Guest Post by Steve
As an ex-Christian and a person living with a mental illness, I have thought quite a bit these past few years about how religion and mental illness intersect, and the positive and negative effects their interaction can have on one’s well-being (especially the mental and emotional aspects). And my inspiration to write this came from a revealing question I asked myself.
What place would I never set foot in again?
I have been to some very remote, rural places where the soil seems to grow far-right extremists. Of course, I was drawn there not by the people, but for the natural beauty found in many such places. I have lived in Wyoming and worked in some of the reddest counties in Florida. And perhaps if I went back to such places, one of those areas would be the place I would never want to visit again, now that the political discourse has become even more toxic than it was in 2016.
But I went to this place in early 2015, just before (or shortly after) Trump announced his candidacy for President. There was no cult of Trump yet, and visible support for the man in this town was scant, if there was any at all.
But what I saw in Crescent City, Florida scared the shit out of me even more than Trump. What I saw there during my brief four-hour visit has existed in this country for decades longer than Trumpism. And it finds its most fertile soil in communities like these. What I saw there was an unadulterated display of Christian Nationalism that I have never seen the likes of since, even in the rural communities in which I have lived and worked.
I did not technically choose to be in Crescent City that night. I was only there because I was a volunteer for a community organization that served the area and my partner and I were tasked with setting up a booth there to promote it. We were working a community event taking place in the heart of their “downtown.”
The Crescent City Catfish Festival opened with a prayer (of the Evangelical variety), and the musical entertainment for the evening consisted entirely of worship music. Perhaps I am too much of a sheltered suburbanite, but such an overt display of religiosity at a nominally secular public event was not something I ever expected to see. But that is not the main reason I wouldn’t return there.
I can’t recall what the booth next to ours was sponsoring or selling, but the old man there gave me the creeps. I was already struggling with a depression that would eventually lead to my first suicide attempt and involuntary hospitalization, and I think my low mood must have been palpable, or perhaps the old man’s church taught him to spot the signs that a person might be open to a “word from the Lord.” Either way, what happened next was shocking, disgusting, and uncalled for.
Roughly two hours in, the old man walked up to me and looked at me. What came out of his mouth were not words of the good news of salvation through Jesus, but the exhortation to get right with God before we died and went to Hell, if we didn’t believe already. What made things even worse was the tone of the man, which I have since heard echoed in right-wing street protests by youth one-third his age. It was the tone of smug self-righteousness, mingled with sadistic glee, mixed with the emphasis on hellfire.
Vulnerable as I was, this only made me more anxious and eager to leave. When I told my colleague I was disturbed by what this man had done, he brushed it aside, leaving me to grapple with my anxieties and fears alone. Not knowing anything at all about my mental illness at the time, I began to think the old man was right. Maybe I needed to get right with a God I no longer believed in. Maybe God was punishing me for smoking weed, slacking off on my schoolwork and internship, et cetera. Maybe I had strayed off the path and needed chastisement to bring me back into the fold.
And while these doubts and worries did not end up bringing me back to the faith (nor have they in the times I’ve experienced them after that), they worsened my depression and my self-confidence greatly. Looking back, I now know what was happening. I was so overwhelmed I shut down completely. My internship and my classes, my roommates’ hostility towards me, my cluelessness as to what I would do after graduating college, and the feeling of alienation from my friends and family — they all weighed on me.
And so too, did the “get right or fry” message from this old man. Instead of the supposed love and grace of Christ, all I can think about is the pain and punishment of Hell conveyed through the words of a mean and intrusive old man. I already hated myself so much at the time that this was just gasoline on an already growing fire.
Seven years later, the public displays of religiosity in Crescent City are ever-present now at right-wing rallies, in the halls of government, and in the classrooms of children. And in most cases, the people most apt to publicly display their religion like this are the types who will go on to mentally scar others through interactions like the one I had with this old man.
There is no love in the Christianity these people proclaim, only destruction and dominion. The sooner people realize this and realize that Crescent City and places like it are the communities these Christian zealots idealize, maybe we can beat back the rising tide of Christian Nationalism before we are all swept up in its clutches.
I will never go back to Crescent City, but unless we do something about it, we may all be living in Crescent City sooner than we realize.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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