The Christian right wanted me. I was their type, a man of their calibre. The only thing that got in the way, was myself.
I remember a muggy southern Alabama afternoon in Fair Hope at a small clam chowder shop overlooking Mobile Bay. I was at the peak of my law school career, spending my summer in a prestigious clerkship with the state Supreme Court, and sitting to my left was Chief Justice Roy Moore. His Chief of Staff was across the table, engaging the judge with an intriguing conversation about their place in the conservative movement and my role as a future legal advocate for God’s America.
Impressed by the gravity of my place in the culture war, I turned to the Chief Justice to ask him about a mutual acquaintance of ours. Doug Phillips was a pastor, author and major thought leader of the homeschooling movement whose impassioned religious advocacy for patriarchy and family values had inspired my family and motivated me, in part, to pursue law.
The immediate reason for my bringing him up was his unfortunate falling out with the evangelical movement after a years-long sex scandal broke. It revealed Phillips’ affair with his family’s nanny and had disastrous implications for the thousands of families within his sphere of influence, specifically the cancellation of his ministry’s signature annual event: the Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy.
The Witherspoon School was an event hosted by Phillips and keynoted by Moore. It sported the talents of a range of attorneys and legal scholars geared toward training a generation of young men how to “stand in the gates” (borrowing the Old Testament term) in positions of civic influence. The speakers taught us that the history of American law was lifted from the Torah, that conservative leaders of God-fearing states had the duty to interpose and nullify the unconstitutional actions of federal judges and lawmakers, and that it was a sin for women to seek public office.
I told the Chief Justice that I was sorry to see the end of this conference, in which he had had a vested interest and at which he had spoken several years running, and I mentioned that I had heard some talk of resurrecting it under new leadership after Phillips had fallen into sin.
“I know,” said the Chief Justice. “It’s tragic when the devil can bring leadership into sin and bring godly organisations and movements down with them.”
I was chosen by God.
Not in any vague or subjective way, though. The Creator of the universe revealed his inerrant Word in the Bible, laying out the literal historical and scientific truth of the cosmos and then called me, the foot soldier of the homeschooling movement, to conquer the social and political institutions of America and save Western civilisation from Satan and the left, virtually identical though they were.
The world where I grew up was not one where compromise was encouraged, or even countenanced. If anything, the most striking trait of the rigidity was not, looking back, any sense that I was controlled or coerced, but more that there would be no reason to think any other way.
The simplicity of the whole thing was airtight with its internal consistency to the point that questioning any one part of it was nonsensical under the weight of the rest. The universe was 6,000 years old. All living things existed within unchanging created “kinds”, and the history of the ancient world all took place after a worldwide flood sometime around 2,300BC.
We didn’t just tacitly acquiesce to this reality in the absence of contrary evidence; my family devoured creationism from conferences to books to alternative guidebooks and tours of the national parks to interpret geological and paleontological features in light of Noah’s flood.
Then, of course, creationism never exists in isolation. LGBT+ people were, per our most respected thought leaders, “sodomites”, for whom the Bible demanded the death penalty, along with those who committed blasphemy, including those who adhered to false religions, such as Islam or Catholicism for that matter.
I’ve seen exactly what’s on the inside of the religious right because I was there. I know exactly what they want to accomplish in this country because I helped them implement it.
It may be easy for an outsider to imagine these ideas in some survivalist compound in Wyoming or the trailer parks of Mississippi, but they weren’t. I grew up in deep blue Oregon, less than an hour’s drive from the Portland International Airport. If the 2016 national election hasn’t tipped you off, fundamentalists are not out there in the hill country of eastern Kentucky or the small towns of the Oklahoma panhandle. They’re sitting beside you at Chili’s. They’re your coworkers and neighbours, and many of them live in a subculture you might not even know how to see.
Plugged into the right political machine, the zeal of God’s commission to take dominion over society has enabled the hostile takeover of nearly every institution of American democracy. With the stakes so high, I showed an early knack for public speaking and writing, activism, politics and the culture war. I fell in love with politics from the first time I volunteered for a campaign. When I was fifteen, I went down to California to volunteer for the Proposition 8 campaign, which amended the State Constitution to define marriage as one man and one woman. It passed.
When I was sixteen, I approached my pastor and told him I was interested in teaching and eventually preaching from the Word of God, so he coached me on how to study the Bible in depth and preach it according to the strictures of its original meaning. When I was seventeen, I had made my rounds in conservative circles and started getting invited to speak at rallies and conferences as a sort of rising star for the new Tea Party movement that was sweeping the nation’s politics.
At eighteen, I moved to northern Virginia for my first full-time job at a consulting firm where I raised money for major Republican organisations and campaigns. At nineteen, I earned my bachelor’s degree and went to a conservative Christian law school on a full-ride scholarship and worked as a legal advocate for theocratic values.
I’ve seen exactly what’s on the inside of the religious right because I was there. I know exactly what they want to accomplish in this country because I helped them implement it. I have felt the fire to take dominion over this wicked world in the name of Christ because that fire burned in my heart as much as it has burned in anyone’s.
But now, here I am. How does a person escape this black hole of cognitive dissonance and self-reinforcement? How can you teach yourself to doubt, to question, and ultimately to look your own identity in the face and say, “I was wrong”?
You might think I saw right through the propaganda, and I’d like to say that I did. But it wasn’t so simple. The process of reorganising everything you think you know and eliminating the many, many things you believe when you discover they are false is a very long and gradual process. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when the doubts began, but in many ways it began in the very core of who I always was, a questioner.
I was raised to be like the Bereans and examine everything in light of the Scriptures to see if the things people taught me were so. Sooner or later, that core principle had to take the next leap to examine the Scriptures themselves to see if the Bible was true. And so, I did.
I visited churches of different Christian denominations in search of some core version of Christianity from which I could amputate all the baggage I had grown to doubt, and eventually explored the services of other religions entirely.
Everything that my old worldview had made clear to me about my place in the universe and the purpose of my life was gone. My family and friends would be devastated.
I dropped out of my part-time seminary program to shift that academic energy into philosophy, from Thales of Miletus on up through Bertrand Russell. I explored the great thinkers of the world’s intellectual history and quickly found myself discovering real science, which I continue learning as I become aware of how much my creationist education missed the mark.
All this left me living a troubling double life. On my own time, I soaked up the challenge of self-teaching science, philosophy and history in a way that brought the world around me into focus, but at one job after another, I was stuck on a career promoting the opposite in a world that looked increasingly as though the enemies of the enlightenment I worked for might just win some victories that would be very difficult to reverse.
It came to a head in the summer of 2016. Organised hatred and bigotry were so deafening in our society that I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I was actively a part of it. My own sampling of comparative religions had left me cynical that any of them had “the one true” answer, or even that such a search was meaningful at all. My reading had taken me to Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, the final nails in the coffin of my longtime struggle to hold onto faith. I finally snapped.
I was in a Chick-fil-A in central Texas where I worked for a Republican state house campaign at the time. My then-fiancé was in Asia for the summer doing missions work, of all things, so I had very limited ability to discuss my journey with her in real time. I remember vividly the instrumental-only Christian music that the restaurant was playing, so cleverly that a non-believer needn’t be offended by the cultural tropes of Christianity, but a believer would immediately know the songs. So, the songs played, and my head filled in the words as they did, drudging up every memory I had of fundamentalist sermons, pseudo-scientific talking points, and the thousands of King James Bible verses I had committed to memory.
I lost it.
I dropped my book, went into the men’s room, sat on the toilet, and bawled my eyes out for an hour and a half. I was, as I finally admitted to myself, an atheist, a humanist, and a progressive in soon to be more ways than I was prepared to understand. Everything that my old worldview had made clear to me about my place in the universe and the purpose of my life was gone. My family and friends would be devastated. So adrift on a sea of chaos, I called my fiancé while she was still asleep in Korea and left her a voicemail telling her and begging her not to leave me as her Bible said she must.
And the fire that I felt for the triumph of the Gospel burns again, because I feel that fire for human progress and dignity. I channel it today into helping people like me who are still finding their way out and advancing the message of curiosity and critical thinking that our world so desperately needs if we hold dear any of the progress that we have made since the enlightenment.
From that pathetic breaking point in a bathroom stall, I decided that my honour was not for sale, whatever the price may be. I know that for this wave of totalitarian fundamentalism there is no compromise, and as such we have no recourse but to defend our democracy against all the fear and hate-mongering of the dark ages. And if they insist on declaring war upon all humanity, then we will stand beside our fellow human beings and cast at the feet of the tyrant the mandate of all nature: evolve or die.
Some days we certainly feel this way, and there are battles we have no choice but to win, but for most of us, it’s not about organised prejudice nearly so much as it’s about ignorance and inertia. So, for every reactionary you meet who will positively never change their mind, there are that many more people who just need to be asked a few simple challenging questions. Will you join me in showing empathy that will allow liberal believers to take the high road while challenging our more faithful contemporaries to join us in this long and insightful journey?