It’s not lost on me that when I talk about leaving evangelicalism, I sound like someone who has left a cult, and I wonder if the only difference between a religion and a religious cult is the membership size, because I know what world I escaped. Not just the world I described in this series, full of gun-toting children and rampant racism, but a world in constant fear of whatever enemy they’ve made up this time.
A world of panic: I was too young and dressed in pink to be targeted during the height of the Satanic Panic in the 1980s, but I certainly knew whom and what I was supposed to be afraid of. I recall a time when my youth group invited a “former Satanist” to come and tell us literal horror stories about demonic possession through the powers of heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons. (That’s right kids, season four of Stranger Things hits differently if you remember the Satanic Panic.) Looking back, as someone who has regained her senses and no longer believes in demonic possession, where the hell did my youth group leader find this guy? Was he vetted at all? Would it have mattered?
A world of censorship: There was always someone on me about the types of fiction I preferred. I’ll never forget the time a youth leader (who was also the director of the summer church camp I attended) stood in our kitchen and warned my mother about the fantasy novels I enjoyed because they were put out by TSR, the same publishers as the Dungeon Master’s Guides. In the director’s mind, these books were the path to Hell and my mother should take them and burn them right away, lest I burn later. I remember how my stomach dropped, because those fantasy novels did more to guide me and stop me from succumbing to my own depression and anxiety than the Bible ever did. To my mother’s credit, those fantasy novels still grace my shelves. Burning books never sat well with my mom—and she didn’t like being told what to do in her own home either.
A world of purity culture: Put simply, purity culture sucks for women and girls. Outside of being made to believe that our value is intrinsically linked to the social construct of virginity, we are also held responsible for the thoughts and actions of pubescent boys (and grown men). We are taught to embrace a “Modest is hottest” dress code to signal to worthy young men that we are worthy young women, but more than that, to protect men’s minds from turning to lustful thoughts, thus protecting ourselves. It’s the open door to full victim blaming when someone does hurt us. “What did you expect when you’re dressed like that?”
Of course, boys are instructed to keep themselves pure as well, but there’s always been a bit of a *wink, nudge* to it. Straight, cisgender boys can’t get pregnant, and since (outside of STIs and STDs) nature doesn’t do much to hold boys accountable, evangelical Christians don’t either.
Which leads to women and girls not having any rights or resources left at all.
I am so grateful I got out. But now, having put it all behind me, my biggest fear is that I’ll be forced back into that cult. This time, my fear is justified and based in reality.
Anyone in the United States has a right to their religion and the freedom to practice it. However, those of us who don’t share those beliefs should have freedom from those beliefs. Meanwhile, the evangelical goal is to rebuild the government in the church’s image, and with the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, and siding with performative prayer on the football field of a public school, it seems that they’re winning.
We were always implored to pray for our leaders and representatives. There was often talk during election seasons about Christian candidates and who stood for our values. But the final straw for my mother came in 2004 when the politics came directly from the pulpit and the pastor told the congregation how they should vote. I had left the church by then, but I recall how upset my mother was when she told me how the pastor said that Christian values should be the priority when voting. That in God’s eyes, morality was more important than the economy, foreign affairs, climate, or anything else, and from that perspective, “George Bush was God’s candidate.” That was it for my mom. She got out, too.
So, when you see some clown saying outrageous things, like how we should rethink the separation of church and state or how this is a Christian nation, and think it’s just for clicks or for show, it’s not. Know that they’re pandering to a base that is very real, very serious, and a lot larger than you think (approximately 90-100 million people in the United States identify as evangelical Protestants), and their radical messages have been pumping through church loudspeakers for decades. If there’s any point I want to stress, it’s that the “weirdo fringe” isn’t that fringe, and they’ve been planning and preparing for a long time.
I see variants of the meme shared here. Black-haired folks with tattoos and black clothes, presumably Satanists, marching to the 50-yard line to say their own prayers. I have a laugh and throw the horns and hail Satan because—to be clear—I don’t actually believe in Satan anymore. But then it occurs to me, accompanied by a horrible chill that rolls up my spine, back down, and settles in my gut: evangelical Christians do believe in a literal Satan, and that a literal war between Good and Evil is coming. To some degree, we’re playing into their hands when we share these memes. Evangelical Christians relish the idea that they might be proven right in a field of battle, but even more? That those of us who they believe to be wrong will be punished, doomed to burn for eternity in the Lake of Fire, and that they will have had a hand in it. The cruelty is the point.
Still, what option do we have but to push back? No one wants to live in a country run on religious ideals. We’ve been told to fear those countries often enough by the very same people who would turn the United States into one. I believe there’s something in The Much-thumped Book about a person who can’t see the plank in their own eye but criticizes someone for the speck in theirs (Matthew 7:5). Outside of speaking out and voting accordingly (blue), one of my favorite means of pushing back is to file a complaint with the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of any church engaging in political activity. This is a capitalist society; hurting their wallet hurts their power.
As for me personally? I reflect on how I’m no longer comforted by a cross on the wall of a hospital room. For me, the cross doesn’t represent Christ’s sacrifice, but rather the worst times of my life. I don’t join groups because I don’t trust them. I think about how the first time I ever really felt peace was the first time I considered that it might all be bullshit, and if I felt relieved by that rather than afraid, then what did that say about my belief? I chuckle when I think that maybe that youth leader/camp director was actually kind of right about my path to the dark side as a purveyor of some of the same creepy stories I’d been warned against and the author of this piece, though it wasn’t really the fantasy novels or the comic books or the secular music that did it because…
I also can’t stop thinking about a sermon that same youth leader/camp director once gave, feeding us the poisonous evangelical lie that we will be held responsible for the souls we didn’t save. I wonder what awaits the people whose actions are directly responsible for turning people away from Christ.