Conservatives like to extol so-called small-town virtues, of the sort immortalized in song by John Cougar Mellencamp. Small towns are supposedly the home of “real Americans” and bastions of virtue. Small towns, we are told, are the home of God-fearing family values Christians.
Mellencamp sang about being “taught to feel Jesus in a small town” but there is feeling and then there is feeling. Televangelists use Jesus like a weapon to not only fire up their congregations but to be armed and fired at their foes. Liberals do not always understand, because they have not seen it for themselves, the fire that consumes megachurch congregations and therefore fuels the Religious Right’s culture war.
This brings us to K.C. Boyd’s Being Christian – A Novel and its central character, John Christian Hillcox, otherwise known as Pastor C or just plain JC, a mail order Baptist minister who represents everything we have come to hate about the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Religious Right.
Being Christian is a character study, a tale of biblical sin straight out of South Texas. It is at once a morality tale and a tale of immorality. Inspired by the author’s real-life experiences, it is a journey to the dark heart of Christian extremism.
As we saw yesterday with Tom DeLay, the Religious Right loves tales of false redemption – the ultimate get out of hell free card. No matter how horrible your actions, you can always say you found Jesus and all is forgiven.
It is instructive that in Christian’s mind he was once an unsavory example of amorality and criminal behavior: coming from a violent upbringing, he feels he had earned prison if not a death sentence for his actions (in his own words, “stared hell in the face”). But Christian thinks he has left the unsavory aspects of his character behind; he has turned away from his past and embraced a life of Jesus-driven virtue as a “revered pastor.”
Christian knows deep down in places he won’t let his mind travel to, that his new self, not only the image but the man beneath, is a sham, that he is a “religious pretender” and a “shell of a man.” But he has convinced himself that he is what others see him to be. The moral here seems to be that nobody loves redemption more than those in need of it themselves; in the end and in a frenzy of ecstatic mutual need, they all get together and convince each other that everything they know to be false is somehow true.
What is frightening about Christian is that though fictional he is so real; we can look up from the book and see him all around us, on the Internet, on television. He is everywhere.
I asked the K.C.Boyd the other day about what inspired Christian and his story:
Hrafnkell: Christian strikes me as a collection of all the worst vices of megachurch pastordom, and at the end of the book we learn that Christian is indeed inspired by “key personalities,” plural. Did any one person provide more inspiration than any other or did you take something from each of them in more or less equal parts?
K.C. Boyd: Having so completely entered the dark world of today’s televangelist mega-pastors, my main character, John Christian Hillcox, literally sprang to life, almost of his own accord. He was a little bit of this and a little bit of that – – a composite of the oh-so-many horrible things and people about whom I’d read and heard.
Hrafnkell: As always, I was struck while reading your book by the fundamentalist capacity for self-deception. Christian seems to possess this quality in spades. I wonder sometimes who is more deceived, the deceiver or those who are willingly deceived by the deceiver. It is difficult for me to feel any of them are really victims.
K.C. Boyd: I couldn’t agree more. I firmly believe that we are all shaped by our backgrounds and childhoods. Today’s Christian extremists, many of whom learned bigotry with their first solid food, not only want to hate, but they need to. Like the character, many of these people are ruled by their psychological frailties, just as they are easily manipulated. Dominionist pastors know if they fill people with fear, warn them they are in constant danger from the evil “other” and promise them an eternity far better than the earthly hell in which they’re living, they’ll control them. As Hermann Goering said at Nuremberg, “All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY.”
Regarding who’s the deceiver and who’s being deceived, I believe that these narcissistic mega-pastors come to believe their own mythology. Is Christian a victim? No, not really. He would have been had he not chosen the dark path he did. It’s all about choice.
Christian is married to a “Mexican illegal” he had back-seat sex with years before. Remember, this is South Texas – there are no “undocumented workers” in Christian’s world. Because she was already pregnant with somebody else’s child at the time, he got to marry the girl and with her a earned trip to a well-deserved hell.
When, seven years later and a pastor he meets Darlene Steeger, he finds her so arousing that once he is sure she is not the “Devil in drag,” he convinces himself, just as he once convinced himself that he was part of God’s master plan, that she has been sent to test him.
As the author put it, it’s all about choice but fundamentalists have a funny way of understanding choice. They talk a lot about personal responsibility but everything that happens to them always seems to be somebody else’s fault. Christian doesn’t have any free will, because free will would demand he take responsibility for his actions. So much easier to believe God willed this or that and Satan had choreographed everything else.
When he meets Darlene again and she tells him about being thirteen and entered by her mother in a beauty pageant, we learn all about Christian’s family values: “The thought of this sexually ripe woman perched on the cusp of puberty was so arousing to Christian it was all he could do not to erupt right there on the spot.” For her part, Darlene sees a physically uninspiring Christian made more virile by being Jesus’ spokesman.
Test him she does, and he her, and soon enough they are off to the big city and fame and riches just as Jesus intended. This left me wondering what it is about preachers like Christian that make them so appealing to women:
Hrafnkell: Christian is utterly repulsive to the reader but he seems to possess a sort of oily charisma for women in your story. Is this female behavior also something you have witnessed?
K.C. Boyd: No. And let’s face it: people – – in this case, women – – are drawn to power. But I read about it in pastoral scandal after scandal. The repression these guys practice is phenomenal, all the more so for the ways in which it eventually leaks out. Take for example: Ted Haggard, who actively condemned same-sex attraction, as evidenced by his active role In Prop 8 even while, at the same time he was enjoying a life of “drug-filled homosexual trysts.” There are almost more examples of fallen pastors (sadly, many of whom confess and rise again,) than there are of those who aren’t disgraced – – again, another reason it was so easy for me to create Christian.
Hrafnkell: I and other men I’ve known have wondered what makes rock stars, even the ugly ones, such a draw for women. One gal explained to us that it is the power they have being up on stage. Do you think this is part of Christian’s pull? You do not describe him as a prime physical specimen.
K.C. Boyd: As I just mentioned, YES! It’s the power. Charisma – – that certain je ne sais quoi – – is irresistible. When you’re around it, you know it and it’s seductive as hell. The good news is that it’s not always physical – – that leaves plenty of room for the rest of us to work on our charms. The bad news is it’s seductive and enormously powerful.
Hrafnkell: I am married to a recovering Pentecostal. She and others like her are still dealing with the emotional scars and I suspect they always will be. Was writing Being Christian at all cathartic for you after your experiences? Did you feel that you got it out of your system?
K.C. Boyd: It was cathartic and it wasn’t. I experienced an unspeakable relief in bringing to life the kinds of characters and situations that had come to scare the living daylight out of me. Having lived and breathed this religious manipulation that I’d come to see as genuinely evil, my greatest frustration was the public ennui I met when I tried to talk about the subject. Few were willing to discuss the growing religious politics and even fewer knew the players.
If you’re wondering how an author researches a book like this, I did too, and I asked K.C. Boyd about her research methods:
Hrafnkell: I read that you explored first-hand the far right Evangelical world by attending services. Did you have to do any additional research for this book?
K.C. Boyd: Yes, so much more. Prior to and during the Bush years, Ohio was in the vanguard of pulpit electioneering. In fact, I began my religious/political self-education as a response to a challenge to visit The Solid Rock Church, a church best known for a sculpture that locals had dubbed “Touchdown Jesus,” a bright white, 60 foot high arms-to-the-heavens monstrosity that literally lorded over travellers on Ohio’s Interstate 75. (In 2010, “Touchdown, “struck by lightning, burned to a crisp, leaving many to question the message there.)
Back to my story: The challenge was to visit Solid Rock where I would witness Christian love in action by virtue of its well-integrated congregation. While suitably impressed by the show of people in all shapes and sizes, colors and economic backgrounds, many of whom busily sipping away at super-sized Slurpees while they worshipped, I was far more intrigued by the pastor’s invitation to return that night to hear J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio’s then Secretary of State and newly announced gubernatorial candidate, electioneer from the pulpit. Coming off of Bush and Rove’s successful 2000 courtship and marriage to the Christian Right – – and knowing of Blackwell’s desire to Christianize Ohio – – I was right to be gravely concerned. And so I returned.
That night I learned of a newly formed organization, The Ohio Restoration Project (ORP,) whose intent was to build a pyramid-like scheme, linking pastor to pastor and congregant to congregant with the intent to get out the vote but only after the ORP had influenced it. Because so many low-information citizens get most of their information at church, this was indeed an ominous turn.
And so began my countless incognito trips across Ohio, attending services where politicians preached their barely concealed theocratic desires, to luncheons and rallies where food was exchanged for voter registration and pastors used the post 9/11 fear to hype the ever-looming dangers and thus, the consequent need for Islamaphobia, homophobia, any kind of phobia.
Additionally, I spent hour upon hour watching sermons, new and old, on tape and on television, as well as reading everything I could find on the subject while networking away. All in all, it felt like I’d earned a PhD in Christian Extremism and it was terrifying.
Hrafnkell: What would you recommend to the reader interested in learning more – outside of, that is, subjecting themselves to what you put yourself through?
K.C. Boyd: Great question. I’d start with Michelle Goldberg’s The Rise of Christian Nationalism and move on to Chris Hedges’ American Fascists (I also recommend his earlier book, Losing Moses On The Freeway.) Sarah Posner’s God’s Profits is another must-read as is Jeff Sharlet’s brilliant book, The Family. Those are the easy, more accessible ones.
Hrafnkell: I find it hard not to see the Religious Right as a Christian heresy. Moderate Christians like to dismiss them as “fake” Christians but this is an accusation leveled by Christians at other Christians since Day One. Do you think people like Christian Hillcox are Christians?
K.C. Boyd: I do not. I think they’re megalomaniacal narcissists, plain and simple. In a world of people and politicians fawning over them – – handing over their hard-earned money and/or political sway, placing them high on television pedestals – – most of today’s mega-pastors enjoy untold wealth (remember, their churches aren’t taxed so no one has a clue how much they pocket for themselves) and power. They own Lear jets, big cars and mansions replete with ranches and shooting ranges. Politicians are in their pockets, thanks to the substantial voting blocs they control and because of that, more and more often, they are electing their own. We see daily evidence that Dominionists fill the ranks of government, from local all the way up to the Supreme Court. And let’s not forget how close we were to having Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency.
If you find this world frightening, even in fictional form, you’re not alone. I asked the author if she thought there was anything “normal” Christians could do:
Hrafnkell: I’ve always wished mainline Protestantism would stand up for the Christianity I remember from my childhood. Do you think there would be any positive effect if mainline Protestant denominations would speak out against fundamentalist theologies on the right like that portrayed in your book?
K.C. Boyd: Maybe. It’s nearly impossible for traditional denominations to compete with the coffee-culture song and dance productions that go on in every mega-church across the country. These are slick operations with even slicker operators. The only way traditional churches can compete is to become more user-friendly. They need to reach out to the young, to make their spaces into old-fashioned community meeting spots – – to become social once again but to do it with the kind of marketing twist that the young will notice. It’s do-able but a very tall order.
Being Christian is available on Amazon.com’s Kindle for just $7.95 and $11.33 in paperback. It is also available on Nook. See what makes the enemies of liberty tick and start reading it today.