Tag Archive: Guest Post

The Doctor We Need

C Everett Koop

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I am an atheist and a Democrat. Even so, the public official I have most respected, for most of my adult life, was a conservative Christian — and a rock-ribbed Republican.

If you are around my age, you have an image of him with a bushy, mustacheless beard. You remember him wearing what looked like a Naval Admiral’s uniform, or a suit with a brightly-colored bow tie that served as a diacritical mark highlighting his facial hair.

Most important, though, you remember the way he acted while he was on the national (and, for a time, worldwide) stage. That behavior was completely consistent with his professional ethos as well as his personal values.

His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981. Charles Everett Koo His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981.

He would soon put their fears to rest. Although he personally opposed abortion because of his religious beliefs, he would not succumb to pressure from the Reagan administration to prepare a report stating that abortion is psychologically damaging to women. Ever the doctor (pediatric surgeon) and scientist, he said there simply wasn’t evidence to corroborate what the President wanted him to say. 

His stance seems even more consistent with his credo when you realize how active he was in championing the rights of the newborn. Although he was not personally involved with the case, he was motivated by the death of a six-day-old boy who was born with Down Syndrome and denied surgical treatment to correct his esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula. Before he became Surgeon General, he was, for more than three decades, the surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, during which he saw increasing survival rates for babies with congenital maladies. During his last eight years, he never lost a full-term baby on whom he operated to correct esophageal atresia.

He would also call attention to the AIDS epidemic when the President would not utter the word “AIDS” in public. Liberal and LGBT groups criticized him for highlighting the dangers of sexual intercourse in general, and gay sex in particular, for spreading the disease. But he was also excoriated by religious conservatives and others for recommending mandatory sex education, beginning in the third grade.

Finally, he put his scientific knowledge ahead of the wishes of his boss when he called for stronger warnings against tobacco use. He infuriated some of the largest donors to the Republican Party—namely, cigarette makers—by issuing a report saying that nicotine has addictive qualities similar to those of heroin and cocaine, and should be treated as such.

After he left public life, he started a website that published articles that turned out to be little more than advertisements. Still, he deserves credit for his fealty to empirical evidence over the agenda of an administration, or even his own religious beliefs.

It seems that a Dr. Koop for this generation, if you will, has emerged. Like Koop, he is a physician and scientist. He, too, became a national public official during the Reagan Administration. He is also is resisting, quite publicly, a President and administration who deny science at every turn. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci became the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. He has remained in that position under six Presidents, turning down several offers to lead the NIAID’s parent organization, the National Institutes of Health. During his tenure, Fauci has been at the forefront of efforts to deal with HIV, SARS, Ebola and other contagious diseases. In 2003, the Institute for Scientific Information stated that during the previous two decades, Fauci was “the 13th-most cited scientists among the 2.5 to 3 million authors in all disciplines throughout the world who published articles in scientific journals.”

His current boss denied the threat of the coronavirus until a couple of days ago. Even after Donald Trump finally acknowledged the severity of the pandemic and the need to take unprecedented actions against it (and the economic disruptions it’s causing), he continued to blame the Chinese for it. And members of his administration insist that, while public gatherings and physical contact of other kinds have been banned in various cities and countries, church-goers won’t get sick by attending worship services, and that communion wafers and shared wine cups won’t transmit the virus.

Dr. Fauci, in another parallel with Dr. Koop, refutes those, and other, follies—and articulates his dire but accurate warnings—in clear, unambiguous language. The main difference, I believe, between the two men’s situations is that while most of the pressure on Koop came from “behind the scenes,” Fauci must make himself heard when his boss is an overbearing bully who is always trying to talk over him. Fortunately for us, Dr. Fauci, it seems, has been heard, loud and clear. 

So here is another case of history repeating itself: Drs. Koop and Fauci had to fight against religious superstition and plain-and-simple bigotry in the hope that empirical evidence would guide public policy. Unfortunately, if history teaches us anything, it’s that every public health crisis will need a Dr. Koop or a Dr. Fauci, whatever his or her ecumenical or political affiliations, to prevail against religious bigotry and political partisanship. People who were caught in earlier epidemics like the Black Death, unfortunately, did not have anyone like either of them.

The Real Bankruptcy

scouting for boys

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

The Boy Scouts of America recently declared bankruptcy. Not coincidentally, a number of Roman Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy during the past decade.

Today I live as a woman and an atheist. But I grew up as a Boy Scout in the Catholic Church. From my current perspective, decades after my involvement with the Church and the Scouts, I can see some parallels between the organizations—and how they are failing for essentially the same reasons.

According to a Pew survey, as of 2015, 32 percent of Americans were raised as Catholics, but only 21 percent remained in the Church. Moreover, while the number of Protestants who reported attending a church service during the previous seven days has held steady in the 40 to 45 percent range since the 1950s, during that same period, it fell by nearly half—from 75 to 39 percent—for Catholics. The fall-off is even steeper among young people: While Catholics of all ages attended mass at nearly the same rate in 1955, by 2017, only 25 percent of 21-to-29-year-olds (compared to 49 percent of Catholics 60 and over) went to church.

The Boy Scouts of America is hemorrhaging membership even more quickly than the Church. At its peak in 1972—when I was earning my Star Scout badge—6.5 million boys were in its ranks. By 2016, that number had fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2.3 million. Two years later, in response to the BSA’s decisions to allow gays, transgenders and girls—and to change its name to “Scouts BSA” — the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) cut its ties with the organization. About 425,000 Scouts are also members of the Mormon Church, so the national organization faced losing 18 percent of its membership in one fell swoop.

The Mormons aren’t the only ones blaming gays and girls for the demise of Scouting, at least as their elders knew it. All manner of reactionaries in the mainstream as well as the fringe media are also laying the Scouts’ troubles at the feet of those who want to foist “political correctness” (i.e., an acceptance of reality) on the rest of the world. They hear raised glasses clinking in gay bars and in The New York Times and The Washington Post newsrooms when the Scouts’ troubles are reported.

Those same pundits, whoever appointed them as such, view the decline of the Catholic Church in America and Europe in much the same way. They hold to the discredited notion that “loosening moral standards”—by which they mean societal acceptance of homosexuality and gender non-conformity—are responsible for the epidemic of sexual abuse by priests and church officials. To bolster their claim, they’ll say that the incidence of such abuse peaked during the 1960s and 1970s. To be fair, perhaps they are making an honest mistake in not realizing that those numbers are of reported incidents. One reason those numbers are high is because of people like me (baby boomers) who came of age when sexual abuse by any adult, let alone priests, was not openly discussed and it was more likely that the child—if he or she had the vocabulary, let alone awareness, to talk about it—was likely to be shamed or punished for “lying” about a priest who held an esteemed status in the family and community. Many of us did not report our sexual abuse until decades later, while those who suffered before had died.

What conservative and reactionary commentators fail to realize is that both the Church and the Scouts in America are sinking, not only under the weight of lawsuits brought by those who were abused in their confines, but also through their own irrelevance—which, itself, is one of the reasons why those abuses happen.

In brief, both the Church and the Scouts were founded upon mythologies that were outdated and even demonstrably false the moment they were adopted. The Catholic Church, like other Christian Churches, is based on a belief in stories like the death and resurrection of Christ and other miracles that fly in the face of empirical reality. Those stories were told and re-told, written and re-written, in ways that appeal to the hope (or simply the wish) that one’s lot in life can improve. Yes, there is redemption and resurrection—as long as you align yourself with power (God), even if it is often cruel and capricious and destroys innocent lives that happen to be in its path.

How is this different from the goals and means of a paramilitary youth organization? (Not for nothing are Scouting units called “Troops” and the sub-units “Patrols”.) Lord Baden-Powell said, in essence, that his purposes in starting the Scouts were to inculcate boys with “good moral character.” (Is that a code phrase, or what?) The Scout Law says a Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” (I didn’t have to Google that: I still know it, by heart, all of these decades later!) They all sound like fine characteristics, and they are. But he did not mean that those values are intrinsically worthy. You see, he was not only a military man, but a full-on imperialist who saved the garrison in Mafeking by commandeering all of the food for the white population, leaving Africans with the choice of starvation in the town or dispersal in the veldt—where, of course, many more died of hunger and disease. He ordered the flogging and shooting of Africans who tried to “steal” food while caviar was being served in the Mafeking hotel.

His book Scouting For Boys (1908) is full of naked appeals to “national unity” and defenses of the British Empire—and what a duty and privilege it is for a young man to be one of its bulwarks. (Every page practically screams Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.) While perhaps more subtle, similar calls to duty and patriotism permeated my Boy Scout Handbook published more than six decades after Baden-Powell’s piece of propaganda. Notions of God and the King (or Queen) meshed with a frontier myth that appropriated Native American traditions for the purpose of asserting an American version of Victorian-style Muscular Christianity. Boys with whom I grew up were as ready to defend their country’s interests—whatever their leaders said those interests were—as young British men were to help Britannia rule.

Indoctrinating young and powerless people with myths and propaganda not only gives them a false sense of their own power and their right to exercise it, but also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by those on whom power is bestowed in such a structure. That sense that the weak can be powerful, that those who lose the zip code lottery can find themselves living in Hammock Oaks if they align themselves with the values of the powerful—which is to say, to believe the myths they promulgate—make them prime targets for exploitation. So is it a surprise, then, that sex abuse has been so rampant in both the Boy Scouts/Scouts BSA and the Catholic Church?

I think not. To me, the only surprise is that even more people haven’t come forward because such abuse did not, as the conservative pundits assert, arise in the 1960s or 70s. It has become part of the DNA of both organizations because of their inherently imbalanced power structures, and the way those structures can be, and have been, used to exploit the vulnerable. If anything, I’d reckon that such abuses were even more rampant in the early history of the church and scouting, when fewer people questioned the authority of those who led and represented them.

Blaming the decline of the church or scouting on girls or gays, then, makes about as much sense as blaming bipolar disorder on demons. Both institutions are dying, at least in some parts of the world, because people—especially the young—are seeing them as irrelevant and corrupt as they are, and have been. No “return to traditional values,” whatever that means, can change that.

(In case you were wondering: In some of my previous articles, I talked about the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest in the late 1960s. I did not experience anything of the sort in the Scout troops to which I belonged. But long before the recent revelations hit the media, I heard stories from others who were Scouts.)

Other Posts by MJ Lisbeth

Witnesses To Abuse

A Cross He Could, and Would, Not Bear

D-Day in New York – It’s About Time

The God Pushers Are Having Their Day in The Developing World — For Now

Teach Them to Read and They Won’t Have Kids — Or Go to Church

Bitcoin For The Church: The Young Won’t Be Fooled

I Could Have Been One Of Them — In Alabama

The Irish — And The World’s — Reveille

The Real “Crisis” And “Scandal” In the Church

Burning In The Cathedral And Benedict’s Imagination

Why I Didn’t Help Him

The News Makes Me Think About Him

A Longer Statute Of Limitations for Reporting Sexual Abuse: Why It’s Necessary — And Not Enough

 

 

Witnesses To Abuse

witness

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Thirty-five years ago this month, Paramount Pictures released Witness.

It was tailor-made for the Reagan administration, and for the religious right, in that it depicts the hardworking, pious Amish as virtuous and anyone associated with The City (in this case, Philadelphia) as depraved and corrupt. That said, I will admit that I saw the movie twice and enjoyed it, mainly for some of the acting performances (which were charming or engaging, if not incisive) as well as individual scenes.

One scene that sticks out, in my mind, takes place in the 30th Street station, where Samuel Lapp, an 8-year-old Amish boy and Rachel Lapp, his recently-widowed mother, are transferring from one train to another. Moments before he witnesses a brutal murder, he sees an elderly man wearing a black coat and hat. The boy believes, for a moment, that he’s met a member of his own community; the man’s face quickly turns into a frown of rejection, which the boy mirrors. That man, it turned out, was a Chasidic Jew.

The scene was inserted mainly as a visual comic relief. Were the writing and direction of Witness more sensitive, or simply more conscious, that scene could have highlighted the “so close and yet so far” relationship between the two religious communities and cultures: While the Amish are farmers and most Chasidic Jews live in or near large cities, both reject modern secular society in nearly all of its manifestations, right down to the way people dress.

Oh, and there’s another similarity between them. It came to light only recently, but I’d had an inkling of it for some time.

During my childhood, my family visited an Amish family every summer. Although I enjoyed seeing the countryside and animals, and learning about a different way of life, I was always glad to return home, even with the emotionally unsupportive family I had: I am a city girl at heart. (All right, I was living as a boy in those days.) But I don’t think that I would have liked spending any more time than I did in that bucolic setting for another reason: Even though the people were friendly and generous, something I couldn’t articulate troubled me.

Ironically, it became a bit clearer to me when I was teaching at an Orthodox yeshiva many years later. Of course, my relationship with the pupils was very different from my experience with the Amish children I met. My family’s visits to the Amish farm were “fun” for the kids—and us—in the same way as time spent with cousins or other peers whose company you have, and enjoy, only on holidays and other occasions. While I had to be the literal and proverbial “adult in the room” for Jewish boys I taught, we didn’t have to live with each other: Their expressions of vulnerability were momentary, and we went back to our lives afterward. Still, it was hard not to see that both the Jewish and Amish boys were more vulnerable and felt more like they were failing, in one way or another, than their parents and other adults in their lives might have realized.

I also couldn’t help but notice that in both communities, the women and girls didn’t seem happy. Rather, they seemed dutifully resigned to their fate. Perhaps some even found a way to “make peace” with it, or to find some sort of fulfillment in conforming to the roles their cultures and religions prescribed for them. Even the boys—who, like their counterparts almost everywhere else, enjoyed more freedom than their sisters, mothers, aunts or grandmothers—seemed to be living in a fear that ran deeper than that of simply displeasing, and incurring scorn from, their elders.

A year ago, I wrote about a yeshiva student of mine who was sexually exploited by a rabbi at his synagogue. Around that time, the media were reporting sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox communities. Those revelations came not long after a wave of stories about clergy members and others in positions of authority who took advantage of altar boys and other children in various churches, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon, as well as evangelical sects. Around the same time, the “Me-Too” movement was spreading.

None of those developments surprised me, as I had just recently “come out,” if you will, about my own experiences of sexual abuse by a priest. It was the first time I’d talked about them with anyone besides a therapist or a former partner of mine. Some might say I am “projecting,” but any subsequent revelation of sexual abuse in a religious organization or community has not caught me by surprise. I include one of the most recent, namely, the horrors of sexual abuse recounted by people who grew up in Amish communities.

Although there is much I respect about the Amish way of life, in particular, their rejection of war, it is as rigidly hierarchical — specifically, patriarchal — as just about any other highly-organized orthodox religion. The perceived proximity of the elders, priests, rabbis, ministers — or, in some cases, even the family patriarchs — to God gives them power and authority that is rarely questioned. Challenging the position of such a leader can lead to the loss of a person’s entire way of life, not to mention his or her family and friends. That, along with the suppression of knowledge about sexuality and people’s (especially women’s and girls’) bodies and the insularity of such communities, all but ensures not only that the vulnerable will be victimized, but also that victims will not have the language to express their experiences or the means to escape from the aftermath of their trauma.

So, perhaps, the Amish and ultra-Orthodox communities have even more in common than Witness suggested, though it might not have been what the movie’s makers had in mind.

A Cross He Could, and Would, Not Bear

thelma and louise

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

When Thelma & Louise came out, it seemed that people reacted in one of two ways. Some viewers were unhappy that the two title characters fled after Thelma shot and killed the man who tried to rape her. Others — including nearly all of the women I knew — elevated those characters into heroes. One even said she felt a “catharsis” when Harlan is struck by the bullet from Thelma’s gun.

I could have said the same: When Thelma fired that gun, I vicariously struck back — at what? She did to her aggressor what I wish I’d done — to whom?

At the time I saw the film, I had not yet come to terms with the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from a priest. Those experiences were submerged within me, occasionally bubbling up through nightmares and unconscious behavior. Also, I was many years away from starting my gender-affirmation process. I was living as a man, with a deep hatred of the male species (that’s how I thought of them) and resentment of my membership in it.

I saw Thelma and Louise with the woman I was dating. She knew of my attitudes about men and referred to me, only half-jokingly, as a “male lesbian.” To her, my response to Thelma’s action was just an expression of how I felt about men generally. I accepted that explanation simply because, at that time, I couldn’t come up with a better one.

There was another part of my response to the film which I understood full well, but discussed with no one—not even my woman friend. I completely sympathized with Thelma and Louise running from the law. Actually, Thelma wanted to call the police, but Louise understood that no one would believe her claim of attempted rape, especially since Thelma had been drinking and dancing with Harlan before he tried to attack her. Now, I wasn’t drinking or dancing with the priest before he took advantage of me sexually, but I knew that even if I’d had the language to describe, and make sense of, what happened to me, no one (at least, no one I knew then) would have believed me. I grew up in a conservative community where nearly everyone attended the same church I did, and many kids were my classmates in my Catholic school. In such a milieu, nobody — especially a child — has more credibility than a priest.

A recent news story brought to mind my reaction to Thelma and Louise — and to earlier experiences. I first heard the story from a friend of mine in France, and it made its way into English-language media during the past few days.

A 19-year-old boy confronted the priest who, earlier, abused him. That, of course, is something I wish I could have done to my abuser, who died three decades before I spoke of his actions with anyone. Then the young Frenchman did a Thelma, if you will: He killed that priest.

I will admit that in hearing the story, I vicariously struck back at my abuser. Perhaps that reveals some baseness in my character. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this does: I also felt a vicarious thrill in picturing the young man vanquishing his abuser.

All right, I’ll admit: It was the way he tore the life out of that man of the cloth that so excited me. In fact, I’ll confess something perhaps even cruder: I found myself wishing I’d come up with the way he ended a decades-long string of abuses.

According to reports, the young man, identified only as “Alexandre V.” suffocated the priest by ramming a cross down his throat.

Yes, you read that right.

Now, I know that killing should never be condoned: I have opposed capital punishment from the moment I learned about it. Still, I have to concede that if I were on a jury at his trial, I would have a difficult time voting to convict him. I would hope that other jurors, and a judge, would consider not only Alexandre’s suffering, but also the way the priest “shattered a whole family,” in the young man’s words.

He was not being at all hyperbolic. Perhaps not surprisingly (at least, I’m not surprised to learn) the prelate, Father Roger Matassoli, is also alleged to have abused Alexandre’s father as well as other boys during the time he served in the northern French diocese of Saint-Andre-Farivilliers.

Alexandre probably knew about other boys Father Matassoli is said to have abused. What he and his father—as well as their fellow parishioners — probably didn’t know, until the allegations of abuse came to light, was the circumstances by which Father Matassoli arrived at their Oise parish. They probably knew only that he was transferred to their diocese from the diocese of Clermont in 1967 because of — you guessed it — allegations of sexual abuse which, of course, the church hushed up.

How many lives and families did Father Matassoli “shatter” there? We may never know, but at least that cycle has been broken.

Now I can only hope that young Alexandre gets the help he’ll need — and Thelma never got. I know how much they both need it: It took me nearly half a century to get help.

And help is all he can hope for. Although it’s tempting to see a young man ramming a cross down the throat of a priest who abused him as a kind of “poetic justice,” the truth is that there is no justice in situations like ours. I just hope that the French authorities understand as much. At least he is in a country where such help is not contingent on his (or his family’s) ability to pay for it, and where the church is losing its power to silence victims young and old.

Who Is Billy Graham, and Why Should I Visit His Library?

billy graham 1951

Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still associated with the Sword of the Lord

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Recently, my New Jersey-based family took a trip to North Carolina for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. We flew into Charlotte, rented a car, and traveled about an hour and a half west to our destination. My son, having visited Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina several months prior while visiting colleges, wanted to play our favorite highway game in the South – “count the Jesus signs.”  The rules are simple: merely spot an overtly Christian billboard or other sign not part of a church campus.

It didn’t take long for us to see a sign featuring a picture of a Bible and the message “Who is Jesus? Read Matthew’s Gospel 855-FOR-TRUTH.” This is a professional billboard that you can find on Gospel Billboards offered by Christian Aid Ministries. According to its website, CAM is a religious charity organization for Amish, Mennonite, and Anabaptist groups and people to provide physical aid and to spread their version of the gospel to different sites around the world. As I researched CAM, I came across this article regarding an investigation of a CAM aid worker who was indicted for 7 felony charges of gross sexual imposition and seven misdemeanor charges of sexual imposition. There is an investigation regarding whether 2 CAM managers knew of the sexual abuses for several years yet allowed this individual to continue to “minister” to those in need. (Please see Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Accused of Sex Crimes and Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Pleads Guilty to Sexually Abusing Minors)

We saw several more signs our first evening of driving, including a series of white wooden crosses with a different message on either side and elaborately floodlit so that they were visible at night. Apparently, these crosses are the work of Henry “Hank” Vegter, a Saluda, NC based Baptist pastor.

Here are some of the messages:

  • Jesus Paid It All
  • Blood Secured Redemption
  • Jesus Saves From Sin
  • Jesus Died For Sinners
  • Jesus’ Incorruptible Blood

My family thought it was funny when I told them that “Jesus Paid It All” is a common hymn, and I sang it for them. As my husband and kids have rarely ever attended an evangelical church service, they are always amazed at my wealth of knowledge regarding hymns, evangelical Christian messages and doctrines, and those doctrines’ implications for current politics.

My son was excited to spot the small yellow “Thank You Jesus” sign in a yard, as he recalled seeing dozens of them in North Carolina several months ago. One morning, we counted a dozen of these signs within a 30-minute time period. These signs were the brainchild of a North Carolina teen who wanted to spread the gospel. (Please see Thank You Jesus Signs.) These signs may be purchased to fund the 503(c)3 organization whose mission is to spread the gospel. In addition to the signs, one may purchase magnets, bracelets, and garden flags.

At the end of our trip, on our drive back to the airport in Charlotte, we saw more Christian signs. One from Gospel Billboards spurred a discussion. “The Bible: Wisdom, Correction, Truth” was the message, and I pointed out that the creators of the billboard probably wanted to say “Discipline” instead of “Correction” but most likely realized that “Discipline” might be off-putting to potential converts. I asked my husband and completely nonreligious kids what they thought when they saw that sign, and their reactions included ambivalence and rejection. We saw two billboards listing John 3:16 in full, but because the verse is so long and the font was difficult to read, my son had trouble catching the whole message, thus negating the purpose of the advertisement. Fortunately for all involved, my years of early childhood indoctrination ensured that I was able to recite the verse in its entirety.

At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, we saw several signs that encouraged people to visit the Billy Graham Library. My daughter asked, “Who is Billy Graham, and why should I visit his library?” I explained that Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist who spent decades touring the world spreading the message of Christianity. My husband mentioned that Billy Graham was fairly free from scandal, unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and a host of other evangelists who quite publicly used their ministries for personal gain. My kids were fairly unimpressed.

If my mother or grandparents were still alive, they would be horrified that my kids know very little of Evangelical Christianity or its vaunted icon Billy Graham. My mom was “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade in Nashville in the mid-1950s. My grandmother rarely watched television, but she ALWAYS watched the televised Billy Graham crusades. I have a very vague recollection of attending a Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville in the 1970s, as a group from our church rode our church bus to the downtown Municipal Auditorium for the grand event. I wasn’t “saved” there as I resisted “going down front” for altar calls as long as I was able to avoid doing so.

Whenever I visit the South, I am reminded of the familiarity of Evangelical culture but am very much put off by it. My kids find the culture curious, and we are all bothered by the “Blue Laws” that affect us as malls and stores aren’t open until after church hours. And that was another question from my kids – how long does church last on Sunday? My response was that it depends. The truly devout attend hour-long Sunday School, followed by a worship service, and some churches have a coffee hour or some other “fellowship” after the service. They were both glad that they were not required to attend church services, and instead able to enjoy other activities.

Do you live in an area where there are a lot of religious road-side signs? Do you live in an area with blue laws? Are you nonreligious or casually religious but living in a religiously saturated area?

The Impeachment Hearings: Echoes of Evangelicals Past

donald trump the don

Cartoon by Dave Whamond

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

History repeats itself.

I was reminded of this while listening to the impeachment hearings. Pundits are referring to Gordon Sondland’s testimony in front of the House Intelligence Committee as a “John Dean Moment”: a reference to the White House Counsel whose 1973 testimony before the Senate Watergate Subcommittee implicated his boss, then-President Richard Nixon.

However, Sondland tying a quid quo pro to the man who gave him a job (ambassador to the European Union) for which he had no apparent qualifications—aside, perhaps, from the $1,000,000 contribution he made to said boss’s inauguration—is not the only echo of a scandal from the past. As venal as Donald Trump and his administration have been, there is, sadly, almost nothing new about the kinds of corruption that have marked him and it—or, perhaps more to the point, what has enabled that corruption.

People even older than I am, some of whom are lifelong Republicans, regard Trump’s administration as the most corrupt of their lifetimes. Historians are already comparing him with the most unethical leaders in American history, such as Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding.

The latter occupied the White House nearly a century ago. One of the darkest stains on his legacy was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Interior Secretary Albert Fall (such an appropriate name) leased oil-rich Federal lands in Wyoming in exchange for large bribes. For that, he became the first Presidential Cabinet officer to go to prison for a crime committed while in office.

Evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Harding’s election, didn’t seem to care much about the scandal, just as today’s Evangelicals (82 percent of whom supported Trump in 2016) don’t seem too upset that some of his associates, including his former lawyer, campaign chairman, campaign adviser and national security adviser, have pled guilty or been indicted for crimes committed in the service of their boss.

In another bizarre parallel with Trump, Harding had a number of extramarital affairs, including some trysts that took place in the White House. Oh, and some of the Ohio cronies he appointed to prominent positions helped to keep his shelves stocked with bootleg whiskey—after he himself voted for the Eighteenth Amendment (a.k.a. Prohibition) as a Senator from Ohio. Evangelicals, who—along with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—supported the Amendment, were willing to overlook Harding’s flouting of the law as well as standards of sexual impropriety, just as today’s Evangelicals excuse “baby Christian” Trump’s two divorces, numerous extramarital affairs and sexual assault of scores of women.

In perhaps the eeriest and most damning parallel of all, Evangelical Christians’ support of two men whose behavior directly affronted the values Evangelicals professed had, at its base, the same essential motive: preserving their idea of a “Christian” nation. Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, helped to build the League of Nations but failed to get his own country to join it. His efforts were of a piece with his refusal to support Congressional efforts to restrict immigration: efforts that would finally succeed a year after Harding died in office, with the Immigration Act of 1924. One reason Evangelicals supported this legislation is that the massive immigrations of 1880-1920 were almost entirely non-Protestant (Catholics? Jews? Oh, my!) and were thus seen as undermining the “Christian” culture of this country. On the other hand, the League of Nations was seen as an attempt to subjugate America to the authority of outside forces that, presumably, would have opened the floodgates to people fleeing poverty, violence, natural disasters and political corruption in all corners of the world

Like the Harding-era policies supported by Evangelicals, Trump’s “America First” policy is an appeal to a yearning for a country based on “godly” American values that are undermined by immigration from poorer, darker countries. Thus, in another parallel with the Harding administration, “Christian” is conflated not only with the beliefs of a few Evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, but with whiteness and Anglo-Saxon heritage. Moreover, that vision of Christian Nation America is one free of “entanglements” with the rest of the world. That, along with the benefits that accrued to the Trump family and a few others in their income bracket, is a reason why Trump took the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord (signed by his predecessor and nemesis, Barack Obama) and other international agreements—and claimed that he did so because he was elected to “represent the people of Pittsburgh, not of Paris.” In doing so, he was able to present himself, to his supporters, as a champion of the “traditional” white “Christian” nation of which they were a part.

Such blatantly false appeals lead to the selling-out of the interests of this country. Evangelicals of nearly a century ago enabled the corruption that led to Teapot Dome and other scandals; Fundamentalist Christians of today likewise enabled Donald Trump to use the security of this country’s elections, and potentially of the security of this country itself, as currency in exchange for military aid to a country that, for decades, writhed under the oppression of Russia, its neighbor and former-US-enemy-turned-Trump-client.

History is repeating itself. Gordon Sondland helped to confirm that.

Science, Global Climate Change, and the Bible

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Guest post by Brandon Fibbs

In 2014, Brandon Fibbs wrote an article titled “Carl Sagan Took My Faith — and Gave Me Awe,” for the now-defunct Washington Post “On Faith” blog. Fibbs wrote:

I was not always an atheist.

I was once a devout and sincere believer in the Christian faith. I am the son and grandson of pastors and missionaries. My family founded one of the country’s largest Bible colleges, Christ for the Nations, from which I earned a theology degree. For years, I contemplated, and began strategizing, a run for national political office under the banner of Christian reform.

The longer a belief system—any belief system—remains in place, the more likely it is to become an unmovable fixture of that person’s identity. In my experience, most persons of faith who undergo a deconversion experience do so during their middle or high school years. But that is not my story. I did not begin to question, nor finally abandon, my faith until my mid-30s.

That was when I discovered science. And Carl Sagan.

Carl Sagan was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author who became a household name in the early 1980s when his television series “Cosmos: A Personal Journey” became the most watched program in PBS history. Before his untimely death in 1996, Sagan was the nation’s leading science communicator, a regular guest on both the nightly news and “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

But in my childhood home, Carl Sagan was a fundamentalist caricature of science. He was a figure of scorn and mockery, conjured in conversation only when one needed a large and easy target for pillorying evolution.

“Billions and billions of years” was a “Cosmos”-inspired quote my family and friends would mimic in Sagan’s telltale nasal inflection, always earning animated laugher. Not because it was fun to imitate so singular a personality, but because anyone who believed, much less preached, such nonsense deserved nothing more than sarcastic contempt. And so it was for most of my life.

As the product of a mostly terrific private school education, I never had to worry about encountering something like Sagan’s “Cosmos” in my school science classes. A literal reading of the book of Genesis, including a six-day creation, 6,000-year-old Earth, and a historic Noah and Tower of Babel, constituted our learning of cosmic and human origins. Evolution was a dreadful ploy spat up from the pit of hell, with which the world’s scientists were in complete collusion.

The closest I came to Sagan was in my mid-20s, when the film Contact, based on Sagan’s only novel, appeared in theaters. The story centered on a mysterious alien signal and the manner in which the globe’s many cultures processed the realization that they were not alone in the vast universe. I, like many people who saw the film, found it awe-inspiring. I can still remember returning home from the theater on a euphoric cloud, opening my Bible, and reading with wonder the majesty of God’s creative prowess.

A year or so later, I decided to read the novel, and while it entertained a certain ambiguity where matters of faith were concerned, the book initiated my first-ever crisis of faith. “Contact” raised and inspired questions that neither I nor anyone I knew could satisfactorily answer. I resolved that crisis of faith not by reconciling those quandaries, but rather by listening to those who told me that the questions themselves were either wrong to ponder or not even worthy of my time. I decided to ignore the questions, telling myself my faith was as strong as ever.

But the questions festered, continuing to grow and feeding off my neglect, until they were too large to ignore. I could not be intellectually honest and continue to ignore them. They demanded a verdict. And when I finally turned to face them down a decade or so later, I found that all my years in church and all my academic training was not enough to halt their advance.

I did not abandon my faith because I was hurt or angry or disillusioned. I did not abandon my faith because I wanted to rebel, or live a life of sin, or refuse god’s authority. I left because I could no longer believe. I left because I felt there simply was no convincing evidence for my belief. I left because my faith insulted reason one too many times. I left because once I applied the same level of skepticism and incredulity to Christianity that I always had to all other faiths, it likewise imploded. Once I accepted that the Bible’s account of cosmic and human origins could not possibly be true, I began to realize that it was just the first in an interminably long line of things the Bible was wrong about.

Science killed my faith. Not “science,” the perverse parody invented by some Christians—a nefarious, liberal, secular agenda whose sole purpose is to turn people from god—but rather science, an objective, methodological tool that uses reason and evidence to systematical study the world around us, and which is willing, unlike faith, to change direction with the accumulation of that evidence. Science is a humble and humbling exercise. Science is the impossibly dense core of curiosity—always asking, always seeking, always yearning to know more, never satisfied.

My newfound appreciation of science came, in no small part, from the writings of my old nemesis, Carl Sagan. What I discovered in Sagan’s elevated verse—particularly in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and within the baker’s dozen of the series “Cosmos”—was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Here was a man who could stir both body and, if you will allow me a bit of poetic license, soul.

While Sagan’s personal views set him safely in the camp of atheism, he was more comfortable claiming the title of agnostic. He certainly never made it his mission to destroy anyone’s faith. His sights were always set on something far higher. His mission was to build up, not tear down.

As I read, I began to wonder—why had Sagan been so reviled? His manner was so meek, his words so respectful, his position so evenhanded. He was compassionate and affable, even when he quarreled. Certainly, he was nothing like the thought leaders of modern unbelief, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who take pride in their public disdain for religion. Sure, Sagan was staking a position against mythology, irrationality and pseudoscience, but he was so, well, kind about it.

Perhaps it was this very gentleness, warmth and humanity that made him so much more menacing than his ideological peers, then and now. He did not attack so much as elevate. He spent only as much time as was necessary dismantling those things that posed a significant threat to rational living, instead focusing most of our attention on the wonders science had revealed.

So it was with my own deconversion process. I had a mentor in the final years of my faith—a name with which everyone reading this is familiar—who never took my spiritual tumult as an opportunity to hack at the foundations of my religion, but who also didn’t turn his back when I came to him with my quandaries. He never attacked or belittled my faith. He merely redirected my gaze to the wonders that can be found within a scientific framework and let everything else take care of it itself. He simply showed me something unspeakably beautiful and inarguably true and then stepped back, trusting in a process he knew would ignite my brain and consume my body. Whether he knew it or not, he was walking in Carl Sagan’s footsteps.

This, for me, is Sagan’s most enduring legacy—this realization that science is the most emotional journey imaginable. Science does not castrate awe or inhibit transcendence—science unleashes it.

Though I am no longer a person of faith, I retain an understanding that there is something vastly and, at times, unfathomably larger than myself. And while this thing does not have intent or agency, so far as the evidence shows, that in no way modifies the wonder and majesty that washes over me when I contemplate it. Having removed a god from the equation, I counter-intuitively possess a greater sense of awe now than I ever felt in faith.

This immersion in something both utilitarian and grandiose was the definitive purpose of Sagan’s work. He does not inform; he immerses. He does not teach; he transports.

Science—that minuscule word saddled with the burden of representing the entirety of the colossal human enterprise of decoding the world around us and how we fit into it—is the greatest endeavor humans have ever undertaken. Routinely taught as a dull set of facts and figures, science is the most sweeping adventure we can know. With it, hairless apes build great cities, do miraculous medicine, see the unseeable, stir the dust of other planets, and peer back into space and time. While faith purports to have all the answers, science thrives on the questions.

Carl Sagan did not invent this wondrous tool, but he was one of its most eloquent advocates. His voice, like a clarion call in a dense miasma of irrationality, can still be heard, clear and true.

Afterward, Fibbs engaged one of his former Bible college professors in a discussion about his post and science in general. Readers will likely find their conversation quite entertaining, especially when the Bible college professor uses classic Evangelical apologetics methods: quoting Bible verses and threatening hellfire and brimstone. When boxed into a corner and Jesus is not listening to your prayers for deliverance, quote the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God and threaten people with Hell.

[Grammar in the original]

PART I:

Bible college professor: Shout! Can’t believe 12 inches of snow in the “Big D”….Wow! Gotta love Gores imaginary global warming.

Brandon Fibbs: Ignoring your lack of understanding between weather and climate, that *is* amazing!

Bible college professor: Yep Brandon, I am one of those who actually refuse to drink liberalisms elitist “cool aid”…Don’t ya just hate it when freemen employ their discretionary judgment?

Brandon Fibbs: We call it scientific literacy but you can call it whatever you’d like! 🙂

Bible college professor: Funny….and they call Evolution science… Hmm… better stop drinking the coool aid bobo!

Brandon Fibbs: I prefer to drinks facts. Far more nutritional value!

Bible college professor: Brandon, you keep gettin funnier. Global warming- facts is an oxymoron.Didn’t you read the fabricated emails from the G.W. elitist? Shout! I prefer “Truth truth” as to home made-imagined-birthed in deception ‘facts”. You seem selective Brandon, how is truth [facts]knowable? definable? Aren’t facts just man-made interpretations? How can we know anyones “interpretation” isn’t just made up or influenced by their bias? Seems you put your trust in” depraved humanity”being able to define truth without bias or prejudice affecting their interpretation while rejecting inspired biblical writers? Ouch! Don’t yajust hate it when “someone thinks it through and outs the inconsistency demonstrated in yer hypocrisy?”… Love ya-mean it!

PART II:

Brandon Fibbs: I want to note that I did not inject God into this conversation. I called you out on your lack of comprehension between weather and climate. I brought up the issue on the most basic of etymological, scientific terms. You immediately introduced both God and the origins of the universe. Not that I am surprised. Richard, you are a stereotype of modern evangelical charismatic Christianity, someone who, from all I have seen here, finds his religion and his political ideology so intertwined that he doesn’t know where one ends and the other begins, someone who sees liberalism as some sort of blanket affront to his faith (as are those who practice it). Take comfort in the fact that you are far from unique in this ideological misappropriation.

Some clarification is called for. Science, distilled to its simplest terms, is any systematic practice capable of predicting an outcome. It does this by acquiring knowledge based on research, by study, by observation. Science is an ongoing effort of discovering the previously unknown, to increase human knowledge—not through supposition or assumption or faith, but through disciplined research that uses controlled methods to collect observable evidence of the world around us—to chart and measure that phenomena under controlled conditions and from that, construct theoretical explanations for how things work overtime in the real world.

Science (not necessarily scientists) is not ideologically driven. It is data-driven. Its interest is the truth, no matter what that means to the one monitoring the data. You achieve this by a strict, peer review process that basically encourages other scientists to blow holes in their colleagues’ work. When enough try but cannot, you can be pretty sure you have a strong consensus. Like we have on global warming. And yes, evolution. Seeing as how science as we know and apply it wasn’t even “invented” until midway through the last millennium, I find if laughable that you insist on a book written predominantly by Bronze Age (and a few Iron Age) peasants who lived during a time when the world’s population believed things even you now find utterly preposterous.

Most Christians reject evolution, microbiology, planetary cosmology, neurology and dozens of other scientifically valid disciplines as a matter of daily practice. They are the literal liturgical descendants of those who persecuted Galileo and denounced the work of Copernicus. My model invites skepticism and dissent, yours cannot tolerate it. And while yours no longer has the unchecked power to do so, it once punished or killed those who disagreed with it. There is a reason Christians prefer to educate their children in their basements, or in ideologically indistinguishable communes or entrust them to pederasts (the latter part assumes you even consider Catholics true believers, which I doubt): this is far safer than exposing them to a view of the world that insists you must be able to prove what you believe.

It would be pedantic to list the social evils caused by the rejection of science and its intellectual and philosophical fruit. But those who refuse to embrace science and instead insist on ancient mythology have been on the wrong side, the evil side, and the obviously stupid side again and again. But of course they deny that. After all, denial is easy when forgiveness is cheap and you regard history as some sort of secular lie.

Compromise? Convince them of the error of their ways? Easier to plow the sea, and just as useful. When you point out evidence, it’s ignored. When you point out where they are wrong, it’s ignored. And why? Because they have the ultimate trump card. They don’t answer to man, but to God. And how does a mere mortal contest against God? You believe your truth is incapable of criticism because it originates from a deity. Your Bible allows you to sidestep logic and basic, elementary rationality and call it a higher truth, truth with a capital T. It’s all very convenient. It allows you to adhere to something at best unprovable and at worst demonstrably false and yet charge the person calling you out as the ignorant one. Quite the free pass. You base the totality of your interpretations of the natural world on a book written millennia ago, yet I’m the ignorant one. You offer no refutation based in empirical evidence. You refuse to bend to proof and are not even expected to. In the face of overwhelming consensus you can always play the higher power card. When backed into an irrational corner, you can always claim that I am debased and that God mocks those who are wise in their own eyes (which, as this string shows, you have already done). Why let a perfectly good fantasy get in the way of facts. You can’t lose because you never once actually participate in the game. Yes, very convenient indeed.

Yet somehow I’m the selective one, I’m the inconsistent one, I’m the hypocrite. Hypocrisy is, by its definition, a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles that one does not really possess. Please explain to me how that is the case here. According to you, I’m a hypocrite for no other reason than I don’t believe what you believe, because (gasp) I think human beings can arrive at truth without a god. What an interesting world you must live in where the scientific method is somehow deemed depraved.

Christians believe without evidence. They order their lives without evidence. They kill without evidence. They die without evidence. And they call this cognitive disconnect faith. Show me evidence against something and I’ll disbelieve it. I don’t believe in anything that can’t be proved. I may suspend disbelief in the absence of proof, but my mind will always follow the proof. If there was evidence for something other than evolution—an angel with a flaming sword guarding the Garden of Eden, for example—I would consider it. An angel with a sword would go a long way toward transforming Genesis into an accurate narrative. Yet the world we both live in cannot support your mythology and is suffused on all sides by evidence of evolution. And yet you continue to cling to your stories, secure in faith and faith alone. Judgment Day never comes, prayers get answered with the exact same percentages as randomness, and miracles never get repeated on film. (And when was the last time God healed an amputee?)

I will never convince you and you will never convince me because our worldviews are antithetical to one another. Some scientists claim religion and science can coexist. Many more Christians say the exact same thing. Yet how is such a thing possible precisely because of what you wrote above? It is not. And why? Because you BELIEVE. You JUST KNOW. As with all adherents of all religions down through all of time.

You claim facts are just man-made interpretations and simultaneously that every word in the Bible is true? Very well. Guzzle this antifreeze. The Bible says you will be fine. Evolutionary biology offers a very different result. And for this reason, you cannot beat faith with logic or reason. And so, after posting this comment, I will not even try. Your religion has damaged your critical thinking skills.

I would rather place my faith in a system of check and balances, of research and observation, of discipline and evidence, yes even in flawed, biased people than in a prehistoric book you continue to awkwardly stretch to fit a contemporary era thousands of years on, an era that daily exposes just how tattered and incapable your beliefs are of operating in a world that no longer needs its mythologies to explain how the world works.

Shout!

PART III:

Bible college professor: Brandon, Brandon, Here is how your apostasy is viewed by The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…. in his own words:

You have become a fool and as a Reprobate, God’s wrath has given you over to your vile passions.

Romans 1:22-27

22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. 27 Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

You can expect severe divine judgment!

Hebrews 10:26-31

26…. no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

May it be so!

Brandon Fibbs: Indeed. As I’ve said before, you are nothing if not predictable, going so far as to perform precisely as I predicted, in print, that you would. And once again, you prove you are philosophically and ideologically incapable engaging the argument but rather turn to your narrative crutch. Rather rude of God to hamstring His followers and make it impossible for them to engage in, much less win, a debate without blatantly ignoring the issues and falling back on the tried and true declarations of hellfire and brimstone. When you’re ready to talk without taking the cheap way out, I’m here. Till then, this is a waste of my breath. I’m done.

For more information about Brandon Fibbs, please check out his interview on How Humans Change.

Depressed, Repressed, and Oppressed by Jesus

creationism

Cartoon by Kirk Anderson

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Looking back on my 1988 valedictory address at an Evangelical Christian school, I would like to put my remarks into some context. Some of you may have read parts of my story in other posts, but the quick summary is that my mom and I left my abusive dad in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was three years old to live with my grandparents outside Nashville, Tennessee. My mom held some relatively progressive views on racial and gender equality, and she encouraged me to read and to ask questions. She even admitted that a lot of things in the Bible might be allegory instead of historically accurate. Sometime during my adolescence, I realized she had turned thoroughly Christian Fundamentalist, forbidding movies such as “Star Wars” which we had previously enjoyed together.

Additionally, due to rumors that students in my public school district were to be sent to a predominantly African American school district, my mom and grandparents decided to send me to an Evangelical Christian school for grades 5-12. This school taught everything from a “Christ-centered Biblical view” — which means we learned lame apologetics for Young Earth Creationism, were required to take Bible classes, attend chapel, and were forced to abide by a gender-specific dress code. I hated that school.

My grandparents were very active in the Southern Baptist church in our rural community. Grandma became a neophyte culture warrior, and Grandpa was a deacon who quietly helped anyone in the community (whether a member of our church or not) who he heard was in need. He was a master of connecting those in need with those who were willing to help. Grandpa also taught me that my education came first and that I should NEVER EVER be dependent on a man financially. His biggest dream was for me to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It became my biggest dream, too, and I determined to excel academically to make it happen.

In my endeavor to achieve academic excellence, I came to look down upon my peers as inferiors. In my estimation, popular culture was cheap, anti-intellectual, and as useless to one’s intellectual improvement as cotton candy is to one’s nutrition. However, I also grew to look down upon the pastors and leaders of our church as teaching anti-intellectual doctrine. I considered the (male) teachers at our school to be only slightly better. My viewpoint was exacerbated by my exposure to working with Ph.D. Biochemists at Vanderbilt University when I was 16 years old. My mom worked in the Biochemistry department as an administrative assistant, and due to our lack of automobiles, I had to work wherever was convenient for my family in terms of transportation. At 16 years old, I got a job as a dishwasher and lab assistant at the university. I was able to meet highly educated people from all over the world. I knew these were the people I wanted to be like, not the Christian Fundamentalists of my church and school world. However, I knew that the Christians among them were not Real Christians®, and some of the scientists weren’t Christians at all. It became difficult for me to reconcile the Fundamentalist teachings of church and school that these people were damned to an eternity in Hell with the reality that they were kind, intelligent, socially active human beings. These people became my mentors and my friends as I worked with them for eight years (two years before college, during college, and for two years afterward).

As a high school student, I did not have many friends. Students attending the Christian school came from far and wide, so some of my classmates lived a 30-45-minute drive away and I did not always have access to a car. I was not allowed to participate in activities outside school (except for piano lessons to which my stepfather drove me each week), so my goal was to excel in everything I was allowed to do. My competitive nature, coupled with my determination to gain admittance to Vanderbilt, fueled my path to academic and musical dominance. I refer to it as “dominance” because my goal was not merely to learn the material, it was to master the material and to score the highest grades. It wasn’t uncommon for me to “blow the curve” on tests, where I would score 100 and the next highest score might be 85 or even in the 70s. I was known as the “smartest” student in school, and I relished that title.

However, I was a depressed and angry teenager. I felt utterly trapped in a school where everything must fit within a “Christ-centered Biblical worldview.” For Bible class, it was easy for me to regurgitate the material. While there were gaping holes in our education about history (for example, we never learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement), we weren’t required to recount history in a particularly Christian manner — just the facts were required (the facts as they were presented, that is). And looking back, I believe our English teacher was struggling with the confines of Fundamentalist Christianity as he only preached in chapel the minimum required number of times, and he walked a fine line with the literature he selected for his classes. (Years later I heard that he and his wife divorced, and he took a job as a truck driver, traveling the country, and no one seems to be able to find him.) In most classes, there would be discussions of some sort about God, the dangers of secular humanism, the ridiculousness of evolution, and the erosion of society due to people “turning away from God.” And let’s not forget that every chapel service was a reminder that we were all filthy sinners in need of the saving grace of Jesus in order to escape eternity in hell.

I resented that my whole life was supposed to revolve around giving glory to God. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). This was one of the mantras of the school. The other was this: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 KJV). As a student, I worked hard for my success and thought I deserved recognition for it. Maybe God had given me intelligence, but I had worked hard to use it. I hated hearing all the “God talk” where people were thanking God for this or that in which humans had more of a hand than an invisible deity seemed to. These praises seemed obsequious to me, as from someone seeking favor from a deity they feared.

Students in our school were encouraged to attend Evangelical Christian universities. The administration and faculty wanted as many students to follow a “Christ-centered Biblical” path as possible, both to promote this as a benefit to prospective parents and because they felt it was the right thing to do. Many of my classmates were personally steered toward these types of universities. I was the only one who was not steered in that direction. It was also a benefit to be able to promote that not only do most students attend Christian universities and become pastors or teachers, but the academics are so sound that they can also be admitted to nationally-ranked universities.

When it was time for me to write my valedictory address, I had a lot of different emotions. I was ecstatic to finally be free of the shackles of the “Christ-centered Biblical” education and able to pursue secular education. Additionally, I still looked down on the majority of my peers who were secretly (or not so secretly) listening to rock music and attending parties — to which I was not invited — instead of forging a path for their future (in my opinion). Furthermore, I considered graduation a celebration of my hard work and accomplishments, and I wanted to make sure that was evident to all in attendance. Neither did I want to sully my accomplishments with “giving glory to God.” I was a pompous jerk, excited about having the freedom to escape Evangelical education for the opportunities available in “the world.” While I did have some trepidation about navigating “the world” — partly because I was more sheltered than my public-school-attending peers and partly because I was still afraid of what God might do to me if I strayed too far from the fold — I was glad that no one tried to stand in the way of my pursuit.

My valedictory address reflects my contempt for my peers (hence no congratulatory message to my peers) as intellectual and cultural inferiors. It reflects my arrogance in my own intelligence and willingness to read what I considered to be intellectual books outside those assigned in class. It also reflects indoctrination regarding the “evils” of rock music, premarital sex, drug & alcohol use, and divorce. However, it also reflects that I did not refer to salvation due to a return to Christian values or praying to God or any other Christian trope. I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Christian school.

At the university, I was active in the Baptist Student Union during my first two years and attended church services at a large Southern Baptist Church near campus. However, I took courses that opened my eyes to the false claims of inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, which led me to question much that I had learned in religious circles about human behaviors, and overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence contrary to Young Earth Creationism. I befriended people from different religions, people who were LBGTQ — who were cut off from their religious families for just being who they were — and people who were from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Gradually I lost some of the intense fear of the Evangelical Christian God and was able to live my life freely. Again, I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Fundamentalist Christianity.

Ruminations About My Mother: What We Have Now

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A guest post by MJ Lisbeth

A week and a half ago, my mother passed away.

Although she attended Mass and didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, she was hardly the Catholic version of a “Holy Roller.” She never talked about her concept of God, and of our many conversations, I can’t recall more than a couple that included any talk about our beliefs or even religion. What little she knew of Roman Catholic doctrines, she learned in Catholic schools during the ‘40s and ‘50s. And she knew even less of theology in general, or the Bible itself; even in my generation, Catholics weren’t encouraged to learn about those things for themselves. She often expressed disagreement, or even disdain, for much of what she heard from priests and fellow parishioners. I was only partially joking when, during one of our conversations, I exclaimed that she believed even less than I, an atheist, of what the church teaches.

The real reason she sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools, she said, was that she felt it offered “a better education” than the local public schools—and, on the money my then-blue-collar father was making, secular private schools were out of the question. To me, that is consistent with what she once told me was the main reason she continued to attend mass on Sundays (and on weekdays during times of crisis): “It’s comforting. It’s something that doesn’t change.” In other words, although I don’t doubt that she believed in God and adored Jesus, I think that she saw the church and its educational institutions as things she could depend on when other things in her life changed or failed.

Of course, I do not share my mother’s trust in the church, and not only because I survived sexual abuse from a priest. Other experiences, including my formal education, and my inquisitiveness, would undermine my ability to believe. I think that my mother understood as much, and saw my loss of faith in both the church and in God as more or less inevitable. (As far as I know, she never knew about the abuse.) My mother sometimes talked about what she might have done differently: She would have gotten more education (she didn’t finish high school), developed a career of her own and had her children later than she did. I have to wonder whether her church-going habit would have withstood such changes.

As it was, she began to hold views, and engage in practices that would have been unthinkable in the church of her youth. She was never homophobic or transphobic, but she told me—years before it became a popular view—she thought people should be allowed to marry people of their own gender. She expressed that belief even before I “came out” as transgender and started my own gender affirmation process. Although she didn’t think abortion “is a good thing,” she understood that there are times when it’s better than allowing a child to be born to someone unwilling or unable to be a loving, nurturing parent. Oh, and she had a Do Not Resuscitate order, which was carried out along with her wish to be cremated.

Signing the order to remove my mother’s life support was “the hardest thing I ever had to do,” my father said. But he knew of my mother’s wishes, and he has the same wishes for himself. While he has never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, my father doesn’t have much, if any, more belief in the church, or religion generally, than I have. Nor does one of my brothers, even though he was baptized into another church; something he did, he admits, mainly to be accepted by the family of the woman he married.

My sister-in-law, however, is firm, even adamant, in her religious beliefs. So are my other two siblings, who have remained in the Catholic Church, and their spouses, who were raised by families more devout than ours. Not surprisingly, all of those in-laws and the two still-Catholic siblings disassociated themselves from me as I began my gender-affirming process. As you can imagine, having to deal with them for the first time in many years has been stressful. Just as difficult, though, is having to countenance not only their religiosity, but their smugness about it. They believe that the only way to mourn my mother, or any other deceased, is through expressions of their religiosity, including ostentatious prayers. They do not understand that my way of mourning is more private because, for one thing, I’m simply more introverted and, for another, I care more about the relationship I’ve had with the person I just lost than with any appearance of piety. To them, the fact that I will enter the church only for my mother’s memorial mass—and not for any other ceremonies or prayers—is proof not only of my immorality (why else would I “change” my sex? they ask) but also that I didn’t truly love my mother. In their eyes, only the Godly—which is to say, those who adhere to their religious practices—can truly love anyone; never mind that one sibling and spouse, at least, have constructed their lives to avoid contact with those of different races and economic classes from themselves.

My mother did not approve of their “holier-than-thou” attitude, let alone that they shut me out of their lives. But she still loved them. Likewise, she didn’t always approve of everything I did—including, at first, my turning away from the church and faith altogether—but she loved me. And I love her. That is all we have now; that is all we ever could have, or could have had—whatever else we did or didn’t believe in.

1988: My Valedictorian Speech by ObstacleChick

valedictorian

A guest post by ObstacleChick

Recently, I found this essay among my late mother’s things. My grandmother had saved it with a cover sheet that said:

“Keep! (ObstacleChick)’s valedictorian speech at senior high graduation at (fundamentalist evangelical) Christian Academy, May, 1988”

It took me three weeks to summon enough courage to read this essay, as I knew it would be antithetical to what I believe today. I recall that my goal with this speech was to display my superior intellect before my peers and their parents and to present something that would be approved by faculty. These are my words as a Christian-school educated student (grades 5-12) who used education as a means to gain admittance into a top secular university. I believed these words at the time, and I considered myself superior to the vast majority of my peers whom I considered babies drinking the pablum of popular culture. While today I cringe at my parroting of the culture war indoctrination of my church and school, I am starkly aware of what was missing. Can you see it? This was a speech that I was required to submit to the English teacher and school administration for approval, and it was returned to me with no edits. Please feel free to comment. I’m just going to sit over here and cringe a little more at the 18-year-old I was trained to be 31 years ago.

Valedictorian Address

It is often stated that society changes but people do not. This statement is true in the sense that the inner qualities of man remain the same from generation to generation. However, this statement should be expanded to include the fact that society, created by previous generations, affects those who live within it. Although it is difficult to characterize an entire generation, it is evident that young people, as influenced by society, are becoming increasingly insecure and pessimistic, and unless this trend is reversed, the future will not be very promising.

One reason for the condition of young people is the breakdown of the family unit. The parents of a child are to be responsible for nurturing their child so that he is able to become the best that he can be mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Parents are also a source of security and encouragement for a child. It is also apparent that parents serve as role models for their children; since children, especially very young ones, are so inexperienced in life, they naturally imitate their parents, or the people to whom they are closest. Therefore, it is evident that parents play a very important role in the rearing of a child.

Unfortunately, many children do not have both parents, and in some cases, if both parents are present, there is so much unrest and disunity in the family that the children are not given the proper nurturing they need. Many children experience the pain and uncertainty of being torn between two parents who proceed to separate or divorce. Often, children become mere objects of which each parent struggles to gain custody. In cases in which the parents remain together, there is either disunity between them, or the parents simply do not have the time nor the desire to give the children the nurturing and attention they need. Therefore, the children become psychologically scarred and unprepared to fulfill their duties as members of society.

In addition to children who are products of broken families or families in which the parents do not fulfill their parental responsibilities, there are also children who desire to rebel against their parents and the values of their parents. There are many reasons for this desire to rebel, but the main reason seems to be the encouragement of the media and peers. The media present a certain image of what is and is not acceptable in order to be the “average” teenager. This standard invariably includes the characteristic of rebellion which often naturally occurs as a child begins to grow into adulthood and yearns for independence from parental authority. Since young people fear the insecurity of individuality — in other words, nonconformity to the “acceptable norm” — they eagerly imitate any image they see that offers an opportunity to “fit in” with what is acceptable to their peers, who can be cruelly intolerant of anyone who does not conform.

Today’s society is permeated with young people who are products of their inadequate family lives or their desire to rebel. In both cases, these children seek attention which they do not receive or do not accept from home. Therefore, they naturally seek it elsewhere. Unfortunately, they seek it from a world containing too many problems to deal effectively with those of neglected or rebellious young people whose unguided and uncontrolled presence only contributes to the growing problems of society.

Another reason for the condition of young people is the effects of society upon them. The world offers many deceptively appealing yet ultimately harmful attractions for which these young people, seeking security and a sense of well-being, eagerly grasp. These attractions assume many forms, a few of which are rock music, premarital sex, and drug and alcohol usage. All of these enticements, perhaps with the exception of rock music, previously were primarily presented to adults but are now forced upon adolescents who are not prepared to handle these harmful attractions. As a result, young people participating in these activities are injured mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.

Because it is the attraction in which most young people openly participate without a great deal of parental interference, one must first examine rock music. Many believe that this music is harmless, merely a characteristic phase through which the majority of youths pass on the way to adulthood. It is viewed as a trend that has benignly existed for the past thirty years and will probably continue as a part of being a youth. Upon closer examination, one is able to realize the adverse effects this music has upon the bodies, minds, and emotions of youths.

Music is an important part of the lives of most people. It is used as a means through which to express emotion or even to produce a specific emotion. Music is also a means by which people celebrate worship. Allan Bloom in his work The Closing of the American Mind defines music as such:

“Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror….Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech (p. 71).”

Therefore, it is evident that music is an important device through which man is able to express himself.

Since rock music is not just one specific type of music but is characterized by various forms and names, it is difficult to specifically define. However, its lyrics primarily contain three major themes — sex, hate, and a hypocritical version of brotherly love (p. 74). Its rhythm, as young people are aware, has the beat of sexual intercourse (p. 73). Because one naturally responds physically and emotionally to the rhythms and lyrics of music, young people listening to rock music begin to unconsciously respond to its presentation of uncontrolled and misrepresented sex. Through rock music, young people are made aware of subjects which they are too immature to fully understand and experience. Therefore, they view a normal part of life in a perverted and immature manner.

Rock music exalts premarital (and extramarital) sex as well as drug and alcohol use as being socially acceptable and normal. As a result, many young people are led to believe that in order to be accepted as “normal” as presented by the entertainment industry, they must participate in one or more of these activities. This participation, in addition to being a way to gain security, is also a form of rebellion against authority. Therefore, one may conclude that rock music is not as harmless as many believe but is really an agent encouraging young people to rebel against authority by participating in activities which are traditionally unacceptable.

The activity probably most advocated by the media — movies and television — is premarital sex. Many young people view the lack of participation in this activity as a social stigma or, in other words, a lack of peer acceptance. Unfortunately, this uncontrolled behavior has produced many adverse consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. Many young people are physically and/or psychologically injured as a result of this exploration into an activity with which they are unable to cope.

Another activity in which many youths participate is alcohol or drug usage. One reason some young people participate in this is in order to escape problems which they cannot or will not attempt to resolve. The resulting “high” they obtain after using these substances can offer a feeling of well-being which they do not know how to receive any other way. A greater number of youths use these substances to gain peer acceptance; if they refuse to use drugs or alcohol, they are often treated as social outcasts. In order to avoid this isolation, many young people give in. Unfortunately, some young people die or are permanently scarred as a result of their experimentation with these substances.

Up to this point, one can see that many young people participate in ultimately harmful activities in order to deal with their insecurities. Of course, it is natural for young people to possess a certain amount of insecurity, for they are struggling with the effects of maturing into a unique individual. However, it seems that young people of this generation possess insecurity to a greater degree than preceding generations. This increase is basically due to the effects of modern society upon young people.

Modern society is permeated with many problems. The family unit, which is the core of society, is rapidly deteriorating. There is friction between groups of people within society. Many baffling, communicable, and incurable diseases exist. The world economy is highly uncertain and unstable. Nations are unable or unwilling to coexist peaceably. The list of social, economic, and political problems continues indefinitely.

Often, when young people are made aware of the various problems within society, they become pessimistic, realizing that these problems cannot be easily solved. They realize that they will be presented a world that is so tainted with problems and will be expected to resolve them, or at least to prevent them from becoming worse. One cannot but wonder how these young people, as generally unprepared as they are presently, will be able to create a decent world within which people can exist relatively contentedly. Of course, as one can see, this lack of preparation is not entirely the fault of the young people, for it is difficult for young people to grow up successfully in this society, but unless this trend is reversed, the future cannot appear to be very promising or attractive.

The relationship between society and the members of society is a unique one. The state of society depends upon its members, and the members are influenced by the society in which they live. The state of the future of society depends upon the attitudes and preparation of young people to deal with the problems presented to them. However, when the young people are not adequately prepared, the future of society suffers. Therefore, one may conclude that because the young people of this generation are generally insecure, pessimistic, and inadequately prepared to take their place within society, the future will not be very promising unless this trend is reversed.

Baptism — Southern Baptist-Style

baptism by immersion

A guest post by ObstacleChick

One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”

As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.

At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.

Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.

Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.

When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!

The Cruel Message of Calvinism

Guest post by Linda

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in a church nursery, rolling a big ball to a little boy who would then roll it back to me. I was delighted with this simple game. An equally delighted adult was watching us. I can’t remember who she was, but I am sure she was smiling and encouraging us in our ball rolling. We were probably three or four years old. I felt safe, happy, and comfortable.

My family went to church every Sunday. I didn’t understand why of course, but it was always fun because there were other kids to play with. Eventually I outgrew the nursery and began attending Sunday school. In Sunday school the teachers were always ladies and they were always sweet. They taught us all sorts of Bible stories. It wasn’t quite as fun as the nursery had been, but it was pleasant and sometimes we got to color. We soon began learning about Jesus. We would sing “Jesus Loves Me” or the song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock, smacking our fists into our palms to show how good and solid the rock was. There was an important message in these songs, though I wasn’t sure what it was.

After a while, Sunday school took a more serious turn. Our teacher taught us about lepers. Lepers were people who had a terrible disease that caused their body parts to rot and fall off. Other people hated them and made them live far away. Only Jesus was kind to lepers. Jesus was better than other people. Like the Sunday school songs, there was an important message in this story. I still didn’t fully understand it, but so far, I liked Jesus a lot. I was glad he was nice to the sick people and he even helped one of them get well. I don’t remember the first time we heard about Jesus dying on the cross to save us, but the teacher started bringing it up every week. She told us it was very important for us to believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins. It had never occurred to me not to believe something an adult said, especially a teacher, so it seemed kind of strange that she thought we might not believe her story.

Around this time, I started learning to read. Thanks to TV, I even learned that all people did not use the same words as we Americans did. Some people spoke and wrote a language called Spanish. It had different words for things like “water” and “friend.” This was amazing. The subject of language came up one week in Sunday school when our teacher taught us about the Tower of Babel. In this story, God punished some men who tried to build a giant tower they could use to climb into Heaven. He did this by switching everyone’s words around. It all made sense now! That must have been where Spanish had come from, plus a whole bunch of other languages I had never even heard of. I found myself smugly wondering why God had written the Bible in English. I decided it must be because English was the best language.

It was the 1970s. Hippies were everywhere. Stores carried posters and signs with slogans like: “Keep On Truckin’,” “Peace,” and “Smile God Loves You.” One week our sweet Sunday school teacher had a warning for us kids. She told us not to believe the signs that said “Smile God Loves You” because they weren’t true. God did not love everybody. I didn’t think much about this warning at the time. I was already learning not to question the things I heard in church. As the years went by and I transitioned from a curious child into a quiet teenager, I grew frustrated with church. Those early lessons about kind and helpful Jesus didn’t mesh with the grown-up sermons about a righteous, angry God. The punishment doled out by God at the Tower of Babel seemed like a prank compared to burning unbelievers in Hell forever. I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do for Jesus. I knew that He had died for us wicked humans, but there was something crucial I was missing. Why did all these people spend every Sunday listening to the preacher talk about it? What was the point? Our preacher spent a lot of time and energy ranting about all these other preachers who had everything wrong. There was a long list of these false preachers. He also had a long list of behaviors that would not help you get into Heaven: praying, tithing, getting baptized, helping the poor, caring for the sick, winning souls, going to church, volunteering in church, building the church, studying the Bible, serving your community, and on and on and on. I got tense just listening to him talk about all the ways you could waste your time trying to be a good person. It was like listening to a song with an overly long introduction. I kept waiting for the tension to break and for him to finally say what we should do to get into Heaven, but he never did.

It occurred to me that church was vastly different from school. In school, you learned about a new subject, studied it, took tests on it, then you moved on to the next level. You repeated this process from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on. By the time you got to middle school, you didn’t keep going over the same topics you learned in grade school; you were expected to have them memorized so they could form the foundation of more advanced subjects. Not so in church. In church you went every Sunday, year after year, to hear the same lecture about how horrible you are and how you deserve to burn in Hell and how Jesus would save you from Hell if only . . . something. What that something was, I couldn’t quite grasp. I wondered if I was dumb. Obviously, every other person in church understood it, so why didn’t I? Confusion morphed into anger and I started to hate going to church. I was closing in on adulthood and longing for independence. It felt like church was keeping me trapped in childhood. My escape finally began when I left home for college at the age of eighteen. I was still a Christian, though I could not have described my actual beliefs to anyone who might have asked. I knew what I was supposed to say, but those Christian-approved words didn’t match up with the thoughts and emotions I kept inside. In college I made the shocking discovery that other people sometimes questioned the origins of the Bible. They talked about it as if it were any other book written by men. Even more shocking was the fact that college instructors now encouraged us students to think about these things. They wanted us to think! I couldn’t handle it. I decided they were all evil. Though I had problems with Christianity myself, it felt like an attack to hear others criticize the faith — my faith! Even so, I did begin allowing myself to think, just a little bit at first. This was the beginning of the end of my faith. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally left Christianity for good. It took a long time to get rid of the fear that I might accidentally come to the wrong conclusion and burn forever because of it. And it wasn’t until the advent of the internet, decades later, that I finally understood what our preacher was really saying all along. I had started reading online articles about Christianity in its various forms. When I came across a description of Calvinism, I realized that there was a good reason our preacher never told us what to do to get into Heaven. He did not believe it mattered one bit what we did, because God had already decided who was in and who was out.

I had heard this long ago, this doctrine of predestination. It hadn’t upset me too much back then, because I was so deep in fundamentalist brain fog that I couldn’t process the horror. It just didn’t sink in. Now I thought about all the convoluted, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook I had heard masqueraded as wisdom. And I realized that the particular message of our peculiar brand of Calvinism did not require years of lectures to understand. It was as simple as it was cruel: God created some people to damn and some people to save. There is nothing any human being can do to change this situation so it is foolish to even try. I cannot describe the way this realization made me feel. I was astonished at how ridiculous it was, and at how many otherwise intelligent adults really believed that this was the sort of thing a righteous creator would do. It still gives me a strange feeling to think about how that church, which I first knew as a safe and happy place, was never anything more than a shrine to violence and injustice.

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