I grew up mainly in the rural South, the stronghold of conservative Christianity, and while my parents and other relatives were not regular churchgoers, our family identified as Christian. My maternal grandmother in particular was a woman of faith, and my earliest memories of her are associated with Christianity: a massive, profusely illustrated Bible that sat on her coffee table (ironically, this also provided my first exposure to the nude human form in art, as nudity was quite common in early paintings of biblical scenes); a framed image of Jesus hanging in her bedroom with a built-in nightlight; listening to gospel records on the Sylvania turntable cabinet that hunkered in her living room; and, of course, watching her favorite program, The PTL Club, on television. This was well before Jim Bakker was involved in a sex scandal, or he and his wife were exposed as greedy tax cheats, but even after the Bakkers’ fall from grace my grandmother remained a fan, and she was not alone.
My grandmother was an amazing woman in many ways and I loved her dearly, but she was far from perfect. Her legacy is stained by her lifelong tendency to overlook my grandfather’s many infidelities as if they never happened, and also by what she did after I informed her about my molestation. Right after it occurred I reported the incident to her. I did not do so because I was upset by it; rather, I simply included it as part of my description of what I and my abuser had done over the last half hour since she asked me about it. Her reaction, however, should have been different. First, she told me to stay away from “Hans” as I call him—that part I get. The problem was that she also asked me not to tell anyone what happened, not even my parents. I, being loyal to the adults in my family as I was taught to do, obeyed, but I continued to wonder why long after the fact. It was only after many years that I began to piece it all together.
On the one hand, I think my grandmother’s motivations were altruistic. My father had a reputation in those days of being hotheaded, and my molester being an acquaintance of my aunt and uncle, she probably suspected Dad would react badly to the news, to the point where it might cause a rift in the family. Looking back, I can’t say she was entirely wrong. On the other hand, I think she was also covering her own behind to some extent, as she realized that if this came out it would reflect badly on her. After all, she was the one who sent me outdoors alone with this man neither of us knew very well. I had only just met him that day! For the longest time, then, she and I were the only family members who knew what had happened, though eventually the rest of my family learned of it too. A secret that toxic cannot be contained forever.
Through it all, while the actuality of it could not be denied, my grandmother had managed to repress the details of what had happened even as I held onto them. To this day I can remember the specifics fairly clearly. This is because I never allowed myself to forget them, from the funny thing I said to Hans as he was molesting me right down to the spot on my grandparents’ property where it took place. My grandmother, meanwhile, was a woman in deep denial about many unpleasant things, her complicity in my abuse being only one of them. I should state for the record that I do not hold this against her. She was a simple country woman and it was the late seventies in the rural South—to my thinking, she did what she thought was best, at least in part. In a time and place where even homosexuality was still extremely taboo, she understood that what had happened to me might not be something that should be out there in the open. Besides, back then people—and kids especially—did not talk about sexual things in polite company. Anything like that got swept under the rug.
Though she’s gone now, I still love my grandma. Even so, it’s clear to me that her religious views impacted how things turned out for me. As I’ve discovered time and again in my interactions with hardcore Christians, such denial is a hallmark of right-wing religion, and it only seems to be getting worse. Over the course of my life I went through several periods in which I embraced Christianity and tried to live that life, most notably during my late teen years and in my mid-twenties. Not coincidentally, both of those time periods in my life are marked by problems.
It was at age eighteen that I took on a babysitting job initially offered to my sister and then offered to me after she turned it down. The five-year-old girl I was sitting for was at the time the youngest child of a single working mom. Her and her then-boyfriend were biker buddies with my parents. Although I was certainly aware of my desires by then, I “gave them to God” as the phrase goes, and prayed on the matter. After doing this, I believed that God had dealt with it and removed this issue from my life. Besides, I strongly identified with people who were actively fighting sexual abuse, mainly Andrew Vachss, whose books I read with fervor. How could I be a pedophile if I was doing such things? That was my thinking. Thus, when the girl I was watching began to do things that tempted me—trying to grab my crotch, trying to get me to touch her, and running around the house naked—I was ill-prepared and had no idea how to handle it. I faced a degree of temptation I had never before (or since) experienced. I had let my defenses drop, believing I was protected. Obviously I wasn’t.
Not only had I come very close to acting out with this girl who seemed to me all too eager to participate in such forbidden games, I out-and-out fell in love with her. My head was a mess, and I knew I needed to get out of that situation or I would eventually give in. Ergo, I moved away from my hometown for a few months, living with my best friend in Port Huron, Michigan while I got over my feelings for “J”. When I returned to Hastings, the very same day, with her mother’s help, “J” called me. I still don’t know how she found out I was back. Maybe it was purely coincidental. Whatever the case, she wanted to see me. I was pleasant but explained that I was just too busy to come visit her anymore (a lie). After that I didn’t see for several years. She was about 8 or 9 when I saw her again—she was by herself selling candy bars for some school thing or other. The last time I saw her she was 10. This was at a local park, where I’d gone to snap some photos of ponds for an art project. She asked me for a hug, which I gave her . . . reluctantly. To this day I still have feelings for her. She was my first real love, and as they say, you never quite get over those.
The second time I threw myself into religion was around age 23. I had again moved to Tennessee and was living with my grandparents. I attended church faithfully with them every Sunday morning and evening, and sometimes on Wednesday nights too. I participated in a Christmas play, and even gave a lecture one night. I started working for the church’s treasurer at his used car lot. He was a corrupt and greedy man who exploited his costumers and kept two sets of books. One of his good friends was a racist who once told his daughter to bash a small black girl in the head with a rock. He and my grandfather regularly went out together and met up with poor women for sexual liaisons. My grandmother knew of these things and looked the other way, as did I at the time. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as the saying goes. That’s the justification many Christians make to themselves for such things. Had I adopted the same philosophy, I likely would’ve wound up in prison. Thank God I didn’t.
Right about that time is when I began to actually read the Bible, to recognize and think about its many inconsistencies. It was that questioning of things I had long taken for granted which eventually led to me losing my faith, but that alone would not have caused it. I could always come back to the comforting notion that, while there were many errors and problems in the Good Book (it was recorded by men, and men were fallible), the essential truths were solid. But I quickly arrived at another problem, and it was this which finally did in my faith for good. That was a growing awareness of the fact that most of Christians I knew had long rejected the actual teachings of Jesus Christ in favor of a growing political ideology which posited pretty much the exact opposite of everything Jesus taught. As much as I tried, I could not write off this trend as a mere fad, and indeed this philosophy has only become more dominant and entrenched with time, culminating in the election of a man who clearly embodies none of the traits of Jesus or his immediate followers and yet somehow has come to be endorsed by the religious right. There was all the evidence I needed that Christianity was false, for how else could so many of Jesus’s purported followers get it so wrong?
This, of course, is nothing new. Many Christians of the Medieval era somehow came to believe that God wanted them to torture and murder anyone who didn’t conform to whatever the official teachings of the church was at the time when nothing in Christ’s gospel suggests anything of the kind. Later the church broke apart, forming Catholicism and Protestantism, and then the Protestant faith shattered into about a thousand different branches, all disagreeing on some matter of doctrine or other.
What has bubbled to the top of that mess over the last couple of decades is the vilest, most selfish and most hateful aspects of religion, and it shows no signs of stopping or slowing down. It all makes me very thankful that I will never have kids, because I would be terrified for the future of my descendants now if I did. Fascism and ultra-conformity are on the rise, and I should not be surprised to see the United States becoming the evil empire that must be defeated by the rest of the civilized world in the next world war. I have seen far too many supposed Christians endorsing what would amount to genocide against a number of groups, especially my own.
That might very well be the ultimate culmination of current trends, and there are plenty of signs pointing in this direction, but the biggest one to me is the outright rejection of Jesus’s teachings. Jesus endorsed the renunciation of worldly goods and a life of service to the poor. Modern Christianity has tacked in the other direction, as people like Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers have never been more popular. As was demonstrated by Osteen’s behavior in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, these guys care more about their bottom line than about actually helping people as Christ charged them to do. Likewise, Jesus taught pacifism, telling his followers not to retaliate if attacked but rather to turn the other cheek. Modern conservative Christians, meanwhile, have embraced and endorsed nearly every possible form of violence—not just self-defense, which I could understand, but hawkish military offensives, capital punishment (remember that Jesus stopped a legally ordained execution in progress), the violent removal of illegal immigrants, corporal punishment of children, you name it.
Most disturbingly, racism and bigotry of all sorts are coming back into fashion amongst these so-called Christians. Where Jesus hung out with criminals and outcasts of all sorts, the new stripe of Christian are sanctioning more and more the radical displacement and oppression of anyone not like themselves. Muslims who have caused no harm are being banned from entering the US, and the children of illegals, many of whom have never known anything different, will be deported soon as DACA comes to an end. Last year during the election I saw many people, including my own sister, claiming that Trump was the “godly” candidate. I was stupified, as anyone who knows anything about Trump—hell, anyone with half a brain who has ever watched him speak—knows there is nothing even remotely godly about Trump. Donald Trump’s only god is Donald Trump. As he continues to prove what a morally bankrupt individual he is with every passing day, even a great many of the people who voted for him can no longer stomach his incessant lying, hateful policies or his obvious treachery against America. And yet, somehow much of the religious right remains faithful to this vulgar demagogue, either because they are woefully self-deluded like my grandmother was or they simply don’t care.
During president Bill Clinton’s sex scandal the religious right proclaimed loudly and obnoxiously that they could never countenance a man of such low morals who would cheat on his wife. Less than twenty years later the religious right’s priorities have shifted drastically, so that it was nothing for them to welcome Trump, a man known to denigrate and even sexually assault women, to cheat on his wives often, to reject those same wives when they no longer suited him and to remarry a younger, more attractive one. And that’s not even getting into all Trump’s other problematic behaviors with respect to Christian doctrine. Clearly the Christians who were surveyed back in the late nineties were either lying or conservative Christianity has changed so radically in twenty years’ time that it’s no longer recognizable as the same belief system. Either way, it points to a huge problem with Christianity itself. If the religion is indeed so malleable that it can be twisted completely out of shape for the sake of convenience, then its central tenets, including everything that Jesus Christ taught, are completely meaningless in the end. Simple and unshakable truths do not change.
Personally, I love Jesus. That may sound like an odd thing for a politically liberal non-Christian to say, but if you examine Christ’s teachings they line up far better with my core beliefs than they do with the modern conservative Christian’s. Christ was about loving other people, including those you don’t understand. He was about self-sacrifice and living a life in service to those in need. He was about peace and love and renouncing worldly things. Basically, if Jesus were alive today, he would be rejected by his own supposed followers, labeled a bleeding-heart liberal and a social justice warrior (SJW), a term that seems to inspire revulsion in the far right, as if helping the downtrodden and persecuted was somehow synonymous with rape and murder.
I’ve seen these so-called Christians on the internet explain why LGBT folks should be imprisoned, tortured or killed while in the same breath they claim that these actions somehow demonstrate their love for gays and lesbians. With us MAPs they don’t even bother to claim their will to torture and murder is about love—they just openly endorse our destruction, even if we’re guilty of nothing but fantasizing. Modern Christianity seems to have no problem embracing Orwellian doublespeak and thought policing. Anyone with an ounce of human compassion is and should be horrified by what Christianity has become.
My sister claimed before the election that God wanted Trump to be president. If He did, then it was to teach His followers a lesson about putting politics above Him. They don’t seem to be getting the message though. Over the last few decades modern conservative Christians have sold out, trading in the purity of their faith and all that was good about their religion for political expediency. They have sold their souls to the devil of politics, to the point where their beliefs no longer have any resemblance to what Jesus actually preached. When I was a kid the going Christian craze were wristbands with WWJD? on them. WWJD? equals What Would Jesus Do? I’m not sure exactly what he would do if he were alive today, but I know what he wouldn’t do: he wouldn’t have endorsed a person of such low moral character as Donald Trump for president, let alone voted for him. He wouldn’t have been slow to condemn the white supremacists and bigots who are starting to get bolder and more aggressive. He wouldn’t give Joel Osteen and his kind, people who get rich off of exploiting the faith of others, the time of day. Never forget what he did to the moneylenders in the temple. And he certainly would not be advocating violence against anyone.
That, in a nutshell, is why I am no longer a Christian. Now, you might argue, “Yes, but you shouldn’t judge God’s worthiness by His followers.” I agree to an extent. If it were only a matter of a handful of crooked and wayward souls claiming the faith, then I would make some allowances for that. The problem is, it is not a small minority. There are far too many people who have renounced Jesus but still somehow claim they are following his ways. How so many people can seemingly reconcile such disparate philosophies with no trouble indicates that there has to be something wrong at the heart of things. A decent and loving God would never allow so much hate and nonsense to flourish in His name. It is exceedingly clear to me that Christianity is a dying ember, and its ashes are bitter. Too many of the people who claim to believe in it are being dishonest. You know it and I know it. They are aware that their faith is empty, and in their resentment over that fact they are using their religion as a weapon to take down as many of the people they hate as possible before it fizzles out for good. That is what’s going on, and it is a tragedy of epic proportions.
I love Jesus still, but I could no longer abide the majority of his followers. That was the road to my loss of faith in Christianity. As for Jesus, I still have faith in his message. Maybe someday his followers will come back to it, but I’m not holding out much hope for it.