How Gospel Conversion Stories Fuel “Free Choice” Rhetoric at Your School Board Meeting


Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Endowed Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware and the author of the new book Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions That Changed American Politics (University of North Carolina Press).

Williamson County School Board Meeting (TN), May 17, 2021.

This speaker invoked Judges 15:15 saying, “We parents have our metaphorical ass jawbone and we’re ready to hit a thousand men. Your turn.”

At a recent school board meeting in suburban Philadelphia, a woman wearing a shirt with the slogan “StopMedicalTyranny” concluded her anti-masking testimony by saying that trans-positive books teach children that they can “choose.” Their gender. Then she said a prayer, “in the name of Jesus”, asking among other things that God “keep the minds of our children from harmful instructions”. She believed that her ultimate freedom to make choices for herself and her children, in other words, was threatened by teachers imposing ideas that she opposed. Similar protests against mask and vaccine warrants have erupted in school districts across the United States.

Religious conversion, a kind of particularly transformative personal decision, is fundamental in these policies of “freedom” and “choice”. White Evangelical Protestants, in particular, made an argument for conversion as the primary choice or decision, creating an identity that determines an individual’s spiritual and political beliefs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Evangelical Protestantism was still a marginal movement on the verge of gaining popularity and power. Evangelical leaders realized that born-again conversions could merge ideas of being saved, privileging whiteness, and opposing LGBTQ rights.

This story of reborn conversion and American politics helps explain why a surprising number of public comments against school mask warrants include tirades against inclusive LGBTQ curriculum.

Many individuals and groups organizing against the mask and vaccination warrants are linked to evangelical nationalist and conservative Christian groups. Having learned that they are defending American values ​​and fighting a tyrannical and coercive mandate from non-Christian authorities, they stand up to defend what they believe is their constitutional right to disobey public health policies.

The idea of ​​born again conversion as we understand it today originated with the 18th century Methodists, who first popularized spontaneous conversion. Over the next two centuries, Protestant revivals created ecstatic converts who were born again in Christ. In the 1940s and 1950s, famous preacher Billy Graham introduced the idea of ​​making a “decision for Christ” during his mid-twentieth century Crusades and in his magazine Seeking Conversions, Decision. Passionately anti-communist, Graham urged his conservative evangelical supporters to confuse their Christian faith with American freedoms and to understand communism as coercive mind control.

The peculiar blend of reborn conversion, anti-gay animosity, and defense of American “freedoms” emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The predominantly white leaders of conservative evangelical organizations were widely critical of the social movements of the day. , from the civil rights of blacks to the liberation of women and homosexuals. Looking for ways to exert greater influence over American politics, they landed on a narrative that fused the idea of ​​choosing Christ and standing up for freedom.

White evangelical leaders recognized that one way to gain legitimacy was to show the surprising conversions of ex-convicts and iconoclasts. A rapidly growing evangelical media industry celebrated these converts and promoted their stories. Christian publishers and broadcasters have plugged in the Californian hippies who have become Jesus People and the conversions of notorious political operatives such as Charles (“Chuck”) Colson, the doomed former aide to President Richard Nixon. Important born again conversions have been argued as evidence of the legitimacy of evangelism.

Evangelical leaders have relied on the concept of choice to distance themselves from contemporary expressions of religious fervor in new religious movements. The International Krishna Consciousness Society, for its part, found young disciples among many of the same seekers who flocked for mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Evangelicals have pointed out the profound differences between being “brainwashed” in “worship” and being born again. An experiment was the result of coercion; the other, as desired.

Fears of brainwashing and coercion had been magnified in American culture since the early years of the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream books and films were replete with “Manchurian candidates” and “body thieves”. They made visible a host of concerns about the danger of external ideologies that could take hold of an individual’s mind and force him to adopt new values ​​and beliefs.

Queer desire struck white evangelical leaders as emblematic of the kind of “choices” infamous actors could impose on the flexible minds of young people. Drawing on decades of anti-gay pulpit and bench rhetoric, former gay ministries emerged in the 1970s to warn that gays and lesbians were “recruiting” naive youth and forcing them to choose a mode of communication. gay life. The only solution, the old homosexual programs insisted, was simultaneous conversion to Jesus Christ and heterosexuality.

The contrast between freely chosen faith and coercive and harmful ideologies shaped the ex-gay politics of the Christian right. Evangelical Protestants and their allies have organized campaigns (many of which have been successful) to ban gay people from teaching in public schools, lest they “brainwash” their students. While a stranger (or anthropologist) might conclude that evangelical proselytizing bears more than a fleeting resemblance to such recruitment, evangelicals insisted that their testimony offered the only choice that preserved individual freedom.

This historical background helps explain why so many anti-mask and anti-vaccine activists are white Christians who mix their testimony before school boards with convictions of positive transgender curricula. Evangelicals today tend to be the most opposed to the very concept of transgender identity, let alone trans rights. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, 84% of white Evangelical Protestants said “sex is determined by sex at birth,” and 61% said American society had “gone too far” in accepting transgender people. . These numbers were much higher than for Christians in general (63% sex is determined by sex at birth; 39% “went too far”) and for unaffiliated (37% and 57%, respectively) . They line up closely with the differences between how Republicans and Democrats answered the same questions.

This opposition puts lives at risk. Trans assertiveness experiences at school (not to mention at home) can save the lives of non-binary and sexist youth. In a 2018 study, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that nearly 42% of trans and non-binary teens had attempted suicide, compared to 14% for all teens. The following year, the Trevor Project released the results of its own survey, finding that single adult support reduced suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth by 40%.

Activists are shouting above school board officials about the mask and vaccine warrants, and they denigrate books and programs that could save the lives of trans and non-binary youth. Yet they insist that heterosexual white Christians are the real victims. This thought, too, has a history in 1970s white evangelism. By pitting the hard-won freedoms of born-again converts against the easy mass conformity of secular culture, conservative evangelicals present their faith as a bastion of truth. marginalized but superior.

The idea that “freedom” comes down to “choice” has obvious resonance in neoliberal economics. But it also flourishes in the amalgamation of conservative Christian faith and conservative American politics. The born-again conversion story reveals the deep and tangled roots of conservative Christian antagonism towards queer people, their amalgamation of faith and freedom, and their perception of their own victimization.

About Norma Wade

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