06 October 2022

ex evangelical et al: losing my religion

That's me in the corner 
That's me in the spotlight 
Losing my religion 
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it...
Oh no, I've said too much
Michael Stipe, R.E.M. (1991)

I was born early on a Sunday morning in the second week of November 1966. 

Some years later, the presidential election of 1984 was held on Tuesday, November 6, exactly one week before my 18th birthday. At that time I was senior at an exclusive private evangelical Christian high school in Phoenix, Arizona, and I was crushed that I wouldn't be able to cast my first-ever vote to re-elect Ronald Reagan to a second term as president of the United States, even though he didn't need it.

Not long after that, as an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I can still recollect the visceral intrinsic disdain that I felt toward the Young Democrats whenever they would gather on the lawn near the Hayden Library to exercise their First Amendment rights, shouting down the wild-eyed itinerant preachers holding their horrific anti-abortion banners, demanding fair treatment and representation in student government, better access to campus facilities and healthcare, and any number of other liberal concerns du jour.  Despite my membership on the ASU Forensics Team, and my sincere, abiding friendships with my left-leaning teammates at the time, many of whom were also a part of the flourishing "out" community on campus, I nonetheless eventually gravitated toward the ASU College Republicans organization and soon rose to various leadership positions within it. As an pro-life, born-again, lifelong twice-weekly-attending evangelical church member, I had hopes that my involvement in CRs would fulfill my desire to have an outlet for demonstrating and professing my faith while at the very secular ASU. At this point in my life, I genuinely perceived these two things, my religious faith and my membership in the GOP, as two sides of the same coin, actively and inextricably intertwined one with the other.

Shortly after he left office, in March 1989 Ronald Reagan visited Arizona State University. Reagan gave a well-attended speech to the student body and a pantheon of local conservative dignitaries in the ASU Activity Center.  Despite now being the brand-new duly-elected president of the school's College Republicans, I was afforded no special access nor did I receive any kind of invitation to the event, not that I really expected one.  Instead, I attended the speech with everyone else, as a walk-in general-admission member of the public, and listened excitedly with great interest to the former president's words from an otherwise anonymous seat high-up near the top of the stands.  Reagan was the epitome of Celebrity in my world at that moment in time.

Likewise in the spring semester of 1989, my Arizona Government class hosted former US Senator Barry Goldwater for an in-person hour-long lecture one day. I was thrilled to be able to spend a few minutes speaking with him one-on-one after the class period concluded. As a native son of Arizona with burgeoning political aspirations, on the brush-with-greatness scale, this was, for me, a moment likely akin to a Catholic penitent having the chance to meet the pope

Around this same time, I made arrangements for the then executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, Kurt Davis, to speak to the College Republicans in a meeting room we'd booked in the Memorial Union on campus.  Mr. Davis asked to be provided with a ride that afternoon to the Tempe-campus event from his office at the state party headquarters in the Barry Goldwater Building on 24th Street in Phoenix. As the proud president of the CRs, I was more than happy to oblige.  As we drove there, and likewise afterward as I returned him to his office that evening, we discussed a number of issues and concerns that were before him as the de facto leader of the state Republican organization.  He encouraged me to seek him out, in anticipation of my need to complete an internship prior to my graduation from the Cronkite Journalism School, if I wished to discuss "working" with the party in an in-house capacity in the future.  Some time later I did so, and was given my first-ever legitimate sounding job-title (communications intern) and a small office in the back of the building doing public- and media-relations work for the Party.

I did not last long in this position, however.  Just a few months after stepping into my role as communications-intern with the Party, I was given the chance in June 1989 to move into a somewhat more elevated and exciting (albeit still pro-bono) role as an assistant communications director when Burt Kruglick, then the Chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, determined to run for mayor of Phoenix against popular incumbent, Democrat Terry Goddard.  I soon moved myself into a noticeably larger office space in Kruglick's newly leased campaign headquarters in a Central Avenue high-rise in downtown Phoenix.  I was extremely excited to be given this opportunity, which to me felt quite prodigious since I was still nearly a year away from receiving my degree.

It was here, I am certain, that my exvangelical awakening began. I was 22 years old.

The Kruglick for mayor team was, to put it bluntly, an odd bunch, if not a cross-section then surely a reliable random sampling of the innate strangeness, privilege, suspicion, lurking duplicity and xenophobia that permeated conservative circles even back then.  All of them GOP party functionaries who had quickly become, at least by name, well-known to me during my time at the Goldwater Building. Now, by virtue of our common membership as campaign staff and volunteers, I was thrust into a situation where I was compelled to get to know any number of them personally, now not only by name, but sometimes, and quite shockingly so, by their unusual predilections and prejudices.

Without naming names or delving into the details of the abundant weirdness, selfishness, and super-paranoid xenophobic bullshit that I encountered while working with many of these individuals, while trying to get the City of Phoenix' grumpiest, most uncharismatic, king of coin-operated-laundromats elected mayor, I was disgusted to learn that their central-strategy in doing so was to sully the reputation of the incumbent mayor by impugning his sexual orientation through thinly veiled innuendo. Suffice to say, my eyes were opened to who and what the GOP is and was through this experience.  I did not want to be associated with them. I did not want to become like them.

Because of this, I spent less and less time "volunteering" as the campaign neared election day. And because I lived in Scottsdale at the time, I was logistically released from the burden of having to deliberate about how to cast my vote in the Phoenix mayoral election. Fortunately, in the end, Kruglick lost. Goddard was always the better candidate. And I was pleased to be able to vote for him several times in subsequent years, first when he was seeking the office of Arizona Governor and later Attorney General. 

I finished the Kruglick campaign disgusted with the GOP, disgusted with myself, and determined to rescind my party affiliation immediately. I resigned from the College Republicans and registered myself as an independent soon thereafter. To the best of my recollection, I haven't cast a vote for a Republican candidate for any office since 1989.


Our church made me an elder in the summer of 2007. I was 41 years old. 

Most of the congregation was willing to defer to the current board members in their recommendation of me that day, and showed up to deliberate and vote for the agenda at the quarterly meeting only out of dutiful obligation.  But there were a few aggrieved voices in the crowd that afternoon, chiefly men close to my own age, who came prepared to speak against my nomination, for numerous reasons: my career spent in (and my abiding commitment to) public education, my rumored admission to having voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, the tattoo I have worn on my hand since 1997 as a wedding ring and indelible commitment to my spouse, and my failure to ascend to the position of elder without first occupying the subordinate positions of deacon and usher. One individual went so far as to testify before this assembly that he "could not focus on worship" whenever I was singing with the small acoustic church-music ensemble I was a part of one or two Sundays each month due to the "liberal political positions" he knew I held. 

Only one other person spoke against my nomination, a former elder's widow named Marilyn who stated, "John's little daughter is only two years old.  You should encourage him to focus on being a dad and a husband at this point in his life.  He doesn't need the contention of being an elder now. He needs to be at home when he's not at work, not here at the church managing and debating its affairs."  Turns out, she was the wisest voice in the room.

As I understand it, one of the most important qualifications for anyone serving as an elder in an evangelical church is to hold each member of the congregation in a place of empathy and compassion in one's heart and mind, to love them, in fact, as one would a member of one's own family.  And well, truth be told, I just could not pull this off.  In fact, I could not stand some of them, especially a few of the guys who spoke against me when I was joining the elder board.  Not because I resented them, or because I was embittered toward them for what they said or implied about me on the day of my nomination.  No.  I couldn't stand those guys, and likewise a number of other individuals in the congregation, because of what I learned about them as I served on the board for many years, most especially their perpetually angry, prideful attitudes and groundless ugly prejudices, in both word and deed, which they directed toward the "unsaved" members of our civic community.  Their hatred and disdain of these folks was palpable, their attitudes of superiority ever-present, and their slurs describing these enemies of their perceived freedoms seemed ever on their lips: the gays, the lesbians, the meth-heads, the drunk Indians, the unmarried cohabitors, the single moms, the queers, the panhandlers, the gun-control advocates, the ecumenicals, the dope-smokers, the cult members, the liberals, the unbelievers, the baby-killers, the illegals, the trannys, the welfare queens, the bums, the deniers of creationism. I could find little (indeed, often nothing) to love in any of those who felt and spoke of others so scornfully.

When the congregation, almost universally, and also quite vocally, hitched their presidential political fortunes to John McCain in 2008, a man who had cheated on his first wife with his second and operated deceitfully and deceptively as a member of the Keating 5 during the Savings & Loan Debacle in the late 1980s, and then later to Mitt Romney in 2012, a man who had been a lifelong faithful adherent of Mormonism, which was described as an accursed unbiblical sometimes-Satanic cult by many members of our evangelical congregation, I began to question their allegiance to their own belief system.  Likewise, my own questions regarding my allegiance to them as a congregation continued to grow as well.

I left the board in 2012, using the fact that I, for professional reasons, truthfully needed to continue my education past my master's degree as an excuse.  We left the congregation for good at some point thereafter when my wife, in tears one morning on our drive to church simply said, "I can't do this anymore.  I can't worship with people like this, who wouldn't welcome so many of the people we love into their church service because of who they are or ow they live. I don't want to go back there ever again." I thought her sentiment very well timed. I had been feeling the same way for quite a while.  Turns out neither of us wanted to associate with evangelicals any longer.  We did not want to become like them.

We went and got bagels that morning instead, and we never did go back.  

To this day, no one except the senior pastor has ever contacted us to ask why we left or to inquire about where we've been or how we're doing.  He and I went for a coffee together one afternoon many months later and, while I was not ready to fully disavow my faith to him at that point, I did make it clear that an eternity spent alongside the bullies and bigots I'd been trying to shepherd at his church for some five years was no longer a very enticing prospect.

We bumped around for a time, sporadically searching for another church to call home, a few Sundays each month, for the next several years, in fact. But we never really found another place to land. We were always feeling like something was amiss, like we were just going through the motions of worship and fellowship with an ever diminishing faith, a kind of slow entropy leading to nothing.

And then, in 2016, came Trump...

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. -- Ed Abbey