remember a muggy southern Alabama afternoon in Fair Hope at a small clam chowder shop overlooking Mobile Bay. I was at the peak of my law school career with Liberty Law, spending my summer in a prestigious clerkship with the state Supreme Court, and sitting to my left was Chief Justice Roy Moore. His chief of staff was across the table, engaging the judge with intriguing conversation about their place in the conservative movement and my role as a future legal advocate for God’s America.
Impressed by the gravity of my place in the culture war, I turned to Moore to ask him about a mutual acquaintance of ours. Doug Philips was a pastor, author and major thought leader of the homeschooling movement, whose impassioned religious advocacy for patriarchy and family values had inspired my family and motivated me, in part, to pursue law.
The immediate reason for my bringing him up was his unfortunate falling out with the evangelical movement after a years-long sex scandal broke. It revealed Philips’ affair with his family’s underage nanny and had disastrous implications for the thousands of families within his sphere of influence, specifically the cancellation of his ministry’s signature annual event: the Witherspoon School of Law and Public Policy.
The Witherspoon School was an event hosted by Philips and keynoted by Moore. It sported the talents of a range of attorneys and legal scholars geared toward training a generation of young men how to “stand in the gates” (borrowing the Old Testament term) in positions of civic influence. The speakers taught us that the history of American law was lifted from the Torah, that conservative leaders of God-fearing states had the duty to interpose and nullify the unconstitutional actions of federal judges and lawmakers, and that it was a sin for women to seek public office.
I told the chief justice that I was sorry to see the end of this conference, in which he had had a vested interest and at which he had spoken several years running, and I mentioned that I had heard some talk of resurrecting it under new leadership after Philips had fallen into sin.
“I know,” said the chief justice. “It’s tragic when the devil can bring leadership into sin and bring godly organizations and movements with them.”
Saving us from Satan
I was chosen by God.
Not in any vague or subjective way, though. The creator of the universe revealed his inerrant word in the bible, laying out the literal historical and scientific truth of the cosmos and then called me — a foot soldier of the homeschooling movement — to conquer the social and political institutions of America and save Western civilization from Satan and the left, virtually identical though they were.
The simplicity of the whole thing was airtight with its internal consistency to the point that questioning any one part of it was nonsensical under the weight of the rest. The universe was 6,000 years old. All living things existed within unchanging created “kinds,” and the history of the ancient world all took place after a worldwide flood sometime around 2300 B.C.
We didn’t just tacitly acquiesce to this reality in the absence of contrary evidence; my family devoured creationism from conferences to books to alternative guidebooks and tours of the national parks to interpret geological and paleontological features in light of Noah’s flood.
It may be easy for an outsider to imagine these ideas on some survivalist compound in Wyoming or the trailer parks of Mississippi, but they weren’t. I grew up in deep blue Oregon, less than an hour’s drive from the Portland International Airport. If the recent national election hasn’t tipped you off, fundamentalists aren’t only necessarily out there in the hill country of eastern Kentucky or the small towns of the Oklahoma panhandle. They’re sitting beside you at Chili’s. They’re your co-workers and neighbors, and many of them live in a subculture you might not even know how to see.
Plugged into the right political machine, the zeal of God’s commission to take dominion over society has enabled the hostile takeover of nearly every institution of American democracy. With the stakes so high, I showed an early knack for public speaking and writing, activism, politics and the culture war. I fell in love with politics from the first time I volunteered for a campaign. When I was 15, I went down to California to volunteer for the Proposition 8 campaign, which amended the state Constitution to define marriage as one man and one woman. It passed.
When I was 16, I approached my pastor and told him I was interested in teaching and eventually preaching the word of God, so he coached me on how to study the bible in depth and preach it according to the strictures of its original meaning. When I was 17, I had made my rounds in conservative circles and started getting invited to speak at rallies and conferences as a sort of rising star for the new Tea Party movement that was sweeping the nation’s politics.
At 18, I moved to northern Virginia for my first full-time job at a consulting firm, where I raised money for major Republican organizations and campaigns. At 19, I earned my bachelor’s degree and went to a conservative Christian law school on a full-ride scholarship and worked as a legal advocate for theocratic values.
I’ve seen exactly what’s on the inside of the Religious Right because I was there. I know exactly what they want to accomplish in this country because I helped them implement it. I have felt the fire to take dominion over this wicked world in the name of Christ, because that fire burned in my heart as much as it has burned in anyone’s.
But now, here I am. How does a person escape this black hole of cognitive dissonance and self-reinforcement? How can you teach yourself to doubt, to question and ultimately to look your own identity in the face and say, “I was wrong”?
You might think I saw right through the propaganda, and I’d like to say that I did. But it wasn’t so simple. The process of reorganizing everything you think you know and eliminating the many things you believe when you discover they are false is a very long and gradual process. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment when the doubts began, but in many ways it began in the very core of who I always was — a questioner.
So, I visited churches of different Christian denominations in search of some core version of Christianity from which I could amputate all the baggage I had grown to doubt, and eventually explored the services of entirely other religions.
I dropped out of my part-time seminary program to shift that academic energy into philosophy. I explored the great thinkers of the world’s intellectual history and quickly found myself discovering real science.
All this left me living a troubling double life. On my own time, I soaked up the challenge of self-teaching science, philosophy and history in a way that brought the world around me into focus.
It came to a head in the summer of 2016. Organized hatred and bigotry were so deafening in our society that I couldn’t live with myself, knowing that I was actively a part of it. My own sampling of comparative religions had left me cynical that any of them had “the one true” answer, or even that such a search was meaningful at all. My reading had taken me to Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, the final nails in the coffin of my longtime struggle to hold onto faith. I finally snapped.
I was in a Chick-fil-A in central Texas while I worked for a Republican statehouse campaign at the time. I remember vividly the instrumental-only Christian music that the restaurant was playing, so cleverly that a nonbeliever needn’t be offended by the cultural tropes of Christianity, but a believer would immediately know the songs. So the songs played, and my head filled in the words as they did, drudging up every memory I had of fundamentalist sermons, pseudo-scientific talking points, and the thousands of King James Bible verses I had committed to memory.
I lost it.
I dropped my book, went into the men’s room, sat on the toilet, and bawled my eyes out for an hour and a half. I was, as I finally admitted to myself, an atheist, a humanist and a progressive in soon to be more ways than I was prepared to understand. Everything that my old worldview had made clear to me about my place in the universe and the purpose of my life was gone. My family and friends would be devastated.
And the fire that I felt for the triumph of the gospel burns again, because I feel that fire for human progress and dignity. I channel it today into helping people like me who are still finding their way out, and advancing the message of curiosity and critical thinking that our world so desperately needs.
With all the skills and insights I gained as a professional conservative activist, I now lend my time as a full-time progressive activist. From that pathetic breaking point in a bathroom stall, I decided that my honor was not for sale, whatever the price may be. I know that for this wave of totalitarian fundamentalism there is no compromise, and as such we have no recourse but to defend our democracy against all the fear and hatemongering of the dark ages. And if they insist on declaring war upon all humanity, then we will stand beside our fellow human beings and cast at the feet of the tyrant the mandate of all nature: evolve or die.
FFRF Member Luke Douglas is a political consultant, progressive activist and writer. Since leaving fundamentalism and a political career in the Religious Right, he has been outspoken about his journey to secular humanism.