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Our Children, our future? The Equal Time for Freethought interview with Lauren Sandler.

LAUREN SANDLER WAS A PRODUCER of cultural features and news segments at National Public Radio. Her 2006 book, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, found its genesis when, producing a series for All Things Considered on youth and religion in the United States, Sandier happened upon a nascent Christian youth movement stirring in group houses and church basements. She left NPR to become a fellow at NYU's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program--in which she now teaches--and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and Salon. Sandler was interviewed on December 17, 2006, on the WBAI radio program Equal Time for Freethought. Producer Barry F. Seidman adapted the following segment of that interview especially for the Humanist.

ETFF: Your book goes into an element of the growing evangelical movement in this country that most people aren't familiar with. You start off by stating that any great cultural or political shift doesn't fully take hold until it takes hold among the youth. Why is that?

Sandler: Well I was thinking specifically of the Great Awakenings. Anyone who has studied American history is probably familiar with these periods of dramatic religious revival, but one thing I didn't know is that Great Awakenings really take hold through youth culture.

We tend to have moments of incredible chaos in this country--mostly during times when we're trying to figure out who we are as Americans. And I think that right now is a really good example of a time like that. During these periods, you tend to have some people preaching old-time religion--fire and brimstone--and that message gets completely reinterpreted into the cultural idiom of the youth, which is really how it spreads.

We think back to Billy Graham and the sort of televangelist of yesteryear who look as different as can be from the tattooed, hipster, punk-rock Christians who are now out there spreading an MTV-style gospel that's not your father's Christianity.

ETFF: In your book you point out that this new movement co-opts the rebellious youthful cultures of the sixties, but with the enforcement of traditional ideology. How do you explain that?

Sandler: I really see this movement as the sixties happening all over again but on the religious right instead of the secular left. You have dozens of giant rock festivals all over the country where people gather--not just for the Christian indie rock music, but also to organize. This is where the young anti-abortion movement is phenomenally active. These people feel like they're at war--a culture war--and they have the same feelings of persecution and outrage, of feeling misunderstood, and of wanting to reclaim the country for an idea as young people did in the sixties.

So it's a movement based in this type of fervor, and it communicates that fervor through rock music and through many elements of hipster culture. It's the tattoos they're wearing, it's how they're talking at skate parks, it's about creating a mirror society that lets people feel meaning and gives them a sense of identity and purpose--something they say is lacking in the secular world.

ETFF: Many people, particularly in the Northeast, think this is an isolated situation confined to the South or Midwest. Can you explain the scale at which all this is talking place?

Sandler: Well, I kind of followed the red state/blue state idea before I went out on the road, but this is happening on a national scale. And it isn't just happening in small towns or in the Bible Belt. The most fundamentalist church I went to--a fundamentalist hipster church--was in one of the most liberal areas in Seattle. The fastest growing church in the United States is in New York City in Madison Square Garden. We now have an evangelical college in the Empire State Building that moved from southern New Jersey so that their students could intern at MTV and CNN and shape the culture from within. People are reacting to the notion that secular culture has become so commercialized, so entertainment based, so consumerist, so lacking in meaning, purpose, identity, and a sense of interconnection. These churches are giving all that to their youth, so as long as they sign on the dotted line.

By signing, if you're a woman, you have to quit your job, get married and breed as much as possible. If you are a man, you need to be the leader of the household, you can't have any intellectual freedom, and (for both men and women), the Bible needs to be the first and last word in your life. The extent to which this is happening right now is truly amazing.

ETFF: One of the most striking portraits you paint in Righteous is of a woman in this movement named Judy. Can you talk about her a bit?

Sandler: Let me say first that I really loved the people I met, and I am a secular, liberal, atheistic, feminist Jew! In many ways you'd think we couldn't have much in common, but I found that I felt a real kinship with a lot of the people I met, especially this woman, Judy, in Seattle. It was painful to see the transformation of their lives.

Judy was a fiercely independent woman who had a rocky life working in the music industry--drugs, breakups, the usual story--yet she made good money, found her work very exciting, and felt passion for her life. And then she fell in love with this guy who had been born again but didn't tell her at first. When he later told her he felt that they were living in sin and needed to start going to church together, she went along with it and soon found herself born again. She was dubious at first, but the indie rock band was playing a great version of "Amazing Grace" and she started crying and feeling like she didn't have all the answers anymore. And something fell away. Before she knew it, this woman who never wanted to have kids, always wanted to work, and was the more fiscally responsible of the pair, became upset with her life because these churches preach the submission doctrine--"women, you will serve your husband like you serve the Lord."

So her husband, who she said was financially inept, became the sole breadwinner and decision maker of the family. She now has two babies she really didn't want as a result of following her pastor's advice to help repopulate the city of Seattle with "born again" babies.

ETFF: And this is one of those quickly growing churches in Seattle?

Sandler: Yes. It's actually what sparked my interest in this topic. As a reporter I was given the job of writing about this church, which went from a two-person bible study to a 200-member congregation soon after it became one of these hipster churches. Now it has 6,000 people, is the biggest church in Washington State, and is one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. It also has over 140 satellite churches nationwide that preach the same fundamentalist doctrine. It's so deeply fundamentalist that recently people in Seattle protested, saying, "you aren't going turn our city into a fundamentalist capital." I can't think of any time, certainly not in recent history, when people protested against a church just because of the pastor's preaching. It's become a very controversial and very powerful place.

ETFF: Tell us about the "relational evangelism" you describe in your book.

Sandler: I think our sense of evangelism is someone thumping a Bible, screaming about fire and brimstone and that sort of thing. But this new form of evangelism is the idea that you just "hang out." You hang out at a skate park and slowly introduce others to the word of God, or you hang out with people at a rock club. It's very much about low-key community meetings at rock festivals, or selling T-shirts somewhere. The church in Seattle has a complete secular rock club on its premises. They book good acts and kids from Seattle show up to see shows like they would anywhere, and gradually they try to pull them in. That's relational evangelism.

ETFF: Let's look at a different face of this movement: the newly founded Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.

Sandler: In 2000 Michael Farris, a leader in the home schooling movement and former activist for the Moral Majority, founded Patrick Henry College essentially to funnel home-schooled people who hadn't been "poisoned" by the public education system into the White House. Within the first two years of its founding there were more interns in the White House from this tiny, brand new college than from any other school nationwide, including those in the Ivy League and the Big Ten. Patrick Henry College has people in the Supreme Court and Capital Hill is just ramped with these guys--they're highly effective. They trounced Oxford University in debating English Common Law at Oxford last year. It's a politically-geared campus that literally exists to try to repopulate Washington with hard-line fundamentalists.

ETFF: And while there you had a very interesting discussion with the woman who was the head of the debate club ...

Sandler: Yes, Rachel, who was writing her senior project on abortion law and the United Nations, about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, religion, and politics. She is a brilliant woman, but someone who would instantly say, yes, I do aspire to be on the Supreme Court and do the sort of work I know my male classmates will be able to do. But I know that as a woman, in the next few years I'll get pregnant and have babies because that is my job in life--to be a wife and mother--and I have to give up my work to do that. It was heartbreaking because she is a very ambitious woman who has very clear desires that will be thwarted by her beliefs.

ETFF: Do you consider this book to be a kind of warning cry?

Sandler: Oh yes, I do. But it isn't as simple as us versus them. I'm very critical of secular society in the book and I do think we've been quite complicit in bringing this about. So many people talk to me about how empty they feel secular society is, how it lacks community, larger meaning, and a sense of something bigger than ourselves. I mean, there's a reason that Rick Warrens book, The Purpose-Driven Life, is one of the best-selling nonfiction books of all time.

Our country has become so consumerist and slick that I think it's hard to find a place to go. In this post-9/11 era, with so much global chaos, we're trying to figure out who we are, what we believe, and what our national identity is and our current political scene isn't helping. These young evangelicals are actively reaching out, trying to make a better life, trying to connect with people. Unless we can create some sort of an alternative, and I don't know exactly how to do this, people will continue to feel the draw of fundamentalism and the lure of leadership, of community, of salvation, and of absolutism.

Also, I'm concerned that the euphoria around the Democrats having won the election is going to distract people from the fact that this movement is still brewing. Our world hasn't changed. People's needs haven't changed. And people are evangelizing more than ever before. It isn't the time to let our guard down.

Interestingly, I've found in doing interviews around the country for this book that the only thing people want to talk to me about is my own atheism, as if I'm such an exotic monster as a nonbeliever. I've had secular radio hosts say to me, "the constitution protects your right to believe, but it doesn't protect your right not to believe. What right do you have to be a nonbeliever in this country?"

Intolerance for nonbelief, or a belief in science or humanism, is growing every single day and the secular community perhaps has to be the most vigilant right now. We need to find an alternative to fundamentalism.

Sunsara Taylor; produced by Barry F. Seidman

Sunsara Taylor is a host of Equal Time for Freethought and a political activist associated with The World Can't Wait, an organization dedicated to impeaching George W. Bush.

Barry F. Seidman is the executive producer of Equal Time for Freethought and formerly worked for the Council for Secular Humanism and the Center for Inquiry. He has written for numerous publications, including Free Inquiry, Philosophy Now, The New Humanist, and Skeptical Inquirer.
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Author:Taylor, Sunsara
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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