Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well….
…“Mamaw, does God love us?” She hung her head, gave me a hug, and began to cry.
The question wounded Mamaw because the Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers. We never went to church, except on rare occasions in Kentucky or when Mom decided that what we needed in our lives was religion. Nevertheless, Mamaw’s was a deeply personal (albeit quirky) faith. She couldn’t say “organized religion” without contempt. She saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers. And she hated what she called “the loud and proud”—people who wore their faith on their sleeve, always ready to let you know how pious they were. Still, she sent much of her spare income to churches in Jackson, Kentucky, especially those controlled by Reverend Donald Ison, an older man who bore a striking resemblance to the priest from The Exorcist.
By Mamaw’s reckoning, God never left our side. He celebrated with us when times were good and comforted us when they weren’t. During one of our many trips to Kentucky, Mamaw was trying to merge onto the highway after a brief stop for gas. She didn’t pay attention to the signs, so we found ourselves headed the wrong way on a one-way exit ramp with angry motorists swerving out of our way. I was screaming in terror, but after a U-turn on a three-lane interstate, the only thing Mamaw said about the incident was “We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?”
The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.
Mamaw often told a parable: A young man was sitting at home when a terrible rainstorm began. Within hours, the man’s house began to flood, and someone came to his door offering a ride to higher ground. The man declined, saying, “God will take care of me.” A few hours later, as the waters engulfed the first floor of the man’s home, a boat passed by, and the captain offered to take the man to safety. The man declined, saying, “God will take care of me.” A few hours after that, as the man waited on his roof—his entire home flooded—a helicopter flew by, and the pilot offered transportation to dry land. Again the man declined, telling the pilot that God would care for him. Soon thereafter, the waters overcame the man, and as he stood before God in heaven, he protested his fate: “You promised that you’d help me so long as I was faithful.” God replied, “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. Your death is your own fault.” God helps those who help themselves. This was the wisdom of the Book of Mamaw.
The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos….
…I knew that my Dad was, in Mamaw’s words, a “Holy Roller.” That was the word she used for charismatic Christians who, she claimed, “handled snakes and screamed and wailed in church.” This was enough to pique my curiosity: With little religious training, I was desperate for some exposure to a real church….
…Dad had changed for the better. He credits a more serious involvement with his faith. In this, Dad embodied a phenomenon social scientists have observed for decades: Religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all. MIT economist Jonathan Gruber even found that the relationship was causal: It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church, it’s that church seems to promote good habits.
In his religious habits, Dad lived the stereotype of a culturally conservative Protestant with Southern roots, even though the stereotype is mostly inaccurate. Despite their reputation for clinging to their religion, the folks back home resembled Mamaw more than Dad: deeply religious but without any attachment to a real church community. Indeed, the only conservative Protestants I knew who attended church regularly were my dad and his family. In the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.
Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.
This pattern of deception has to do with cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure.
The juxtaposition is jarring: Religious institutions remain a positive force in people’s lives, but in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes, church attendance has fallen off. Dad’s church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track.
Dad’s faith attracted me even though I learned early on that it had played a significant role in the adoption that led to our long separation….
…On balance, I loved my dad and his church. I’m not sure if I liked the structure or if I just wanted to share in something that was important to him—both, I suppose—but I became a devoted convert. I devoured books about young-earth creationism, and joined online chat rooms to challenge scientists on the theory of evolution. I learned about millennialist prophecy and convinced myself that the world would end in 2007. I even threw away my Black Sabbath CDs. Dad’s church encouraged all of this because it doubted the wisdom of secular science and the morality of secular music….
…Still, my relationship with Dad continued to develop, and so did my relationship with his church. The downside of his theology was that it promoted a certain segregation from the outside world. I couldn’t listen to Eric Clapton at Dad’s house—not because the lyrics were inappropriate but because Eric Clapton was influenced by demonic forces. I’d heard people joke that if you played Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” backward, you’d hear some evil incantation, but a member of Dad’s church spoke about the Zeppelin myth as if it were actually true.
These were quirks, and at first I understood them as little more than strict rules that I could either comply with or get around. Yet I was a curious kid, and the deeper I immersed myself in evangelical theology, the more I felt compelled to mistrust many sectors of society. Evolution and the Big Bang became ideologies to confront, not theories to understand. Many of the sermons I heard spent as much time criticizing other Christians as anything else. Theological battle lines were drawn, and those on the other side weren’t just wrong about biblical interpretation, they were somehow unchristian. I admired my uncle Dan above all other men, but when he spoke of his Catholic acceptance of evolutionary theory, my admiration became tinged with suspicion. My new faith had put me on the lookout for heretics. Good friends who interpreted parts of the Bible differently were bad influences. Even Mamaw fell from favor because her religious views didn’t conflict with her affinity for Bill Clinton.
As a young teenager thinking seriously for the first time about what I believed and why I believed it, I had an acute sense that the walls were closing in on “real” Christians. There was talk about the “war on Christmas”—which, as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of ACLU activists suing small towns for nativity displays. I read a book called Persecution by David Limbaugh about the various ways that Christians were discriminated against. The Internet was abuzz with talk of New York art displays that featured images of Christ or the Virgin Mary covered in feces. For the first time in my life, I felt like a persecuted minority.
All of this talk about Christians who weren’t Christian enough, secularists indoctrinating our youth, art exhibits insulting our faith, and persecution by the elites made the world a scary and foreign place. Take gay rights, a particularly hot topic among conservative Protestants. I’ll never forget the time I convinced myself that I was gay. I was eight or nine, maybe younger, and I stumbled upon a broadcast by some fire-and-brimstone preacher. The man spoke about the evils of homosexuals, how they had infiltrated our society, and how they were all destined for hell absent some serious repenting….
…And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be okay. God would still love you.” That settled the matter. Apparently I didn’t have to worry about being gay anymore. Now that I’m older, I recognize the profundity of her sentiment: Gay people, though unfamiliar, threatened nothing about Mamaw’s being. There were more important things for a Christian to worry about.
In my new church, on the other hand, I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. I recalled that moment with Mamaw as an instance of secularist thinking rather than an act of Christian love. Morality was defined by not participating in this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex. Dad’s church required so little of me. It was easy to be a Christian. The only affirmative teachings I remember drawing from church were that I shouldn’t cheat on my wife and that I shouldn’t be afraid to preach the gospel to others. So I planned a life of monogamy and tried to convert other people, even my seventh-grade science teacher, who was Muslim.
The world lurched toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah. The Rapture was coming, we thought. Apocalyptic imagery filled the weekly sermons and the Left Behind books (one of the best-selling fiction series of all time, which I devoured). Folks would discuss whether the Antichrist was already alive and, if so, which world leader it might be. Someone told me that he expected I’d marry a very pretty girl if the Lord hadn’t come by the time I reached marrying age. The End Times were the natural finish for a culture sliding so quickly toward the abyss.
Other authors have noted the terrible retention rates of evangelical churches and blamed precisely that sort of theology for their decline. I didn’t appreciate it as a kid. Nor did I realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith. What I did know is that, despite its downsides, I loved both my new church and the man who introduced me to it. The timing, it turned out, was impeccable: The next months would bring a desperate need for both a heavenly father and an earthly one.
…as most teenagers do, I had so many questions about my faith—whether it was compatible with modern science, for instance, or whether this or that denomination was correct on particular doctrinal disputes. I doubt he would have gotten upset if I’d asked those questions, but I never did because I didn’t know how he’d respond. I didn’t know whether he’d tell me I was a spawn of Satan and send me away. I didn’t know how much of our new relationship was built on his sense that I was a good kid. I didn’t know how he’d react if I listened to those Zeppelin CDs in his house with my younger siblings around. That not knowing gnawed at me to the point where I could no longer take it.
As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”