God, Guts, and Guns, Part 4: Where Do We Go From Here?

This post is part of a series. You can read part 1 hereread part 2 here, and read part 3 here.

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.

Meme from Twitter. @CrappyFumes writes: Evangelicals don’t think life is supposed to be good. They think life on earth is supposed to be a crucible that tests if you’re fit for heaven. If evangelicals take over society the quality of life for everyone is going to steeply decline. Count on it. @CrappyFumes replies to own tweet: Like if you think our society is obsessed with punishment now…these people literally think that death for a believer is a merciful release from a world of earthly sin. They think death should be looked forward to. They don’t want to improve society. They want apocalypse.

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.

People with black hair, black clothes, and tattoos walking single file up concrete steps. Text reads: Heading down to the 50-yard line to pray.

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.

God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp

This post is part of a series. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Meme of Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” holding a .44 Magnum. The image text says: “Do you feel lucky, punk? Lucky enough to bet your immortal soul?”

So, do you ever tell a story that seems perfectly normal to you, but then everyone looks at you like they want to give you hot chocolate and a hug? Well, let me tell you about this one time at church camp.

It was actually a winter weekend retreat with the youth group I was part of at the time. Social activities with the church were always parent-approved, and if I recall correctly, I was grounded otherwise for my garbage grade in Geometry, so the choice to go was a pretty easy one to make. I remember some grumbling about not being able to bring outside reading material besides, of course, my own Bible. The X-Men comics needed to stay at home, but at least I’d have something to do with my weekend.

I recall very normal, mundane things. Like how, in addition to my comics, I’d also left my coat behind. I’d taken it off while running around with friends at the pastor’s house before the trip, and had forgotten about it completely by the time of departure. So, I ended up wearing lots of layers the whole weekend. I remember some very normal teenage heartbreak when, shortly after arrival at the camp, a girl walked up to me and asked if I was who she thought I was, which I confirmed. She then introduced herself as the girlfriend of the “Good Christian Boy” I’d met at another Christian event and on whom I’d had a very significant crush. I hadn’t known he had a girlfriend. Thankfully, I was already well-practiced in hiding my emotions, so saving face wasn’t that hard. I might have been heartbroken, but I’d be damned if I let anyone know it. Sucky, but normal, teenager stuff.

I should also remind everyone that I’m talking about rural Pennsylvania, where the first day of buck hunting season and the first day of doe hunting season are holidays off from school. It is assumed that everyone hunts the American whitetail deer, and the age at which you can obtain a youth hunting license in Pennsylvania is 12. While I have never held a hunting license, I admit that target shooting is a lot of fun. I’m convinced that’s part of why we have such a gun problem in America. Just about everyone I know who has been shooting enjoys shooting. Conservative, Liberal, Progressive—it makes little difference. But I digress. The point is that there’s nothing weird about target shooting at a young age in Pennsylvania.

So, what, exactly, was weird?

Shooting a .44 Magnum—decidedly NOT a hunting rifle—while listening to the instructor talk about being good soldiers for Christ. While no one suggested that we go shoot non-Christians, metaphors about keeping our eyes on the target despite distractions from the outside, secular world made it very clear that there was an “us” and a “them” and that we had better be on the right side or Hell awaited.

It’s important to note that there were myriad other weapons available, which we all took turns firing, from handguns to rifles (thankfully, no military style assault rifles), to various bows and arrows. I only remember the .44 Magnum because of the smug smile on the instructor’s face as he put it in my hand and suggested that Dirty Harry’s gun was probably too much for me. (I did just fine, thanks.)

As the first line of this piece suggests, I hadn’t even realized that this wasn’t normal activity at a Christian youth event until I told the story to a handful of Catholic friends. “Oh yeah…The very first time I ever fired a gun was at church camp.” And that’s when I got that Red Cross, hot chocolate and a hug look. The more I tried to explain it away, the more it looked like I needed a hug and lots of therapy. It was concerning for them that I thought this was normal.

They were right.

I talked to my mother about the guns at the youth retreat years later, and she’d had no idea that shooting had been an activity. She’d never signed any consent forms for me, older than 12, but still a minor, to fire any weapons. But most importantly, I don’t recall anyone at all asking any questions at all about the activities. It was simply assumed that because it was church, it was automatically good and wholesome. All parents needed to know, all youth leaders needed to know, was that it was an evangelical Christian event.

Please check out any church or church sponsored activity before you just send your kids. You may not think they’re getting extremist messaging—and they may not be, but they very well may be. Ask the questions, no matter how outlandish and unnecessary you think they are, because you may be surprised by the answers.

If you ever question whether my Catholic friends were right, I need to ask you a question. The very same question you might have been asking yourself while reading and that I’ve asked myself a million times: “What if we’d been Muslims?” Or literally anyone not majority white and evangelical…

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 3: Jesus Loves the Little Children

God, Guts, and Guns, Part 1: Background

Lately, I find myself in a lot of conversations about Christianity, the nature of Christ, and how the Bible is interpreted—or misinterpreted. My opinions are often dismissed by a certain demographic that sees my melanated skin and my mixed-race family and assumes that I’m a “big city liberal” who has never seen the inside of a small-town church or attended a humble Bible study.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

A crowd of young people at an outdoor Christian music festival. Some people have their arms raised in praise.
Image from the Creation Festival Facebook page. The Creation Festival is an annual Christian music festival held at Agape Farm in Shirleysburg, PA (near Mount Union, PA), which I attended a few times in my youth.

I don’t often talk about my early years. Growing up mixed-race in rural Pennsylvania was exactly as much fun as you’d think. So, I don’t like to think about it. But be assured, I grew up in “God, Guts, and Guns” country, as declared proudly on bumper stickers plastered to trucks with gunracks mounted to their rear windows. I only share this background now because people often try to discredit my experience by focusing on what they think are discrepancies in my story when I tell it in pieces. “Well, are you a Catholic or a Baptist? Make up your mind. You’re clearly full of shit.”

Oh, how narrow their worlds must be!

The short history is that my father is Black, and he and his side of the family are Catholic. My mother is white, and was at the time in question, an evangelical Protestant. I was baptized Catholic at the insistence of my paternal grandmother, but when it came to my spiritual upbringing, my father declared, “I was an altar boy and went to Catholic school. God and I are square.” (When I shared this with coworkers at a Catholic magazine I briefly worked for, I had to pause to let them laugh before I went on. Apparently, this sentiment is common?) And so, if I was to be raised in church at all, it would be white, evangelical churches with my mother.

We started out in a United Methodist church (my brother was baptized Methodist, and I had been an acolyte), but due to some spiritual trauma my mother experienced there, we left that church in my mid-teens and tried out a handful of churches over the course of a few years. I specifically recall a Wesleyan church and an Assembly of God before my mother, brother, and I were baptized again (by full submersion) as Baptists. I think I was eighteen. Nineteen, maybe?

There are some people who have suggested that not staying in one faith community was part of the problem. That we had too many ideas from too many places, displaying a lack of faith from the jump. That if we’d stayed in one community, we wouldn’t have been affected by all the outside noise. We wouldn’t have questioned. If that seems hinky to you, if it raises the hairs on the back of your neck, it should. And that sentiment was among the more benign suggestions. There are some who have appallingly suggested to me that my problem is being from a mixed-faith and mixed-race family to begin with, but I’ll get to more on that later.

For now, what I need to make clear, what I need to regretfully confess, is just how very “in it” I was. My mother was a lay speaker and youth leader. She had been a counselor at the same summer “Jesus camp” I attended. Church was a twice-per-week thing, and Bible study was a given. I was often embarrassed by my mother’s insistence on Christian radio when carpooling with my friends, only to be ashamed by that embarrassment later when I sobbed all over myself during altar calls, rededicating my life to Jesus after a particularly fear-based, fire and brimstone sermon. On my knees shaking, crying, and begging for forgiveness and salvation from Hell.

It wasn’t just church, but activism, too. You want to talk about cancel culture? I learned about how a boycott works in Sunday school. You want to picket the porn shop down the street? I know how to organize that. And—perhaps most regretfully—you want to know about protests and marches? My first protest was a “pro-life” march.

So, I was in it, friends. Talked the talk, and quite literally walked the walk. I often cringe at the shameful things I said and did as an evangelical Christian trying to impose my beliefs on others because I was told that’s what good Christians do. But if there’s an upside to any of it, it’s that those evangelicals trained me (and I use the word “trained” for a reason). I understand the logic of their illogic. I know what their goals are and what they’re going to do to achieve them. And that’s why it’s time—past time—to write about it.

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp