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A Former Parishioner Asks: Please Help Me Understand Why You Stopped Believing

why

Originally posted April 2015. Edited, updated, and expanded.

A former parishioner asks:

I just don’t understand how you could just decide you don’t believe any longer. I as you know am a Christian and I could never or would never lose my faith in God, but if I did I would like to think that it would be some type of horrible thing that happened to me to cause me to lose my faith in God. I am not judging you  I am just curious as to what happened to cause you to question and then lose your faith. You were such a good preacher, I learned so much from you I just don’t understand what happened. Please help me to understand.

I am quite sympathetic to those who once called me pastor/preacher. I know my deconversion causes them great pain as they attempt to reconcile the man of God they once knew with the atheist I am today. In some cases, the pain and cognitive dissonance are so great that they can’t bear to write or talk to me. One former pastor friend, the late Bill Beard, told me that I should keep my deconversion story to myself lest I cause others to lose their faith. (Please read Dear Friend.)

I try to put myself in the shoes of former parishioners. They listened to me preach, interacted with me on an intimate personal level, and considered me a godly man. Perhaps I won them to Christ, baptized them, or helped them through some crisis in their life. Maybe I performed their wedding or preached the funeral of their spouse, parent, or child. My life is intertwined with theirs, yet here I stand today, publicly renouncing all I once believed to be true; an atheist, an enemy of God. How is this possible, the former parishioner asks?

The email writer asks if some horrible thing happened to cause me to lose my faith. The short answer is no. Sixteen years removed from deconverting and nineteen years since I preached my last sermon, I can now see that there were many factors that led me to where I am today. As with all life-changing decisions, the reasons are many. I could point to my disenchantment over the deadness, shallowness, and emptiness of Evangelicalism; I could point to my loss of health and the poverty wages I earned pastoring churches. I could point to how fellow pastors and parishioners treated me when I left the ministry and later began to question my faith. (Please read Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.) I could point to my knowledge of lying, cheating, adulterous pastors. I could point to my anger towards those who readily abandoned me when I had doubts about the veracity of Christianity. I could point to the 100+ churches we visited as we desperately tried to find a church that took seriously the teaching of Jesus. (Please read But Our Church is Different.) I could point to the viciousness of professing Christians, people like my grandparents, who put on a good front but were judgmental and hateful towards my family and me. (Please read Dear Ann and John.) I could point to my bitter, hostile experience with Pat Horner and Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas. (Please read I Am a Publican and a Heathen.) All of these things played a part in my deconversion, but the sum of them would not have been enough to cause me to walk away from Christianity.

Several years ago, I wrote a post titled Why I Stopped Believing. I think an excerpt from this post will prove helpful in answering the question of why I no longer believe:

Since I never made much money in the ministry, there was no economic reason for me to stay in the ministry. I always made more money working outside of the church, so when I decided to leave the ministry, which I did three years before I deconverted, I suffered no economic consequences. In fact, life has gotten much better economically post-Jesus.

Freed from the ministry, my wife and I spent several years visiting over a hundred Christian churches. We were desperately looking for a Christianity that mattered, a Christianity that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. During this time period, I read countless books written by authors from a broad spectrum of Christendom. I read books by authors such as Thomas MertonRobert Farrar CaponHenri Nouwen, Wendell BerryBrian McLarenRob BellJohn Shelby SpongSoren Kierkegaard, and NT Wright. These authors challenged my Evangelical understanding of Christianity and its teachings.

I decided I would go back to the Bible, study it again, and determine what it was I REALLY believed. During this time, I began reading books by authors such as Robert Wright Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, These three authors, along with several others, attacked the foundation of my Evangelical beliefs: the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Their assault on this foundation brought my Evangelical house tumbling down. I desperately tried to find some semblance of the Christianity I once believed, but I came to realize that my faith was gone.

I tried for a time to convince myself that I could find some sort of Christianity that would work for me. Polly and I visited numerous liberal or progressive Christian churches, but I found that these expressions of faith would not do for me. My faith was gone. Later, Polly would come to the same conclusion.

I turned to the internet to find help. I came upon sites like exchristian.net and Debunking Christianity. I found these sites to be quite helpful as I tried to make sense of what was going on in my life. I began reading the books of authors such as John LoftusHector AvalosRobert M. PriceDaniel DennettChristopher HitchensSam HarrisJerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

I read many authors and books besides the ones listed here. I say this to keep someone from saying, but you didn’t read so and so or you didn’t read _______. So, if I had to give one reason WHY I am no longer a Christian today it would be BOOKS.  My thirst for knowledge — a thirst I still have today, even though it is greatly hindered by chronic illness and pain — is what drove me to reinvestigate the claims of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible. This investigation led me to conclude that the claims of Christianity and the teachings of the Bible could not rationally and intellectually be sustained. Try as I might to hang onto some sort of Christian faith, the slippery slope I found myself on would not let me stand still. Eventually, I found myself saying, I no longer believe in the Christian God. For a time, I was an agnostic, but I got tired of explaining myself, so I took on the atheist moniker, and now no one misunderstands what I believe.

The hardest decision I ever made in my life was that day in late November of 2008, when I finally admitted to myself, I am no longer a Christian, I no longer believe in the Christian God, I no longer believe the Bible is the Word of God. At that moment, everything I had spent my life believing and doing was gone. In a sense, I had an atheist version of a born-again experience. For the past eleven years, I have continued to read, study, and write. I am still very much a work in progress. My understanding of religion and its cultural and sociological implications continues to grow. Now that I am unshackled from the constraints of religion, I am free to wander the path of life wherever it may lead. Now that I am free to read what I want, I have focused my attention on history and science. While I continue to read books that are of a religious or atheist nature, I spend less and less time reading these. I still read every new book Bart Ehrman publishes, along with various Christian/atheist/humanist blogs and publications, and this is enough to keep me up to date with American Christianity and American atheism/humanism.

For a longer treatment of my path from Evangelicalism to atheism, please read the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism.

If I had to sum up in two sentences why I no longer believe I would say this:

I no longer believe the Bible is an inspired, infallible, inerrant, God-given text. I no longer believe as true the central claims of Christianity: that Jesus is the virgin-born, miracle-working son of God, who came to earth to die for our sins, resurrected from the dead three days later, and will someday return to earth to judge the living and the dead.

The email writer comes from an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) background. A conundrum for her is to theologically square my past with the present. There is no doubt that I was a Christian for fifty years. I was a devoted, sincere, committed follower of Jesus. I preached to thousands of people during the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. Not one parishioner or colleague in the ministry ever doubted that I was a Christian. I was far from perfect, but I was, in every way, a believer.

Those who say I never was a Christian make a judgment based on their theology and not on how I lived my life for fifty years. Baptists must do this because they believe that a person, once saved, cannot fall from grace. The doctrine of eternal security/once-saved-always-saved/perseverance (preservation) of the saints requires them to conclude I am still a Christian or I never was. The few former parishioners and colleagues in the ministry who are Arminians have no problem explaining my trajectory from Evangelicalism to atheism. I once was saved and I fell from grace.

Here’s what I know: I once was a Christian and now I am not. For those who once called me pastor/preacher, they should know that when I was their shepherd, I was a Christian. What good I did and what benefits my ministry brought them came from the heart of a man who was a devoted follower of Jesus, a man who loved them and wanted what was best for them. Those experiences, at the time, were real. While I have written extensively on how I explain my past and the experiences I had, former parishioners should content themselves with knowing that I loved and cared for them. While I had many shortcomings, my desire was always to help others. This desire still motivates me to this day.

Much like the Israelites leaving Egypt and heading for the Promised Land, so it is for me. My Promised Land is atheism, agnosticism, and humanism. While I will always have a great fondness for many of the people I once pastored, I will never return to Egypt, the house of bondage. Christianity and the ministry are distant sights in my rearview mirror. While I will always appreciate the love and approbation of the people I once pastored, I am not willing to “repent” of my atheistic beliefs. My mind is settled on the nature of the Bible and the claims of Christianity. I fully recognize that billions of people find value, meaning, and purpose in religion, but I do not.

I have no desire to cause believers to lose their faith. I am just one man with a story to tell. Over the past sixteen years, I have not even once tried to “evangelize” believers in the hope that they will lose their faith and embrace atheism. Yes, I do write about Evangelicalism and atheism, but people are free to read or not read what I write. If they have doubts about Christianity or have recently left Christianity, then my writing is likely to be of some help to them. If they write me asking questions or asking for help, I do my best to answer their questions and help them in any way I can. Over the years, hundreds of such people have written to me. Have some of them deconverted? Yes, including pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. But, deconversion has never been my goal. Instead, I view myself as a facilitator, one who helps people on their journey. It’s their life, their journey, and I am just a signpost along the crooked road of life.

Former parishioners need to understand that Bruce and Polly Gerencser are the same people they have always been, except for the Christian part. We are kind, decent, loving people. We love our children and our grandchildren. We strive to get along with our neighbors and be a good influence in the community. We are now what we were then: good people.

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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Update: Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Pastor Karey Heyward Given Suspended Sentence for Sexual Misconduct with a Minor

karey heyward

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

In 2019, Karey Heyward, pastor of Eternity Church in North Charleston, South Carolina, was accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. Heyward, a musician, also goes by the name Pastor Sage.

ABC-4 reported:

According to police reports, the female minor and her mother reported ongoing sexual misconduct to officers on March 20, and said it took place between 2012 and 2015.

She said the suspect touched her in sexually inappropriately ways, engaged in inappropriate conversations about sex, and asked her “what would happen if they did have sex,” reports say.

The Moncks Corner man was released on a $100,000 bond after being charged with 3rd-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

Heyward’s Linkedin page listed the following information:

  • Senior Pastor at Eternity Ministries
  • Owner/creative director of Genesis 1 Media, LLC a film, video, music, and publication company
  • Law Enforcement with the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy
  • Founder of a youth organization known as Radical Revolution Ministries that hosts youth events and founded a youth pastors and leadership alliance known as the Holy City Alliance.
  • Specialties: Licensed Minister,Gospel Rapper, cinematographer/editor/director

In 2021, Heyward pleaded guilty to assault and was given a suspended sentence.

The Post and Courier reported:

Months after his arrest on child sex charges, a former North Charleston pastor has pleaded guilty to assault and avoided jail time.

Karey Montrel Heyward, originally charged with third degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor under 16, pleaded guilty Thursday to second degree assault and battery.

Judge Markley Dennis sentenced Heyward in North Charleston to the maximum penalty of three years in prison, but suspended the punishment to 18 months probation, according to court records.

It’s unclear whether Heyward, who lives in Monck’s Corner, still works in the ministry. He served at Eternity Church in North Charleston when he was arrested in July 2019.

Police records allege that Heyward had inappropriately touched and spoken to a child several times between 2012 and 2015.

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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Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Update: Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Pastor Stephen Mendoza Arellano Sentenced to Six Years in Prison for Sex Crimes

stephen mendoza arellano

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

in 2017, Stephen Mendoza Arellano, youth pastor at Apostolic Assembly Church in Las Cruces, New Mexico was charged with ” attempted production of child pornography, enticement of a child to engage in sexual activity, and travel to meet a minor to engage in sexual conduct.”

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported:

An ordained minister from Las Cruces is facing federal child exploitation and pornography charges, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.

Stephen Mendoza Arellano, 30, an ordained minister for the Apostolic Assembly Church who serves as the youth president for the church’s New Mexico division, has been charged with attempted production of child pornography, enticement of a child to engage in sexual activity and travel to meet a minor to engage in sexual conduct, according to federal prosecutors.

….

According to a criminal complaint filed Oct. 5, Arellano began communicating with a 15-year-old girl in a sexually explicit manner beginning in May. It also alleges that he traveled from Las Cruces to El Paso for the purpose of engaging in sexual intercourse with the girl, who was a member of the Apostolic Assembly Church.

….

The complaint alleges that Arellano and the girl used Snapchat to communicate on a daily basis, and that at some point, their communications became sexually explicit. Arellano also allegedly sent nude photos of himself to the girl via cellphone message and requested nude photos of her between May and August.

The complaint also alleges that Arellano engaged in sexual activity with the girl in July and August, including at a youth convention in Las Cruces that was held at Hotel Encanto, where he allegedly took a nude photo of the girl.

The investigation allegedly revealed that Arellano was aware of the girl’s age because he assisted in making a video for her Sweet 16 birthday party.

If convicted on the attempted production of child pornography charge, Arellano faces a mandatory minimum penalty of 15 years and a maximum of 30 years in federal prison.

If convicted on the enticement charge, he faces a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years and a maximum of life in federal prison. If convicted on the traveling to engage in illicit sexual conduct charge, Arellano faces a maximum of 30 years in federal prison.

….

An April 10, 2018 story by KRWG reports that Arellano has pleaded guilty to “traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in sexual contact with a minor.”

in 2019, Arellano was sentenced to six years in prison for traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in sex with a minor.

The Las Cruces Sun News reported:

Stephen Mendoza Arellano, 31, a youth minister from Las Cruces, was sentenced Thursday in federal court after being convicted of traveling across state lines intending to have sex with a minor.

Arrellano was sentenced to 71 months in prison, followed by 15 years of supervised release. He pleaded guilty April 9, 2018 to traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in sex with a minor, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In doing so, he admitted that in the early summer of 2017, he began to pursue a romantic relationship with a 15-year-old victim, whom he knew through the Apostolic Assembly Church and their families’ relationship. 

He also admitted that in June 2017, he traveled from Las Cruces to El Paso with the intent to engage in illicit sexual contact with the victim.

According to court records, at the time he committed the offense, Arellano was an ordained minister of the Apostolic Assembly Church and was serving as the church’s District of New Mexico youth president. He was also a national ordained minister for the Apostolic Assembly Church.

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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Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Update: Black Collar Crime: Evangelical Youth Leader John Brownlow Sentenced to Six Years in Prison for Sexual Exploitation of Minor

john jay brownlow

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

In 2022, John “Jay” Brownlow, formerly a youth pastor at St. Patrick Presbyterian Church in Collierville, Tennessee, and an administrator at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, was accused of grooming a Westminster student.

Channel 5 reported:

A former Mid-South church leader and Christian school administrator is accused of persuading a high school student to engage in sexual activity online, and then recorded that activity without the victim’s knowledge.

John “Jay” Brownlow, 32, allegedly groomed the teen, a Westminster Academy student, at the peak of the pandemic, and installed cameras in the boy’s bedroom without him knowing.

The Action News 5 Investigators have been watching Brownlow’s case move through a Shelby County courtroom since September when he pleaded not guilty to seven felonies and one misdemeanor.

The Investigators were tipped off about the arrest, and have since been corresponding with the teen’s family.

According to a nine-page indictment, Brownlow also stalked and spied on the victim.

A now-deleted online post states that Brownlow was a bookkeeper at Westminster Academy and was promoted to Chief Financial Officer in September 2021. According to the post, Brownlow enjoyed “playing board games and tackling tech projects.”

At the same time, Brownlow was allegedly using technology to “expose a minor to material containing sexual activity” and to “directly induce” that minor to engage in sexual activity that Brownlow recorded.

The defendant’s attorney, Leslie Ballin, wouldn’t let us speak with Brownlow, but did sit down with the Action News 5 Investigators to talk about the case.

“You pleaded not guilty on his behalf in court. Is your client innocent?” The Investigators asked Ballin.

“The allegations are indeed shocking,” he said. “Does it mean it’s accurate and true? Not for me to decide.”

It will be for a jury of Brownlow’s peers to decide, if the case goes to trial, or a judge to decide, if there is a bench trial. Prosecutors could also possibly reach a plea deal with the defendant before either.

Ballin says he has seen the prosecution’s evidence, and while he wouldn’t go into details, said the “not guilty” plea stands. He does say the evidence he saw lines up with the contents of the criminal indictment.

According to the indictment, the alleged crimes occurred between June 2020 and January 2022. That’s when Brownlow was an employee at the Christian K-12 school Westminster Academy on Ridgeway Road.

Westminster’s Headmaster wrote in an email that they learned about the allegations when the crimes were reported in January 2022, and that they contacted police, fired Brownlow and banned him from their campus.

The Action News 5 Investigators corresponded with the alleged victim’s parents, and with other parents aware of the allegations against Brownlow. They said they trusted Brownlow around their children and are concerned there may be more alleged victims who were groomed by Brownlow who have not yet come forward.

In October 2023, Brownlow was sentenced to six years in prison for aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor.

Fox-13 reported:

A former administrator at a Christian school in Memphis has been sentenced to six years in prison for attempted especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, according to Shelby County court records. 

Former school administrator at Westminster Academy John Brownlow, 32, was arrested in July of 2022 and charged with especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor, soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor, aggravated burglary, aggravated unlawful photographing of a minor, sexual exploitation of a minor, soliciting sexual exploit of a minor, aggravated stalking and observation without consent. 

On Monday, October 2, 2023, Brownlow entered a plea agreement and pled guilty to the lesser charge of attempted especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor and was sentenced to six years in prison. As part of that plea agreement, the other charges against Brownlee were dismissed. 

Court documents at the time of Brownlow’s arrest stated that the 32-year-old entered a person’s home with the intent to spy and obtain unlawful images of a minor and that the former school administrator stalked a teen and used technology to “expose a minor to material containing sexual activity.” 

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.

Connect with me on social media:

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

The Ministry Addiction: Why Preachers Can’t Give it Up

fat preacher

Have you noticed that when many big-name, megachurch pastors and not-so-big name pastors get themselves in trouble, they often resign, disappear for a while, and then show up in a new town, claiming that “God” is leading them to start a new church? Or sometimes, they squirrel themselves away for a year or so, and then the next thing you read they are the new pastor of such-and-such church. No matter what the crime or misbehavior, “fallen” pastors almost always find a path back to the ministry.

The main reason, of course, is that these men tend to be charismatic, winsome leaders who easily attract followers, followers who are willing to let the past be the past; followers who are willing to grant them redemption and forgiveness; followers who are far more interested in the “man” than they are his behavior. (Please see The Evangelical Cult of Personality.) Big-name preachers, in particular, become demigods. People flock to them, hanging on every word, regardless of who they might have had an affair with or sexually molested in the past. Sadly, way too many Evangelicals are stupid and gullible, willing to sacrifice reason and moral decency for the attention of a soiled big-name preacher.

In virtually every other setting, if you commit a crime or have an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, your career is over. Not so for “fallen” Evangelical preachers. No matter what a preacher does, there is nothing that stands in his way if he wants to go to a new city and start a church. The Internet has changed this dynamic somewhat, but before the Internet, it wasn’t uncommon to hear of preachers who “fell” (or ran) into sin, resigned, and then moved a few thousand miles away to start a new church. (Please see How to Start an Independent Baptist Church.) Anyone can start a new church. If I were so inclined, I could start a new church by Sunday. Why, if all my children and their spouses and my grandchildren showed up, I would have more than twenty-five people in attendance for the first service at First Church of Bruce Almighty. By default, First Church would be tax-exempt, and attendance-wise would be larger than several “real” churches nearby. There’s no secular or religious authority that could stop me from doing so. That’s the beauty (and the danger) of the separation of church and state. Pastor so-and-so can fuck his way through the congregation, get caught, resign, and then pack up, move five states away, and start a new church. Felon Jack Schaap, the disgraced IFB pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana — now out of federal prison — is free to pastor a church again. Remember all the bad shit Jim Bakker did? After he got out of prison, he wrote a book titled, I Was Wrong. Not too wrong, however. Bakker is back on TV, preaching the “gospel” and fleecing anyone and everyone who comes his way. Ted Haggard? David Hyles? Jimmy Swaggart? Perry Noble? Mark Driscoll? The list goes on and on. All of these men made a mockery of their calling, and in some instances committed crimes. Yet, today all of them are still in the ministry. Granted, they haven’t reached the levels of notoriety they once had, but thousands of people have flocked to their new churches, seemingly oblivious to their past sins, indiscretions, failures, and crimes.

Why don’t these “fallen” preachers move on to other jobs or careers? Why do they return to the ministry, drawn to it like a moth to the light? With few exceptions, every disgraced preacher I know later reentered the ministry. Sure, some of them labor in obscurity, often doing little more than preaching at nursing homes or jails. However, most of them find a path back to the ministry, often in the same capacity as before. Several years ago, I posted a story about Pastor Donald Foose. Foose confessed to and was convicted of sexually molesting a teenage girl. After serving nine months of a two-year prison sentence, Foose moved down the road to a new church. After several years at this church, he became its pastor. The former pastor and other church leaders knew about Foose’s criminal past, yet they uncritically believed him when he said, “I didn’t do it.” Worse yet, several men who should have been some sort of check and balance, chose, instead, to give Foose a pass, believing that everyone deserves redemption and a new start. I wonder if these men would be as understanding if it were their daughters whom Foose sexually assaulted? I doubt it.

Why can’t these preachers move on to new employment that’s not connected to their religious past? One pastor I know quite well had an affair with his secretary. While there were extenuating circumstances — his wife was a lesbian who hadn’t had sex with him in 20 years — he left the ministry and started working a secular job. He never pastored a church again. Why is it so many disgraced pastors don’t do the same? Oh, they will get a secular job for a year or two until the heat dies down and people move on, but more often than not, back to the ministry they go.

I am convinced that many of these men are addicted to the ministry. They spent years being the center of attention. People looked up to them, fawned over them, and treated them as if they were gods. I left the ministry in 2005. I miss the constant adulation and praise of others. I miss being the hub around which everything turned. I miss having the respect of others. I miss, to put it bluntly, being DA MAN! Pastors who read this blog know what I am talking about. The close connection preachers have with congregants is fulfilling and satisfying. It is almost impossible to find similar feelings in the “world.” Much like drug addicts craving hits of methamphetamine, preachers crave the attention, flattery, and admiration they receive from congregants. Live off this high long enough, and you can’t imagine not having it. That’s why many pastors with crimes/indiscretions in their pasts end up rebooting their ministries somewhere else. These “men of God” are much like King David as he looked over the rooftops and saw Bathsheba naked, taking a bath. “I have got to have her,” David thought. And have her, he did. So it is with the preachers I have talked about in this post. Their Bathsheba is the ministry.

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.

Connect with me on social media:

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Black Collar Crime: Ohio Evangelical Pastor William Dunfee Found Guilty for His Part in January 6 Insurrection

pastor william dunfee

The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.

William Dunfee, pastor of New Beginnings Ministry in Warsaw, Ohio, was found guilty of participating in the January 6 insurrection.

The Columbus Dispatch reports:

An Ohio pastor has been found guilty of criminal charges in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for his actions in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

William Dunfee, 58, of Frazeysburg, Muskingum County, was found guilty Monday of two felony charges of obstruction of an official proceeding or aiding and abetting a civil disorder, and a misdemeanor charge of entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.

Dunfee, who was not charged with entering the Capitol building during the failed attempt by President Trump supporters to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s election victory, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 24.

The pastor of the New Beginnings Ministry in Warsaw, Coshocton County, Dunfee was arrested in October 2022 and accused by federal prosecutors of twice pushing a metal barricade against Capitol Police officers and using a bullhorn to rally the crowd, based on video evidence entered into court evidence.

“The election has been stolen right out from underneath our noses and it is time for the American people to rise up. Rise up. Rise up,” Dunfee is accused of saying over a bullhorn. “Today is the day in which it is that these elected officials realize that we are no longer playing games. That we are not sheeple.”

Prior to traveling to Washington for the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the Department of Justice alleges in court records that Dunfee tried to fire up members of his congregation to make the trip. Dunfee is accused of posting a video on Dec. 27, 2020, telling his congregation: “The government, the tyrants, the socialists, the Marxists, the progressives, the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only), they fear you. And they should. Our problem is we haven’t given them any reason to fear us.”

A criminal complaint contained in court records states that a tip to federal authorities helped lead to the arrest of Dunfee, who while at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was wearing a baseball cap with the name and logo of the company he co-owns, Cross Builders, LLC in Coshocton.

Years ago, Dunfee was known for his pickets of area adult entertainment businesses — especially The FoxHole, a local strip club. The owner and the strippers at The FoxHole returned the pickets in kind — except for the fact that the strippers picketed topless on Sundays in front of Dunfee’s church. 🙂

The New York Times reported at the time:

To shield churchgoers from the topless protesters, curtains are hung around the parking lot of New Beginnings Ministries. The pastor, Wiliam R. Dunfee, said families including children have been entering through a back door.

Still, the pastor vowed to go on with his vigils at a strip club that led to its dancers picketing at his church.

“I have no intention of looking away from evil,” said Mr. Dunfee, who has read the Bible aloud and buttonholed patrons outside the strip club, the Foxhole, for nearly nine years.

He said he has talked husbands into returning home to their wives and attracted out-of-state supporters to what he calls his “ministry” outside the Foxhole — though he has not succeeded in closing it down.

The pastor has both fans and critics here in east central Ohio, a nub of the Bible Belt where Amish schoolgirls play baseball in long dresses, but many people believe a lawful business should be free from churchgoers pestering clients and employees, sometimes loudly, until midnight on weekends.

“Interrupting people and whatever, there’s really no call for it,” said Paul Wilson, a trustee of New Castle Township (population: 450), where the club is located, nine miles up the road from Mr. Dunfee’s flock. “As far as the church goes, they ought to go back to where they came from and stay there.”

Mr. Dunfee said he was acting on behalf of “victims” of the Foxhole, who in his view, include the “lost souls” who gyrate around the dance poles, the wives of men who by ogling the dancers are breaking their wedding vows, and even aborted babies that might result from “the enticement of irresponsible sex.”

But in this long-running standoff, the lines are not always where they appear to be. Mr. Dunfee is an admitted adulterer who was forced to resign from a church he had led. The strip club’s owner, Thomas George, called the pastor hypocritical for “telling me my place is breaking up marriages.”

“It has been outright harassment going on nine years,” said Mr. George, whose club is a windowless boxcar of a building with peeling plywood sides. “I decided to show them, you don’t want it behind closed doors? We’ll bring it right out in the open and see how you like it.”

And so half a dozen topless dancers with hand-lettered signs began showing up at Mr. Dunfee’s church on Sunday mornings last month. The pastor acknowledged that they cannot be arrested since courts have interpreted indecency laws to mean that female breasts are not genitalia and can be bared in public.

County officials are at wit’s end. The sheriff, the county prosecutor and the law director for the City of Coshocton, the seat of Coshocton County, sent a letter to the pastor and club owner this month asking them to cease and desist.

….

At a protest outside the club on Sept. 5, Mr. Dunfee was accused of trespassing too close to the Foxhole and was arrested. In response, the pastor filed an assault complaint against Mr. George, accusing him of shoving him from his parking lot.

Mr. Skelton, who prosecutes misdemeanors, declined to pursue charges against either man.

The pastor has drawn supporters to his Friday night vigils from Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina. He wrote to Mr. Skelton demanding an apology “to all the gentle Christians” who have been trampled on by overzealous law enforcement.

In an interview at his church, which has grown steadily since he founded it in 2001, most recently adding a 250-seat sanctuary, Mr. Dunfee said, “There’s never going to be a compromise.”

“We have taken a proactive approach to dealing with evil in our community,” said the pastor, who has also demonstrated at gay pride parades in Columbus. He cited the biblical responsibility of pastors “to be the watchmen on the wall” in defense of families and community.

….

But Mr. Dunfee denied that his long crusade connected to his own history of infidelity. In 2000, he resigned as pastor of Black Run Church of God in Frazeysburg, Ohio, because of a relationship outside his marriage, the pastor acknowledged.

“It was a form of adultery,” he said, one which brought him “a great deal of shame.” He said he had he repented and asked forgiveness from many people, including his wife of 31 years, Connie. “I have received forgiveness,” Mr. Dunfee added. “Because of my past, I’m more capable to help other men.”

Mr. George, who founded the Foxhole in 1999, was not so forgiving. He said the church’s vigils, which he said sometimes featured Mr. Dunfee on a bullhorn, “have run my business into the ground.” He has sought two legal injunctions to keep the pastor 100 feet from his building. Both were denied. He said he has no more money to waste on lawyers. So he has been fighting back creatively, including a radio ad that invited listeners to visit the Foxhole to see why it is the pastor’s “favorite weekend hangout.”

The idea of a topless protest at the church came after the club’s dancers, while confronting church members outside the club, removed their tops and saw that it upset Mr. Dunfee’s supporters.

Robin Kimbrough, one of Mr. George’s longtime employees, defended her line of work. “Morally that is my decision to make,” said Ms. Kimbrough, who started as a dancer and now manages Mr. George’s club in Zanesville, which has also been protested. “It is my burden to God to bear,” she said. “I’m aware of what I do. My husband and I have eight children together. It happens to work for our family.”

Even though the topless protests have not dissuaded Mr. Dunfee to stand down, Mr. George said the controversy has at least reminded people he was still in business. On Tuesday, he hung new blue siding on his club, whose sign is faded and whose concrete steps are crumbling. He acknowledged that Mr. Dunfee’s moral certainty would likely outlast the stamina of his dancers to march at the church. “I imagine he’ll go on with it,” he said. “I’ll go away at some point. It’s going to get cold.”

Truly an example of “tit for tat.” 🙂

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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What My IFB Upbringing Taught Me About Myself

In the early 1960s, my parents began attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego (El Cajon), California. There, the Gerencser family was saved, baptized, and introduced to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement — my church home for the next thirty years.

At the age of fifteen, I was saved and baptized at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio, a fast-growing IFB church affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship in Springfield, Missouri. In the fall of 1976, I enrolled for classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern, an IFB institution founded by Dr. Tom Malone, pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, prided itself on being a “character-building factory.” While at Midwestern, I married Polly, an IFB pastor’s daughter. In the spring of 1979, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan, Ohio. Not long after, I began working for my first IFB church in Montpelier, Ohio. I would later plant and pastor three IFB churches.

In 1989, The Biblical Evangelist — an IFB newspaper published by Robert Sumner — released a scathing story accusing Jack Hyles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hammond Indiana, of sexual misconduct, financial impropriety, and doctrinal error. By then, I had become disillusioned with the IFB church movement over its bastardization of the Christian gospel. The Hyles scandal was the last straw for me. Going forward, I self-identified as a Sovereign Grace Baptist, Reformed Baptist, Evangelical, or just Christian.

While I physically distanced myself from the IFB church movement, its teachings and the damage they caused left a deep, lasting impression on my life. Fundamentalism is hard to shake, especially for lifelong IFB adherents. Why is this?

Let me be clear, the IFB church movement is a cult. Some churches are more cultic than others, but all IFB churches have cultic tendencies. One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with was the fact that I was not only a member of a cult, but I was also a cult leader. I was most certainly a victim, but I was a victimizer too.

Indoctrination and conditioning are keys to turning well-meaning, sincere people into cultists. For children born into the IFB church movement, the indoctrination and conditioning begin at birth or soon thereafter. By the time a child graduates from high school, they have attended almost 4,000 church services and listened to almost 4,000 sermons. Many IFB children either attend private Fundamentalist schools or are homeschooled. After graduation, many children attend IFB colleges such Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, Maranatha Baptist College, Crown College, West Coast Baptist College, Hyles-Anderson, Baptist Bible College — Springfield, Trinity Baptist College, Louisiana Baptist University, Golden State Baptist College, Arlington Baptist University, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Ambassador Baptist College, Fairhaven Baptist College, Landmark Baptist College, Massillon Baptist College, and numerous other colleges and church-based Bible institutes.

This means that for many IFB children, they know nothing outside of the IFB bubble. Their parents shelter them from the “world,” and in doing so rob them of the ability to think for themselves. How can rational choices be made if you have never been exposed to any other worldview but that of your IFB parents, pastors, and churches?

The title of this post asks the question, ” What did my IFB upbringing teach me about myself?”

My parents, pastors, youth directors, Sunday school teachers, and professors taught me from my childhood forward:

Bruce, you are a sinner

Bruce, you are broken

Bruce, you are evil

Bruce, you are wicked

Bruce, you are an enemy of God

Bruce, you are at variance with God

Bruce, you can’t do good

Bruce, God is going to torture you in Hell for eternity if you don’t get saved

Bruce, you are going to face endless pain and suffering in Hell if you don’t get saved

Even after I was saved, these same people reminded me that I was still a sinner, and that there was no good in me.

Bruce, if you do __________, God is going to punish you

Bruce, if you do __________, God could kill you

Bruce, if you do __________, God could kill your wife or children

Bruce, if you DON’T do ____________, God will chastise you

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, I was beaten over the head with the sin stick and once I became a pastor, I continued the abuse. No one raised this way can escape harm. Is it any wonder that many people who leave the IFB church movement need professional counseling; that their lives are deeply scarred by decades of indoctrination and conditioning?

Let me be clear, these things are not peculiar to the IFB church movement. Similar indoctrination and conditioning can be found throughout Evangelicalism, including denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, and countless unaffiliated churches.

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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Bruce, What Were the Psychological Aspects of Your Loss of Faith?

no regrets

Several years ago, a friend of mine asked me about the psychological aspects of my loss of faith. He rightly noted that most of my writing about my deconversion focuses on the intellectual aspects of the process. I told him that talking about the psychological/emotional aspects of my life, both as a Christian and an atheist, gives my critics easy targets to attack. My story befuddles, aggravates, and confuses many Evangelical zealots. If they can find a flaw or weakness in me personally, it makes it that much easier to discredit me or dismiss my story out of hand. Over the past seventeen years, I have been savaged by Evangelical apologists who want nothing more than to deconstruct my life or dismantle my story. Talking about subjective psychological or emotional issues gives them ammunition to not only marginalize me, but also grind me under their Fundamentalist bootheels. That said, I know it is important for me to tell all of my story. If I truly want people to understand my journey from Evangelicalism to atheism, I must talk about the psychological aspects of my deconversion.

As I look back over my life, there are several things that stand out from a psychological/emotional perspective.

First, I struggled with why it seemed that God never materially blessed me. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how many days a week I labored in God’s vineyard, it never seemed that my pay was commensurate with my labor. My colleagues in the ministry all seemed to be doing better financially than I was, and all of them worked fewer hours than I did. Many of them seemed quite passive, rarely going out of their way to advance the kingdom of Christ. They, in my estimation, were placeholders. I, on the other hand, worked, worked, worked, pushed, pushed, pushed, rarely stopping to smell the roses. I sincerely believed the Hell was hot, souls were dying, and Jesus was coming back soon. These beliefs, and others, warped my view of the world. I thought, “better to burn out than rust out.” And so, year after year, I ran the race set before me, with little money to show for it.

It was not until the early 2000s that I finally realized I was a lone sprinter, running as fast as I could to finish a race no one else was running. Everywhere I looked, I saw congregants and ministerial colleagues buying houses and land, driving nice cars, taking vacations, and funding their retirement accounts. I thought, “It’s evident God doesn’t reward voluntary poverty or simplicity, so I might as well enjoy the good life like everyone else is.” As a result, I fundamentally changed how I viewed money and material things. Instead of being the last in line when the church paid its bills, I insisted they pay me first. Polly went out and got a job, and bit by bit we crawled out the financial pit I had dug for us.

I learned that God didn’t care one way or another. Of course, the reason for this is that he didn’t exist. I was waiting for a “dead” Jesus to bless me, and that was never going to happen.

Second, in a similar vein, I struggled with why God seemed disinterested in healing me. My health began to decline in the mid-90s, and no matter what came my way physically, it seemed that God just wanted me to endure it. No matter how much or how long I prayed for healing, God was silent. Oh, I would convince myself that he was “helping” me, but deep down I knew that my prayers weren’t reaching the throne room of Heaven, and most likely were just bouncing off the ceiling.  As I looked at the suffering of other believers, I noticed that God seemed to be ignoring them too. I thought, “Isn’t Jesus the Great Physician?” Why does it seem he is always on vacation?

These two issues deeply weighed on me emotionally. I was a committed, devoted, sold-out follower of Jesus, yet it seemed that God didn’t care one way or another. In fact, it seemed that the harder I worked, the worse things got economically and physically. Of course, the reason for this is that I was chasing an imaginary God. I was devoted to a being that did not exist.

While my deconversion was primarily fueled by my re-investigation of the claims of Christianity and the Bible, emotional struggles over money and health problems certainly played a part. It took seeing a secular counselor to help me understand how all these things were intertwined in my life. Untangling my life hasn’t been easy. The wounds left behind by the years I spent in the ministry run deep, affecting me psychologically to this day. In November 2008, I walked out the back door of the church, never to return. I knew that I was no longer a Christian. What I didn’t know is how to best live my life going forward.  As an Evangelical, I believed and practiced the JOY acronym:

  • Jesus First
  • Others Second
  • Yourself Last (or You Don’t Matter)

As an atheist and a humanist, I came to understand that taking care of self had to come first; that I had to care for myself psychologically. I also learned that it is okay to enjoy life; that it is okay to spend money for no other reason than that you want to; that it is okay to enjoy material things. Further, I learned that my family mattered to me more than anything. I thought they did when I was a Christian, but an honest accounting of my life revealed that Jesus, the ministry, church members, unsaved people, and just about everyone else came before my family. I regret spending much of my life more devoted to God and others than my wife and children. As an atheist, I now have my mind focused on the things and people who matter. I have learned that it is okay to tell people NO; that I don’t always have to help others; that I don’t have to always please others.

I have spent the past seventeen years re-making my life. Better? Worse? I will leave it to others to make such judgments. I do know that I am far happier today than I was as a pastor (not that I was necessarily “unhappy” as a clergyman). I am not sure that this post will satisfy those looking for the psychological reasons I deconverted. I know I run the risk of having critics say that I left Christianity because I was bitter over my economic status and God’s indifference towards my health problems. Perhaps, but at the end of the day, the reason I am an atheist is that I no longer believe the central claims of Christianity were true. I may have been angry, bitter, jaded, or pissed off, but these alone were not enough to drive me from the household of faith.

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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WWJD?: Local Evangelical Pastor Chris Avell Faces Criminal Charges for Caring for the Homeless

pastor chris avell

By Julia Conley, Common Dreams, Used with Permission

Chris Avell, a pastor in Bryan, Ohio who opened his church to the city’s “vulnerable” residents to give them a place to stay amid freezing winter weather, is suing city officials over what he says is “discrimination” and “harassment” stemming from criminal charges he faced for providing housing for homeless people. 

Avell filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the city of Bryan, Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Department Capt. Jamie Mendez, zoning official Andrew Waterson, and Fire Chief Doug Pool.

In court filings, Avell said he hosted an average of eight unhoused people per night at his church, Dad’s Place, “without incident” for several months before the city tried to stop him from keeping the facility open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

As Common Dreams reported last week, city officials told Avell he could no longer house people in the church because it lacked bedrooms and was zoned as a central business, in which Ohio prohibits residential use.

Authorities arrived at the church during a New Year’s Eve service and issued 18 zoning and fire code violations.

Despite Avell’s assertion that welcoming unhoused people into the church, which is located next to a homeless shelter that has experienced overcrowding, has not caused any disruptions in the community, Bryan city officials said in a new release that police saw an increase in reports of “inappropriate activity” at Dad’s Place in May 2023, two months after Avell first opened the church at all hours. 

“It was city police officers who would bring people by,” Avell told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by.”

He told the outlet that two volunteers have acted as security guards since he began the overnight “Rest and Refresh in the Lord ministry,” and that the church has allowed anyone who needs shelter to stay overnight, only asking them to leave if “there is a biblically valid reason for doing so or if someone at the property poses a danger to himself or others.”

Avell’s lawsuit alleges that the city has moved the “goalposts” in its directives to him regarding safety and zoning codes. Officials ordered him to install a hood over the stove in the church’s kitchen, but after he complied, the city said the hood was not sufficient and required him to have the state inspect it.

“Nothing satisfies the city,” Jeremy Dys, Avell’s attorney, told the AP. “And worse—they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths.”

Avell accused the city of engaging in a “campaign to harass, intimidate, and shut down Dad’s Place” and said the order to stop housing homeless people was “directly contrary to its religious obligation.”

Represented by a conservative legal group called the First Liberty Institute, Avell alleged that the city has violated his rights under the First Amendment, the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The court filings included a request for a restraining order against the city as well as damages and attorneys’ fees.

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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The Left Has a Great Story to Share About Alternatives to Capitalism — Why Don’t They Tell It?

socialist protester

By C.J. Polychroniou, Common Dreams, Used with Permission

If we are to expect the frustrated and badly battered working-class people to turn their backs on the false promises of the far right and join instead the struggle for a more humane order based on socialist ideals and values, we need to take winning hearts and minds much more seriously.

For radical socialists, one of the most frustrating political experiences in the post-Cold War era is witnessing the dramatic deterioration of socio-economic conditions throughout the developed world and, at the same time, the failure of the Left narrative to convince the citizenry about the root causes of the problems at hand and that alternative socio-economic arrangements are in turn urgently needed. This is a paradox that open-minded radical socialists should not be hesitant to confront. A critical examination of the failure of the Left narrative to make inroads with the laboring classes in contemporary capitalist society is a must if the political pendulum is to swing back from conservative control.

The Left has always offered solid critiques about the state of capitalism. Armed with a class-driven perspective (“the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”) which has become increasingly complemented by a multi-level analysis that also brings into play the role of race, gender, culture and ethnicity, the Left narrative about the nature of the problems facing contemporary capitalist societies has no equal among politico-economic discourses. It explains economic inequality on the basis of the dynamics of a profit-driven system geared toward serving almost exclusively the interests of the dominant classes instead of treating it as an outcome of individual failures (the right-wing version of economic inequality); understands racism as a force of its own, instead of trying to sweep it under the carpet as the Right does, but also recognizes that it’s continuation in present-day society is a consequence of specific institutional arrangements and both implicit and explicit biases; and advocates a succession of policies that aim toward the attainment of the common good instead of catering to the needs and interests of a tiny coterie of corporate and financial elites as conservative policies tend to do.

The Left narrative is intellectually rigorous but also couched in deeply humanistic terms. Since the French Revolution, the Left worldview has always been one that values the common good over narrowly defined private interests, progress over tradition, democracy over authoritarian rule. As such, it favors cooperation over competition, solidarity over rugged individualism, and science over religion and superstition. It is of little surprise, therefore, that the world’s greatest intellectuals, artists and writers in the modern age — from Victor Hugo to Arturo Toscanini and from Pablo Picasso to Jean Paul Sartre — have been to the left of the political spectrum. Indeed, in a continent where ideas have always been taken very seriously, one of the great grievances among 20th century European conservatives was over the fact that so few artists and intellectuals were to be found to the right of the ideological spectrum.

Nonetheless, no matter how intellectually and morally powerful it may have been, the Left narrative about the brutal realities of the capitalist system and the alternative values that should be guiding societal development was never the dominant political paradigm. The forces of reaction have always been a formidable opponent, relying both on the ideological and repressive apparatuses of the state to block radical change initiatives. From the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune by French and Prussian troops during the “Bloody Week” (21-28 May 1871), where some 30,000 Communards were killed, to the role of the CIA in promoting anticommunism in Europe in the period immediately following the Second World War to today’s strategic co-optation of once radical groups into mainstream political forces (the German Green Party, Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, to name just a few), the powers that be have almost always found ways to create barriers to radical social transformation.

The Left narrative has also been undermined by the experience of “actually existing socialism.” Socialism, as practiced in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, was undemocratic and had little tolerance for individual liberties and freedoms. The political system in place actually sabotaged the social, cultural, and economic achievements of “actually existing socialism,” which were in fact quite extensive, and it was a key factor in people turning away from embracing socialism as an alternative socio-economic order.

Formed in the periphery of the global capitalist system, where neither economic nor political development had yet to reach capitalist maturity (Russia was largely an agrarian society that had never before experienced democracy when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917), the type of socialism introduced functioned on the basis of the centralization of economic resources and institutions in the hands of the state and on single party governance. Workers had no say in economic decisions even though they were touted as co-owners of the means of production. This form of system became entrenched in the “motherland” of socialism after Stalin became an autocrat (1929-1953) and remained pretty much intact even during the so-called liberalization period that was ushered in by Nikita Khruschev (1956-1964), while even less changed under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). In the land of “actually existing socialism,” the rulers possessed no wealth and had no private property of their own but made all the decisions for the rest of society. The USSR was at best a “deformed workers’ state.”

Still, socialist and communist parties in the western world were quite popular with the masses both during the interwar years and for much of the postwar period. Communist parties carried a great deal of influence in trade unions and student movements and socialist parties were in power in numerous European countries after World War II. Indeed, the future did seem to belong to the Left.

All this changed for the worse with the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and the end of the Cold War. Instead of feeling liberated by the collapse of authoritarian state-socialism, the western Left felt a loss of identity and entered a long period of intellectual confusion and political paralysis. Many of its intellectuals abandoned their long-held ideas about socialism and communism and turned instead to mainstream political discourses, while others fell into depression and retreated altogether from political and ideological struggles. Subsequently, postmodern philosophers emerged on the scene who not only challenged the ideals of socialism but, in one of the vilest interventions in the history of intellectual discourse, identified socialism and communism with the crimes of Stalinism. The works of Marx were either ignored or completely distorted. By the mid-1990s, the intellectual paradigm shifted from Marxism and socialism to postmodernism. Media outlets to the very left of the political spectrum saw their readership decline in substantial numbers, and communist parties fell out of favor with intellectuals, workers, and students alike. By the early 2000s, most western communist parties ended up in the dustbin of history while trade unions lost entirely their political character and turned ever more toward economism. The end result was that the vision of socialism suffered a tremendous blow and the Left narrative about capitalism became quite marginalized, having little impact on the laboring populations that were experiencing declining standards of living, growing economic insecurity, and a shrinking social state under the auspices of neoliberalism.

And this is where things still stand today. Socialism remains in deep crisis in the developed world, with the only exception being the United States, the only country in the developed world that doesn’t even have a left-wing political party.

Indeed, in the metropolis of the neoliberal capitalist universe, socialism is enjoying considerable popular support, especially among the youth. For the first time, socialism in the U.S. has ceased being a taboo. Yet, one could argue that some of the political figures most responsible for the rebirth of socialism in the United States (such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders) are not socialists per se and that their fight is on behalf of a light version of European social democracy.

To stress this point further, the progressive struggle in the U.S. is over a series of selected economic and social issues (universal healthcare, student debt elimination, unionization, and defending social security and Medicare) when Europe’s postwar left-wing movements and parties, especially from the 1950s through the mid-1980s, were aiming for nothing less than the radical transformation of the entire capitalist system. Social rights such as free higher education and free healthcare had already been realized in western European countries, thus making the struggle for socialism not issue-oriented but a holistic project. For example, demands for the socialization of the means of production were on top of the political agenda of all radical left parties and organizations in western Europe. The French communist party did not shy away from labelling the socialist revolution and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as its key strategic objectives. Yet, indicative of how sour things have gone for the socialist project since the end of the Cold War, popular forces in many European countries find themselves today fighting for the mere protection of basic social rights as the wrecking ball of neoliberalism is in full swing, seeking to destroy the last vestiges of the social state.

The Left narrative is failing to convince the bulk of the citizenry in today’s western world not because the analyses advanced about the consequences of neoliberal capitalism are incorrect but because the vision of socialism itself rarely enters the equation. Leftist intellectuals shy away from making a case for socialism. Critiques of neoliberal capitalism are not in themselves a case for the radical transformation of capitalism and its eventual replacement with a socialist socio-economic order. Critiques of neoliberal capitalism without the ideological underpinnings of a socialist vision ingrained into the analysis suggest that there is no alternative to capitalism, only a better version of capitalism. And today’s Left narrative is overwhelmed with critiques of neoliberal capitalism, which are of course very much needed, but remain largely silent about the question of a future beyond capitalism.

If we are to expect the frustrated and badly battered working-class people to turn their backs on the false promises of the far right and join instead the struggle for a more humane order based on socialist ideals and values, then the ideological battle for the minds and hearts of the laboring populations must be resumed. The vision of socialism must return in full force to the public arena. Ideological belief systems matter in politics. They are what motivates people into political action.

There are, however, also systemic factors responsible for the failure of the Left narrative to convince the laboring population in the developed countries. On the one hand, the ideological apparatuses of late capitalism have elevated the art of political apathy to such great heights that they have succeeded in making an increasingly large segment of the citizenry feel totally helpless about the possibility of making a meaningful change through participation in political struggles. At the same time, they are creating the illusion that success and failure are a matter of character, and that self-realization can be attained based on the pursuit of purely self-centered activities rather than through engagement with other human beings in common struggles for a better future for all. Whether it is the entertainment industry or marketing strategies for consumers, the prevailing mode of reference is the “self,” the individual as an isolated unit with “unique” experiences. Social injustices are virtually never brought into light by the system’s ideological apparatuses, including public education which acts under capitalism as a mechanism for creating social consensus around mainstream values and beliefs. The corporatization of higher education, with its overwhelming emphasis on market skills instead of critical pedagogy for the betterment of society and the enhancement of the democratic ethos, has also contributed immensely to the politics of apolitical culture.

On the other hand, the political agencies and the cultural institutions that are needed for the enhancement of working-class consciousness and for activating the Left narrative into action have been extensively weakened and, in some cases, even become extinct. As stated earlier, communist parties in western Europe are mostly gone while their socialist counterparts have moved so far to the right that they are now virtually indistinguishable from Christian Democratic and conservative parties in general. As for today’s radical left parties, they are anything but radical and reflect the ideological confusion that is the hallmark of multiculturalism and the politics of identity. In sum, the working classes in the developed world find themselves today without mass-based political parties that represent the interests of labor. Little wonder then why working-class people are drawn to the far-right as the leaders of those parties claim to be fighting for the primacy of workers’ interests.

Until a few decades ago, the working-class people throughout the developed world could not only rely on mass parties representing specifically their own interests but also had their own cultural institutions whose mission was to foster ideological awareness and forge proletarian culture. Socialist and communist newspapers made an immense contribution to working-class consciousness and raised the level of radicalism. Trade unions performed an equally important role by organizing various educational and social activities that enhanced solidarity. With the collapse of “actually existing socialism” and the onset of a socialist crisis, all working-class institutions experienced a dramatic fallout. In Italy, l’Unità, which had been founded by Antonio Gramsci and was the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, went under. In France, the venerable L’Humanité has been struggling for years with financial woes and low circulation. As for workers’ clubs, they are a thing of the past.

In conclusion, the Left narrative, no matter how accurate and intellectually powerful it may be, cannot expect to catch the imagination of the citizenry without including a vision for a real alternative future. Moreover, working-class cultural institutions need to be reinstituted for the enhancement of class consciousness and authentic socialist parties need to be rediscovered for the Left narrative to become politically effective. Social movements are important, but their actions rarely have lasting effects. Only political parties can succeed in forging the Left narrative into the policy agenda and turn it into a programmatic plan for radical social change. Understandably enough, this is quite a tall order, but the Left needs to win once again the hearts and minds of the laboring classes. But it needs the necessary political agencies and cultural instruments to do so. It cannot accomplish it on intellectual grounds alone, especially with the politics of identity acting as a spearhead for social transformation. The Communist Manifesto would have remained just a mere political document if it wasn’t for the existence of radical political parties across the globe to embrace it as their guide and vision for the emancipation of the working class from the yoke of capital.

In conclusion, the Left narrative, no matter how accurate and intellectually powerful it may be, cannot expect to catch the imagination of the citizenry without including a vision for a real alternative future. Moreover, working-class cultural institutions need to be reinstituted for the enhancement of class consciousness and authentic socialist parties need to be rediscovered for the Left narrative to become politically effective. Social movements are important, but their actions rarely have lasting effects. Only political parties can succeed in forging the Left narrative into the policy agenda and turn it into a programmatic plan for radical social change. Understandably enough, this is quite a tall order, but the Left needs to win once again the hearts and minds of the laboring classes. But it needs the necessary political agencies and cultural instruments to do so. It cannot accomplish it on intellectual grounds alone, especially with the politics of identity acting as a spearhead for social transformation. The Communist Manifesto would have remained just a mere political document if it wasn’t for the existence of radical political parties across the globe to embrace it as their guide and vision for the emancipation of the working class from the yoke of capital

The Left has always offered solid critiques about the state of capitalism. Armed with a class-driven perspective (“the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”) which has become increasingly complemented by a multi-level analysis that also brings into play the role of race, gender, culture and ethnicity, the Left narrative about the nature of the problems facing contemporary capitalist societies has no equal among politico-economic discourses. It explains economic inequality on the basis of the dynamics of a profit-driven system geared toward serving almost exclusively the interests of the dominant classes instead of treating it as an outcome of individual failures (the right-wing version of economic inequality); understands racism as a force of its own, instead of trying to sweep it under the carpet as the Right does, but also recognizes that it’s continuation in present-day society is a consequence of specific institutional arrangements and both implicit and explicit biases; and advocates a succession of policies that aim toward the attainment of the common good instead of catering to the needs and interests of a tiny coterie of corporate and financial elites as conservative policies tend to do.

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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Bruce Gerencser