In my final year of attending a Christian sports camp in rural Missouri, the year before I started high school, they began to offer an elective Bible study group for young Christians who wanted a chance to read in the afternoons instead of learn to water-ski. The leader was a very kind, very impassioned man with a bristling chestnut mustache. He spent an hour every day for three weeks drawing the geographic conditions that led to the Flood and charting out the life spans of the Patriarchs on an old whiteboard for a group of prepubescent Christian nerds. I thought he was the most compelling person in the world. He had everything I could possibly aspire to have: a masterful command of the Bible, a deep and abiding love of God, a pleasant speaking voice, a dry-erase marker, a captivated audience.
One afternoon, on a bus ride to Branson (a highly anticipated reward for final-year campers), the two of us fell to talking and I ended up confessing my admiration to him. I spoke of how much I loved writing and spirited discussions and studying the Bible; I spoke of my hopes of someday becoming a pastor or a Christian author like some of my other family members. He looked grave. He also looked a great deal like Ned Flanders, something I don't think a lot of the other campers noticed because most of them were not allowed to watch the Simpsons.
"Mallory," he said, "I know you are a strong woman of God." So far, so good. "I know you are very gifted, very intelligent." He paused and wiped his glasses. "I think this impulse you have to – wield authority – over others, over men – comes from the Devil." He said it kindly; he was not angry with me but concerned.
"Ah," I said. Something to consider.
There has been plenty of recent talk, some on this very site, about the reduced political and cultural clout of the evangelical movement - in particular the white evangelical movement. Evangelical Christians, of course, are not all white, nor conservative, nor Republicans, but the ones who are have made rather a habit of banding together and making decisions. Mitt Romney drew roughly 80 percent of the white evangelical vote (six points more than John McCain did four years ago, if you're interested) but is not, in fact, currently president, as you may or may not have heard. For the first time, gay marriage won on the ballot. As someone who grew up squarely in the center of that movement, I've found myself keeping tabs on it in an occasional way (How is it doing? Is it getting enough rest? Is it putting itself out there and making new friends?), as with an ex you don't plan on reuniting with but still feel rather fond and protective toward.
I have been able to vote in two presidential elections; both times I have voted for the same candidate; by lucky coincidence I am currently 2 for 2. I have never voted while religious, but had I done so, my vote would have likely been the same. My credentials, briefly: I no longer go to church or believe in God but I can still name every one of the fruits of the Spirit and reeled for days upon hearing the announcement that Audio Adrenaline was reunited with one of the singers from DC Talk. For those of you who grew up in secular homes, replace Audio Adrenaline with the Pixies and DC Talk with the Fugees and you'll start to understand how huge this news was for me (Pity the former evangelical child, who has no religiously themed Buzzfeed to remind her of the liner notes from WOW 1998 or how often Susie Shellenberger used to say "I wish I could take you out for a Coke" in every one of her old Brio columns).
I was raised, as you have so shrewdly guessed, in a moderately liberal household within a deeply religious environment. We went to church twice a week, my parents were employed in ministry, we prayed before dinner, we rollerbladed in the summer, we were allowed to watch the Simpsons, I fought with my younger brother over Legos. I had a copy of the Old Testament that was illustrated like a graphic novel, and I also had every novel published under the Star Wars Expanded Universe imprint published before the year 2000. I learned that every moment of my life, however trivial it seemed at the time, carried in it a potential charge that could draw me either closer to God or further away. I learned that God loved me, much as Mara Jade came to love Luke Skywalker after she was able to shake off the training she had received from Palpatine during her tenure as the Emperor's Hand. I had at least three friends at any given time.
Occasionally I heard things at church or from other Christians that I never heard at home. Human evolution, I learned from a visiting drama ministry team, was like throwing a 1,000-piece puzzle in the air and expecting it to fall to the ground fully assembled. I should have my father co-sign a purity pledge and buy me commemorative jewelry (I understood the purity part well enough but couldn't figure how a parental signature or a ring from Claire's entered into things). Being gay was like looking into a dirty mirror; it clouded God's image of you somehow. These suggestions flew in too low and close for immediate analysis; most of them were filed away for later consideration.
When I was in sixth grade, I saw an ad for a well-known chain of Christian sports camps in rural Missouri and immediately begged my parents to let me go. When you spend so much of your time in an atmosphere of intensified spiritual awareness, the chance to sequester yourself with biblically-minded woodsmen is like a trip to the spa. The camp I went to was run by an inexhaustibly cheerful, impossibly sunburnt staff who loved nothing more than discussing theology with twelve-year-olds struggling through their first ropes course.
I loved it.
The differences between the evangelicals of northern Illinois and the evangelicals of Missouri, however, were immediately apparent. All non-biblical reading materials were confiscated upon arrival and held in the infirmary until the end of camp. This included the copy of Time magazine I inexplicably brought my first summer. Please feel free to imagine how insufferable a sixth-grader I must have been to bring Time magazine to a Christian sports camp. Unleash that imagination; allow it to caper and leap and burst through any limits that might restrict it. I went back for three successive years.
It was in the third year that my cheerful, unquestioning self-confidence ran up against this brick wall in the form of a mustachioed man. "The devil knows you have remarkable abilities," he said on the bus that day, "and it's through your abilities that he wants to tempt you. You should not become a minister; it would be a perversion of God's plan for you. Will you let me pray over you for guidance and release?"
There is no real way to say no to this question, by the way. I said yes, and he prayed, and I gave some thought to what he had said – I was barely fourteen, I had barely had time to be credulous yet, much less reject new ideas. Later, when I told my mother what he had said to me, she seemed both sad and angry as she explained why interpretation of the Bible was wrong. I found it merely curious - it felt absurdly clear, after a few minutes' consideration, to me that this man was simply mistaken, and his mistake made me laugh. He was a kind man and well-intentioned, but he was wrong and I knew it and he passed out of my life as quickly as he entered into it.
As a now-former evangelical myself, I'm well aware of their value in the fairly small marketplace of possible converts: it usually means plenty of speaking gigs, mid-list memoirs and lots of attention at the post-service coffee hour (cocktail hour if you decide to become a depraved Episcopalian. Have you heard the one about Episcopalians? It isn't really a joke so much as a bitchy list, but I never tire of it. A Methodist is a Baptist who can read; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college; an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who has married into the Social Register. See? It isn't very good).
Have you heard the one about the religious person who stops being religious in college? You have; excellent, I will be brief. I attended an evangelical Christian university on the outskirts of suburban Los Angeles and by the time of my graduation was neither evangelical nor Christian. There was a group of students I became aware of toward the end of my senior year – liminal Christians, mostly – some tentatively-out gays, social justice activists willing to remove their shoes and go about barefoot on anyone's behalf at a moment's notice, participants in the emerging church movement, nonbelievers and near-Catholics and other aberrants – who attended a nearby Episcopal church (see what I mean about those Episcopalians?) and created something of an underground gay support network.
There has always been a small but significant part of the church, of course, that focuses on issues of poverty and equality rather than buying expensive rings for young virgins; it has always been possible and often common for someone to possess a rich and layered faith in God without being a total fucking asshole about it. But I remember the general atmosphere on the campus of my Christian school after Election Day in 2008. There were a great number of trembling jaws and red-rimmed eyes; there were plenty of Yes on 8 signs dotting nearby lawns (I could not have been expected to deface them all; I had class and mandatory chapel to attend). Someone - I didn't personally know the young man who did it - decorated his truck with a Confederate flag and parked it prominently on campus. The window on the driver's side was smashed in with a rock. All students received a letter about how the situation was being handled. I fled in the spring.
I am not a part of the church now, although there are plenty of churches that would have room for me; this is not a shift I am taking part in from the inside. It is in some circles not uncommon to hear that religious people, particularly social conservatives, are dying without being replaced, that it's simply a matter of waiting the requisite number of years before America blossoms into the secular paradise the fanciest of our Founding Fathers always meant it to be. I don't think it's very likely. But it is a new and a promising and a hopeful development for us that the contingent of evangelical Christians who would see this country based on a rigid hierarchy bolstered by fear of the unknown, the unrestrained, the uncontrolled are no longer the most influential and the most powerful. That's good for the church, and I am grateful for that – it is not my home now but it was home to me for the earliest and the most formative years of my life, and it was a good home. It should continue to be a good home. The Bible also teaches little girls that they can grow up to drive spikes into the heads of Canaanite generals, and I think there's value in that.
That Bible study teacher ended up being right, of course, as anyone familiar with this type of story might have guessed. I did not become a minister; instead I moved to San Francisco, with many of the attendant implications. "We're really going to miss you. Have fun in San Francisco," a boy in my history class wrote in my yearbook that year. "Hope you don't turn gay there." It was an AP class.
This sounds like the kind of thing a person would make up in order to highlight a point, but it also happened in real life.
Image by Jim Cooke.