By Craig Hardegree | 

Back before Reagan successfully co-opted evangelicals and merged them into the Republican Party as easily-manipulated already-conditioned-to-never-question-authority foot-soldiers, deeply-religious evangelicals usually kept their politics separate from their religion.

If they were political at all. And most were not.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal Holiness church. We followed 2nd-Chapter-of-Acts Pentecostal style of worship and the Holiness way of living. No TV. No movies. No Friday night football. No proms. No short-pants. No shirt-off. No beaches or public swimming pools where sinners exposed their ungodly flesh.

On Sunday mornings my Mom drove me and my brother and sister to WLBB radio station. The yellow “on air” light bulb came on in the studio at 9:00 sharp whether we were in our circle of chairs around the microphone or still flying down the steps. Mom played the piano as we sang and then my great-aunt preached. Pentecostals, unlike Baptists and Catholics, had no problem with “women preachers.”

On the way back up the steps, we often passed Rev. Freeland and his entourage. He was the snazziest dresser I’d ever seen. Pin-stripe suit and fedora and always a big friendly greeting. Because he was preaching Jesus on the radio like we were, I thought he was “one of us.” It was the whitefolk at the “up-town” First Baptist and First Methodist who I thought were the “outsiders.”

By 9:45 a.m. we were at church. Once everyone was settled-in, we dispersed to our Sunday School rooms at 10:00. I started out in my Mom’s class and later graduated to my Dad’s class. Both classes ended earlier than the others so Dad and Mom could be softly playing the organ and piano as other classes let out and all assembled for the 11:00 a.m. service.

After a few songs, my great-uncle preached.

We didn’t “buy on Sunday” so we passed all the uptown Christians eating at restaurants and went home to a meal mostly cooked on Saturday and only warmed on Sunday.

By 5:00 we were getting ready to go back to church for 6:00 p.m. “Lifeliners” for children before the 7:00 p.m. service.

We couldn’t wait an entire week to repeat, so we had a two-hour prayer service from 7:00 to 9:00 on Wednesday nights.

Our entertainment at home was the ten-volume set of children’s Bible Stories written by Arthur S. Maxwell in 1957. All through the ’60s and ’70s, Volume 1 of this set was displayed on an easel, along with accompanying order-forms, in nearly every doctor and dentist office in the South.

Before we were old enough to read, my Dad read several stories to us each night after supper. Even after we could read, he continued this tradition until we were old enough to grasp the 16th-Century English of the King James Bible.

It was like a nightly warm hug to my heart; a security blanket that protected me from an often-cruel outside world that didn’t understand our come-ye-out-from-the-world-and-be-ye-a-separate-people style of living.

Later we added on The Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, the comics section of the Atlanta Journal and ViewMaster reels of fairy tales and the Seven Wonders of The World. Still no TV.

But for a long time, the Bible Stories were our primary “entertainment.” I would get lost for hours in a volume, slowly reading and absorbing every word and letting my imagination take me on fascinating journeys deep into the water-color illustrations.

By the time I was 16, I was developing my own thoughts. By college I was wide open with no limits, no judgments, unbought, unbossed and didn’t care what anyone thought about anything.

Still don’t.

Growing up ostracized can be immunizing and ironically-freeing — I still consider myself to be Pentecostal, but it doesn’t bother me in the least that the vast majority of Pentecostals think that me being a liberal is akin to being the Antichrist. And I couldn’t care less that some liberals think my clinging to my Pentecostal faith is backward and unenlightened. And I’m not even slightly embarrassed that my gender defies normal categorization or that it inspires suppressed amusement in small towns.

I’ve endured far greater ridicule.

But except for a five-year-period in the early ’90s when I was heavily involved in the Mt. Paran Choir, I haven’t attended church since I was 18.

And that’s not because I left the faith — the faith left me.

Initially, it wasn’t the result of a conscious decision, that I stopped attending.

I was 17 when I graduated from high school and went to work as a mechanic keeping 52 sock-knitting machines running smoothly from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. at Marion Hosiery Mill. My plan was to work there until I turned 18 and then go to work for Southwire until I was economically self-sustaining with the preacher’s license I had just obtained from the Congregational Holiness Church.

Once at Southwire, I had every intention of going to church that Sunday morning at 11:00 after having worked from 6:00 p.m. Saturday night until 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning as an Extruder Operator coating copper wire with melted PVC pellets — but it just didn’t work out.

And I simply got out of the habit.

But later when I would visit a church, it wasn’t the place that had warmed my heart and soul as a child. The Reagan Revolution was in progress and churches were increasingly sounding like political rallies.

Clinton was in office by the time I arrived at Mt. Paran — crushed from my first divorce and searching for the security and warmth of my childhood — and I was amazed at how often anti-Clinton remarks could be woven into the Holy Scriptures. And because we were in his district, the double-cheating thrice-wedded Newt would visit and receive a raucous mega-church standing ovation. Contrasted with the embarrassingly-light and polite seated-applause when genuine-Christian Max Cleland was recognized.

And he attended every Sunday.

Because he enjoyed it.

Not because he was trolling for votes.

With that background, you can imagine my surprise when Facebook came of age at the same time genuine-Christian President Obama was elected and people who know the Bible like I know football commenced trying to convince me that based on their knowledge of the Bible, President Obama was a bad person.

People who were milking every drop of worldly pleasure out of life back when I was being programmed with the Bible right down to my motherboard, now presuming to tell me what my politics should be based on their knowledge of the Bible.

There are lasting effects from growing up fundamentalist — some from the teachings; some from the ridicule and ostracization that goes along with being different. Some are good. Some, you just have to keep processing and working-through.

BUT…

…the overall, overarching, fundamental, bedrock principle of the Bible…never changes.

It is indelibly encoded into my DNA.

It is what we sang in the studio of WLBB;

It’s what my great-aunt taught from behind the microphone and my great-uncle preached from the pulpit;

It’s what my Dad read to us nightly after dinner and my Mom led us to memorize during summer afternoon Bible readings;

It’s what I have watched my Obama-loving parents (surprise!) live by example for more than 50 years…

Jesus is Love.

Not, Jesus is anti-abortion or Jesus is Republican or Jesus is conservative or Jesus is anything else political.

Just simply…

Jesus is Love.

It was Volume Ten that shaped my worldview.

Jesus loves all the little children of the world

We are one big global village…

As a child, I never heard a nationalistic sermon. My grandfather who couldn’t read and write because he grew up in a sharecropper family and had to pick cotton as a child instead of attending school, would stand up and “testify” in church and boldly proclaim, “This world is not my home; I’m just a passing through. I’m on my way to a Heavenly home. And I feel like traveling on!

He would draw “feel” out to four syllables.

That’s how evangelicals used to feel.

Especially the Pentecostal ones.

Until they turned the church into a political party and seared their consciences with a hot iron and became so deceived that they actually believe God wants them to take food stamps away from a hungry little black child and send a scared little brown child back across the border and leave a precious little Syrian boy adrift aimlessly on the Aegean Sea until he drowns frightened and alone in the icy-cold waters.

And the Lord said to Cain, “Where is thy brother?”

And Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And the Lord spoke again and said…

“What is this thing you have done?

The voice of thy brother’s blood is crying out to me from the grave.”

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