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Me and religion

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by Brian Flemming

“What is objectionable, what is dangerous, about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
Robert Kennedy, Pursuit of Justice, 1964

“The pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say ‘You helped this happen.'”
Jerry Falwell, Christian Broadcasting Network, September 13, 2001

I’m going to go out on a limb here: Much of the Christian community is very closed off from what the rest of us call “reality.” I know, because I used to live in their world.

I grew up a fundamentalist, evangelical, born-again Christian. I was born again, oh, I don’t know, seven or eight times maybe–there was a lot of peer pressure. I went to Christian schools until I was sixteen. Bible class five days a week, church on Sunday–and my best friend was a Seventh Day Adventist, so even Saturdays had some religion in them.

The religious schools I went to, especially Village Christian in Sun Valley, CA, where I spent 7th through 10th grades, were clearly designed for indoctrination. Village Christian (school mascot: The Crusader–I shit thou not) ranks its first priority as encouraging “students to develop a personal relationship with Christ.” Want to know the second priority? “Each student will be able to describe a Biblically based relationship with Jesus Christ.”

These are the first two priorities of a school. (Replace “Christ” with “Mohammed” and imagine what conservative Christians would have to say about that.)

And believe me, Village Christian more than practiced what it preached. “Encouraging” students, when you control where they are and what they hear and what they do every minute of the school day, amounts to a bit more than “encouragement.” Every week was a trip through the same rundown: The secular world is evil (their word–not mine), the End Times are coming, you will go to Hell if you have not accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Every week was capped off by Chapel on Friday, where we would assemble for an hour, listen to a guest speaker describe how his acceptance of Jesus rescued him, and then there would be the altar call, and everyone who hadn’t accepted Jesus (or who had and just wanted to be born again again) would go up to the front and sob as the guest speaker or minister delivered a speech about their glorious rebirths while the rest of us watched them cry.

I was led to feel that Jews were doomed, and I felt guilty for not “witnessing” to my Jewish friends. I avoided them, not because I hated them or anything (there was never any outright anti-Semitism, except for that whole doomed-to-Hell bit), but because I couldn’t handle the crushing guilt, and at the same time I couldn’t bring myself to try to convert them.

One thing about the brand of Christianity I experienced, though–recovery from the indoctrination was not as arduous as it seems to be from other totalitarian organizations, like, say, North Korea, or that powerful religious cult whose name I am too frightened to utter in a signed post.

It was relatively easy to cast off the indoctrination. One day, at 15 years old, I just realized that the authority figures around me were full of shit, that the movement had nothing to do with morality or truth, and that I needed to get away. So I started violating the dress code, getting into trouble, quoting Ozzy Osbourne in my detention essays (when you were punished and sent to detention, you had to write an essay using Bible verses to explain why what you did was wrong)…and pretty soon my parents saw where things were headed and let me go to public school.

It was weird to experience the heathens in their natural habitat at first. The first time I heard a teacher say “damn” my heart skipped a beat. The first time I saw a student disagree with a teacher and engage in a debate I was floored. That never, ever happened in my prior authoritarian environment. I was scared out of my mind–just scared, I don’t really know why. I think it felt like I was watching the fabric of society tear apart before my eyes…and I knew what was gonna happen after that.

But pretty soon I realized that the heathens weren’t dangerous, that sex wasn’t evil, that the Four Horsemen were not due any day now, and that if I saw Jesus descend from the sky it would probably be because I was on shrooms (oh, did I mention I got into drugs, and they helped my recovery a LOT?).

There are some things I had to learn on my own. Logic was an acquired skill. Oh yeah, and evolution I had to find by myself, because it had already been taught in prior grades at my public school. Did you know that Darwin was not influenced by Satan? It was totally news to me. And the glorious Holy Crusades? Turns out that there were actually human-rights violations involved and stuff.

I’m an atheist today, but I get along with Christians very well (my writing partner, Keythe, is a practicing Christian).

Today, the most residual stress I get from my experience stems from the special knowledge I have about exactly that brand of Christianity our President subscribes to.

I mean, he’s not just some average United Methodist who goes to church on Easter and Christmas Eve. He’s not merely “religious” or just a “churchgoer.” At 40 years old he was “born again,” and he did it to replace alcoholism. To get over alcoholism, he had to seclude himself with a group of other born-again Christians, study the Bible nonstop, and let the power, wonder-working power of Jesus Christ replace that demon that made him want to drink.

And he hasn’t let go of that zeal. He doesn’t just look to religion for comfort. It rules his life, as alcohol once did.

He believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Thank God most Americans, even many self-identified “Christians,” don’t read the Bible. The nation would be scared to death.

And it probably should be. This is the man leading our nation into a war against Islam–er, terrorism. I try not to think about what the Revelation to John says about what needs to happen in this particular region in order for the End Times to come and everything to turn out okay for the Christians.

Honestly, I try not to think about it too much because it scares me to my core. Just the process of simple deduction is frightening…

1. The Bible really does say what it says about that region’s destiny. (I refuse to describe it–read your Bible.)

2. Born-again Christians really do yearn for the End Times–at Village Christian we talked about the signs of the End Times literally every week. (Most popular theme for a collage in art class? “The End Times Are Coming–Can’t You Tell?”, illustrated by pictures from secular magazines that show the disintegration of society.) If a born-again Christian ever tells you he doesn’t yearn for the End Times, tell him I say he’s fulla shit. At Village, we couldn’t wait for the frickin’ Rapture.

3. The most powerful man in the world, commanding the mightiest army history has ever known, is a born-again Christian.

4. He is active in the Middle East. Very active.

I’m sure there are reasons not to be worried. But I haven’t found them yet. The last Crusades were about ridding the region of the wicked influence of Islam. Although Muslims have a keen sense of their history, our president is so tone deaf (he’s never set foot on Middle East sand a single day in his 56 years) that he doesn’t even know not to say the word “crusade.” I have little doubt that in private he and his fellow-believing inner circle regard the Crusades the same way that Village Christian publicly does–as one of Christianity’s finest achievements. (Any other view would be moral relativism.) You might doubt this. I can’t.

That’s the problem. When I imagine these men sitting together, planning the course of U.S. military action, I don’t have to speculate about one of the strongest and most intimate influences on each one of them. The problem is, no mind reading needed here, I know exactly how they think.

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About Brian Flemming

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    Cancel eveything I wrote above. I’ve changed my mind, because I just read this in USA Today:

    “Bush believes he was called by God to lead the nation at this time, says Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a close friend who talks with Bush every day.”

    Whew! That’s a relief.

  • Eric Olsen

    Very powerful and interesting Brian, but don’t be too quick to make the connection between your experience and Bush’s beliefs: he clearly knows how to separate church and state, which it sounds like your indoctrinators did not.

    Also, don’t place too much faith in human logic, there is much that “surpasses our understanding” whether you are religious or not.

  • andy

    I myself am a “born again” Christian(whatever the hell that means. I believe in Scripture and I believe what Scripture says about Christ).

    I’m sorry your experience w/ “christianity” was so horrid. I would hate to be in the same place. It sounds like you were at a crackpot school man. I think that most theologians(I’m no theologian mind you) would disagree w/ a lot of your school’s teachings, especially if they were taking current events and trying to fit them into Revelation(haven’t they been doing that for 2000 years!?)

    If I were in your shoes, I woulda violated dress code and quoted Ozzy too.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Jerry Falwell made the same mistake I think you’ve made – assuming all Christians were like the ones he encounters. Fortunately, even most Christians seemed to think and say out loud that Jerry Falwell is an idiot extremist. Unfortunately, the clowns you went to school with where a touch on the foolish side as well.

    However, there are masses of us devout Christians out here that actually think and read our own Bibles, and in so doing find that your numeric points above are bunk. A straightforward reading of the Bible doesn’t lead me to believe any of the crap I’ve heard since I was a kid about how there will be WW3 in the middle east and the end of the world or anything like that. Most people who believe that (unfortunately, a lot) don’t read the Bible as a whole, but only the bits and pieces required to support the untenable theory, skipping over the parts that demonstrate it to be false.

    Some more true “fundamentalism” we need, if fundamentalism can be defined as getting back to the fundamental aspects of the Bible, the chief of which is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you and love your neighbor as yourself. What passes for fundamentalism these days is more often than not actually extremism, dangerous in any form.

  • http://bias.blogfodder.net susanna

    Others have dealt with this post well, so I’ll just make a few comments. Most obviously, your own experience does not encompass the behavior in “[m]uch of the Christian community”, nor is there any basis to extrapolate from your own experience to how President Bush experiences his own faith. I’m sure if you knew the details of my faith, you would consider me a “fundamentalist”, and certainly I’d rank high on the list of literalists in terms of Biblical interpretation. But I personally believe that Revelation was fulfilled in the first century, and I don’t believe in a “Rapture” at all. Those who do believe in it that I know do not long for it. Walk softly with your sweeping generalizations, and don’t let your own anger and prejudice draw you into casting aspersions at “[m]uch of the Christian community”.

  • andy

    wow first century? I’m no dispensationalist, but I wouldn’t consider myself to have a full on historical view either. My views on Revelation are a mix between the historical point of view and the Spiritual(lots of symbolism). I definately don’t believe in a pre-trib rapture, a 7 year trib, or any of that. Left Behind theology can kiss my right behind

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Susanna/Andy – Preterists, partial and full, unite!

  • http://www.murphyhorner.com Murphy herself

    “It was relatively easy to cast off the indoctrination. One day, at 15 years old, I just realized that the authority figures around me were full of shit, that the movement had nothing to do with morality or truth, and that I needed to get away.”

    Brian, be aware that it is not so easy for everyone.

    I could SO Swap stories with you, oh man! But just imagine, if your parents, instead of sending you to that public school, decided to have another drink from that tasty kool-aid and kept you home for home school.

    That’s what happened to me.

    Anyway, your experience with the separatist fundamental folks was mostly when you were a child. You might want to think about WHY the adults, who should supposedly know better, are involved.

    Everybody does things for a reason. And those “christian” virtues of loving your neighbor have a very secular side-effect: if you can refrain from judgement by keeping love in your heart, you might learn something about the nature of what’s going. You could learn how to avoid such traps yourself.

    Believe me, it’s not just stupidheads that fall for them. It’s a part of human nature.

  • http://bias.blogfodder.net susanna

    Andy, not to get all theological in comments, but briefly: I think Revelation is a book of prophecy written in the symbolic mode of Isaiah and other OT books of prophecy; the fulfillment is not a Tribulation with a 7 yr reign, etc., but rather the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.

  • cj

    Brilliant fascinating and entertaining.

  • http://www.slumdance.com/blogs/brian_flemming/ Brian Flemming

    Eric,

    “…don’t be too quick to make the connection between your experience and Bush’s beliefs: he clearly knows how to separate church and state…”

    Huh? Is there evidence of this? I’d be relieved to hear it.

    “Also, don’t place too much faith in human logic, there is much that “surpasses our understanding” whether you are religious or not.”

    Thanks for the instruction. But if I don’t place faith in human logic (when analyzing if the Middle East war plan is a good idea or a bad idea), what would you recommend should take its place?

    Phillip,

    “Jerry Falwell made the same mistake I think you’ve made – assuming all Christians were like the ones he encounters…”

    I hope I was clear in my essay that I don’t do this. I’m friends with many moderate Christians. I mean, a whole lot of them. My suspicion of Bush is not built on a prejudice against all Christians. It’s built on very specific knowledge of the kind of Christianity he is known to practice.

    I wasn’t worried about Christians like Clinton or Bush 1 (W. did not get his core religious ideas from his family), who also took military action in the Middle East.

    “Fortunately, even most Christians seemed to think and say out loud that Jerry Falwell is an idiot extremist.”

    True. I wasn’t trying to smear all Christians, and I think i made that clear. I notice that you don’t include Bush in that category of Christians who think Falwell is an extremist.

    Because you can’t. Bush has never said that. He has been very careful not to denounce Falwell and Robertson by name. His strategy has been to do the absolute least he can get away with politically when it comes to criticizing extremist Christians. He simply won’t do it directly.

    The only hope is that he actually finds their comments morally offensive and dangerous, but he is too craven a politician to risk offending them and their supporters. Evidence supports Bush’s political acumen, but it also supports the possibility that he quite simply agrees with Falwell and Robertson.

    He’s never made a statement that amounts to, “Personally, I completely disagree with that view.” Why not?

    “What passes for fundamentalism these days is more often than not actually extremism, dangerous in any form.”

    Indeed. We have a president who emphasizes the pleasure he takes in extra-judicial killing–in his State of the Union address, no less! I think it’s possible he might think along the lines of “Do unto others,” and cast aside the second part.

    Susanna,

    “nor is there any basis to extrapolate from your own experience to how President Bush experiences his own faith”

    Yes, there is. You know how pro-war people try to emphasize that anti-war people just don’t know what fundamentalist Islam says, and if they did they’d be afraid? Well, the same goes here.

    George Bush is a “born-again” Christian. This is not your average Christian. Not only was he “born again,” he has maintained his fervent belief–he didn’t have a conversion and then slip into being a mere churchgoer. “True” born-again, evangelical Christianity is a particular subset of Christianity, and I know it well.

    Not that you proposed this, but I think the idea that we should not be worried about the particular motivations and beliefs of our leaders is erroneous. If we truly examine them and find them benign, well, okay. But ignoring them is not wise.

    Some very powerful people in U.S. religion see this as a Christian vs. Muslim all-out war. I wish that were an exaggeration. I wish “war” were a metaphor for “cultural diagreement.” But it’s not. There are powerful Christians–not just wackos on the fringes, leaders with great power–who believe they are at war against an entire evil religion, and it’s time to kill. Big time.

    It would be very foolish to ignore this.

    Murphy,

    I should emphasize that my parents, believe it or not, pretty much had little idea of what was going on at that school (and, upon understanding it, my mother apologized quite sincerely). The public schools in our neighborhood were very violent–there were race riots. So my parents sent us to a Christian school. Nothing safer than that, right? I don’t blame them.

    I am aware that I had it easy, compared to many Christians (or other escapees from indoctrination). And I’m sorry to hear that you were among the less fortunate.

    And, yeah, I do wonder what it means that I saw through the crap when I was 15, but at 40 years old George W. Bush looked at this same doctrine and said, You know? This is exactly what I need to cure my alcoholism.

    I know people are going to think that’s simply an anti-Bush smear. But my point is that Bush was

    a) born again to
    b) recover from alcoholism. And
    c) he has maintained his born-again fervor.

    These are undisputed facts. The open question is–do they mean something?

    “if you can refrain from judgement by keeping love in your heart, you might learn something about the nature of what’s going. You could learn how to avoid such traps yourself.”

    I don’t know what you mean here. If the premise of my article were “All Christians are idiots,” I could understand the point. But my article presents certain evidence of a particular problem–it depends not a bit on ignorance or prejudice or gross generalizations.

    cj,

    Thanks!

  • andy

    Susanna, I agree mostly w/ what you’re saying. About the only thing I don’t agree w/ is that all the prophecies in Revelation were fufilled in the first century. That is all

  • http://www.murphyhorner.com murphy

    “But my article presents certain evidence of a particular problem–it depends not a bit on ignorance or prejudice or gross generalizations.”

    I’m sorry, Brian. I didn’t mean to imply those things. Inflection doesn’t carry well in print.

    Just wanted to apologize.

  • MT

    Somehow people have been convinced there’s this figure up above who sees everything we do and keeps track of all our sins and indiscretions in his little black book and determines who will rot in hell and who will bask in heaven’s white light.
    Oddly, no-one has ever seen this figure and he always needs money. And a book written 2,000 years ago (by man) is supposed to tell me how to lead my life? Hogwash! Next time God speaks directly to any of you devout simpletons, please ask him for next week’s Powerball numbers. I could use the cash. I’ll cut you in for 25% of the take.

  • InMarin

    Brian, have you seen this???

    Army chaplain offers baptisms, baths

    In this dry desert world near Najaf, where the Army V Corps combat support system sprawls across miles of scabrous dust, there’s an oasis of sorts: a 500-gallon pool of pristine, cool water.

    It belongs to Army chaplain Josh Llano of Houston, who sees the water shortage, which has kept thousands of filthy soldiers from bathing for weeks, as an opportunity.

    ”It’s simple. They want water. I have it, as long as they agree to get baptized,” he said.

    And agree they do. Every day, soldiers take the plunge for the Lord and come up clean for the first time in weeks.

    ”They do appear physically and spiritually cleansed,” Llano said.

    First, though, the soldiers have to go to one of Llano’s hour-and-a-half sermons in his dirt-floor tent. Then the baptism takes an hour of quoting from the Bible.

    ”Regardless of their motives,” Llano said, “I get the chance to take them closer to the Lord.”

    (from Media Whores Online)

    So, if you are a desperately thirsty Jewish soldier, do you have to accept Christ to get a juice box from this “man of God”?