I’ve been saying for the past three years that the presidential election of 2016 flushed the last dregs of Christianity out of me. It’s true. Oh, for years I referred to myself as a “recovering Baptist,” but I was fooling myself. It took one last piece of evidence to realize that something I had begun to suspect at the age of nine was undoubtedly the truth.
Here in northeast Indiana “going to church” is, of course, not mandatory, but the social influence to do so is quite strong, whether one is a fervent believer or just along for the ride. I was born to an ardent Baptist mother and a religiously indifferent father. My mom ruled on this aspect of child rearing. You went to Sunday school, you went to Vacation Bible School, and you went to the Sunday service until you were in your teens. After that it was your choice. I did all of that, and also attended BYF (Baptist Youth Fellowship) meetings on Sunday nights, and I even sang in the choir until my voice changed and I could no longer carry a tune. (Side note: this was the early seventies, and our choir director had us singing stuff like “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “Day By Day.” We didn’t do “Spirit In the Sky,” though. I guess that was too far out for Mrs. Shady.) I was a good kid. I listened and learned and, as they say, took the gospel as “gospel.”
Still, I’ve always had a mind of my own, and even at an early age I began to understand that I did not necessarily view the world as everyone else around me did. There always seemed to be a catch to so many things people did or expected you to do, and there were a lot of times when asking “Why?” was frowned upon. It didn’t make much sense to me.
The first major detour on my path to being a True Christian came on a muggy Thursday night in July of 1971. There was one other required church related activity in my family: Spending a week at the Baptist Church Camp on Lake Tippecanoe in the northeast Indiana lakes region. I was just two months shy of ten years of age, and had never been away from home on my own before. The only other person I knew was Dan, a kid my age from our church. We were put in the same “bunk” together, so at least I had a comrade of sorts for all the new stuff I was to experience that week. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible ordeal, I guess. I was doing okay with the whole thing — mandatory evening church services and all — until I finally understood why we young folks were there. It wasn’t the kind of summer camp you read about, or see in movies. Oh, no. We were there for one specific reason, and one only — to “accept” Christ and prepare to “join the church.”
Come Thursday evening the combination of the humid air and a sudden sense of high seriousness made me, a kid with an over active imagination fed by years of “Dark Shadows,” feel as though something sinister was about to happen. The camp pastor, instead of his usual light lesson on how to be a better person, pulled out all of the stops. If you’ve ever seen one of those Billy Graham revivals on TV you know what I mean. IT WAS TIME FOR US TO COME TO THE LORD, by God. WE NEEDED TO BE SAVED! But no, we didn’t have to get up and walk to the alter to declare our devotion to Christ. They had something much more effective up their sleeves.
Sermon over, we all marched back to our bunks. Once there, the bunk counselor had all of us boys form a circle. One by one, we were asked just where we were on the path to accepting Christ as our Lord and Savior. Some of the kids had gone the whole route — accepting Christ, going to pre-baptism classes, and finally, putting on a white robe and being immersed in public. Oh! So THAT is what the tub at the back of our church sanctuary is for, I thought. Well, not really. I knew it was there and what it was used for; I had just never pictured myself participating in that, to me, very weird ritual.
Anyway, back to the circle jerk. The counselor, joined by the affirmed Christian boys, then began hammering away at those of us who had not been saved. It was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable episode of peer pressure I have ever experienced. They were not particularly nice about it either. It all came across as a demand, not a choice. In fact, nothing they were saying remotely had the joy and the love usually described as a relationship with Jesus. It was threatening, not unlike some sort of gang initiation. As I listened to them harangue a couple of other kids before they got to me, I began to feel a strong sense of unease. This isn’t right, I thought. Something about this is very wrong. Well, being just shy of my tenth birthday I couldn’t really put it into words, but when I look back as an adult I can see exactly what was going on. It was indoctrination, pure and simple. In fact, a few years later when Patty Hearst had her wild ride with the SLA I was one of the few who sympathized with her. I can understand, I thought, looking back at that night and remembering how those boys fell like dominoes under that pressure
I was the only holdout that night. No matter what they said to me, I wouldn’t say what they wanted to hear. I couldn’t. It felt so wrong to me that I couldn’t even do it just to shut them up and leave me alone. Eventually everyone shuffled off to their bunks to sleep, and as we did so, I assumed I would now be the bunk pariah, but no, while the counselor was quite terse with me for the last two days, the boys were as friendly as before. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if my refusal to do as I was told had earned me their silent respect.
There would be other episodes similar to my camp experience through my younger years. Christians, you know, are taught to go out and proselytize and convert the heathens, but no one ever bagged me. I was on to the whole thing and had realized it was all so much bullshit. Religion eventually became background noise in my life, something easy to ignore, and often a target for my occasionally sharp-tongued comments. Oh, I raged at Falwell’s Moral Majority. I was disgusted when the Christian Right propelled Reagan into office, and I hoped someone would slap a pie in the face of Phyllis Schlafly, you know, like some brave gay man had done to Anita Bryant. I watched all this nonsense over the years, and pretty much decided that spirituality was an individual choice and not a group project. I believed, I believe, in my own odd way and let it go with that, content to let other people do as they wished as long as they left me alone.
I remained quiet, more or less, until the spring of 2015 when the governor of my state, a slimy, hypocritical prick named Mike Pence, signed a thing called the Religious Freedom Reaffirmation Act behind closed doors. No one knew about this until a photo was released of Pence signing this shit legislation surrounded by a group of religious leaders smiling victoriously. Well, I wasn’t the only one outraged at that time, and eventually enough of us shouted loud enough to get any reference to LGBT people out of the asinine thing, but I was quiet no longer. They were no longer using their phony smiles, soft voices, and words of hell and eternal fire to convert me, they were now actively working against me. And then, in their war to eliminate anyone other than white, heterosexual christians from the American experience, they did something completely unforgivable. They elected the most monstrous, vile man imaginable to the White House.
I mean, it was bad enough that narcissistic bag of shit could now, without impunity, spread outrage and destruction across our country, but when I looked back over the past forty years and the endless harping and pedantry of these so-called moral people, I thought, Game Over. Ya’ll blew your cover once and for all. You’ve finally proven by both action and word that Christianity as traditionally practiced in the US has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, and everything to do with control and power, especially White power.
I now, after years of thinking of myself as an agnostic when I bothered to think about it all, think of myself as an atheist. I believe there are powers in the universe quite beyond our comprehension, but I cannot in any way think there is any kind of consciousness behind them. I can no longer accept that. Along with my new avowed atheism, I feel a ton of hurt, anger and grievance for the suffering I endured because of religion and Christianity. Those negative feelings will probably lessen at some point, but now, when I see the Christian Right behaving even more despicably in the current world health crisis, I doubt it will happen anytime soon. If I could, I would scream and holler anywhere and everywhere about the duplicity and subterfuge of American Christianity in the hopes of saving even one person from their snare. It’s funny, really: They proselytized to me for years to become a member of their cult of group think; now it is my turn to proselytize but against them, and do my best to let every single human being know they have the right to their own thoughts. And further, encourage people to think and learn and explore and ask questions because maybe, just maybe, the truth will eventually free us all.
This record was riding in the Top Ten when I graduated high school. Kind of ironic, huh? After years of being told what to think, a British rock band was telling me I had been right all along.