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 3: Jesus Loves the Little Children

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

A rural church on a nice day. Text says: "You'll find bigots anywhere, but a rural church is a good place to start.

…All the children of the world…

But once again, it seems that some people have a hard time with the definition of ALL.

Instances of racism in my early years in the Methodist church weren’t nearly as abundant or as cruel as they could have been. My mother sat on the charity committee that decided which families received a turkey and a box of food from the church for their holiday meals, and so the lower income racists of the congregation feared that offending her might result in a leaner holiday for themselves. Ironically, my mother would never have held their bigotry against them because Jesus told us to love our enemies. So, I was aware, every holiday season, that my mom delivered boxes of food to people who absolutely hated us.

Maybe it was my mother’s unrelenting dedication to showing Christ’s love by example, but somewhere along the line, it became cemented in my brain that I, too, had to be a good example, not just as a Christian, but as a Christian of color. It was up to me (and my family) to change the small minds of our small town. Once, when a little racist girl from my school attended the Vacation Bible School class that my mom taught—and had really good time—I was excited that, “Maybe we changed their minds, and I’ll be allowed to go to her parties now.”

How naïve I was!

Racism and bigotry are antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Yet, I remember a number of occasions on which my mother had to wipe my tears and reassure me of that, because someone suggested that someone I loved was going to Hell. Not because of anything they did, but because they were part of a certain marginalized community, or not a Christian, or simply not the right kind of Christian. People had no problem suggesting that my dad wasn’t going to be in Heaven with me. Of course, it was chalked up to his being Catholic and not attending church and having nothing at all to do with the color of his skin, but a few of my white friends’ dads didn’t go to church with them, and no one told my white friends that their daddies weren’t going to Heaven. Or the time a Vacation Bible School teacher told me that my Mormon cousins were part of a cult and needed to find the real Jesus or—you guessed it—Hell. Or when my uncle died, and they whispered that he was most certainly in Hell because he was a gay man who died of AIDS. Never mind that he was one of the kindest souls that you’d have ever wanted to meet, a bit of a trickster, and exactly the kind of uncle I wish I’d had in my life for much longer.

My mother always made sure I knew, “That hatred is their twisted belief and misunderstanding of God, but it’s not true. We don’t believe that.” And I know that on a few occasions, she went to the sources of the nonsense and told them to watch what kind of crap they said to me. Still, the sheer number of times I had to be convinced that it was only a few, fringe bad apples suggested to me that the fringe was bigger than I was being led to believe. Eventually, my mom realized it, too.

Unfortunately, when the general toxicity got bad enough that we started trying other churches, and my mother no longer held the keys to the charity chest, I got to learn just how racist the white evangelicals in our little rural valley really were. 

The crown jewel was being told that I shouldn’t even exist. A “pro-lifer” told me that in my case, abortion would have been okay because mixed-race children are an abomination. Of course, it was twisted to sound like love, that God forbade race mixing for our own good because He doesn’t want us to suffer the hatred that mixed-race children face. Apparently, it’s easier to ask mixed-race kids not to exist at all than it is to ask vile racists not to be vile racists.

Turns out, micro-aggressions were the best-case scenario and a sign of acceptance. White kids looking to me to lead them in song and dance any time “Lean On Me” was played (because that’s obviously my thang), was a better experience than worshipping on Sunday next to people who attacked me with the N-word Monday through Friday at school.

Not in your church! Why, you’ve never heard any of this hateful stuff before! Well, let me ask you: Are you white? Are you straight? Was there ever any reason or occasion for you to have had to hear it? Because I assure you: Yes, in your church.

For the record, I know that #NotAllChristians are bigots. I personally know quite a few good Christians with proven records of calling out and standing against the hatred they see in their churches and communities, because they know that’s what Jesus would do. I’ve read numerous articles published recently (from both religious and secular publications), about Christians of all flavors taking stands against bigotry of all flavors. I’ve worshipped side by side with Christians who truly believe that Jesus loves all the children of the world—no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. ALL.

But I have to wonder, if I hadn’t grown up mixed-race in a sea of white people, if my family hadn’t been so diverse, if I hadn’t been told that so many of the people that I loved the most were going to Hell, would I have ever questioned any of the other evangelical beliefs that caused so much harm? Would I have ever gotten out?

I shudder to think that if I’d ever felt truly accepted in the white evangelical community, I might still be one of them.

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

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