by Leslie Tucker
The veins in the man’s thick forearms are distended and his biceps bulge. He squats with thighs stretched wide, corrugated soles of his boots balanced on the pile of rubble. He grimaces and groans, straining to lift a hunk of roof. I squint at the big screen Mitsubishi from my leather chair but cannot read the yellow lettering on his sleeve. A German Shepherd, snout to the ground, is whining and pawing at the heap of shingles and sheetrock. I am riveted by the virtue of this first responder’s heroism; how he and his sniffer dog manipulate chaos with vigorous clarity.
The camera pans to a lanky reporter in red Gortex, his baritone booming into a sponge-topped microphone. We viewers learn his name, that he’s first on the scene for his media outlet on this May day in 2013. He points at the man and dog, tilts his square jaw and drops his lower lip exposing blinding white teeth. “The situation here in Moore, Oklahoma is becoming more desperate by the minute,” he says.
Later the same evening, the identical film footage runs and a news commentator mentions that televangelist Pat Robertson has offered his perspective on the tornado disaster. I leave the room, return, have missed Robertson’s sound bite and open my iPad to find his self-staged 700 Club interview. The spindly female interviewer asks Robertson why an all-seeing, all knowing God wouldn’t have intervened in the Oklahoma catastrophe, perhaps even prevented it. Robertson faces the camera, tilts his not-so-square jaw and speaks. “If there were enough people praying, He would have.”
Still later the same evening I lie in bed as four decades of personal encounters with evangelicals thrash around in my brain. Like snakes in a bag.
My body shifted involuntarily and urine splashed over the seat, trickled down the outside of the bowl. I’d thought I was alone in the public bathroom but the voice got louder.
In 1988, I was a Piano Performance and Pedagogy Major at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and had just completed the final exam for Advanced Music Analysis. Our professor, who’d felt nauseated, asked me to deliver the exams to his office while he went straight home to bed. On the way, I’d rushed into the bathroom.
I heard heavy breathing, yanked my jeans up and scanned the beige metal panels of the confined space. A long, damp nose protruded into the stall with me – between the wall and the spacer panel. I recognized the snarling voice.
“I knew you were up to no good…”
“I had to pee.”
“You looked at the exams. You’re evil.”
Sharon was a Music Education Major who relished sacred organ music. I’d once walked into the university auditorium at a predetermined time, to practice on the concert grand for an upcoming performance. She sat at the organ, swaying, slopping through Bach’s E minor Toccata, a marked deviation from her diet of Palestrina and Cavallo. Later, in music theory class, she’d astonished us by declaring that repertoire building and concern over grades was foolish. The fundamentals of life were clear, she said. God had a plan, would take her into His hands after graduation and place her in a small church as Music Director.
In the public bathroom, her voice trembled and the pitch fell several intervals.
“I call you out in the name of the Lord. You. Are. Evil.”
Was I? I’d dropped the stack of exams on the floor inside the stall, noticed that the class genius’ was on top and skimmed the first page. Seeing that my solution for the second problem was different, I’d rifled through the pile, found my exam and compared the two, relieved that either answer was plausible.
My skin prickled. I’d done something wrong, but how wrong? Sure, I’d looked at finished products but only after the exam was over. Sharon was jeering and exhaling into the stall, her nose bent slightly toward me.
“How many answers did you change?”
“None. I was curious, but…”
“Get out here.” The nose disappeared.
I zipped my jeans, lifted my tweed overcoat from the door hook and slipped it on, feeling for a glove in each pocket. Cracking the door a few inches, I spotted Sharon kneeling on the muddy tile floor, tears flooding her face.
“Get on your knees. Pray with me.”
I did not get on my knees. She frightened me. I assumed she’d tell her story to an authority figure and who knew what her version would be? I sped home, called our professor and explained how I’d compared the exams, how detective Sharon had tailed me into the bathroom.
He already knew. Sharon had badgered his assistant for the address, driven to his home, pounded on the door and barged into the vestibule. Dropping to her knees, she’d implored him to pray for me too.
It should have been easy to dismiss this bizarre confrontation, but the subject of evil had been raised with me before. I’d been surprised by another fundamentalist the previous spring.
Strings of red chile pepper lights drooped between fat nails in the knotty pine paneling and icy air blasted from a ceiling vent above our table. My friend, Susan, blew her nose into a sodden napkin and I shivered in my damp Speedo and hiking shorts. Our lanky blond waiter, Hawk, who looked about my daughter’s age, sauntered over, grinned a mellow Taos grin and flipped his ponytail over one shoulder.
“Hit ya again with the Margaritas, Ladies?” I’d guzzled my first one, was invigorated after a rip-roaring day on the river.
“Sure, and we need menus.”
I reached across the table, felt Susan’s quivering wrist. “Relax. You’ve got a crazy story to tell your grandchildren someday.”
“You flew out of a raft!”
“And Cisco pulled me in.”
I was preoccupied, watching Hawk’s suntanned calves ripple. He nodded at the bartender and I noticed that even his toes, one with a silver ring, were perfectly formed. I’d often theorized that beautiful people were drawn to beautiful places, and Hawk, in Taos, proved the point.
Susan gripped my wrist like a vise. “You’re alive because Jesus saved the whole raft because I can’t swim.”
“You were wearing a life jacket and no one can swim in Class IV rapids. You just float, feet first, till the water eddies.”
“You don’t get it. You’re with Jesus or you’re with the Devil.”
Nearly thirty years later, I wince at my lack of sympathy for Susan, but must admit to remaining unmoved by religious declarations that seem irrational to me.
Susan and I had met in September 1987, a year before our trip to Taos. Seventy-seven year old Ronald Reagan, who boasted of daily praying and napping in the Oval Office, was the most popular U.S. President since Franklin Roosevelt, but not with me. I was incensed over the Ollie North-Iran Contra scandal and horrified that the leader of the free world had told the Washington Press Corp that he consulted his wife’s astrologer before scheduling world travel.
Susan and I were mature women in our thirties, returning to school for advanced degrees in music. We skipped out for a lunchtime falafel one day and I wisecracked that our President was a puppet, that Ed Meese was running the country. I believed Music and Art schools were liberal environments and it never occurred to me that I was offending Susan until she fired back. “He’s a Christian. I’m a Christian too.” I was dumbstruck as she continued. “When I married Rob, he’d been born again and I needed a faith I could live with, with him.”
I’d hit a tender spot with Susan, hadn’t guessed her beliefs because she didn’t fit the profile of fundamentalists in our community. She was a hip dresser, a talented classical pianist, played jazz and directed musical productions too. Both times I’d met her husband, Rob, a brilliant sax player, he’d been stoned and needed a shower. Neither of them resembled the evangelicals I’d seen on TV, or the squeaky clean zealots who carried grisly posters and picketed abortion clinics on Southfield Road.
I was baptized and confirmed in the Methodist Church. Dad told me that faith had kept him steadfast through his family’s economic collapse and the loss of their home during the Great Depression. He said that faith kept him alive through a perilous landing at Normandy and gruesome front line combat afterward. Jesus fortified Dad’s soul as he led the battalion that liberated Dachau, examined evidence of Nazi atrocities and prosecuted war criminals at Nuremburg.
Dad told me once, when I pressed him, that he came home from the War a strong and able man because his Savior had walked beside him. Yet he never proselytized, said that what people believed was their own private business.
When my eleventh grade Honors Lit class read Being and Nothingness, I got cocky and told Dad that Sartre made more sense than the white-bearded-sky-god-virgin-birth-myth I’d learned in Sunday school. Dad was calm, said he understood the allure of radical thinkers for bright young minds and urged me to consider carefully. I did, and at seventeen, made the lonely decision to stop attending church with my family. I turned my back on religion over five decades ago, but it keeps springing up, squeaking and wobbling like a rusty jack-in-the-box.
The confrontations go back further than the bathroom stall and the Mexican food joint in Taos.
Oak leaves rustled like newspaper on a blistering July afternoon in 1976 and my two-year-old, Becky, hopped on the balls of her feet as I opened my friend’s back gate. Cara’s blond Afro popped up behind a row of organically grown tomato plants, “Iced tea?” She pointed at the child-sized picnic table and we squeezed into the benches, legs crumpling up to our chests.
Cara and I had met in 1972, as volunteers for the McGovern Campaign. We fed our families from The Diet for a Small Planet, were advocates of Roman beans and rice, and leafy Chinese tofu, food most people didn’t recognize. We reviled plastic bags and paper napkins, car-pooled to the health food store for millet and the alfalfa seeds we sprouted in gauze-covered-jars. We wore natural fibers, lived on tight budgets and sent money to Green Peace anyway.
Cara grabbed my hands and pinned them down on the tiny table. “I have to tell you something.”
Oh shit, I thought. She’s moving or getting a divorce. I’d never trusted her husband, who ridiculed the Rolling Stones, wore polyester and ate MacDonald’s food. I’d ignored neighborhood rumors that he brought his secretary home for hours whenever Cara and the kids left town to visit her family. Cara tugged on my hands.
“Eternal damnation. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and been born again.”
Sure, most people in our city of 32,000 went to church, but they were Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Catholics, people who kept their beliefs to themselves. Cara squeezed my knuckles, “Pray with me. Our Father…”
“Stop it. You know I quit church in eleventh grade.”
“That’s why…” Her eyes reddened, spilled onto the little wooden table. “You’re damned…”
“I’m not damned. How did you come up with this?”
“I collapsed on the couch, kids were napping and the 700 Club came on. Pat Robertson was preaching and I started listening, really listening.”
“To Pat Robertson? Does Tony know?”
“That’s the miracle.” Cara choked back a sob, said they’d watched The 700 Club together, that Tony had made a prayer vow contribution by phone, that someone had saved him right that moment. The same day, a prayer counselor from the show called back and recommended a nearby church. They’d been attending for three months.
“They saved Tony on the phone?”
“Don’t make faces. Yes. He gave himself to Jesus on the phone. Our marriage is brand new.”
Four months later I learned that Tony had received a political appointment in the Reagan administration and that he and Cara had moved to Washington, DC. Her jubilant letter to a mutual friend described how they were home at last, in their community of Fundamentalist Christians. And by the way, President Reagan was one of them, and in the District they preferred to be called evangelicals. Cara’s faith was resolute, her hopes for her husband’s career, boundless.
What exactly is this fundamentalism? This stringent belief system that bathroom-stall-Sharon entrusted with her post-graduate employment? This robust faith that Cara credited with saving her marriage and advancing her husband’s career, the same one that allowed Susan to dismiss the life-saving skills of a whitewater river guide.
Karen Armstrong, former nun and renowned religious scholar, addresses the issues of worldwide fundamentalism in her book, The Battle for God. “Fundamentalism is one of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century…a militant piety that has emerged within every major religious tradition with sometimes shocking manifestations.” Christian fundamentalists identify themselves as wanting to go back to the fundamentals of the faith, which they identify as a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Armstrong’s research demonstrates that in the middle of the twentieth century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would no longer play a major part in world events. It was assumed that as human beings became more rational, they would either have no further need for religion or would be content to confine it to the personal and private areas of their life. In the 1970s, however, fundamentalists began to rebel against secularist beliefs and wrested religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage.
In 1978, two years after Cara and Tony moved to Washington, D.C., a heavy woman in a farm-animal-print dress introduced herself after an evening PTA Meeting. “Leslie, I’m Annette Redman. I doubt you remember, but we met at a pre-birth orientation at Beaumont Hospital. Our daughters are in the same nursery school now.”
We’d never spoken in the four years since the orientation but I recalled our walk to the hospital parking lot. She’d examined the facilities to satisfy her curiosity, but would never give birth there because she delivered her children at home, with only her husband and God present. She’d experienced three glorious births in the bed where she’d conceived, just as God intended. I thought to myself that if I’d given birth to my daughters where I’d conceived them, one would have been born in the back seat of a Mustang convertible and the other on a blanket in the grass in our backyard. I was tongue-tied but Annette wasn’t.
“Bring Becky over Saturday morning, our new swing set has a tall slide…”
Annette opened the door with one hand and grasped my wrist with the other. “C’mon in, want a Pop Tart?” Her cuticles were raw, nails chewed down to the quick.
Six small children huddled around an oblong Formica table in the cramped breakfast nook and Fruit Loops and a pitcher of neon red liquid stood precariously near the table’s edge. Several children had Pop Tarts squashed on their napkins and Annette handed Becky a lump of blue goop.
“We’ll sit on the porch, they’ll be fine. We’ve had a misunderstanding.”
“What?” I was bewildered, had met this woman twice for several minutes.
“How are you feeling after your surgery? You almost died this summer, people at the swim club were shocked…you looked so healthy.”
“Yeah, well, I had surgery, but…”
“What caused your attack?”
“Cecal vulvulus, twisted colon. Sometimes it’s genetic. I went to Emergency with abdominal pain, ended up in surgery.” Annette shook her head.
“It was a sign. He struck you down. Do you know why you survived?”
Her face was fierce as she leaned toward me, breasts heaving, and for a moment I thought it was a practical joke – something my wise-ass friends who knew the ‘Cara and Tony Saved on the Phone Story’ had cooked up. But her eyes were gleaming – this was no joke. Annette repeated, “I said, do you know why you survived?”
“World class hospital, excellent surgeons?”
“No. You survived God’s wrath because I organized a prayer vigil for you in the locker room. I gathered women from my prayer group and we bent our knees for your good health. You’ve never thanked me.”
“You didn’t know? Well…now I can forgive you.”
As decades pass, I wonder what it was about me that attracted such aggressive proselytizers. Did I provoke these encounters? Did my immediate dismissal of their evangelism exacerbate their fervor? Did my insistence that I could live a virtuous life without Him infuriate Them?
Recently, while rereading sections of The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, preeminent scientist and outspoken atheist, I was reminded of a scientific initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation in 2006. It tested the proposition that praying for sick patients, specifically those who had had coronary bypass surgery, improved their health. The experiments were done double blind and patients were assigned strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers,) or a control group (received no prayers). Those doing the experimental praying were told only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Scientists ridiculed the study, even though belief that “evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer in medicinal settings” was mounting at the time. The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, however, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. Whew.
Sometimes, praying for each other, or for afflicted strangers, is enough for those who pray. Certainly those who pray establish a fellowship – I know that the ladies who knelt in the musty locker room stopped at the Whistle Stop Cafe for pie and coffee afterward. They must have believed they were helping me, when in fact, I would have preferred a tuna sandwich delivered to my home when I was recovering from surgery. None of them called, inquired what I might need, or visited. Yet praying for a stranger was important to them.
I believe that specific circumstances ignited the zeal of the missionaries I’ve encountered, and what Armstrong says supports my hypothesis: that there have been people in every age who have fought the modernity of their day, and that they have indeed, been motivated by the common fears, anxieties and desires that respond to the peculiar difficulties of life in the modern secular world. And I’m thinking praying feels good too. Studies demonstrate that religion fires the same neurotransmitters and spurs the same chemical reactions in the human brain that romantic-sexual love does.
My secular spine tingled when I attended Christmas Eve service with Dad the year before he died. Trumpets heralded the processional march, double stops resonated on the Aeolian Skinner and sapphire satin robes glistened in the candlelight as the choir entered. Dad held the hymnal for both of us, just as he’d done when I was a child, and his eighty year old face was radiant as he sang, “O Come all ye faithful.” The oaken sanctuary I’d deserted as a teenager morphed into a gothic fortress of optimism and love.
I longed to believe that story in that place.
What I do believe is what I learned from Sartre at seventeen: that in order to be free myself, I must desire the freedom of other people. To treat another person as an object for my use is to make an object of myself. To be free, I must respect the freedom of others. As disturbing as it is for me to listen to second-century-like-talk of deities, I never attempt to dissuade anyone from their religious beliefs. I aim toward a life of doing no harm and wonder why that isn’t enough for the pious people I’ve encountered.
Western monotheistic traditions hold that human beings are made in the likeness and image of God and are thus equal in the sight of the Lord. Yes, equal. If Christian fundamentalists believe this, it should be easy to recognize that with or without TV evangelists, telephone prayer vows, locker room vigils and bathroom stall raids, there is indeed, more than one way to build a virtuous life.
I still think about the four women who confronted me. Susan, tossed like salad in an army surplus raft, saw me flip into the roiling waters of the Rio Grande. Cara sobbed with a mouth full of peanut butter on a summer day, and angry Annette pronounced my damnation from a rusty porch chair. Sharon, the most vehement, accosted me in a public bathroom stall.
It seems that embracing rigid fundamentals, specifically, the literal interpretation of Scripture, made life’s dilemmas less complex for these women during the cultural earthquake of the 1970s. They welcomed Jesus into their hearts, attended church where Christian behavior was strictly defined, and formed supportive bonds with like-minded fundamentalists, lauding the handholding sisterhood of their prayer groups. No stressing over the efficacy of Phyllis Schlafly’s philosophy versus Gloria Steinem’s. If abortion is a sin, women’s rights are irrelevant.
All four women said they were certain that God, their Father in heaven, stood sentinel over their minds and bodies. He had drawn the blueprints for their lives and they needed only to listen for His voice and follow. And that, I believe, was the conflict that flummoxed we educated young women of the 70’s. I’d watched my father take care of my mother, had seen how flawlessly their system of well-defined roles worked. Yet I wanted to be in charge of my own life, and knew it, even as a young teenager.
Frankly, I could have used an omnipotent guiding voice, some help riding the tidal wave of rebellion that swamped traditional American values during my teenage years. I took inordinate risks during the 1960s when authority was challenged and anything anyone believed was up for grabs. When youthful energy and experimentalism dictated, “If it feels good, do it,” I did, and lived with the consequences. Yet for better or worse, I have never considered returning to the comfort and confines of the Methodist Church.
Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist, describes herself as an intellectual Christian and says in Absence of Mind, “It is the quality of the science and the religion that determines the nature of the conversation.” During her 2010 interview on the Jon Stewart Show, she identified herself as a Christian who believes in the science of evolution, said she knew many others like herself, and that they were not to be confused with zealots on either end of the scientific or religious spectrums. I acknowledge that the religious statements I’ve confronted, and the lack of any rational conversation with those who have advanced them has influenced my ever-skeptical view of organized religion. And, living where I do now strengthens that skepticism.
Thirteen years ago, after a lifetime in the Detroit area, my husband and I retired to the mountains of South Carolina, the buckle of the Bible belt, as locals call it. A majority of people we meet here believes President Barack Obama is not an American citizen and that the Earth is not old, that climate change is a fabrication of the liberal media. Many are Creationists and are also certain that our African-Muslim President will order the confiscation of their guns. Offices of doctors, dentists, and veterinarians are plastered with religious messages such as, “We Care, God Cures.”
One Sunday morning while hiking with my dogs at Jones Gap State Park, a pink-faced Park Ranger tapped the flat brim of his hat and warned, “Be careful, Ma’am, all the good people are in church.” It sounded ridiculous at the time and I chuckled, assuming he was joking. Years later, however, with a clearer understanding of what locals believe, I can imagine the judgment he passed on a lone woman, trekking by a boulder-strewn river instead of attending indoor worship.
What I have concluded is that all of this ruminating boils down to virtue, which requires a life of action, of choosing one’s own behavior as if choosing it for all humanity. And I can define virtue because I’ve seen a man who saved people. A man who believed in justice and charity, a man who knew that faith coerced is no faith at all. The man who let me quit church.
In 1984, Dad was newly retired from his law practice and I accompanied him on a volunteer Visitation Monitoring session for Oakland County Probate Court. Parents who had lost custody of their young children were allowed short visits with them in public places, in the presence of a court appointed monitor. Dad wanted me to see his volunteer work firsthand, and we planned to meet in a Big Boy Restaurant in Pontiac, Michigan. When I arrived, the social worker had already delivered the towheaded boy to Dad’s table.
The scrawny teenaged mother arrived fifteen minutes late, ashen as dirty snow, collarbone protruding through a stained tee shirt. She shivered, sitting on trembling hands, and asked if either of us had a smoke. Gazing at her son, who seemed not to know her, she was unable to communicate with him. Dad excused himself and returned quickly with two cigarettes he’d bummed and a Big Boy matchbook. Tears brimmed in the girl’s eyes as she inhaled. Dad joked with her son, insisted they order food and picked up the tab.
As the girl stood up to leave, Dad asked if she was getting better. She scowled, said she was in a shit load of trouble, might have to go back to jail. He pulled a card from his wallet and pressed it into her hand.
“Call me. Maybe I can help.”
It wasn’t dramatic enough to lead the six o’clock news like a burly young man at building collapse rescue, but in its own way, Dad’s gesture was just as important. One human with resources trying to ease another’s suffering, because it makes sense, and makes life more profound for all of us.
Back in my leather chair that May evening day in 2013, I blink as Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman shakes her finger at the camera. “The IRS will soon be in charge of a huge national database on health care,” she says. My mind clicks back to speeches from her last campaign, shrill warnings that we are at the end of days, that as true Americans we must accept Jesus as our savior, as she did at sixteen, or suffer eternal hellfire. I shut my eyes to shut her out, but can’t. I do the math and deduce that thirty-eight years after televangelist Pat Robertson saved my friend’s husband by phone, Robertson is still on the air — blaming tornadoes on those who do not pray.
Armstrong’s research (which preceded publication of “The Battle for God” in 2000,) supporting the concept that secularism was an irreversible trend in America, has not yet stood the test of time. Instead, fundamentalists of all brands have gained worldwide momentum, fueled by an increasing digital audience of zealous believers in our wired up world.
I can’t get Bathroom-Stall-Sharon out of my head today and recall her confidence in God’s plan for her, how convinced she was of my damnation. Although I wonder if she is still as certain of the manifestations of good and evil, I like to believe that it all worked out for her. That perhaps she’s mastered the tricky fingering on that Bach Toccata and is playing it in a small church where her God has placed her, waiting for the devout to arrive.
Meanwhile, I’m still floating free, feet first, until the water eddies.
About the Author:
Leslie Tucker, a former Detroiter, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zipliner, a dedicated yogi, an ACBL Life Master in Sanctioned Bridge, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds degrees in business and music. Her work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Shenandoah Magazine, The Press 53 Awards Anthologies, where her essay “Lies That Behind” won First Prize for Creative Nonfiction, and Fiction Fix, where her essay “Reckless Abandon” was shortlisted for Best of the Net Awards.