Two weeks after the US Presidential election Aussie friends still implore me for new insight into the world where voting for Kerry meant going to hell - my normative world until I left my proselytising fundamentalist northern California hometown for big-town UC Berkeley.
As a child, I learned to decline invitations to Saturday night sleepovers because it meant I’d be attending church the next morning. With an atheist father and a “not religious” Jewish mother, my family exaggerated the extent of our Jewishness to deflect the question of what congregation we belonged to.
With “satanism” being the only other logical alternative, and with a militia around the corner, the God-fearing classification was safer.
I shared a kinship with the Seventh Day Adventist boy in my class who also refrained from some Christmas school activities. I knew which houses in the neighbourhood didn’t give out candy on (satanic) Halloween. We pretended no-one was home when Mormons or Jehovah’s witnesses ignored the “no soliciting” sign on our doorstep. A playmate told her mum that God told her not to play with our friend Sarah anymore, and her mum and I didn’t question it. A guardian angel-like “divine sphere” left my next-door neighbour unscratched from a potentially fatal car crash.
In high school “she’s not a good Christian” was the catty ultimate. Adherents to some Christian denominations were told by others they were “going to hell”. “Promise rings” represented a girl’s promise to her parents that she wouldn’t have premarital sex. “See you at the pole” bracelets indicated you prayed with other kids at the flagpole in the mornings before school. No, the huge hand-holding prayer circles preceding musical performances, field trips and sports events weren’t mandatory - but why jeopardise the “good student” status I had worked so hard to cultivate in my teachers’ eyes?
How can I forget the agnostic boyfriend whose fundamentalist upbringing kept him from “third base” - a widespread, illogical code of chastity and honour which I had absorbed equally well and held throughout my entire university career. We didn’t even think to attribute these notions to the surrounding puritan culture. My best friend’s atheist boyfriend ascribed the same meanings and boundaries to sexual acts.
And similarly, how can I forget the Jehovah’s witness and Mormon classmates whose nearly-arranged late-teen marriages really did pre-empt premarital sex; the popular Mormon football player I pashed whose long-time ex-girlfriend was “angelic”, “so good!” and scowled at him for attempting to lift her shirt . . .; the girlfriends of aspiring ministers who competed to raise the bar to new levels of purity - “she’s never french-kissed him.” To this day, I am completely unable to acknowledge or discuss sex with a couple of my childhood friends.
Christian fraternalism was akin to ethnic networking, with in-group language: “… gives me joy”, “I’m blessed to be ...” Indeed, Christianity was part of the construction of whiteness in my hometown context . The high school choir director instructed us to draw on our faith to sing sacred texts more expressively, then with sarcasm pointed at one girl “except you, you agnostic.” In that instant I felt fear and shame. Everyone else’s church affiliation was public knowledge - normal people went to church. I, aspiring to the lead role in the musical, was thankful I’d eliminated suspicion about my lack of faith by giving him some matzo ball soup in a take-away container as an explanation for arriving late at rehearsal one Passover evening.
Why didn’t I stand with the girl who was singled out? Why did I knowingly relent when my parents strongly suggested I NOT wear my new My Body, My Choice pro-choice T-shirt to school? Why did I lose points with my friend’s politically “progressive” parents when she volunteered to wear it instead and they thought I’d encouraged her to do so? The moral authority of Christian fundamentalism trumped freedom of expression every time. I shamefacedly hid my foreign language as much as possible. Challenging “moral values” wasn’t worth the political repercussions, and despite the strength of my convictions, I still felt kind of sinful and dirty for asserting them while encompassed by that norm.
The adulterated version of Christ’s teachings is nothing new to me. The affected, esoteric Christian world was all I knew in my formative years and shaped who I am today. So no, I’m not surprised that Republicans have managed to redefine and own morality in a way that almost completely turns on sexuality. Lying to the world about American intelligence and killing thousands of people in Iraq; Abu Ghraib torture; corporate greed that turned hardworking, loyal Enron employees to poverty overnight - all are acceptable. Using foetus cells to save the living, and homosexual love and commitment: likewise are all immoral. Makes perfect sense. Indignation that conservatives (both in Australia and the US) have hijacked “moral values” has been voiced often. But my own experience makes me fearful that the “where to” question for American Democrats is best answered by walking on eggshells like a painfully self-conscious kid trying to fit in with the arbitrary, laughable, illogical popular crowd’s values.
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