Dr. Nancy Hightower is a writer and literary scholar with a remarkable story of surviving the worst of Evangelicalism. She offers a valuable perspective on the challenges we currently face at a time in which white Evangelical Christians are the single demographic most supportive of #IllegitimatePresident Trump and most responsible for rising American authoritarianism. The current political situation in the United States cannot be understood without parsing the anti-democratic, theocratic politics of the Christian Right (and now of most of the radicalized GOP), and those of us who have lived it and left it–the children of the culture wars, if you will–understand the theocratic threat to American democracy very well. Nancy brings not only a firsthand participant-observer’s voice to the table, but also that of a scholar who is able to assess her experience analytically within our broader cultural and sociological context. In the exchange below, we discuss spiritual and sexual abuse in an Evangelical context, the 1980s Satanic Panic, Christianity and politics, and the state of American academia.
Nancy and I have some disagreements–for example, I am very skeptical of the prospects for an organized religious Left. I think that the Democratic Party ought to remain staunchly secular, and worry that too much focus on a religious Left may undermine this secularity. (Tthere are many reasons I’m skeptical about the prospects and value of a religious Left as such that I can’t unpack in detail here; I would recommend UCC Pastor Daniel Schultz’s commentary on the issue on Religion Dispatches.) Insisting on the Democratic Party remaining staunchly secular should not be understood as the party being hostile to believers, although Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and frequent whiny MSM interviewee, seems to think these things are equivalent and, as far as I can tell from his recent statements, that the Democratic Party should be all about people like him, as seen in this typically tone-deaf New York Times article. Nevertheless, I hope through Not Your Mission Field to help bridge the gap between ex- and post-Evangelicals who end up on both sides of the none-believer divide. Expect more installments in the Ex-Evangelical Conversations series soon, and I will try to strike a balance in interviewing nones and progressive Christians.
Despite our differences, we have all lived through the intense experiences of inculcation in extremist Christianity and subsequently embarking on deconstruction. We need to connect with and affirm each other as we continue to heal. It’s also no exaggeration to say that those Americans who still value democratic norms–the majority of us–need our ex-Evangelical voices to aid understanding of the serious threats the country currently faces, largely from right-wing Christian forces, to democracy and human rights. Nancy’s voice is essential in this regard, and I highly recommend the work she has published on Huffington Post (most recently this piece) and elsewhere. I thank her for participating in the following exchange.
Christopher Stroop: You describe yourself as a post-Evangelical Christian. I’m wondering if you could unpack that term for us say a few words about what it means to you. Do you consider yourself an ex-Evangelical as well?
Nancy Hightower: For me, to be post-Evangelical means I have a shared history with the Evangelicals as opposed to being an “ex,” which implies a level of non-communication and non-intimacy. I call myself post-Evangelical to give others a sense of my past while showing that I still feel connected to a body of believers. I want to foster a connection with white evangelicals in order to call them into accountability, into a greater community, given the oppressive legislation that threatens Muslims, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the environment, and so much else. It was the white moderate Christian that Martin Luther King targeted in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, but he did so through his connection with the church, not in opposition to it. I will try to reside in that interstitial space as long as I can. We are running out of time.
CS: You’ve used your knowledge of the Christian Right from your personal background, which included your father personally working with Jim Bakker, to warn Americans about the Christian Right’s relationship to Trump. As a fellow survivor of a Christian Right background, this is a project I’m engaged in as well, but we’ve taken different trajectories inasmuch as I’m now a none and you are a progressive Christian. How would you respond to my insistence, laid out in a detailed argument here, that it does none of us any good to dismiss the Christian Right as “fake Christians”? And what do you think are the most effective ways to respond to the theocratic aspects of Trumpism?
NH: For Christians to call others fake is a way to completely shut oneself off from a shared belief system. It’s to deny culpability instead of a shared guilt over what the church has historically done to ostracize the Other. Would we ever call anyone a fake American because of their beliefs? Such thinking steps into purity politics, where one could check off a list and then decide whether someone was real or fake. Like you have said in your argument, there are multiple ways to interpret the scriptures, and so often that interpretation depends on the culture in which one grew up—socioeconomic, racial, regional, etc. My Sunday school teacher taught the Bible through a very white, middle class lens that promoted honor to God, family, and the government above all else. But the charismatic pastors my mother listened to (Kenneth Copeland, Jerry Savelle, etc.) focused more on claiming good health and prosperity through faith.
Those teachings also framed my relationship to holiness based on how much faith I had rather than how I could promote love, justice, and mercy. I view my earlier training as misdirected, not fake. My parents, pastors, and friends all referred to the Bible when thinking about how we dressed, what movies we watched, music we listened to, politics. This rhetoric infused every aspect of our lives, whether or not we could live up to it. The verses or chapters used to give cultural direction were often cherry picked, while other stories, full of broken people and unmet expectations, were left out. This kind of selective listening and reading created compartmentalized thinking as result. I grew up thinking I was a loving Christian even though I thought gay people were going to hell, believed anyone who had an abortion was a murderer, and that rock music was a direct conduit for demon possession.
It wasn’t until I reread the Bible many times on my own that I saw how fractured our knowledge of those stories really is. Most of us haven’t grown up in a fake religion; we’ve grown up with a fractured one. As far as theocratic aspects of Trumpism—I think more people need to understand that the overall narrative Trump is tapping into and using is one of hope, and within that narrative he interweaves all the other rhetoric that demonizes women, people of color, Muslims, etc. I’m not sure I or others have offered a counter narrative that is stronger. It would help if progressive Christians fought harder for separation of church and state, so that evangelicals could see that infusing one’s reading of the Bible into politics is never a good idea. However, I have yet to see progressive Christians mobilized on a national level, with that kind of sweeping passion that might be powerful enough to get the media’s attention.
CS: You lived through a particularly intense experience of childhood spiritual and sexual abuse in the context of Pentecostalism, including becoming convinced at the age of 12, in conjunction with the early 1980s Satanic Panic, that you were an occult high priestess. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience, how you survived it, and why, after all that, you didn’t abandon Christianity altogether?
NH: The memoir I’m working on right now explores how my mother’s belief system gradually shifted from one of moderate Christianity to a more fundamentalist viewpoint, which allowed her to embrace conspiracy theories such as the Satanic Panic. This change might have grown from her need to control chaotic circumstances such as discovering that I was sexually abused by my grandfather, who was also a highly respected missionary.
My father worked for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at PTL, but my mother was fascinated by the idea of having authority over demonic power and studied the sermons of Kenneth Copeland, Jerry Savelle, and Norvel Hayes. She took me to their East Coast Believer’s Convention when I was around 10 or 11, and I listened to pastors talk about demons and angels and miracles—all aspects of spiritual warfare. Within that charismatic ideology, life was just brimming with possibility. I wasn’t just a kid, I was a warrior, a prophet in training. But such a quest for my mother also led her down a path of legalism. She outlawed Halloween in our house since it was Satan’s holiday, and even Easter was renamed Resurrection Day to sever all pagan ties.
Once she left my father and moved to Denton, Texas to be closer to the man who became her lover, there wasn’t as much community around us. The conversations began to circle around just how I knew so much about the occult and demonic warfare. The fact that I had grown up reading Jack Chick tracts (which quite often portrayed demons and occult activity) and listened to multiple sermons on the topic wasn’t a good enough explanation apparently, and so the idea of repressed memory and possible occult participation were suggested. I had already experienced childhood sexual abuse, and often everything we were saying—that I was secretly bad, that I had done bad things—felt real. We would read terrifying passages from Jude and Revelation about what happens to people who lie to God. I half believed and half fought everything that was said about me—that I sacrificed children to Satan and flew through the air via astral projection for instance. They made me list out all the demons that supposedly were inside me or that I was talking to. There were dozens of these lists. I still have them, after all these years, to remind me that I didn’t make that nightmare up. But I did escape it once my mother sent me to live with my father again.
Thankfully my dad took me immediately to a psychiatrist who worked with me a bit. Living with my father and his new wife wasn’t an ideal situation and I was still very much trapped by Evangelical rhetoric that told me I was bad. I lost myself in schoolwork and books. Once I got away from my mother, I could read all sorts of fiction that wasn’t allowed before—A Wrinkle in Time, Lord of the Rings. I needed that magic and those heroes. I also eventually got more therapy—a lot more—and then went on to get my master’s and Ph.D. and tried to work out my story as best I could. As for why I didn’t abandon Christianity—that might be its own essay someday. Suffice it to say that when my mother sent me away, quite a bit of me died. When my grandfather molested me and then denied it, a bit of me died too. I lost more of myself the few years I lived with my father and stepmother.
Really, my faith was all I had, as distorted and dented as it was. Once I left my father’s house at seventeen, I didn’t have a family. I still don’t have a family, not really. I’m bipolar II, so really, I’m a bad bet on so many levels. But there is another still, small voice that finds me, no matter where I am. It reaches me when no one else can. I still follow it. I always will.
CS: You’ve written that your doctoral dissertation research was a very personal project. I think that’s true for many academics to varying degrees (for example, my choice to study Russian history stemmed from taking short-term Evangelical mission trips to Russia, and I was drawn to the study of Russian religious intellectuals’ Providentialist Christian ideology because I was raised with an American version of it). Would you say that doing academic research helped you to come to terms with your past, and if so, how?
NH: I wrote a creative nonfiction dissertation about growing up in the evangelical South, but my M.A. and Ph.D. studies were in American Literature. While writing about works of Henry James, I discovered Julia Kristeva’s theory of Otherness in her book Strangers to Ourselves. I was mesmerized by the idea that we create the Other out of fear and that the Other represents some part of ourselves that we don’t want to examine. To me, this represented the core of that commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself—that commandment demands that there be no Other.
The theory alone didn’t help me heal, but it set me on a journey that I never expected. At the University of Colorado I created a class called “The Grotesque,” and that course seemed to be where students felt the most freedom to really explore what “otherness” was. The grotesque is an aesthetic that combines humor and horror or horror and beauty in such a balanced manner that the mind cannot handle it, and for a moment it is trapped in the aesthetic and shuts down. Scholars such as Geoffrey Galt Harpham proposed that the grotesque can even rob one of language since it resides between the high and the low, and in that space, where the “theorizing mind” shuts down, the old paradigm is momentarily paralyzed. Frances Connelly states that the grotesque only exists when there is a boundary, since by its very nature the grotesque will seek to destroy binaries.
In my class I argued that the grotesque works to erode the boundary between us and whatever we consider other—whatever we have declared as not me. Students made visual projects where they deconstructed a binary that they somehow participated in or helped create. After a while, I came to view the grotesque as being analogous to the Holy Spirit, and that, for some reason, began a healing process in me (especially since I had been mentally tortured to think that I was on the brink of committing the unpardonable sin when I was with my mother in Texas). I found the concept of the Holy Spirit and the grotesque both existing within the darkness and the void (Genesis 1:2) extremely comforting.
CS: Like you, I have a Ph.D. I wanted to take the traditional tenure-track route in the U.S. higher ed system, but so far, no dice. When you decided to pursue a doctorate in literature and creative writing, was it your intention or hope to work in academia? Is there anything else you’d like to say about the contemporary state of American academia?
NH: While my dissertation was a memoir, it really wasn’t ready to be published since I still had some memories to work through, especially regarding my relationship to the Church. However, I definitely wanted to teach college since there is no other time where you get four years to explore the ideas you were taught to believe. I left my home at seventeen, and was very lost, but I discovered a place of belonging at college because my professors from the English, History, and Political Science Departments cared for me and saw me as an adopted daughter. Within that intellectual, yet loving environment, I began a journey of questioning the Christianity I grew up with—the kind that was always Republican and supported white, middle class values.
My humanities professors especially encouraged me to critically examine the way I had previously read the Bible. They were never mean in their challenge, only logical and methodical, which helped me embrace critical thought rather than run away from it since at the time I was participating in Campus Crusade, a college group which had fairly fundamentalist beliefs [I would argue that this organization, now rebranded as Cru, is thoroughly fundamentalist by an academic definition of the term – C.S.]. I still believe in academia even though the system is broken with adjunct teaching taking the place of full tenure lines. I still want to teach but I definitely think the humanities needs to be more forward thinking about equipping our students for the digital age.
I have been teaching digital storytelling as a component for most of my classes the last few years in an effort to get students more comfortable with digitally composing, but also, to show them the power of their story. We might listen to facts, sure, but often we more moved to rethink a particular topic given someone’s story (Annie Leonard has a better and more succinct argument about this).
CS: Despite being a none, I am still drawn to art and literature that plays with Biblical motifs. After all, these are cultural references that have shaped me deeply. On that note, could you tell us why you chose to rework Biblical themes for your first book of poetry, The Acolyte?
NH: I was taught to read the Bible for the “this is how I need to live my life today” lesson. Very few sermons, if any, allowed me to contemplate the human range of emotions the characters must have experienced. What must have Moses felt when God told him he couldn’t enter the Promised Land after spending forty years in the desert? I wanted to sit and explore those moments in the Bible when the characters are at a loss—Aaron after losing his two sons for instance. They had offered up “strange fire” and the Bible says God sent out a fire which consumed them. Now, I wasn’t interested in what the strange fire was or the law that the sons disobeyed. I wanted to imagine the betrayal and loss Aaron felt, especially given how many lives he had saved being an intercessor for the people.
I also wanted to portray the strong women that populated the Old and New Testaments and yet are rarely talked about by pastors. For instance, both Jael and Tamar acted outside the norms of femininity, and yet were celebrated as heroes. The more I looked, the more I found all these women that in one way or another were subverting and resisting the patriarchy. I wanted to write a book that made people revisit their reading of the Bible, or to help them realize that perhaps they had never really read much of it at all.
CS: What would you like to see with respect to building ex-Evangelical community, and what kinds of challenges do you think we’ll have to surmount in creating more conversations and community around ex-Evangelical/post-Evangelical experience?
NH: There are many Christian leaders and academics who are trying to reframe how we read the Bible, and that is one way to establish a dialogue with those Christians who stand behind Trump and Pence. Broderick Greer, Kathy Khang, Reverend Dr. William Barber, Nyasha Junior, Daniel José Camacho, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Carol Merritt, John Pavlovitz and so many more trying to establish a bigger dialogue concerning religion and social justice. I would encourage people to follow their work and look for ways they might join in the resistance, if that is what they are looking for. I would like to see more safe spaces for people to talk about their experience with the church and not feel condemnation or be told to get over it and forgive. So many have been horribly abused and ostracized, and I want a place for them to be heard, to grieve, to find healing in whatever form they can find it. Spiritual wounds are some of the worst to recover from (and often go hand in hand with sexual and physical abuse too).