Middle Ground with Jerry Falwell?
In 2005 Gina Welch, a young graduate student and atheist from Berkeley, in an effort to better understand the phenomenon of Christian evangelicalism, decided to join Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. She spent two years as part of the church community, culminating in a missionary trip to Alaska. Metropolitan Books has just published her account of the experience, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey Into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. I spoke with Welch recently via telephone.
How did you come to join Jerry Falwell’s church?
I had been living in Charlottesville, Virginia, after I’d gone to graduate school. I noticed that there were all these Christians around, and I was very uncomfortable with them.
Meanwhile, what was going on nationally was the perception that evangelical Christians were taking over the country, that they had their fingers in government. I wasn’t able to reconcile the media perception of evangelical Christians—that they were very militant, that they were brainwashed—with the perception I had of evangelicals personally. I wanted the challenge of understanding people whose views on most issues were very different from mine. I truly didn’t believe that I would get to a point where I could relate to them.
What did you like most and least about Falwell’s Church?
There is one main characteristic that I appreciate: selflessness. One of Jerry Falwell’s mantras was “Jesus First,” which has always been a difficult line for me to parse. For a lot of church members I knew, their desires are secondary. They’re primarily on earth to be servants. That has a lot of a great side-effects, like individual humility and a willingness to help.
The negative side effect of that humility, though, is a real resistance to being critical of institutions to which they subscribe. It’s a problem of buying the party line without critical analysis. It can be a kind of intellectual surrender. There was one night when we had an Easter dinner at Thomas Road and a pastor was urging Church members to give financial gifts in addition to the 10% tithe. He said, “Some of you may wonder what Jerry Falwell is doing with my money,” as if addressing the concerns of anyone who might think that they were being ripped off. But he continued, “It doesn’t matter if Jerry Falwell abuses your gifts, because God sees your offering, and he’ll reward it in heaven.” It’s not for you to criticize. That’s a problem.
There are two other works that deal similarly with Falwell’s church: The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose, and The Book of Jerry Falwell by Susan Friend Harding. How do you see your book in relation to them?
Both of these are wonderful. Harding’s book, which I read while undercover, focuses on the specific vernacular of Falwell’s church, the coded way evangelical Christians at Thomas Road express their feelings to one another, and what dynamics those linguistic idiosyncrasies reflect in the culture. So, for example, while you or I might say, “I want to take a trip to my sister’s house this summer,” someone at Thomas Road might begin the same sentence, “God’s putting it on my heart that…” which keeps the believer’s will secondary to God’s.
Kevin Roose, uncannily, was undercover at Liberty University for part of the time I was undercover at Thomas Road, so our books complement one another pretty beautifully. He and I both share a kind of outsider’s perspective—neither of us is evangelical and we’re both progressive—and we both, remarkably, ended up with books suffused with a sympathetic animus: we found things to love. Roose’s book differs from mine in that it’s essentially a study of evangelical college life—of young people developing friendships, ideas, and identity—while mine deals with adult evangelicals processing the messy, unpredictable world around them.
The fear of sin courses throughout the book. There is a scene in Alaska where your group gets children to read the Sinner’s Prayer. It brings to mind Thomas Paine’s observation about the capacity of religion to shock the mind of a child.
The thing that disturbed me about the way we were presenting the Christian message to children is that it was geared toward getting them afraid of going to hell. But I do think that there is genuine urgency to get children to say the Sinner’s Prayer because their parents are frightened for them. It’s not just about trying to indoctrinate them, but, I think, it’s a genuine concern for their eternal fate.
You came to sympathize with these people, and your portrayal humanizes them. Yet they have been the base for a political movement that would deny that humanity to others—gay men and women, woman needing to terminate pregnancies, non-Christians etc. At what point does it matter if people are good to those in their group if their group overall is not fostering a greater good?
Secular progressives need to know that they’re not dealing with insensitive people who lack empathy. Because the division between conservative Christians and secular progressives is so complete, because there’s no conversation, there is a tendency for people from my camp to view conservative Christians as self-interested, and I mean to chip away at that perception. Does it excuse homophobia? Does it excuse their opposition to reproductive rights? No. But my hope for the book is to start conversation between conservative Christians and secular progressives. Part of the reason that conservative Christians are so reactionary about gay rights is that there just aren’t a lot of gay people in their communities. I think it’s ignorance.
Is it just ignorance? Wouldn’t someone who was gay in that environment likely be sent for reprogramming or driven out?
This is exactly my point: their ignorance stems from the fact that conservative Christian communities are very hard places for gay people to carve out an existence. I knew of one Liberty University staffer who was outed by coworkers, and subsequently moved to the West Coast. A girl I knew said of him, “If that was me, I’d move to California, too.”
Of course this means that there’s a real diversity-vacuum in conservative communities when it comes to sexual orientation, so perceptions of homosexuality are built on myth, and misconceptions go unchallenged.
How do we become sympathetic toward people we’re inclined to judge? We get to know them, we learn to relate to them as flesh and bone human beings. Mel White, a former ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who came out of the closet and became an advocate for gay rights, stayed in Lynchburg with his partner and kept attending Falwell’s church, kept speaking about the reconcilability of his faith and sexual orientation. In White’s position, would I have the strength to fight the same fight, make the same sacrifices, and stay in a community so hostile to me? Probably not. But I believe he’s doing the only thing that will work: teaching by exposure. If we’re waiting on the cultural zeitgeist to bring conservatives around on gay rights, I think we’d better get comfortable; we’re in for a long wait. I’m less interested in assigning blame than I am in figuring out how to build progressive influence in conservative communities. I don’t think it’s a lost cause.
Do you see that conversation beginning to develop anywhere now?
Comment conversations on mainstream media articles and blogs can help secular progressives and evangelicals hash out differences. I’ve had some great experiences interacting with people of faith who post comments on my own blog. The trouble is that anonymously kicking a brief comment up on the Internet isn’t a substitute for real-world human interaction, and in fact the blindness of the interaction has a lot of potential for overstatement and miscommunication. Maybe we could start a cruise line for this purpose, so everyone would be well-fed, tanned, and relaxed before sitting down to summit. Call it Middle Ground of the Seas.
Has there been any fallout from Thomas Road upon learning of your book?
Not yet. In the epilogue, I describe how I had a very moving, positive experience revealing what I’d done. Since then I’ve kept in touch with several of the people I knew at church. I sent them a couple of copies of the book, and I haven’t heard about their reaction to it. It’s hard for me to know how it will read for them. I know it’s not a love letter, but I tried to be sensitive and fair. I don’t know what it would feel like to be written about, to have my life recorded without my knowledge, and to have my most deeply-held beliefs represented by someone who didn’t agree with them. I hope that they think it’s fair. I hope they appreciate it, but whether they do is ultimately out of my control.
Aaron Leonard is a freelance journalist based in New York. His writings can be found at www.aaronleoanrd.net.