by Lola E. Peters
In 1995, I had served as associate director for social justice of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) for five years. That role put me in working relationships with religious professionals from across many faith traditions. As a member of the National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group, I regularly interacted with clergy and laity from across the Protestant spectrum alongside faith-based activists. As co-chair of the Council of National Religious AIDS Networks, I worked with Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews to advocate for safe and sane HIV and AIDS public policy as well as ethical responses in religious communities.
It was with this background that I stood in front of a room full of Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist (UU) community organizers from around the country at a Washington, D.C., conference sponsored by the UUA and Tikkun Magazine. I had been asked to be one of the speakers addressing the future role of activism in our country. Never one for subtlety, I began with, “If it continues down its current path, this country has the capability of becoming the next Nazi Germany.”
The room, almost exclusively male, erupted in outrage. I was lambasted for raising the specter of Nazism in this heavily Jewish space. I was told I clearly didn’t understand the importance of institutions and associations in this country, or I would know the absurdity of my assertions. I was yelled at. Grown men shook their fists at me, insisting I knew nothing.
Twenty-seven years later, here we are.
Am I a prophet? Someone who traveled back in time to try and save the planet? Donna Noble sent by Dr. Who? Only in my dreams. Rather, I had seen the root ball sending out tendrils throughout our society and knew there was only one flower it could bear, one flower it had always birthed throughout history: authoritarianism.
So what were these poisonous tendrils?
In 1980, on behalf of Floyd Spence, Republican political consultant Lee Atwater conducted a brutal campaign against Democrat Tom Turnipseed in South Carolina, using Turnipseed’s childhood struggles with depression as a cudgel to successfully beat him. Atwater later joined the Reagan White House team and was known as a ruthless, amoral campaigner who would do anything to win. He set a no-holds-barred tone for the party that most recently culminated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. After his stint at the White House, Atwater joined the D.C. lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. If those names sound familiar, it’s because they sit at the core of the 45th president’s inner circle.
In 1985, Libertarian Grover Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and drafted the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. ATR demanded that every Republican candidate running for any local, regional, or national public office in the country sign the pledge before they could receive funding from the party. At first, no one took it seriously. Little by little, it took hold as a purity test within the party. Soon, it became the rallying cry: no new taxes. For the first time, political candidates were being asked to pledge loyalty to a single principle in order to succeed within the party. A decade later, President George H.W. Bush would lose his second term in part because he broke his no tax pledge, putting his commitment to the country above a commitment to the party.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the HIV and AIDS pandemic surged through the country unabated, we saw the rise of another type of unbending fervor: evangelical Christianity. Always on the noisy fringes of every religious community, evangelicals used HIV and AIDS as an opportunity to demonize gay men. Rather than showing compassion and stepping in to follow the example Jesus set with leprosy, they became bullhorns of oppression against people who were dying. Unable to use the teachings of the New Testament, the liberation from Jewish law supposedly bought and paid for by Jesus’ death and resurrection, they turned to Jewish teachings, misinterpreting them along the way, and focused on what Rev. Al Sharpton criticized as “bedroom morals” instead of justice and compassion. They became a petty, vindictive, and angry mob.
It’s important that I stop here and elaborate on my own relationship to evangelical Christianity.
I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. Although my parents occasionally sent me to vacation Bible school with neighbors’ kids (mostly to get me out of the house during the summer), like most Orthodox Christians, I knew little about the varieties of Christianity and only knew the highlight reel of Bible verses and stories. The priest at my Oakland church studied with Viktor Frankl in Vienna and taught our youth group logotherapy principles. We all knew the basic Jesus story, but none of us actually read the Bible.
Then my father died suddenly three weeks before my high school graduation. Life for the next four years was chaotic. I unsuccessfully tried to balance college, work, and home. In the melee, I met a young woman my age, let’s call her Terry, also facing family tumult, who became my best friend. Both intellectuals, both in our formative 20s in the roaring ’60s, we lived the good life. Music, dance, debates, and alcohol became our fuel. Eventually, it all took a toll (of course) to be replaced by exhaustion, confusion, loneliness. Terry decided to visit her father for Thanksgiving. He had left her mother for his current “wife” and they were living in Lake Tahoe with his “wife’s” two daughters. Terry decided to stay there.
Acutely feeling the loss of my best friend, I was delighted when Terry called to invite me to spend the week between our late January birthdays in Lake Tahoe. Once there, I was struck by the breathtaking beauty. It affected me on a deeply emotional level. I now know it evoked childhood memories of driving through the mountains of Ethiopia with my father.
Although I had met Terry’s younger sister, I had never met her father. She never spoke well of him, so I was mystified why she chose to stay. On my second day, I was told he was a minister, members of the congregation were coming over, and we were going to have a service. Never one to judge other people’s religious practices, I went along.
I had never been to anything like what I experienced that night. Eight or nine people joined us after dinner for the service in the living room of this massive six- or seven-bedroom house. The closest I can come to a universally understandable description is this: Imagine you’re in the middle of a very loud concert where everyone knows the lyrics to the band’s song and is singing at the top of their lungs. Imagine they’re all jumping up and down around you, some maybe even swooning. It’s both exhilarating and intimidating. You are the only one who doesn’t know the words, or the movement, but you feel the almost-orgasmic energy of it all.
In the midst of this turmoil, Terry’s father, eyes closed, suddenly raised his hand in the air. The room went completely quiet and all the activity stopped immediately. He began to speak in an authoritative, focused way. He talked about himself in the third person and suddenly I realized he was speaking to me, very specifically. He spoke about my difficult life journey and how the people in the room were his people and would always love me unconditionally. He then demanded that I change my life and give it over to his care. Then he stopped, opened his eyes, and asked the others to tell him what happened.
I was confused. What just happened and why didn’t he know? Terry and I went for a walk where she explained to me that they all believed her father was a medium for god and the words I heard were not from her father but from god.
Well, this was new for me. Again, not wanting to judge other people’s religious beliefs, I accepted this was what they believed. These sessions happened every night I was there and sometimes spur-of-the-moment during the day when “god” would have something to say. At each session, I became more and more the focus, each time with added pressure for me to become part of their “congregation.” By the last day, I was worn down. Terry seemed happy, and I was very unhappy in my home life and desperately ready for a change, desperately ready to be enveloped in what looked like a caring community. Why not? What did I have to lose?
So, I went home to the Bay Area and announced to my family that I was moving to Tahoe because god commanded it. A month later, I moved.
The first few months were fun. Terry and I got to hang out again. Tahoe was magnificent. Terry’s dad gave me the creeps, though, so I gave him wide berth. Bit by bit, over the next seven years, five of them in suburban Seattle, I learned the Faustian bargain I had made. Like most evangelical groups, this one had a strict caste system. Terry’s father was the direct line to god and nothing he said or did was ever to be questioned. Since I question everything, this was a tough one. Next, women were to be submissive to the men and boys in the group. We were to do as we were told, again without question. Anyone who knows me knows this was impossible. Whoever/whatever created me did not put submission in my DNA profile.
At the core of the group was its evangelism. Thanks to Terry’s father, went the dogma, we were the only Christians who really knew anything. After all, god spoke to us directly. Mainstream Christians were lost. Non-Christians were damned. We, and only we, could save them, and we had an obligation to do so by bringing them into our fold. Like the rest of us, they would, of course, have to merge all their material possessions with ours and give Terry’s father control of them.
Over those seven years, I actually read and closely studied the Bible, several times, and came to realize the absurdity of the life I was living. I had developed cognitive dissonance between my deep commitment to integrity and the flagrant disregard for justice and compassion I saw around me. Terry’s father was commanding which young person was going to marry whom, where they could live, what they could name their children, where people could work, how the money we brought in could be spent, and every other aspect of our lives. Oh, and as to the quotation marks around the word “wife” earlier in this article … while he and his “wife” were demanding strict abstinence and “purity” from single people in the congregation, it turned out they were not married to one another. In fact, neither had divorced their previous spouses.
By then, the man I married realized he liked the unsubmissive me and pushed back against the complaints of the self-proclaimed elders in the group. We both realized we’d been had, and we left. Members of the congregation told us we would be destroyed out in “the world,” which was code for outside the control of the group. We were not. We thrived. Eventually, the group fell apart as others saw the hypocrisy and lies.
By the time I gave my presentation at the Tikkun conference nearly 20 years later, Focus on the Family and other evangelical organizations were building massive empires using the same principles I had seen at work in my own immersion. But they were doing it on a colossal scale. The basics were the same: men in charge without question or accountability, women do as they’re told, rules don’t apply to the leaders or “their” women, the Bible as a tool to bludgeon and maim rather than heal and strengthen, non-evangelicals are lost, non-Christians are evil, non-evangelicals can be treated with disdain and used to achieve evangelical goals at any cost.
I watched as non-evangelical leaders, seduced by the accumulating power of these organizations, began to spout things they didn’t believe — to label themselves evangelicals simply to get a piece of the pie they, themselves, would never eat. Active members of the Racial Justice Working Group abandoned the anti-racist coalitions we had built over the years to cynically start their own evangelical magazines and become national pundits.
As the Republican Party watched this growth, it saw the potential of harnessing it to feed its own power hunger. Unlike Democrats, who had to convince voters one at a time, Republicans could simply cozy up to strategic influencers in the evangelical world and be guaranteed votes. Slowly, steadily, they married the Republican lean toward fascism with the authoritarianism of evangelicals and birthed the Christo-fascism we now see in full force. They realized late in the game they would also have to gerrymander to make up for the reality that these religious zealots are still a fringe in society. What they have done, are still doing, is exactly what was done by the Nazis and every power-hungry, psychopathic, self-centered, treasonous, anti-democratic group before them.
Before Lee Atwater died in 1991, he asked for forgiveness for his actions. By then, the poison he had injected into the Republican Party had infected its every cell.
So no, I’m not a prophet or a time traveler. I was simply willing to see the root ball of Christo-fascism and its tendrils as they emerged. To defeat them, we need to get to the root and destroy it. How? The same way I was liberated: honesty, mutual support, exposing the lies and hypocrisies, and giving those who have been drawn into the delusion an opportunity to adopt an alternative vision with true democracy at the center. When I recognized the needs for community, self-forgiveness, and purpose that drew me in and found alternative ways to meet those needs or at least acknowledge them, I was able to free myself entirely.
Christo-fascism, like its earlier iterations in the Crusades and Nazism, relies on a veneer of doing god’s will. It covers the rotting stink of ambition and greed with a facade of passionate sincerity. Destroying this thin exterior is the key to liberating those whose vulnerabilities have roped them in. That often means entering into their own belief system and showing them how they have gone against their own principles, helping them hear the dissonance ringing within their own minds and hearts.
There are many who have rebuilt the narratives of their lives upon the foundation of lies. Removing that foundation destabilizes their very existence, so they tend to hold on ever more tightly to people, like Tucker Carlson, who will reinforce the crumbling foundation until the day they find the house of cards blown down around them. There is little to do for them except create a safe place for them to fall and be ready to help them rebuild new foundations afterward. These were the same things needed in Bosnia and Rwanda after each of their Christo-fascist wars. It’s important to remember, though, that truth has to come before reconciliation, and accountability is required as a deterrent to future resurgences.
Finally, there are those who knew the con and did nothing to stop it because it benefited them. For them, there must be accountability. There was a reason the founders of this country, with all their flaws, saw fit to make the very first words of the very first amendment to the newly minted constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” They knew, from their own history, the dangers of allowing any one religion to assert itself over the political process as well as the reverse.
One cannot simultaneously uphold the Constitution and demand or aver laws that uphold the beliefs of one religious set of doctrines over any other. That cognitive dissonance should be ringing in every judicial house in our country. They who preside over these courtrooms hold a sacred trust that should put them above the pettiness of politics. Where it has not, those judges or justices must be removed, disbarred, their constitutional violations overturned immediately, and any future benefits they would ever receive from our nation removed.
Time is the final arbiter of justice. We the People hold the key to sustaining our democracy.
Editors’ Note: This op-ed was updated on 07/18/2022 to correct the year of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Lola E. Peters is the operations administrator and an editor-at-large for the South Seattle Emerald.
📸 Featured image by Jim Lopes/Shutterstock.com.
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