I was raised in a church of terrorists. The preacher pounded on the lectern while he boomed that all queers deserved to die, that mixed marriages were going to lead to the downfall of “our way of life.” This was the 1980s, when women’s rights were being discussed much more broadly but according to him, God dictated that women were inferior beings to men. He railed against the separation of church and state, assuring us that the Founding Fathers had intended this to be a Christian nation. We were right and holy; the rest of the world was evil and against us. Worst of all, the congregation applauded and hollered “Amen!” in response.
Today, members of Congress and rising Republican stars are the ones who terrorize LGBTQ children and anyone who does not follow their doctrines. These are not just fringe politicians and candidates; Christian Nationalism, the belief that the American government should be defined solely by Christianity, is now firmly entrenched within much of the GOP. This label does not apply to everyone who goes to a Christian or even a fundamentalist church. However, a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, found that 45% of Americans believe strongly that the United States should be a Christian nation. Recent decisions from a Supreme Court stacked by conservative nominees have stripped women of autonomy even while they’ve reinstated the right to pray at public school functions. The way of thinking that terrified me as a child is now being embraced by the Republican Party.
I was certainly terrorized by the church’s teachings and actions. We were taught that dancing or listening to certain music would lead us to sex or Satan, if not both. Our congregation celebrated Halloween by restricting costumes to Biblical figures and hosting “Hell Houses,” in which scenes of horror involved people writhing and screaming as they burned in a lake of fire due to premarital sex, infidelity or being gay. We were constantly reminded that the reason to follow the church’s rules was the threat of eternal damnation. It wasn’t enough for us to abide by them; we were also charged to evangelize and openly condemn anyone who didn’t live by our standards. If we didn’t work hard enough to be holy the devil would surely overwhelm us.
One night when I was eleven, a woman convulsed on the church floor, crying out gutturally. She raked her fingernails down her own face. The preacher anointed her head with oil, causing her to twist and squeal. He proclaimed that her demon had been cast out. I immediately worried the evil spirit had slithered into me. I knew by then that I was gay and for that alone I’d surely be left behind when everyone I knew was whisked away in the Rapture, God’s chosen people disappearing “in the twinkling of an eye.” Although I felt tremendous love in that church I also realized how quickly that love would be extinguished if they knew who I really was. They believed that shunning was an effective tool in turning people to their way of thinking and they would have had no trouble excommunicating me as quickly as striking a match. I had heard them talk about the ways they’d rather their own children be dead than gay. Their solution to the AIDS crisis was to round up all the gay men up and leave them to die on an island. To many of them, killing someone with such a reprobate mind was justifiable by God’s laws.
Over the last few months, several preachers across the country have called for the executions of LGBTQ people. This summer, thirty-one members of the Patriot Front were arrested in Iowa before they could invade a Pride gathering shortly after a preacher there said from the pulpit: “God told the nation that he ruled…Put all queers to death.” Similar sermons have recently made news for being preached in Tennessee, Texas and Arizona. In North Carolina Lt. Governor and pastor Mark Robinson has said that being gay or transgender is “filth,” “garbage” and “perversion.” He is currently a popular choice to run on the Republican ticket for the governor of North Carolina.
In August conservatives gave a raucous welcome at CPAC for Viktor Orbán, the autocratic leader of Hungary who is opposed to mixed race relationships and calls for the global spread of Christian Nationalism. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told the CPAC crowd God “wrote the Constitution.” Senators such as Josh Hawley and Congress members like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert routinely call for an end to separation of church and state and claim Christianity is under attack in the very country where it should be the rule of law, a rhetoric that was repeated at the January 6th insurrection.
As I watched the storming of the Capitol in horror I saw the Christian Nationalism of the outsider church I grew up in on display for the whole world to see. Insurrectionists carried flags reading “Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President” and wrote “In God We Trust” on a set of gallows erected at the Capitol, clearly stating their belief that Christ has sanctioned the use of righteous violence if the government refuses to bend to their will. Once they had broken into the Senate chambers a group of them cursed and yelled but then bowed their heads as the self-described shaman led them in a prayer thanking Jesus for allowing them to “get rid of the…traitors within our government.” In the hallways their comrades smeared their own feces on the walls. I saw the faces of church members from my past in the self-assured looks of the rioters. I read the slogans preached from my childhood pulpit on the banners and signs they carried.
I am terrified at the rise of Christian Nationalism because I have experienced it up close and personal. Violence was used against me and justified by the Bible. In high school, after a fist fight where I was forced to defend myself after a boy punched me in the mouth “for being a faggot” he defended himself to the principal by citing Scripture. When a family member fired a shotgun at me six times while I ran away, begging him to stop, he later claimed that he was “just trying to scare me straight.” I’ve seen neighbors and family members deeply damaged by the Christian extremism in the churches of America. If Christian Nationalists gain control we will be a nation run by people who apply their judgement to others even while they give themselves passes to participate in many of the archaic rules found there. It will be a country where women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people of other faiths will be stripped of their rights in laws justified by scripture.
Somehow, I have held onto my faith and cling to a congregation that focuses on being of service instead of judging others. But I have rejected most of the teachings of my childhood. When I was growing up we called ourselves evangelicals. A beautiful word from the Greek euangelion, which means “the good news” or “the gospel.” There are many evangelical people left in the U.S. who are not Christian Nationalists. But many have become radicalized, and they believe that God is not only firmly on their side but should also be in control of the government. They will not back down. They’ll never stop because they think they are doing God’s bidding. They believe they are God’s warriors.
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