Tag Archives: Religion

Further Notes and Observations on the Spirit That Moves Us

Photograph by Jose Padua
It’s been a long time since the word Catholic, much less Christian, could be used to describe my approach toward spirituality. Yet, at this time of year, I do get this feeling that I must admit comes from that time in the past when I was a follower of such things. It is, certainly, a manifestation of a side of me that is unapologetically sentimental. And, perhaps, a concession that for my children, a lot of the old Christmas traditions are actually quite enjoyable. Or even, dare I say, magical. All of which is to say that even though I myself am not now a believer in any traditional sense, I am happy to have come from a state of believing. I am also happy that when I was a believer I was not involved in the manner of believing as practiced by the Skyline Baptist Church.

This morning I took a photograph of that church, which is down the road from us here in Front Royal, as they prepared for their annual Born to Die festival. Well, I suppose that they officially refer to it as their annual live nativity presentation, which is how they describe it on the sandwich board they place down by John Marshall Highway every year at this time. But, when you look to the church itself, what you see is that Born to Die banner—and an approach to spirituality that I find troublesome at best.

Although the Catholic church certainly has its own macabre elements. My favorite example of this is the hymn about Jesus on the crucifix that went, “Oh sacred head surrounded, by crown of piercing thorns”—with the musical accent being on that crown of piercing thorns. Still, I don’t think this compares with the Facebook posting I once saw of a Baptist minister in the Midwest who to illustrate his observation that it was a “glorious day in God’s creation” chose a photograph of himself holding a muskrat impaled on a stick. This same minister then went on to speak of God’s “violent acts of love.”

It’s precisely this sort of so-called spirituality that seems push me from my usual agnostic stance toward one of pure disbelief. Yet I find atheism, and its utter certainty that there’s no such thing as God or deity of any sort to be just as depressingly lacking in imagination as the fundamentalist Christian vision of god as an all-powerful spoiled brat who demands that you worship him or else face the horror of eternal damnation.

Of course, if I had to choose one over the other, I’d opt for atheism over the spoiled brat vision of god any time. Still, there are those moments about which atheism has nothing to say. As with the other day, after I’d picked up Maggie from school with Julien and we went home and sat in the living room as Julien watched an episode of Dora The Explorer. Maggie and I came up with the idea for a show in which Dora is a bad guy, called Dora The Corporate Executive. This Dora would ask her viewers things like, “Can you say hostile takeover?” and “Strikers, stop striking.”

After watching Dora, Julien started playing with his trains, and Maggie went to the hall to practice on the piano. I took the opportunity to check my work email on the laptop I have setup at the dining room table, and it was there that I heard a song that sounded familiar coming from the piano in the hallway. It took me a few moments to recognize it, because somehow it wasn’t the sort of song I expected I’d ever hear being played on our piano at home. And what I was hearing were the opening bars of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

The song was part of the soundtrack Ryuichi Sakamoto did for director Nagisa Oshima’s eponymously titled film, and I’d always been surprised that this peaceful bit of melancholy is what stays with me from that prisoner of war drama. That out of war, violence, and death, what I always came back to was this. And on hearing Maggie playing these notes, I somehow felt this connection to decades long gone—my mother, living through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; my father, working at a hotel, after the end of war and their separate journeys, over the ocean, to meet here in the states; and all of the separate journeys—mine, Heather’s, Maggie’s, Julien’s—that brought us to where we are now.

And so, this season, it was the music—and certainly not any “violent acts of love” or the notion that Jesus was “born to die”—that put me in the spirit of things. And although this spirit may still have something to do with “Christmas,” it’s not, for me, a Christian thing. Or any rate, not the sort of Christianity that focuses on death and violence and the annihilation of its enemies.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking about those who oppose me and my kind this season. That, for the sake of celebration, I will banish all consideration of the crimes of torturers, racially profiling killers, oligarchs with their obscene wealth and power, the heinous demagogue with twitter compulsive disorder who will soon be the president of my country, and all the other murderers of both life and spirit. It’s just that I’ve accepted that for any person of conscience, struggle is a way of life; and that those true moments of peace and connection can’t be manufactured—they have to be found, over and over again. Which is why the best among us are always looking for something.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Ready for the House and Other Places of Profound Interest

Photogrph by Jose Padua
During our visit to my family’s old house in town,
my four year old son walks up the stairs
to the second floor and notices
the crucifix that’s been there since I was a child,
then looks at the face of Jesus
and says “Daddy.”
And I remember the time I took him
to a preschool orientation
and one of the other kids looked at me
then looked to his mother,
and as he pointed his finger
at me he said, “Jesus,”
at which point the mother said nothing
but gave me a look that seemed to say
“You ain’t no Jesus.”
And though it’s been decades
since I embraced anything that
might be called religion,
I must say there are still moments in my life
when I feel something that
approaches holiness.
Like toward the end of a long, clear summer’s day
or a cold, cloudy winter’s day
when the dimming of the evening’s last light
seems to color everything
a profound shade of blue.
Or when the sound of an ambulance in the distance
fills me with a certainty
that when they reach their destination
they’ll find someone who’s sick
or knocked down and weary
but who has somehow found
a way to survive.
And what makes me feel holiest of all
are those times when
I feel entirely human.
When I understand that
I’m just a man
with a name,
a place I want to get to,
and this vague but exquisitely lovely
idea of how to get there.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

How I Learned to Stop Worrying about God, the Bomb (and Waterhead Disease)

It’s hard, real hard. But sometimes, I’m nearly overcome by Front Royal.

Living here, I get these urges. Urges that aren’t good for my health. Urges that have nothing to do with trying to make the world a better place. Urges that could easily get me stomped or transformed from a socialist into a flattened slab of roadkill. Urges for what would be the equivalent of pissing into a black hole.

Sometimes I realize, afterward, that giving in to the urge would have been the right thing to do—in those cases when the person on the receiving end isn’t in control of anything that could be used as a lethal weapon. One such time was when I took Heather for an acupuncture appointment at an office in town. When we got there we saw that the acupuncturist didn’t use the traditional needles, but some wand that used electricity to zap the acupuncture points. After a procedure that cost seventy dollars and took just a couple of minutes, he went on how Heather—and me, as well—should come back for weekly treatments. That was when I noticed, on the wall behind him, a document stating that his medical training came from a place called Life University. It was one of those instances when I should have given in to my urges and said to him, “Life University? Your training came from a place named after a fucking cereal. And you’re saying we should come back here? Are you out of your fucking mind?

Other times, it’s definitely in my best interest that I practice some measure of self control. That’s why when I see one of those jacked-up pickup trucks with a Confederate Flag flying from the back stopped at a red light, I don’t walk up to the driver, point to the flag, and—using my best approximation of a Southern accent—declare, “That’s a real good thing you did. That’s a real good thing.”

Despite the fact that many people who flaunt their support for the lost cause of the South would completely miss my sarcasm, it would still be an incredibly risky thing to try. And besides, what would be the point? It’s not like I’m going to enlighten anyone just like that. Enlightenment, as I’ve learned over the years, is a process that takes time. Nevertheless, I get these urges, and these urges are what remind me of Peaksville, Ohio.

I’ve never been to Peaksville. In fact, Peaksville is an entirely made up place. But in a lot of ways, Peaksville reminds me of Front Royal.

Peaksville, one may recall, was the name of a town in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Titled “It’s a Good Life,” the episode featured Billy Mumy—who, a few years later, would play Will Robinson in Lost in Space, the role for which he is most famous—as Anthony Fremont, a boy living in a small country town. The odd thing with Anthony, though, was that if you didn’t praise him lavishly for every single thing he did, made, or said, he would kill you instantly just using his will power. And, whether Anthony had just killed a group of dogs who were annoyed him with their barking or decapitated his neighbor by turning him into a jack-in-the-box, the proper response was to say, “It’s a good thing you did, Anthony. It’s a real good thing.”

I must have been only seven or eight when I first saw this episode of the Twilight Zone. Anthony was, certainly, a very frightening character—but what also struck me about him was how much he seemed like God—or at least the way God was often presented by the Catholic church and Catholic grade school I attended. I imagine that my making the connection between God and Anthony Fremont was what planted the seeds that led to my becoming what is sometimes referred to as “a fallen Catholic.”

Now, there are at least a hundred different ways to fall. Whether you’re falling for a ruse, falling in love, falling from grace, falling into money or falling in some other way, you’re experiencing a change in elevation, a change in status for good or bad that should be leaving you breathless or dizzy or devastated. Falling in love is the good kind of fall. When I fell from the Catholic church it was, for me, that good kind of fall. In fact, it didn’t feel like a fall at all. On the contrary, it felt like I had been lifted up, freed from a heavy burden I’d carried with me since I was a child.

Similarly, moving to the Shenandoah Valley, away from any big city, seemed like that good kind of fall. It seemed like a nice, new beginning—which it was, at first. But now I look on it as the other kind of fall. The kind of fall that takes you by surprise and finds you mumbling to yourself, Man, I really fucked up.

As for my fall from Catholicism, I always knew it would happen. In fact, I looked forward to it. I knew that when I was no longer a child who had to go to church, that I wouldn’t. It didn’t necessarily mean that I would no longer be a believer of some sort—although, now, after my fall, there is quite a lot having to do with the church that I don’t believe in, as well as a lot that I no longer fear.

For example, I’m no longer afraid that in not going to church I’m committing what’s known as a mortal sin. Which isn’t to say that I’m not committing a mortal sin in the eyes of the church—the sort of sin which, if you die without going to confession to be absolved of it, will send you straight to fucking hell—it’s just that I’m no longer afraid of it.

It seems strange to me how going to hell used to be among my biggest fears when I was a child growing up during the cold war—but that wasn’t the first thing I came to be afraid of. The first thing to catch my attention was the bomb—the possibility that those pale, godless people in Russia would drop a bomb on us all was never far from my mind. It was a fear that found its way to me before I even went to school and which was reinforced there when one of the nuns told my class that if the Russians were to enter our classroom they’d ask us if we believed in God. Our answer to them, she said, would have to be Yes—because we had to stand up for our faith—even though saying Yes meant that the Russians would then kill us. (Yeah, there’s nothing like using fear as a learning tool with a first grader.)

Next was “waterhead disease,” a condition that inspired a fear I had for a number of my childhood years after my brother had shown me a photo in a medical book of a boy with an enlarged head. We just looked at the picture, without attempting to decipher its difficult (for us) medical terminology. Somehow we got the idea that what happened with “waterhead disease” was that when you got it, the water you drank, instead of going into your stomach, would rise through the back of your neck and go straight into your skull, resulting in that frighteningly enlarged head. Finally, there was my fear of mortal sin—and even though it was last in my trio of fear, that didn’t mean it was a lesser fear. That just meant that it was third in my batting order of fears.

So, when I prayed (and, like a lot of Catholic children, I really did pray) it went something like, “God please don’t let them drop the bomb. And don’t let me get that waterhead disease. And please don’t let me die with a mortal sin.”

It seemed to work. Because throughout those cold war years, no one ever dropped a bomb on us. And, I never got waterhead disease—when I drank water, it travelled through my body in the right direction. As for not dying with a mortal sin on my soul, well, I survived the 60s—although I was too young to get into much of the sometimes delightful trouble that decade had to offer—and by the time the 70s came along I’d stopped going to church, which meant that every Sunday I was doing something horrible: I was committing a mortal sin.

Most of my young life, I had been around Catholics. These were the people I knew well and with whom I was the most comfortable. As for the idea that Catholics were the only people who were going to go to heaven—well, I always suspected that that was a crock of shit.

It’s not that all the Catholics I knew felt this way—most of the Catholics I knew well accepted their faith as being just one approach toward the concept of God. But there were others whom I suspected may have had more a radical set of beliefs, such as the woman at the church rectory where I worked during high school who always had to append any statement with the words, “God willing.” If I were to say, “See you tomorrow, Miss S____,” she’d promptly reply, “Yes, God willing.” Even if I were to just idly comment, “The weather’s supposed to be nice, tomorrow,” she’d add, “Yes, God willing.”

I’m no cheerleading, positive psychology type, but I’d always wondered is this really the best way to go about your fucking life? It was attitudes like hers that made me think that an unwavering focus on God’s powers—especially his ability to, on a whim, zap you into oblivion like an electroacupuncturist on meth—wasn’t the healthiest way to live. Of course, she didn’t believe that oblivion was what waited for her on the other side, but for me it was something I was never quite sure about. Even before I was in grade school, the idea of life after death—especially when it involved pearly gates, stately palaces in the sky, and these weird creatures who were half human-half bird (angels always creeped me out)—seemed a little too convenient for me.

It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized if God is the sort of being who’s going to zap me for not praising him or her—in other words, for not feeding his or her black hole of an ego—then maybe God isn’t the sort of being I should be praising. Maybe God is precisely the sort of being I should be rebelling against, as one would some sort of tyrant.

Oddly enough, it seems that the further one moves away from the city, the prevailing vision of God becomes less that of a peaceful being and more that of a warrior—God as soldier driving back the enemy, casting out the non-believers. You see evidence of this attitude on bumper stickers, in church advertisements, and in the display of Left Behind videos at the local Cracker Barrel. It’s a fundamentalist vision that , not surprisingly, leads some Christians to the practice of imprecatory prayer, where they pray, for example, that God will kill President Obama, who they believe is either a Muslim, an illegal alien, or any number of other things. For those assholes who couldn’t be quite as open about their vile hatred, there is the Facebook group whose position is “DEAR LORD, THIS YEAR YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTOR, PATRICK SWAYZIE. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE ACTRESS, FARAH FAWCETT. YOU TOOK MY FAVORITE SINGER, MICHAEL JACKSON. I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW, MY FAVORITE PRESIDENT IS BARACK OBAMA. AMEN.”

Now, there are Christians and people of other faiths here who are conscientious—and who realize that when you are truly confident in your faith you don’t need to thrust it upon anyone else like some slimy used car dealer. These are also the people who understand what compassion is and that faith is an area where a diversity of approaches is a good thing.

Unfortunately, here, most of the time it’s the idiotic vision of God as tyrant that seems most visible and conservative, right-wing churches that attract the most followers—the kind of follower whose truck sports a bumper sticker proclaiming, “This is My Peace Symbol” next to an image of a rifle scope. This guy believes in a God who won’t save your soul unless you bow down before him and declare him to be the biggest of all deals. A God who’ll zap you if you don’t applaud him for his role in the horrible tragedies that occur around the world—after all, God works in mysterious ways. A God who acts like Anthony Fremont in that episode of the Twilight Zone.

It’s not everyone, but there are a lot of people here who, on seeing that you’re new to town, assume that you’re looking for a church like theirs. I’m hopeful—and perhaps this is an indication that I still do have some kind of faith—that it’s a minority who believe in using imprecatory prayer. Still, more often than not—whether it’s conservative Catholic or some other Christian denomination—the church where they want invite you is a church where you can participate in the prayer that goes, “It’s a good thing you did. A real good thing.”

As for me, what I most often feel like saying here is something along the lines of “Danger, Will Robinson.”

Except that in this case I’m Will Robinson, here with my family in some strange, unknown part of the universe. And I’m telling myself, every time I go anywhere, every time I step out the door, “Be careful.”

Because there’s something about Front Royal that reminds me of Peaksville. Because for me, living here, I’m well aware that at any moment I may do or say precisely the wrong thing. And one day, as in Arizona, I may not even have to do or say anything before they ask me for my papers. Before they ask me if I believe in God.

And when they ask I’ll say, confidently, “Yes.” But I doubt that at this point I’ll have the self control to refrain from adding, “I do believe in God. I just don’t believe in your God.”

-Jose Padua

Waiting for Jesus at the Daily Grind

“I threw my crutches in the river of a shadow of doubt”
—East Jesus Nowhere, Green Day

I’m sitting at The Daily Grind in Front Royal feeling really really bad. A few weeks before Christmas, I flamed one of my family members, a beloved aunt whose gumption I’ve admired since I was little. I just snapped, bursting out of the humanist closet to her entire evangelical Christian email list.

Oh, God, I thought. There go all those warm, fuzzy family reunions where we ignore all of our political and religious differences and pretend we have anything in common.

Now she knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that I don’t buy into heaven or hell. Now she knows the real me with all my lumpy, bumpy progressive liberal imperfections. But, if honesty is a good thing, why do I feel like a heel? Maybe because I’m a wuss who hates confrontation and the tearing down of childhood idols.

Or maybe because the truth ain’t easy.

Now I’m sitting in our local coffee shop surrounded, ironically, by Christian home-schoolers and Catholic college students, writing my aunt a note of apology—not for my beliefs, but for the flaming.

My aunt has survived poverty, drug addiction, physical abuse, and divorce to raise two of her own kids and three step-kids. She’s also a mean cook and drives like she belongs at Indy. I dig that kind of toughness.

But I just couldn’t take it any more—the emails crammed with rhetoric about fiery darts, enemies at the gate, and helping God fight Satanic forces. Sometimes I just wanted to know the bottom line—had my cousin recovered from her post-partum infection? When would they (my aunt and uncle) be traveling to India on their missionary trip? I had to scroll through a hell of lot of “hallelujahs” to get any real news.

This was kind of fun for a while, like observing a foreign and exotic culture. Oh, wow, I said to myself, look at those wacky born-agains—they sure are enthusiastic. In Front Royal, we are surrounded by them, so why did my aunt’s propaganda get under my skin?

This is the line in her email that pushed me over the edge: “We are going again to teach and to encourage the hundreds of Indian pastors there who work around the clock to preach the Word in a dark part of the world.”

Oh my, is it me or does that sound a lot like old-fashioned white Protestant colonial arrogance? To call a whole country “dark” because it isn’t Christian is to deny the legitimacy of every other faith tradition in the world. Of course, that is what radical right-wing Christians do. Her unfortunate choice of the adjective “dark” also calls to mind the long history of racism and oppression perpetuated by the West.

How could I not shoot something back? Could I respect myself if I didn’t? I know it was almost Christmas, and her email was an easy target, but what better time to stand up for religious pluralism? My inner-Unitarian Universalist had her hemp knickers in a twist and was dying to speak.

My aunt’s email also included a sparkly Christmas postcard with this message:

WE will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year…Our way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So, I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you’ll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on…maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of “Political Correctness.”

I love the phrase, “making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” Can’t you just see a world where rabid believers accost the unsuspecting by violently screaming Merry Christmas at them, terrifying old atheist ladies, small children, and pets.

“Don’t you say Happy Holidays to me, you fuckin mother-fucker!”

If I know you’re Christian, or even agnostic, I’ll probably say Merry Christmas to you; but if you’re Jewish, I’m likely to say Happy Hannukah. If I don’t know what the heck you are, it’s gonna be Happy Holidays. So arrest me!

I didn’t use rough language in my response to her—I was polite, respectful, and even-toned but that didn’t seem to matter—I’d hit a pretty big nerve.

My aunt wanted to know how I could live with the “consequences” of my decision to not join her club.

Lesson 1: There is no way to rationally argue with someone who has seen Jesus and whose life was saved by him. So don’t try!

Let me explain.

Two years ago my husband Jose and I moved with our young daughter to the land of Jazzercise for Jesus and Xtreme Youth Ministries. We knew it was a gamble but our options were limited. Life here is a heck of a lot cheaper than in the big bad city.

One of the first questions you get out here is, “What church do you go to?” But folks don’t mean which mosque, synagogue, temple, or church—they mean which Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic church do you attend.

When you don’t immediately toss out a familiar sounding place of worship, they start looking at you real funny then slowly back away.

I’m not kidding. Even candidates for local office, coming door to door, would invite us to their churches. The casual way they assumed we were Christian told me more than I wanted to know.

After a few of these encounters, I started to wonder if I smelled funny. Of course, Jose and I expected some of this behavior when we left the city—we weren’t totally naïve. But after being here for just a few months, we wondered if maybe we had been drugged and taken to a cult compound in the middle of the mountains, walled off from reasoning people, the kind who think the scientific method is a good thing.

The signs were ominous—no matter where we turned, we found secret Christian messages. I’d look in the paper and see an ad for a kids’ theatre program that might be good for our daughter. Then I’d read the fine print about how all activities will be used to Praise the Lord. Or we’d buy a personal pizza at the town pool and notice, while we munched away, that the company has pledged on the back of the box to “Place God First In All We Do.”

We’d look at each other as if to say, “Even the freakin’ pizza boxes are in on it!”

Sometimes you think you’ve escaped. You go to your daughter’s ballet recital to appreciate an art form for its own sake, for the beauty of the music and the dancing. Then the dance teacher and her assistant perform an impassioned pas de deaux for Christ. They’re twisting and emoting and praising all over the stage. It’s just so desperate somehow. Good grief, you wonder, is this what I signed up for?

Other times, when driving around the Valley, you play a game where you see who can spot the most Jesus-inspired business signs. This is a game you can’t lose. Two of my favorites sightings are “Rising Son Insurance” and “Trinity Express Lube.” I’ve never asked God to bless my lube jobs before but maybe I’ve been missing out.

Before you brand us Jose and I as utterly bereft of spirituality, I should say that we neither confirm nor deny the existence of a higher power—we are open to all possibilities. Maybe we even like to honor the mystery of not knowing. What matters most to us is the belief that no one has the right to tell another person his or her spiritual traditions and practices are invalid, or that their souls are condemned.

An Episcopal priest at a church I once attended explained it this way. He said that Christianity is not the only gateway to the divine, it’s just the one that works best for him.

In Front Royal and for the growing ranks of the Christian Right, this is a deeply radical idea. Without it, my aunt’s rhetoric becomes a lot less laughable and a lot more disturbing. Does she really believe that the unsaved deserve hell, that they are in thrall to the devil?

Apparently, yes. And that is what her church teaches to the poor in India who come to them for free food, medical care, and education. It’s all free—which is a wonderful thing—except for that little part about burning in hell, if you remain a Hindu. It’s the same kind of half-assed “love” that gays get from this kind of church. As several of my family members know, it’s love with a big catch, and never real acceptance.

On a warm spring day about a year ago, all my aunt’s kids, the cousins I’d grown up with, came to visit their mom and dad not far from us in Virginia. We drove down to see them and had a good day hanging out, catching up on what everyone had been doing in various parts of the world.

It all seemed fairly normal until my aunt started telling us about the trip they took to Israel for their anniversary. We were sitting outside on the patio, digging into fried chicken and potato salad, watching the kids play under the trees, when my aunt explained how they had toured the valley where the “last battle will take place.”

I tried not to look at Jose but was worried he might choke. He was heavily focused on his drum stick but managed to sneak a wide-eyed WTF look my way. What could I say back to that—something reasonable like “Oh, and was it nice there, where millions will be slaughtered in the end times?”

I think I switched the topic and made a mental note to avoid any banter that might touch upon the apocalypse. Note to self: NO APOCALYPSE CHAT.

The scary thing is that even my mother buys into this stuff—the end times, the second coming, people being sucked into the clouds—and believes that she will not see me in the afterlife because of my non-traditional views.

It’s not something we usually talk about and it doesn’t change my love for her but it is a little depressing to think that your own mother has written off the future of your soul because you don’t take the Bible literally.

Her life, like my aunt’s has not been easy, and I don’t deny the peace their faith gives them. I also understand that evangelical Christians see proselytizing as something the New Testament asks them to do. What worries me is the divisiveness of any kind of radical religion, which is, by its nature, violent. If you embrace the dogma they espouse, you are welcomed; if not, it’s separation, suffering, fire, and pain for you.

According to author Chris Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, “there are at least 75 million evangelicals in the United States, about 25% of the population.” A 2004 study by political scientist John Green estimates that roughly half of these (12.6 percent) make up the “religious right,” a group characterized by a belief in Biblical literalism, hostility to pluralism, a refusal to extend civil rights to homosexuals, and the desire to move the U.S toward a Christian theocracy.

Though other polls place the number of Christian extremists at only 7 percent of the population, Hedges points out that their movement is extremely potent. In the theocracy they desire, schools, government, and other public institutions would adhere strictly to Biblical teachings. It sounds crazy and it seems impossible but out here, in the Shenandoah Valley, you start to believe it could happen. And you have to wonder how many regular folks understand the critical importance of the separation of church and state—why and how it protects us all.

Every December here a nativity scene appears on the lawn of the Warren County Courthouse and no one bats an eye. Recently a town council member used his official town email to invite other conservative Christians to prayer lunches. He said it was an accident.

If you’re a yoga instructor in Front Royal, you know not to approach the public schools about offering classes because they are convinced that yoga is a religious cult. A book in the local CVS for young Christian women advises strongly against trying a single downward-facing dog or sun salutation. To flirt with Eastern practices like yoga is to risk losing your soul.

One yoga teacher I know has watched a local evangelical woman remove his yoga flyers from the coffee shop on Main Street. He calls her “the bonnet lady.”

There’s another woman like her who works at the McDonald’s up the street from our house and who refuses to look Jose in the eye. She’s clearly not comfortable with something—could it be otherness, swarthy skin, or maybe his vaguely pagan aura?

The bonnet ladies are why I had to write back to my aunt—they made me do it. They are what scare the crap out of me about conservative Christian America.

That and the giant vanilla cross cakes we see at bake sales. I’d like to say they come topped with a life-like candy Christ and strawberry flavored blood but no one’s gone that far, at least not yet.

I’m sure our new governor Bob McDonnell would buy those cakes in a heartbeat. Recently, at his inaugural prayer breakfast for 900 people, including the hate-monger Pat Robertson, he is reported by the Associated Press (AP) to have said that he, “looks at public service as a form of ministry.”

Also, according to the AP, a neighbor of the McDonnel’s attending the inaugural commented, “God is shining down on Bob and Maureen because he said this is the way it’s supposed to be because he’s a man of God and he deserves this.”

I thought we broke from England and it’s divinely appointed monarchs over 200 years ago? Thinking your political leaders need to be chosen or approved by any kind of greater power is asking for trouble. It destroys the ability of the people to hold their leaders accountable and is the first step toward fascism. Do we really want to go there?

As I’m finishing up the note of apology to my aunt, a woman in what I call a “frontier dress” walks into the coffee shop. I don’t mean to be narrow-minded but I can’t help thinking about the prairie, outhouses, and birthing babies by candlelight when I see my neighbors in long home-made dresses that are the American equivalent of the burqa.

I was used to this sort of outfit back in Pennsylvania near Amish country. Both Amish and Mennonite women wear hand-made dresses, never pants. For some reason it didn’t seem strange in the least, maybe because the Amish don’t involve themselves in politics or culture wars. They do their own thing and let the English live as they will.

I can respect that. Here the frontier dresses make my skin crawl. They signal submission to male authority and nostalgia for a time when women could not vote or hold office. I assume the women who wear them here are not total sheep but clearly they are a part of a religious right that pines for the good old days when everyone had a shotgun, gay men and women hid their sexuality out of sheer terror, and white Protestants could wield their moral superiority without challenge.

One family in my neighborhood whose female members wear only dresses and skirts placed Constitution Party yard signs in front of their house during the presidential election. The seven principles of the Constitution Party include both xenophobic and homophobic language. It’s a party that wants to live in an idealized version of America…one set in 1776.

This crowd we live with in the northern Shenandoah Valley is a far cry from the teeming multi-colored masses of inner-city D.C., where white Constitutionalists wouldn’t dare reveal their true selves, backward and paranoid as they are.

Somehow we failed to realize before we moved to Front Royal that it is home to one of the few evangelical Catholic colleges in the country, Christendom College. In our dreams, we move to a funky, liberal college town like Northampton, Amherst, Berkeley, or Chapel Hill. In reality we pass by Faithful and True, the Catholic gift shop on Main Street where you can read flyers decrying government conspiracies and warning against the flu vaccine.

We stepped into Faithful and True this past “holiday season” to buy gifts for Jose’s devout Catholic father. We admired the rosary beads, looked through the Virgin Mary key chains, and actually bought a book about the Christmas story for Maggie and a huge portrait of the Pope for Jose’s Dad. We were respectful but the lady at the counter knew we were faking it. When I wanted to run out and use the restroom at the coffee shop down the street, Jose refused to be left alone by himself among the Bibles and crucifixes. Wimp!

Jose was raised Catholic and went to a private Catholic boys school and Catholic University. The priest-educators he encountered at those institutions seemed like hippy freaks compared to the rabid conservatives that populate Christendom, which every year requires the entire student body to attend the March for Life.

Oddly enough, it’s always the person with the Christendom bumper sticker who we notice has a toddler in the front seat of their car or way in back without a child safety seat. And we’ve been told by friends who’ve lived in town all their lives that Christendom students party their holy asses off. The beer bottles and cigarette butts in a field behind her house are testimony.

When we noticed recently that the Royal Cinemas movie theatre would be showing some independent films produced by a local team of young filmmakers, we were intrigued—until we looked up their website. They are graduates of Christendom—so much for art, independence, and free thinking. Our idea of a good movie is not one with a thinly-veiled conversion agenda.

In a funny twist of fate, we were heckled last fall by the man we were told runs the bookstore at Christendom. We were walking with the Warren County Democrats (WCD) in the Festival of Leaves parade. We had just passed the center of town when someone shouted out, “The unborn have rights too!” I looked over to see who it was. “Oh, that’s Mr. C,” said the chairman of the WCD.

“Mr. C—really?” I said, happy I had not screamed back at him. For 12 years, Mr. C. and his wife and six kids had rented the house we bought and now live in. Small towns—what can you do?

I think we’ll just kick back and enjoy the prayer meetings at the gazebo downtown and marvel at the crude wooden crosses believers carry in the direction of the four winds, blessing Front Royal north, south, east, and west.

Finally finished with my “sorry” note, I slip it into the envelope and walk it down to the mailbox near Faithful and True. On my way, I look up at the yoga studio where I had a fantastic Thai yoga massage months ago. That studio had to shut down but another has opened up as the alternative health scene here continues to grow.

Maybe I’ll take a laughing yoga class soon, even though I’ll be tempting the devil.

As I drop the letter into the box, I realize that I’m starting to feel a bit better. Maybe it’s the blessing one of the baristas gave me when I told her about a medical procedure I need to have, or maybe it’s just the coffee kicking in.

Either way, I don’t mind her blessing. I never said Jesus isn’t real—just don’t tell me Buddha isn’t too.

-Heather Davis