A Conversation with Gina Welch
IN THE LAND OF BELIEVERS
An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church
Q: Why were you initially drawn to write a book about Evangelicals?
When I was a kid religion barely touched my life, and when it did, it delivered a neat, repulsive shock. I clamped my lips shut during the under God bit of the Pledge of Allegiance, and wrote anxious letters to my father when I felt I was being pressured to pray at summer camp.
Eventually I matured enough to tolerate the religious practices of others, just as long as they were willing to tolerate my resistance to the God stuff. What I couldn’t accommodate was what I perceived as rampant arrogance on the part of people who felt entitled to badger others into adopting their faith. Proselytizing struck me as not only arrogant but dangerous, in that it suggested a fundamental unwillingness to coexist with people who don’t share your narrative of the universe. I couldn’t help but notice that for Evangelicals, the most determined and numerous proselytizers around, that unwillingness to coexist was manifesting as legislation of faith.
When I moved to Virginia for graduate school, it wasn’t long before I realized I was squatting in Christian country. Naturally, I felt alien there, but I began to realize—with the Christian conservative-fueled reelection of George W. Bush and the ensuing media coverage of the whopping third of our country self-identifying as Evangelical—that my whole perception of our country as a secular place had canted to favor my experience. Our country was much more Evangelical than I’d ever realized, and I felt it critical to grapple in person with what that meant: What were Evangelicals like when they weren’t speaking into a microphone? What was it like in their churches? What was their vision for our shared future?
Q: Why did you choose to join Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church?
Jerry Falwell was one of the only Evangelicals I was aware of growing up, because he was on TV all the time, asserting his prejudices as moral truth. I had this very strong impression of him as a bad man, as someone who amplified the fears of his followers and bent them toward hate.
Suddenly, there I was living in Virginia with this dark force just down the road. I thought of him that way, and dimly perceived his followers as an angry, brainwashed mob, and yet I met people in Charlottesville who’d gone to Falwell’s Liberty University who seemed a lot like me. So my curiosity was tempted by that seeming contradiction.
I also knew that Falwell’s was a church in transition. Jerry Falwell was getting on in years, readying his sons to take over the church and Liberty University, and the church itself was preparing to move from the original building—which Falwell had opened in a modest Donald Duck Cola bottling plant in 1956—into a megachurch-style compound with a six-thousand-seat sanctuary. Because of these impending changes it seemed a really good place to look at how Evangelical Christians were remodeling their churches to fit the changing times.
Q: You participated in many Christian rituals, including baptism, weekly church services, and a mission trip to Alaska to save one hundred souls. How did you reconcile your nonbeliever status while participating in these activities?
At first, I didn’t. I was very matter-of-fact about engaging in the rites of belief: I saw them as initiation procedures, tasks I had to finish to get the access I wanted—as a means to that end. You want Evangelicals to feel comfortable around you? You’d better be able to talk about when you got saved. My nonchalance probably went untrammeled in part because I began my research with a visit to Liberty’s Hell House, Scaremare, which—at least in the fright-wig and chain-saw-heavy incarnation I visited—was pretty hard to take seriously as a demonstration of earnest belief.
Also, my curiosity sort of overran my scruples for a while. I mean, the mere idea of baptism by immersion—the notion that getting dunked underwater symbolizes the death and burial of your old self—struck me as so wild and irresistible that I found lots of ways to rationalize doing it insincerely.
I think this blithe attitude about what I was doing was symptomatic of the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to take Evangelical Christians seriously. Of course, once you develop relationships with people and you begin to respect them, you’re suddenly struck by the imperative of respecting what they believe.
When I began to feel split apart by what I was doing—knowing that I was playing fast and loose with what my friends believed was the meaning of life—I participated only in what seemed necessary to keep my cover, and felt vile self-loathing each time I did.
Q: Although you choose not to convert, what is the biggest take-away from your experience? How has this new understanding changed you?
I began work on this book when I was twenty-five, so it’s fair to say that many factors played into making me a different person than I was. I got older. I wrote a book. I moved to a different city. But there are certain ways I’ve changed that I attribute directly to the time I spent around Evangelicals.
For one, I have almost no capacity for negativity anymore, which used to be one of my chief charms. Friends and family have noticed this, too. After a recent phone conversation with an old friend in which I gushed about the good changes I was seeing in my life, simply by adjusting my attitude the way Christians did, he sent me an e-mail urging me not to lose my edge. The people I knew at church believed that complaining gave place to the devil, and even though I don’t share that explanation for the dangers of negativity, I do now see the counterproductivity of petty complaint. It makes everything harder. I wouldn’t say I’m any more optimistic than I used to be, but I’m much better at emotionally managing problems.
Forgiveness is exponentially communicable, and I’ve found that the Evangelical capacity for forgiveness has increased my own. Similarly, their focus on personal accountability has really affected my life. In the time since I’ve left the church, I’ve found myself removing the seal from old grudges to settle them with an apology.
Forcing myself to inhabit the political orientation of conservative Christians has also made it easier for me to see nuance and subtlety in political issues on which I’d held staunch points of view.
The most profound, relevant change I’ve experienced—and the one I hope readers are able to glean by osmosis—is that I’m way less judgmental than I used to be. On my first trips to Lynchburg I felt enthroned in the knowledge that my way of life was superior, more sophisticated than that of Evangelical Christians. But taking seriously the value in their beliefs helped me dismantle my supercilious attitude, and has since made it easier to look at each person I meet as a complex human being.
Q: How were the relationships with your family and friends affected by your two-year immersion at Thomas Road? How did they feel about your decision to join the church? How did they react when you transitioned back to your old life?
My family felt really uneasy about my going undercover. I think they rightly thought I was being naïve about what I was doing. They worried about my being exposed, about retaliatory anger. And they were really supportive when I was leaving the church, treating it like the relationship breakup it was. I sensed they worried I’d end up going back. My mom sent me a nice desk chair to encourage a more sedentary lifestyle. Recently when I reminded my stepdad that he’d sent me a copy of Cults in Our Midst after I’d left the church, he said, “Too little, too late.”
My friends mostly just had a huge appetite for details about what life at Falwell’s church was like, which was fine until I started to grow attached to people at the church. Then the tone of my friends’ curiosity sometimes uncomfortably highlighted our differences. This was especially true when Jerry Falwell died, and I felt pulled under by this weird, unwanted grief, while my friends were literally singing “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”
One of my secular friends met a friend from Thomas Road last year after I’d revealed myself, and after a brief conflagration of reaction between them, they settled in and got along. And I think that’s the final impression most of my friends and family carry—a vicarious acceptance of Evangelical Christians.
Q: Toward the end of the book, you decide to tell two of your closest friends at Thomas Road about your deception. Were you surprised by their gracious reactions? As more members of the church find out about the book, what does their forgiveness, or lack thereof, mean to you?
Going back down to Lynchburg to reveal the book, I told myself that I had no expectations about how I’d be received, but that wasn’t altogether true. I expected outrage, because I knew if I’d been in their position I’d feel very angry. I expected disgust, alienation.
But when Ray and Alice Fletcher managed the news with such ample grace and understanding, I was most of all thunderstruck that I hadn’t predicted their generosity. I knew them to be rich with the forgiveness they showed me in the end.
Personally, their forgiveness means everything to me. I do respect and care deeply for the people I met at Thomas Road and it’s important to me that they know that, that they feel that represented in the fairness of my portrayal. But I don’t feel entitled to forgiveness and I don’t expect to receive it, especially from people with whom I didn’t have a relationship. There are lots of obstacles to forgiveness here—the serious lies I told, my exploitation of the church’s story, the fact that I’m using a secular lens on a religious landscape. And ultimately, because this story doesn’t end with my conversion, it’s never going to be satisfying to them.
Q: If you had it to do again what, if anything, would you do differently?
I’m twitching to say I would undo all the lies I told, because I do carry them on my conscience, and I now make no space for dishonesty in my life. But I think the merits of the book do justify its methods—I wouldn’t have been able to get close enough to tell this story had I presented myself truthfully.
I think I left the church too abruptly. I didn’t know what to say when I stopped going, so I basically said nothing, and that made my friends feel really scorned and abandoned. I really wish I’d been more careful about that.
Part of the conceit of the book was that I was going in without a whit of understanding about Evangelical thought and culture. This blank-slate approach hampered my ability to connect and take Christians seriously for a long time, and I wish I’d prepared myself a little better with research.
One event that I keep turning over in my mind is having led a little girl through the sinner’s prayer in Alaska. At the time, I didn’t feel that I had a choice in the matter, and looking back, I’m still not sure I did. But it is one of the more ethically problematic things I did, since I ardently oppose proselytizing to children, and I wish I’d been more present in the moment and looked for a way to get out of it.