“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.