(On February 2, 2017 The Girls Are All Right: A Feminactivist Podcast hosted “Pearl”. It was an illuminating and distressing show. A link to it is here. If you can’t listen via LibSyn, the episode (S2E5) is also available on iTunes and Stitcher)
By: Pearl Campbell
Literal Brimstone: My Personal History With The Plot for American Theocracy (Part I)
I’m really sorry to break it to you, but religious extremists are taking over our government.
It seems too preposterous for words. How could America let this happen? It is certainly hard to believe. I’m having a hard time with it myself, and I used to be one of those extremists.
In church four or five times a week, in tiny Christian schools when I wasn’t homeschooled, at Bible camp, at youth conventions, on missions trips and at Bible college, these six words were our mission: “Take back our country for Christ.”
From what, you might ask? Well, I knew that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” and that it was up to my generation to make America a Christian Nation again. They told us that the current time of crisis began when we took prayer out of schools in 1962. Since then, secular humanists had seduced America into laws and culture so immoral that we were under threat from Divine Judgment.
What kind of Divine Judgment? Natural disasters, for a start. Literal brimstone was not out of the question: a Sodom & Gomorrah-style rain of fire. What kind of immorality? What was once veiled is clear to me now: the “immorality” was Civil Rights.
We were taught–in school–that feminism was equivalent to witchcraft (and witchcraft bound up with “rebellion”). The “abortion holocaust” was the doozy, but giving into the “homosexual agenda”–the one where they asked us to tolerate them–would bring us that much closer to literal brimstone. I was taught that some of the world’s greatest scientists were godless frauds for their work towards the giant hoax of evolution. And this last bit was simmering under the surface, but it is beginning to become clear to me that the dark seeds of my evangelical Christian education lay in resistance to desegregation. What exactly gave us this idea that the federal government was out of control, in a state of “overreach”? I was taught, for context, the racist lie that slavery wasn’t the real cause of the Civil War.
“A Christian Nation.” The time of Jamestown and the Puritans was our golden age. Teachers and preachers taught us feverishly about governments, like the Soviets and the Chinese, that took people’s Bibles away. We knew that our country’s slide towards Bible-banning was well underway. If we wanted to stop this evil secular humanist regime, it was going to take personal sacrifice, commitment, and courage. This was a war, and they never let us forget it.
Later on, I left my belief in literal brimstone behind, along with Noah’s ark and a 6,000-year-old Earth. Over time, I was able to accept that I’d grown up on a radical fringe. I was never sure how many people under the label “evangelical” were as extreme in their theology as the denominations I was involved with as a child. I always meant to do this research, but as my departure from the church was more of a high speed chase than a drifting away, I was preoccupied, then exhausted, then filled with a desire to focus on anything else.
Fundamentalism? My new, normal friends on the coast seemed to imagine isolated groups of crazies out floating on a distant field of wheat. Stories from my childhood would always blow their minds. I felt like they would shake their heads at the Westboro Baptists, while envisioning all other Christians as praying grandmothers or hippie priests–at worst, dorky mega-church crowds who mean well, after all. The leaders on the Religious Right were clearly “pandering to the base”: surely they didn’t really believe a word that they said.
But I got the same news as everyone–now that I had access to news–and I heard about the textbook battles, the abortion restrictions, government funded abstinence-only sex “education” and the anti-gay bakers. Michele Bachmann cropped up. I watched the Tea Party rise with dread; I did not think they were amusing. Charter schools entered the mainstream, and I saw some unsettling connections with the school vouchers my old cult once dreamed about in our war on public schools. Sometimes a liberal Op-Ed writer would take on the platform of discrimination against “conservatives” in higher education, and I could see the drift of our old persecution complex bearing fruit. I often heard the term “dying gasp,” and I always thought, “Not so fast.”
I started to warn people. I told them my story, more than once making someone I had just met cry at a party. Then I would feel bad, and wonder whether I was being paranoid. Enter Trump / Pence.
Everyone thought Trump didn’t stand a chance, that he would drop out, get bored and go do something else. I could see that was wishful thinking: Trump so very clearly wanted to be King. Furthermore, it was no shock to me that Trump would appeal mightily to a group of people who invented the “prosperity gospel,” people who burn music, who think God has ordered them to rape the earth, who want it to be legal for men to rape their wives, who defend their right to beat their children, and who look forward to the end of the world because the sinners, like losers, will be segregated into hell where they will get what they deserve.
It doesn’t matter that Trump isn’t a Christian himself. In fact, maybe the Christianists need someone just like him to do their dirty work. With Christian-first Mike Pence in charge of “domestic and foreign policy,” Trump signs whatever they put in front of him and makes his appointments straight from the Heritage Foundation’s closet of Skeletors. (There are white nationalists, accused wife beaters and straight up kleptocrats hanging around as well, but maybe these aren’t unthinkable alliances: unless you are still shocked! Shocked! that religion can be used as a vehicle to steal money, oppress women and demonize ethnic groups.) Trump needed the evangelicals to get elected, he has no idea what he’s doing, and they’re happy to fill out his dance card for him.
Their triumph makes me shiver. Yes, Betsy DeVos wants to end public education as we know it, and yes, it’s for religious reasons. (I cannot stress to you enough how much we feared and hated public schools. A fellow ex-fundie friend told me when the school bus went by outside, her brother used to say, “There goes the prison bus.”) Ben Carson is crazy only in a way that I find utterly familiar. Misogyny is where the Christianists shine: Jerry Falwell Jr will make sure that Title IX stops “interfering” with higher education. What an egregious “interference,” to try to let women educate themselves without being raped.
Trump can be lewd and make stupid jokes about praying for The Apprentice Ratings all he wants: when he vows to “destroy” the Johnson amendment, the sorts of evangelicals I am describing to you know their victory is at hand. They’ve acted in open contempt of the Johnson amendment for decades, anyway. Politics was the air we breathed in that religion. This is their sudden, unlooked for vindication. It must feel like a miracle.
Since God never seems to pay us any visits in order to correct the men who claim to speak for him, their sermons can endlessly adapt. With regard to immigration bans, Billy Graham’s son helpfully explained that “God uses ‘extreme vetting,’” too. I just saw a Christian article talking about how tall the walls are around Heaven. (Some Christian groups are also coming out against the refugee bans. That’s great. They’re not the people I’m worried about, though I do hope they will take ever bolder stands against their more ruthless brethren.)
Now we begin to see the real topography. Did supremacism within the church legitimize, from a distance, the tiny pockets of open white supremacism that still exist on the margins of our society? What about the 4chan trolls and “men’s right’s activists”? How much common ground will they find with churches that, in the most extreme cases, appear to be drifting toward advocating child marriage?
Trump might be too unruly to act as a vessel in the end, God’s or anyone else’s. If he’s a dream come true for Religious Right policy, he wreaks havoc with their coded language. If they gave Trump a copy of their Doublespeak playbook, it wasn’t one that he could read. Trump shreds sheep’s clothing. Benevolent sexism? Punish the woman. What’s a “dog whistle”? The dog has stopped whistling and started to scream.
I resist all attempts to glorify Trump by icing a “silver lining” onto a “cleansing fire.” Yet my only hope, now, is that Trump will play the part of Toto tearing down a curtain, showing us not a nice old fraud from Kansas, but the vile supremacism that, I am increasingly convinced, has been the true core of this new religious movement since the government desegregated our schools.
My only hope is that the revelation of these motives will strike the fear into the hearts of decent Americans, within churches and without, and inspire their sustained and visible resistance. If you are with me now in constitutional fear, and that’s what brings you to read accounts like mine, I do have some specific advice to share.
Part II: How to Resist American Theocracy
Christian extremists who long for the literal end of the world have gained unprecedented power in our government. How do we stop them? I used to be one of their true believers, as I recounted in Part I. Here’s what I know.
After I fled my old way of life, I gradually discovered a useful rule of thumb: whatever the church had told me, the exact opposite was likely true. So if we screamed about PATRIOTISM all the time, if we practically bathed in American flags, if we dressed up as Puritans when we celebrated whatever alt-Halloween we got up to in the church basement–what was the real truth? We were anti-American.
We wanted Civil Rights to only apply to people from our religion. We also wanted to be able to use the mechanisms of the state to force people to follow our religion’s rules. We yelped that our religious rights were being violated, but, as you well know, we were the real rights-violators. And people kept voting for the political party we had made our own.
Naturally, the epiphany that my former tribe was working to sabotage America made me feel upset and overwhelmed. But I felt much, much better when I realized that the check on their efforts was already written into the Constitution. The founding fathers had already given American citizens the tools we need to fight back against this sort of thing, and our tool today is the separation of church and state.
If religions were naturally apolitical, our founding fathers wouldn’t have felt it necessary to frame our Constitution the way that they did. All these years later, I fear our deeply American understanding that religions ought to be apolitical may have ironically given would-be theocrats decades of cover.
I feel that Americans have taken the church-state separation so much for granted that we began to believe it was a natural state of affairs. Basically, the country had such faith that our religious and political leaders wouldn’t mix church & state that when they started to do so brazenly, we refused to believe our eyes. This is a problem, as our civic institutions aren’t shored up by faith. They’re shored up by defending the Constitution.
“Things can’t be that way because they shouldn’t be that way” leads to the type of situation where a huge burglar wearing kitten ears can say to you, “Don’t mind me, I’m just the cat,” and you respond, “Oh, thank goodness!” while he robs you blind.
The fact that a Religious Right exists at all in America is an absolute outrage. A good law like the Johnson Amendment sought to enforce our Constitution, but we have not enforced the Johnson Amendment. What happened? Did we just become fatigued? Did Phyllis Schlafly wear us down?
I think we just really didn’t want to admit how bad things were getting. Even for me, the election of Trump / Pence was a jolt that made the seriousness of the situation painfully apparent.
Do I have a recipe for resisting American theocrats? When I stood up to them, I have to be honest, I found them to be formidable. Let me be more open: I got crushed. But I’m just one woman. If we can unite against this threat, this is the advice that I have to give, now that I know I must speak out.
We must not underestimate the threat that this extremism poses to our society any longer. We must treat our fellow citizens with compassion, or we are lost. We must fight against the extremists’ agenda by matching & exceeding their political engagement. And if we really want to fix our culture, we must confront our legacy of racism and gender oppression.
We must not underestimate the threat that Christian extremism poses to our society any longer.
If you think people who use the Old Testament to justify misogynistic laws are kooks, well, the kooks are in charge. They have acted increasingly, openly, kooky and paid no electoral penalty. If you are still waiting for this “Religious Right” stuff to affect you personally, A: you’re probably male, but ok, fine, B: all you have to do is think about climate change. If those who profit from oil have the best motive to pretend impending environmental catastrophe is a hoax, the Religious Right has the best mechanisms for teaching people to disbelieve their own eyes until it’s way too late, then to helpfully explain that they deserved to suffer, anyway. But hey, at least we’ll be “A Christian Nation Again.”
What does it mean to make America a “Christian nation” again? Well, it first means re-writing history, seeing as it was the separation of church and state that was actually sacred to the structure of our republic. But this sentiment also might very well mean that evangelicals aim to make all Americans Christians–or at least make life rather miserable for those who hold out. We can judge from Trump’s exceptions to his Muslim Ban that a Christian identification is considered among the qualities that make up a true, acceptable, “real” American. This is completely consistent with my old playbook.
Please remember that those who use language like “Christian nation” in the first place assume that “Christianity” will be narrowly defined by them. Our actual founding fathers were looking to avoid Inquisition scenarios as much as they wanted to avoid individual tyrants, but that’s immaterial to these revisionists. It’s becoming clear to me that the shunning techniques that were used on me when I, as a “rebellious” woman, challenged the church…well, they’re about to be written into our general laws, and I’m terrified.
Legally speaking, I hope that those working in the judiciary will leap on the fact that Christianists speak from both sides of their mouths when they try to claim the act of discrimination as a protected religious right, then argue to write discrimination (back) into our laws as objectively good for everyone. But I fear that since our system assumes elected officials won’t do double duty as religious zealots, with that norm undermined, our system can’t function correctly.
That’s on us: we must stop voting for obvious religious zealots. That Pence could make his statement that he’s “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” and not automatically be rejected by voters shows how serious things have become. That’s why I’m trying to get people to wake up about this. Words attributed to Christ come to mind, and they are: “Ye shall know them by their fruit”
When Christians stereotype the members of other faiths, the answer is not to hate Christians, it is to insist on pluralism. When the world’s religions, which are not going away, work to marginalize their bad actors as not representing their group’s values, the world becomes more just and more safe. Yet at those times that we protect religion itself as so precious and unassailable that we resort to the “No true Scotsman” device, I fear we may then fail to account for the deeply superstitious, magical thinking that very often does motivate the same people who use the church to gain political power. We act as if we deal with either straight up charlatan cynics or pure-hearted, apolitical shamans, but nothing in between. In fact, it’s not so unheard of to marry superstitious belief with a desire for power. History holds a few examples.
What I don’t want you to miss is that they look forward to the end of the world.
We must treat our fellow citizens with compassion, or we are lost.
I’ve spent a lot of time, perhaps too much, trying to make you terrified of American Christianists, as I am terrified, knowing what I know. In light of those efforts, it could not be more important to me now, as I beg you to act against the agenda I once served, to fight back with compassion.
What we must resist is an ideology. The people who are propping up the Christianist ideology are your fellow citizens. Try to maintain this distinction in your mind. There is much to be angry about and a real battle to fight, but I’m here to warn you that if you wake up all of a sudden into a fit of religion-banning rage, you will play right into their hands.
Don’t play into the Christianists’ persecution complexes by mocking them. Be sober but compassionate and remember they are your fellow citizens. They are looking for a holy war, and they have been stoked to expect your hate and your disdain. Don’t give it to them for the same reasons Obama was smart when he refused to “say the words ‘radical Islamic Terrorism.’”
It’s easy to say that our homegrown religious zealots should know better. They should. But some Americans have been targets of sophisticated propaganda for decades, and many who were never trusting churchgoers or Fox News consumers haven’t. We must understand that that stuff works. In fact, it’s unbelievably effective. It worked on me. Again, words of Christ apply: “false teachers” are the worst. If you’ve never been exposed to this kind of rhetoric, misinformation, and isolation, you are lucky.
We were told for years that the elites were out there laughing at us, looking down on us at best, at worst poised to take our Bibles away and jail us for our beliefs. In reality, the so-called-elites were more than happy to let us do our thing as long as we didn’t visibly hurt anybody. Really, we got away with a fair amount of hurting “anybody”–namely women and children–because it was important in America to make sure we got to do our thing–and because we made sure not to leave a bruise. Look, religious pluralism actually is a deeply held American value.
Standing up for pluralism and for the separation of church and state is the position to stake out. This removes you from the useless exercise of arguing about gods and their desires in a realm where nothing can be proven. When the founding fathers made the American government, they built a wall, and they put religion on one side of it for a reason. When evangelicals made gaining political power part of their religion, they were acting in an un-American way. If we let them claim political power as a “religious belief,” then the separation of church and state is meaningless. Defend it.
While you defend that separation, try to keep the ideology and the people separate in your mind. They don’t do that for you: they think you’re bound for literal hell. They’ll call you a tyrant and a witch and everything else. Be bigger than that. It’s important. Fair or not, they’re so far gone that if any unification is possible, it’s going to be up to you, anyway. Again, to reach for one of the old terms, I encourage a reverse “love the sinner hate the sin.” I think that concept could actually work very well for people who aren’t using it in bad faith.
Some people in our country are way worse than we wanted to admit. Many others are way more decent than lying hatemongers and the polarizing Internet let on. This hate is cheap–and it is easy. Counteract hatred with civil, respectful dialogue in person. When that doesn’t work and they still vote to take your rights away, outvote them. When they outvote you, protest, make a stink, and protect those who are brutalized by unjust laws. Through all of that, do not join your opponents in their hate.
Give the defectors a safe way out; this is not only humane, it allows their movement to lose steam–and the defectors will likely have useful information to share. I think of folks like Charlie Sykes, who left his right wing talk radio show to apologize to America and beg us not to vote for Trump. Bless his heart—seriously.
If some of my old fellows can be un-brainwashed, they’ll bring with them, in their way, a lifetime of experience fighting an authoritarian government. This was a false game—the “authoritarian government” was just one that stopped forcing Jewish kids to sing Christian hymns in music class and tried to make us stop being so awful to black people. But hey, if the fundamentalists’ minds can be saved, those years of living under what they perceived to be an Iron Curtain might come in handy now that they’ve ironically ushered in some real tyranny.
I got out because people I had been told to fear were kind to me at a time when those I’d been told to trust were cruel. That broke the spell, along with some lucky, deep, instinctive knowledge that I didn’t deserve cruelty, after all. But the capacity to act with cruelty is within us all. That is a harsh truth I learned back then that I carry with me still. It applies to you as well.
I held absolutely reprehensible views, but I had been told they were good views. When things felt bad, felt, even deeply wrong, I was told that was just God testing me. I really had no idea how deceived I was, until several different people tried to tell me, patiently, gradually, and with respect for my humanity. This might not “work on” everyone; I’m glad it worked on me. But If I’d been met with some kind of sword instead, I would have known what to do, and I would have died for what I thought was right.
We must fight against the extremists’ agenda by matching & exceeding their political engagement.
Extremists who were outdated, outnumbered, and not all that sane had an enormous effect on our culture simply by engaging actively in the civic structures that are available to all of us. (For now.)
Guess what: running for local office and organizing people around a cause with moral heft was enormously effective for the Religious Right, even when that moral heft was completely upside down. The Christianists engaged in our democracy with the intent of destroying it. Think what a huge difference would be made if sane citizens showed this kind of dedication in actual good faith!
What kind of difference truly moral American citizens have, in fact, made! So many beautiful Americans have fought against tyranny, against oppression, against exploitation. Read some history for inspiration and tactics. If you have a free mind and access to real facts, please use them.
This is what my church taught me: Your actions and choices matter. They matter a lot. They matter morally speaking. They make a difference. They matter right now.
This laudable mindset was then loaded up into a worldview that was completely upside down. In contrast, I like to believe that engaged, mobilized citizens with free minds and true facts will absolutely transform the world for the better. At the very least, we can stop our homegrown zealots from destroying it.
My former people were told that they faced a visceral threat to their identity as Americans. That “threat” was Civil Rights, and they were told a vicious lie. But now there really is a visceral threat to our identity as Americans. Can we mobilize against that threat half as effectively, without being motivated by fear of hell fire? We’re about to find out!
We must confront our legacy of racism and gender oppression.
There is a specific truth that our religious extremists will bend all of reality in order to avoid. And that has something to do with racial guilt. With hate. With misogyny. With fear of those who are different. Most of all, with knowing that our own people acted terribly, and then grappling with what vengeance would require if the roles of oppressor and oppressed were reversed. You either deal with the fact of your own terrible sin, or you double down and insist that your victim deserved it.
What a massive psychological force. When I keep this in mind, much that appears senseless starts to make sense. Why do they want to ban college classes that deal with racial understanding? Why the enormous effort to push women back into the middle ages? Why threaten literal apocalypse when someone suggests making it a crime to kick a gay man to death in a field?
At a certain point we have to ask ourselves, how could a religious movement that channels dethroned white male rage become so popular? Hm. Perhaps we hadn’t dealt with our race, class and gender struggles as completely as we imagined, and this movement gave our unresolved oppressive tendencies a place to go.
Why are we so protective of the “pro-life” evangelical’s right to literally scream bloody murder at a woman who tries to exercise her legal rights? Maybe for the wrong reasons.
There were fires that didn’t get quenched, and we let them go on smoldering out somewhere on the plains. When the fire of racism and gender oppression comes roaring back, will we let them be known as the fire of God?
If and when we succeed in preventing this movement from destroying our democracy, as a culture we must have a come-to-Jesus moment over how we created a Jesus who told us to hate.
This is the beating heart. This work must be done. If our country is to be healed once and for all, it will happen, I believe, through another process that I can only speak of, today, in biblical terms: repentance.