-three percent of registered voters voted in the 2016 election.)

Religiously, Evangelical (and conservative Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist) Christianity rules the roost. In the four-county area where I live, there are roughly 140 thousand people and 400 Christian churches. Christian belief and practice colors every aspect of local life. It is assumed that everyone is Christian. Over the past decade, I have witnessed countless church-state violations. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) could spend months here dealing with schools and other government agencies that don’t have a clue about the First Amendment, the establishment clause, or the separation of church and state. It’s not that local leaders deliberately set out to violate the law. It’s just that giving Christianity preferential treatment is very much part of the ebb and flow of life around here. It is just how it is.

hicksville high school christian materials

Let me give an example. Recently, nearby Hicksville High School gave its 2018 graduates bags of Evangelical literature and DVDs. Here’s what FFRF had to say on the matter:

A concerned student reported that during Hicksville High School’s commencement practice on May 30, a guidance counselor handed every graduating student a package that contained Christian materials. The package included a copy of “Evolution vs. God,” an anti-evolution film created by Christian evangelist Ray Comfort, “Rich in Christ: A Dead Dog at the King’s Table,” a religious tract titled “Are you a Good Person,” and a religious pamphlet that “explains the plan of salvation in easy-to-understand terms” called “Life’s Most Important Question.” FFRF’s complainant reports that this package was put together by a science teacher at the school.

This package included a letter titled “Hicksville High School Class of 2018,” which reads:

Congratulations 2018 Graduate!

As you look ahead to your future with excitement and great anticipation, may you also come to discover God’s very best for your life. God loves you so very much that He sent His Son Jesus to earth to die for your sins so that you may have a personal relationship with God, and be assured of an eternal home in Heaven.

Rich in Christ is filled with hope and encouragement for you. It contains dozens of wonderful promises from the Bible, that God wants you to understand and claim as your very own. May you find God’s richest blessings as you follow His leading and His blueprint for true success. Enjoy your riches!

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  II Corinthians 8:9

The letter indicates that a number of local individuals and businesses, including Hicksville Exempted Village School Superintendent Keith Countryman and his wife, sponsored the gift package.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer, or promote religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to Countryman. “As a public school, Hicksville High School cannot promote Christian religious doctrine by distributing proselytizing materials to students as part of graduation rehearsal, a school function. This violates the principle that ‘the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere,’” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

The school district has an obligation under the law to make certain that “subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion,” to again quote the U.S. Supreme Court. When faculty use school time to proselytize to students, whether it be through distribution of literature or through religious statements, they are taking religion out of the private sphere and violating parental trust.

Religion is a divisive force in public schools, FFRF emphasizes. When a school distributes sectarian religious literature to its students it entangles itself with those religious messages. As well as alienating non-Christian students, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school, these practices estrange the 24 percent of Americans, including 38 percent of young adults, who identify as nonreligious. prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/PRRI-Religion-Report.pdf

“It is a violation of the duties and responsibilities of public school staff to proselytize students,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Imagine the uproar if a staff member was propagating atheism or Islam.”

Gaylor calls the school officials’ actions “bizarre,” saying that it is particularly concerning that a science teacher had a hand in distributing anti-evolution propaganda to graduating seniors and that the superintendent sponsored the unconstitutional distribution.

FFRF insists that to avoid constitutional violations, any future graduation “gifts” distributed by Hicksville Exempted Village School staff as part of a school function not contain religious materials.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 33,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 800 members and a chapter in Ohio. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

According to the latest issue of Freethought Today, the Hicksville school district agreed to stop distributing sectarian religious materials to its students. Did the school administrators deliberately ignore the law, choosing, instead, to evangelistically promote Christianity? Of course not. They just did what has always been done. It is assumed that everyone is Christian.

I am an atheist and a humanist. I am a political liberal who aligns himself with the Democratic Socialist party. I generally vote Democratic, but many local Democrats, thanks to their religious beliefs, skew to the right. This is especially true for those who are forty-five and older. Even local mainline Christian churches — which are historically liberal — tend to be conservative politically and socially. True liberals such as myself are as rare the ivory-billed woodpecker. We exist, but there aren’t many of us. We tend to lurk in the shadows, pining for the day when progressive values prevail. The good news is that younger locals are far more liberal than their parents and grandparents. I see a better day ahead, but in the short-term, people such as myself must bite our lips, hold our tongues, and silently swear.

Last month, Polly and I attended a tractor pull at the Fulton County fairgrounds. The event was sponsored by the National Tractor Pullers Association. Events such as this one are gaudy displays of American exceptionalism, nationalism, and conservative Christianity. Imagine sitting through nine minutes of masturbation to the Christian God and the American flag. First, the crowd was asked to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Second, the PA announcer read a four-minute monologue set to music about the greatness of America and its military, reminding everyone that REAL PATRIOTS stand and honor the flag. Then it was time to sing the Star Spangled Banner. And last, but not least, the preacher/announcer prayed a sectarian prayer in the name of Jesus, amen.

By the time all this nonsense was over, I was ready to scream. My son asked me, Dad, why do you subject yourself to this stuff? I replied, because I love watching tractor pulls. I endure the religious/nationalist nonsense because I know what waits on the other side of the Amen.

I willingly choose to live in rural Northwest Ohio. Twelve years ago, Polly and I returned to this part of the state so we could be close to our children and grandchildren. We do not regret doing so. We love the slowness of small town life, and when we want to experience big city life, Toledo and Fort Wayne are but an hour away. Applebee’s is considered “fine” dining around here. When we want to enjoy a meal at an upscale restaurant, we drive to Fort Wayne or Findlay. In every way, we have a good life. That said, choosing to live in a place where Jesus and the GOP are joined at the hip requires us to practice the fine art of compartmentalization.

I own a photography business: Defiance County Photo. I shoot many of the local high school’s sporting events. I don’t advertise my politics or lack of religious beliefs. It is hard enough to make a few meager bucks off my photography work without limiting my business opportunities by being an in-your-face atheist and socialist. I don’t hide my beliefs, but I don’t talk about them either. Recently, I had a job interview where the business owner tried three times to goad me into a religious discussion. He really, really, really wanted to share his “testimony” with me, but every time he mentioned God/Jesus/faith, I said nothing. That was my way of telling him, I AIN’T INTERESTED! Polly has a similar problem at work. She’s a pro at ignoring attempts to drag her into discussions about this or that Christian belief.

I have one compartment that contains my business. I am sure some locals know I am an unbeliever and a political liberal. I suspect these facts cost me business. As an atheist, I want to live and conduct my business in such a way that Christians around me will be perplexed by my good works. I know doing so confuses some of them, as they have been told by their preachers that atheists are Satan worshipers, baby killers, and lovers of sin. Much like Jesus commands Christians to live, I want people to see that you can live a good, meaningful life without God or the Bible. I want to “let my little light shine!”

I have another compartment that contains Bruce Gerencser, the father and grandfather. I attend a number of school events every year. Ten of our twelve grandchildren attend three different local school districts. Many of them play summer sports, and several of them play junior high and high school sports. I always have my camera with me, shooting this or that event or game. Thanks to my white beard, ruddy complexion, and portly build, I look like Santa Claus. The school mates of my younger grandchildren wonder if I am the “real” Santa. Of course I am! I enjoy playing the role.

In this compartment, it’s all about family. I don’t talk about politics or religion. When people extol the virtues of the Tyrant King, I outwardly smile and say nothing. Why? I don’t want my politics or godlessness to negatively affect my grandchildren. Believe me, I would love to be a fire-breathing atheist. I would love to eviscerate those who blindly and ignorantly support our Toddler-in-chief. However, for the sake of my family, I say nothing.

Finally, I have a compartment where I am a vocal, outspoken atheist, humanist, and Democratic socialist. This blog is home to my writings on religion and politics. Few locals read my writing, though I suspect more than a few have done a Google search on my name and have come across this blog. I make no apologies for the subject matter of my writing. It is here that I can be open and honest. If locals stumble across this site and are offended, that’s their problem. This is my “ministry,” so to speak. The Bible spoke of Jesus not being able to do mighty works among his own people because of their unbelief. I understand Jesus’ plight; the difference being, of course, that I can’t do many mighty works among my own people because of their religious and political beliefs. I am, in every way, a stranger in a land I dearly love. That’s not to say that there are not other atheists or socialists around here. There are, but due to family and employment concerns, they, too, keep a low profile. From time to time I will receive emails from local heathens thanking me for my writing. They often say they wish they could be an out-of-the-closet atheist such as myself. Fear keeps them in the closet. Maybe someday we will be more in number, but for now, we choose to keep our heads down, knowing that being a vocal atheist would be social and career suicide. It’s not fair, but I learned long ago that little in life is.

Do you live in rural America? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Are you forced to compartmentalize your life? How do you balance your unbelief with societal and familial norms?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

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8 Comments

  1. Paul McLaughlin

    Rural Alberta is much the same, though Canadians tend not to wear their religion on their sleeves as much as rural evangelical Americans.

    Reply
  2. ObstacleChick

    I grew up in a rural area much like yours, but in Tennessee. People couldn’t grasp the necessity of separation of church and state because “everyone” is a Christian and if they aren’t it is our duty to convert them. So they need prayers in the public sphere. They need to have the truth of Jesus audible at work, in school, in city council meetings, etc. Why do you think kids are getting into trouble in school – because the libruls banned prayer and bibles in schools!

    In my teens I knew I needed out but couldn’t verbalize why – it was more of a feeling of being trapped. In my early 20s I got out. My kids have only been briefly exposed when we visit family, some of whom are gun-toting, Jesus-loving, flag-waving, Trump sycophants. If I were to go back permanently, I suppose I would find a way through it as you do, Bruce. But it wouldn’t be easy.

    Reply
  3. Jen

    Oh I needed to hear this! I had a rural upbringing too, so this is all familiar. I’m in a weird place after deconstruction – still a Christian but still figuring out my beliefs (and reading up on Big Bang and evolution for the first time!).

    The problem is that my whole deconstruction process has been very rapid, so my entire social circle (and family!) still consists of conservative Christian Republicans. As a staunch Liberal Democrat now, I find it very, very upsetting when I see and hear the usual anti-women/LGBTQ/POC crap. I’ve had to find other groups (all online at the moment) that I can relate to in order to get some balance in my life.

    Anyway, this was a timely post, so I’m going to take extra care to compartmentalize. This is a new concept since I was trained to be “open and honest and confess everything.” Finding autonomy is an ongoing challenge, but I already feel healthier in body/soul because of it. Thanks Bruce.

    Reply
  4. Richard

    Bruce,

    I live in rural VA and experience the same thing. Here’s a recent example.

    I was at my children’s open house at their elementary school. A woman was there with a table set up to sign up kids for the Good News Bible club. Of course the woman picks out my 5 year old daughter to try to convince her to join. “We sing songs about Jesus and learn about the Bible.”

    I was biting my tongue so hard, but I said nothing. My daughter (who has not been raised in church) looked at her like she was crazy!

    Reply
  5. Cheezits99

    I live in the rural Midwest and around here, I am somewhat closeted. I belong to a local UU church and that information is available on my Facebook but most do not know what a UU is. Being a public atheist/agnostic would be way too hard but since I have been out in public protesting Trump, obviously if anyone is paying attention they will know my beliefs are “different”. I have considered moving to a more liberal area but then the prices skyrocket and traffic too, so I stay put for NOW. I lived for some years, in an even more extreme fundie/religious town, not too far from Bruce. [it had a college notorious for not taking gov’t money]. Bruce will probably know where I mean. I want to ask Bruce a question, do you think the rural Midwest is becoming like the South? I worry about this. I mean we have hope with the young at least….

    I got the compartmentalization game big time. I remain semi-closeted. It’s hard since I deconverted last year, I had to train myself to keep my mouth shut when people went on about Jesus. I usually take a live and let live stance. LOL I even go to a book club–mostly secular books held at a local mainline church. To socialize here while being a public atheist/agnostic would be nearly impossible outside of my UU circles.

    Reply
  6. Justin

    I live in western Kentucky much like your rural community. Everyone here also assumes that everyone else is Christian. As a consultant I am constantly putting on the act of keeping the client happy and when the question comes up about where I go to church I typically either lie or change the subject. Even within my own company very few know my true beliefs. When I was married I attended church with my family even though my wife knew my true thoughts on the matter. She always just assumed that one day I would “come around”. I was ok with this because every once in awhile behind the lies, contradictions, and preaching for personal or political bias, there was some sort of good story. Plus going to church was helpful in masking my non belief. When we divorced I stopped going. I attended church with my mom on special occasions mainly to appease grand parents. Now that they’ve passed I don’t attend at all. Recently I started a new relationship. I know she attends church but we haven’t really had the “religious” talk yet. Things are getting serious now and I know I need to have the discussion before we get any farther into this. She has never asked me where I go to church. She has left my house on Sunday mornings on several occasions to go to church and I jokingly said one time “after last night you need to go pray for your sins…”. The first time I met her parents we went to dinner. We all ordered adult beverages as typical for me at least and engaged in the usual conversation but when our food came the father stopped and we prayed before eating. Im sure if my relationship survives the religion discussion it will be something she keeps from her parents. What I’ve found in my lifetime in rural America is that there are probably many more people just like me who feel they have to put on the show to have a career, friends, relationships, good standing in the community, etc… because the non believers are all viewed as heathans and scum. I think we all mostly live the same way. We try to be good people for the most part. It’s just I don’t need a false god to tell me how to do that. Some of the largest business owners in this area are in church every Sunday but all week long they are the most corrupt and evil people I know. But that’s ok because all the bad is forgiven and the good they do for the community is what’s important in their minds. I agree with you that things are changing with the younger generations. My late 20 early 30 friends all seem to be non secular or at least very tolerant of other people’s beliefs.

    Reply
  7. Janf8

    Interesting read. Thank you.

    Reply
  8. Brian

    I live in rural Canada. Christianity taught me very early on that I had to lie to survive. It created a world in my family and church where unless you wore the uniform and memorized the verses, you were punished and prevented dessert, so to speak. Christianity was sweet daddy rape of a child, the stripping away of boundaries, of basic common decency and 24/7 torture with rabid doctrine peculiar to one’s locale, defined by one prick alone in all his wisdom from God’s own prick mouth.
    It takes a very sick human to tell a child that God will burn them forever unless they accept his perfect bully love and obey the church rules. And America is so sick it sets aside time for worshipping the God delusion and the flag and pledging to it unto death. Itdefies common sense and decency and glorifies delusion before it allows you your tractor pull. The price of admission is too high. The question, “Why do you subject yourself to this?”, is apt. Why indeed… And the answer is one I have lived since my earliest childhood: What I want comes after the Amen. America has yet to realize that it is a nation founded in abuse, not freedom and love. It is by far the most dangerous nation on this earth now and it has come to Trump itself finally as old Mencken predicted in the early days of the 20th century.

    Reply

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