Disclaimer: Before I say anything, I need to be clear that nothing here reflects my work as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and specifically Aldersgate United Methodist Church where I am currently appointed. This is a reflection on my own experience and my own personal opinion. It is my story. Also, I want to be clear that as I condemn Conservative Evangelical Christianity, I also recognize that there are a great many evangelical Christians who are good, honest, faithful people, who are grappling with these issues as I am. But some hard words need to be said, and they need to be said because I believe that there are Evangelicals out there gripped in the same snares that trapped me many years ago who need to know that their inner stirrings are not wrong. Also, there may be some crude language here in which some might find offense. I chose these words carefully, and these are times when I believe bold language is warranted. If it offends you, I challenge you not to be as offended by these words as the content they describe. With all that in mind…
…I’m angry. Like really angry. When I was a senior in high school, I found Jesus. It was a true kind of spiritual awakening. Something real happened in me that I cannot deny, and it dramatically altered the trajectory of my life. I felt a kind of wholeness for which my soul longed.
The only context I knew, however, in which to live out this new found faith was the conservative evangelical world of the early 90s. Things were different then. There was no social media where religious ideas were wantonly traded, and in order to find out anything about a church or religious community you physically had to go there. The front door of a church was its literal front door, not a website or social media feed. Because of this, religious communities were far more insular and isolated. And, so, not growing up in the church, all I knew was what had been exposed to me, which was Conservative Evangelical Christianity.
When I went to college at the University of Minnesota someone from the church in which I was involved got me connected to the conservative evangelical organization Campus Crusade for Christ (known today as “Cru”, I believe). I was a new and passionate Christian, deeply desiring to grow in my faith. I got hooked into their weekly gathering, a men’s Bible study, and I was given a mentor (or “discipler” as I recall we called it).
When it boiled down to it, everything was about being a good Christian- a true, solid, Bible-believing, faithful, unashamed Christian. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In a very real way I still strive for that today. But there was one problem. Well, actually there were lots of problems, but there was one big problem in particular: Pretty much all we ever talked about was sex and sexuality. The mark of one’s faith became mostly about the degree to which one was “pure”. Did you masturbate this week? Did you make out with your girlfriend last weekend? Did you have impure thoughts about that classmate this morning? Did you masturbate this week? Might your roommate be gay? If so, can you find a new one? Have you watched any R-rated movies with nudity recently? Did you masturbate this week? On and on it went. Everything was about “purity”.
As I grew in my involvement in this world, I realized it wasn’t just this organization that had this obsession. Circles of Evangelical Christianity across the nation had a similar obsession. Women were forced to be overly aware of how they dressed, so as not to “tempt” the men. Men were forced to be overly obsessed with their thoughts, so as to “take our thoughts captive”. The world was one giant cesspool of sexuality out to hijack our souls if we weren’t careful. The devil lurked around the corner at every party, at every club downtown, at every movie, in every empty dorm room, and in the back seat of every car, and sex was his game. Be alert, be shrewd- or be corrupted.
I didn’t realize it then but this created a high amount of intense anxiety in me.
First, I grew up in a home and context where acceptance of broad sexual identities and gender orientations were the norm. As I came to Evangelical Christianity, it was made clear to me that the Bible “clearly condemned” this, but I didn’t understand why, and there were a lot of other parts of the Bible I was interested in too… like those four books about Jesus, for example. I struggled with accepting, embracing, and even later becoming an ambassador of sorts for LGBTQ exclusion. I had a deep wrestling with this, about which I could not talk to anyone because this was the litmus test of one’s faith. I was literally told, “if you want to know if someone actually believes the Bible or not, just ask them for their opinions on homosexuality. If they think it’s okay, they don’t believe the Bible”. This wrestling began in me in 1990, and I wasn’t truly free from it until 2012. That’s 22 years (half of my life and the vast majority of my Christianity) of secretly wondering if I really was a Christian or not.
Second, I struggled with the idea that as “the man”, I was called to be the spiritual head of my relationship with my girlfriend. She actually seemed to have a deeper and more pure faith than me, especially since I was usually the one subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) sending signals that I wanted to make out. Did I really have to be the “spiritual head”? What does that even mean? Can’t we just make out from time to time, go to movies, hang with friends, and one day get married? “No, Paul, you must lead her in purity, and in order to do so you must be pure. If you cannot, you may need to consider breaking up.” Not only was my faith in question, but so too was the love of my life. I was tormented.
Third, growing up in a progressive home, politically I was brought up on hard DFL values. But all of this obsession with sex and sexuality in the Conservative Evangelical Christian context was connected to the GOP, the party of “family values”. The family- that is, one man and one woman, with 2.5 straight kids, going to church every Sunday family- was the foundation of any healthy community. If we mess with that, we mess the very fabric of our culture. Because of this, part of this “purity” factor was voting Republican, something I had never done. To vote otherwise spoke to a compromised faith.
As allegations of affairs and sexual harassment involving President Clinton came to the fore, the pressure to support Republican candidates intensified. Among the words used to describe President Clinton were “disgusting”, “filthy”, an “abomination to family values”, and even “evil”. We recognized that as Christians we were called to love, but it was actually ok to hate Bill Clinton. And this was all before the news regarding Monica Lewinsky broke. Once that report was published (and let’s be honest, what Bill Clinton did is one of the, if not the, greatest abuses of power and sexual harassment we have ever seen), the deal was sealed: Any God-fearing, Bible-believing Christian could not vote for a democrat because it was the party of sexual deviancy and therefore the party that would bring God’s judgement on America.
When I say this bred anxiety in me, I don’t say it lightly. The combination of the obsession with my sex life and thought patterns, coupled with a pressure to vote a certain way because of this sexual moral ethic, left me worried every day of my life about whether I was saved or not- whether I was a true Christian or not. I loved Jesus (and still do), but the fact that I voted for Bill Clinton twice (as well as other democrats in other races, like Paul Wellstone), coupled with my inability to resist even wanting to make out with my girlfriend (and soon to be wife), tripled with my quiet belief that gay people might actually be able to have healthy relationships, families and sexual ethics left me quietly isolated and afraid that my “impurities” defiled not only my body, but my mind, heart, soul and subsequently my faith as well. In short, I was tormented.
Yes, Bill Clinton is gross. I couldn’t and still don’t deny that. And Conservative Evangelical Christianity stood in solidarity with Republican politicians who were the party of “family values” and “purity”. And because of this, they were the party of Christianity (so I was taught). Sexual purity in all its forms- including standing against sexual harassment at the highest levels- was the calling card of the Republican party.
Here’s what I’ve discovered over the last decade, but particularly in the last 18 months: It’s all bullshit. It’s total and utter bullshit, steeped in lies and deception originating the deepest pits. There are many beautiful and wonderful Conservative Evangelicals out there, who are authentically trying to find their way through this world just as I am, but as a whole, the overwhelming support for Donald Trump, and now Roy Moore, by the Conservative Evangelical Church exposes what we’ve always known to be true, but didn’t have the smoking gun to point to: It’s all bullshit, and they are frauds.
The Conservative Evangelical Church does not care about “purity” and “family values”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that they do care about, but it seems to be money and patriarchy more than anything else, and the overwhelming support for Trump and Moore by evangelicals exposes it. As I’m writing this, Senator Al Franken is resigning his seat in the Senate because of sexual harassment allegations. And he should (I said it on day one of the allegations against him). But how can those who voted for Donald J. Trump, whose allegations are far worse and more wide spread than Franken’s, condemn the “disgusting” behavior of Al Franken and call him unfit for office without condemning the president they voted for as well?
Do you know how they can do this? Because they don’t care about sexual purity or ethics. They care about money, sex, and power, and by that I mean, they care about having full access to all the money, all the sex, and all the power they can get their hands on. I said at the beginning of this diatribe that I’m angry, and I am. And many of you current and former Conservative Evangelicals should be too. We’ve been duped.
All that obsession and anxiety around “sexual purity” was for naught. After all I endured in this indoctrination in my twenties, I now have to tolerate the “Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief”? And I have to allow a man who is essentially a pedophile into the halls of the senate? And all the while Al Franken isn’t for for office? So I’m angry.
I’m not angry because I need a political win for the left. When it comes down to it, my hope really isn’t any political party or system. And quite honestly, I’m at a “plague on both your houses” point in my life I’m angry because this rhetoric still abounds today and is likely instilling in people the same kind of anxiety and inner torture I experienced so long ago. That’s why I’m angry.
I’m angry because I (and I’m sure countless others) listened to and embraced this bullshit rhetoric for years (for over a decade in my case), with ramifications on my relationships and mental health that I’m still working through today. You, Conservative Evangelical Christianity, are a fraud. When Franklin Graham (False-Prophet-In-Chief these days) tweeted “Never in my lifetime have we had a
@POTUS willing to take such a strong outspoken stand for the Christian faith like @realDonaldTrump…”, I was Gobsmacked. This president embodies nothing of the values into which you indoctrinated me and you know it. But what he does do is a great job of propping up your power and patriarchy, so you’re all in.
You can rationalize it away all you want, but that’s exactly what you told me not to do 20 years ago when I was wondering about multiple matters involving sex and sexuality: “You’re rationalizing, Paul.” There’s no way out of this for you, Conservative Evangelicalism, except to condemn President Trump (and demand his resignation) and Judge Moore just as you did President Clinton 20 years ago and are doing today with Al Franken. You can’t have it both ways. I won’t let you. You took too much from me for too long. You won’t sell a cake to a gay couple in the name of “purity” and “sanctity”, but you’ll sell your soul to the Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief. It’s time the Church itself called you out.
Conservative Evangelical leaders, woe to you, you blind guides.
Evangelical Christians have been used and lied to by the GOP for years, I have never understood how the Republican party was able to get so many Americans to vote against their own interests. Even the Republicans who led the impeachment charges against Bill Clinton were participating in extramarital affairs, sexual harrassment against their staff and colleagues, not to mention the sexual abuse of their underage pages… Christian values and the Evangelical leaders seemed to ignore all the moral teaching of the bible with the exception of not having premarital sex, homosexuality, and prolife for fetuses. I never understood how they could be so concerned about an unborn child and never want to help support or vote for anything that would assist the child once it was born.
Unfortunately the emphasis they’ve placed on these issues seem to be the same as most of the other large organized religions, and politicians have used these same practices to gain and hold power over other’s for thousands of years! I was never able to understand the contradiction of a political party based on capitalism and protecting the wealthy with Christian values, it always seemed to me that the commandment “Thou shall not covet my neighbors goods.” Should have been more important than an obscure mention about homosexuals…
I honestly believe the pressure put on young men through religion can be extremely harmful to societies, boys and young men who can’t fulfill these expectations are filled with fear and anger leading them to take unimaginable and destructive actions! Not to mention the unspoken teaching that they just by being born a male are somehow more valuable than girls and women.
Thank you for explaining your experience it’s very enlightening!
Well said. Thank you Paul.
Fantastic article; well done! I hope more brave folks like yourself start standing up to the bigotry and hypocrisy being demonstrated by the GOP & their Evangelical allies. I was also raised Conservative Evangelical, but dropped it by my early twenties. I’m very recently finding a way back to… something. Just not sure where I’m headed yet. One thing I do know is that the beliefs & behavior of these high profile, self-proclaimed “Christians”, stand in direct opposition to the life and teachings of Jesus. Your description of them as “blind guides” is spot on! Keep up the great work.
I can’t agree with you more or thank you enough for such an articulate expression of words that many of us have grappled with for many years and many different reasons. I know I’m not alone with the struggles I went thru internally, as I’ve heard the stories of others’ at different religious institutions. I just haven’t had the honor of hearing it so eloquently and honestly spoken! THANKS.
God bless you for taking a stand and saying what needs to be said, Paul.
Wow, I am with your wife, so proud of you. You write so well. If it wasn’t for the fact I could hear your voice as I read this I would of thought it was my mom writing this. Except she would of used more swear words.
Thanks for your courage! I wasn’t that brave when I was in the UM pastorate. I didn’t feel like I could speak my mind. I’m still venturing out after 8 years of losing the title… good for you!
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