For a group of people who genuinely believe that their god is the most powerful force in the universe, evangelical Christians as a group sure do shit their pants over the idea of Halloween. Today we’re going to talk about why they seem to love to hate Halloween, and what this love-hate relationship means for the religion.
Some time ago I wrote about how I saw Halloween as an example of “low Christianity” marked by folk beliefs and a rather exuberant display of emotional catharsis rather than the “high Christianity” practiced by top-flight theologians with their “ground of being” god and adherence to rituals and sacraments. Halloween is an example of the wildness in us, and it has been ever since some unnamed Celts came up with the idea to celebrate it. It’s a night when the rules get turned upside-down and people go out and do stuff they normally wouldn’t do–and normally wouldn’t even be allowed to do. It’s the steam whistling out of a kettle on the boil.
And that’s the problem.
In the all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking of right-wing evangelical Christianity, there cannot ever be any point at which the rules get relaxed or that people are allowed to do anything but what evangelicals think they should do. Though they frequently cut themselves slack by appealing to their “sin nature” when caught doing things they shouldn’t be doing, they’re not willing to look away from what they perceive to be other people’s misbehavior–or to neglect what they insist is their divinely-given duty. And in their attempt to grab for themselves the mantle of America’s parents and Designated Adults, whose job it is to
brutally control lovingly discipline and guide the toddlers they think non-believers are, Halloween must represent an absolutely irresistible target for their dreams of dominance.
Back when I was Pentecostal, the big trendy boogeymen of Christianity were Satanism and Wicca, which many Christians (including my tribe) saw as exactly identical systems with some slightly different window-dressing. Christians like Mike Warnke, a popular comedian of the 70s and 80s, (falsely) claimed pasts in both, and many Christians I knew–including my own then-husband–followed suit to gain the same rewards our leaders reaped.
Over time these Christian liars-for-Jesus got exposed little by little, but the people in their audiences grew up and eventually took the torch from their onetime elders. Just as you still find elderly Christians who shit their pants over the old boogeyman Communism (as Unca Pat Robertson did in 2006 when he claimed that Communists had deliberately plotted to strip America of its allegiance to Christianity to ripen Americans for a “Bolshevik or Marxist takeover”), you’ll find a lot of middle-aged Christians who are absolutely convinced that witchcraft and Satanism are serious threats to their dreams of religious hegemony. Now it’s very rare to find Christian voices of reason amid all the pearl-clutching going on.
Here’s a grab-bag of Christians screaming about the zombie sky falling–and sometimes offering their own less-than-compelling “solutions” to the “problem” they have identified as so pressing:
* Halloween is evil, so obviously Christians should attempt to proselytize any children who come to their door. (Just remember, folks: it’s totally evil for schools to even teach fundagelicals’ kids that other religions even exist, but it’s totally okay for fundagelicals to prey upon other people’s kids at every single opportunity.)
* Unca Pat can be found here issuing his annual warning that letting kids dress up in costumes is actually Satanic.
* Jack Chick’s site suggests making with the candy while handing out tracts to the kids trick-or-treating. I was surprised by that and actually a little charmed. It’s still opportunistic and disrespectful to sneak evangelism on other people’s kids without their permission, but at least they suggested including candy with the disrespectful opportunism.
The big problem with these dire warnings about Halloween.
Ever hear of the story of the kid who cried “wolf”? In this ancient folktale, a boy thought it’d be hilare to scream for help as if he were being attacked by wild animals and get his fellow villagers to run out in a panic to help him. After being tricked repeatedly, they stopped responding at all. But when the boy got attacked by a real wolf, the villagers didn’t respond to his cries because they thought he was just tricking them again.
Most parents could tell Christians that making repeated empty threats–especially extremely punitive, disproportional ones–will only produce confusion and resentment. The first time a kid hears “I’m gonna sell you to the clowns if you don’t shut up and go to sleep!”, it’s probably very shocking. But hearing threats like that repeatedly, especially since the parent obviously isn’t about to do anything like that, dulls the threat. The threat is still confusing and mean, yes, as well as totally out of proportion to the behavior the parent doesn’t like to see, but the child almost gleefully notes that the threat never seems to materialize into action.
It’s weird that a group of people who ache to become America’s “parents” don’t understand something this elementary about parenting: Threats don’t work as a method of controlling behavior. Here’s the vicious circle in action, according to that link:
* The threat is extreme.
* It’s not one the parent could carry out in good conscience.
* The child knows the parent won’t do it and calls their bluff.
* The parent backs down.
Can you see some uncomfortable parallels between a parenting threat and the ones that Christians use to try to strong-arm people? I hope so! But the solution is not, as they clearly think, to find even more graphic, brutal, and over-the-top threats.*
The more often someone gets threatened with an empty threat, and the more empty the threat turns out to be, the less likely that person is to comply the next time they hear that same threat. Sometimes the person making the threats will freak out and do something precipitous, sure, making life very unpredictable, but what’s really happening is that the child learns not to trust the adult’s threats. That’s why Hell, as a concept, doesn’t work on so many Christians. It’s an obviously over-the-top threat that is way out of proportion to anything any human could possibly do to deserve it–and there’s no evidence at all that it’s even a credible threat. Little wonder the threat of Hell doesn’t actually stop the vast majority of Christians from doing stuff that they’ve been specifically told will send them straight there.
And evangelicalism has been issuing empty threats for decades now about Halloween.
Ever since the late 1970s Christians have been shitting their pants over the idea of Wicca/Satanism/witchcraft/etc being some huge threat to their religious dominance and their entire Murrkun way of life. Satanic Panic was engulfing evangelicals when I first became one. Irresponsible leaders, authors, and speakers convinced the gullible flocks that Wiccans/Satanists/witches/etc were secretly manipulating the government, law enforcement, the educational system, and whatever else they could think of. They didn’t even really understand what the hell they were fighting–very few Satanists, Wiccans, warlocks, witches, or occultists generally will recognize anything about their faith systems in the fevered imaginations of fundagelicals screaming about the evils these groups represent.
Part and parcel of this bizarre belief was that this network of evildoers were also creating, forming, encouraging, and fostering all kinds of perversions to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ to water it down. When I was Pentecostal, we completely believed that Catholicism was one such perversion, but there were lots of others! Any denomination that seemed too cozy with Catholics–or not hardcore enough–could be and was seen as possibly in league with Satan and the forces of darkness. If you’ve ever seen those cartoon tracts with the drawings of rooms of black robe-clad Satan worshipers deciding how to manipulate various industries and cultures, or the book This Present Darkness, which I talked about here, you know how the Christians around me conceptualized this battle.
Our leaders fanned the flames of our belief in a near-unstoppable enemy of unguessable-but-huge numbers, unknown-but-all-too-close faces, and untold-but-surely-huge power, which fed a number of really unhealthy fantasies and delusions that only made us more insufferable to be around.
We needed to believe we were a tiny, persecuted minority facing a huge number of foes.
But we were in actuality part of a religion that dominated (and still dominates!) the United States. At the time, we thought (perhaps erroneously) that evangelicals themselves were damned near 25% of Christians generally, which meant that there were millions and millions of us. Any fool could see that police departments, schools, and government agencies (including and especially school boards and legislatures) were all but completely wrecked with fundagelicals, all of whom served in the belief that their god had called them to their various posts.
We needed to believe that we were actively opposed and fought against.
I knew a lot of people–men especially–in my social circles who genuinely believed they were “prayer warriors for Jesus.” They wore “the whole armor of God” and did “prayer warrior sessions” where they were extra-loud and forceful-sounding doing “spiritual warfare”. This very martial terminology and aggressive behavior was considered necessary, because we were at war with principalities and powers and all that. This delusion excused quite a bit of the weird posturing we did.
We needed to feel important.
It can be thrilling to imagine oneself as being an instrumental player in the middle of a drastic situation, especially if really one is quite safe. You remember that study that came out about Hummer owners? The one that said that this kind of over-hyped, over-the-top, super-macho vehicle “tended to appeal to people who never performed military service, but wished they had”? What it’s talking about is that tendency of some people to lack the follow-through required to go through with any of their dreams of bravery and accomplishment. They want to feel like they’ve taken serious risks, but without actually risking anything. They want to become important without having done anything important.
And evangelical Christians fit that description to a “T”. That’s why Operation Spring, that ridiculous, vaguely treasonous hoedown ultra-right-wing Christians threw last year, had projections of 10-30 million people who’d promised to attend. In reality, about 300 people actually got their asses off their couches, got into their cars, drove to Washington DC, set up a sad little tent village outside of town, and then trooped into the Capitol to act belligerent about whatever Fox News had gotten them so worked up about this time. (The guy in that link blamed the rain for this dismal turnout.) In the same exact way, evangelical Christians get a huge payoff to maintain belief in a shadowy Halloween conspiracy, demons haunting every corner and thrift-shop sweater. And it’s so much easier to conduct invisible warfare against invisible enemies using invisible weapons than it is to do the same thing in reality. As Brynne Larson, the then-teenage fake exorcist daughter of fake exorcist Bob Larson said some years back, “There is a war going on. Satan hates us. He’s attacking. And we can fight back.” I say this with all sincerity: oh, she and her whole family of sheep-fleecers only wish this were true.
Most of all, you see, we needed to believe that our fantasies were real.
If demons were real, and witchcraft was real, then surely so was everything else about Christianity. Satan can’t be real without Jesus being real too, right? That was the exact reasoning that led me back into Pentecostalism after a pagan orgy I accidentally wandered into as a teenager. So if we had proof that demons were really for real, then obviously we almost didn’t need proof about our god being real. And it was a hell of a lot easier to get proof of demonic intervention than it was to see any tangible sign of our god’s meddling. God was weirdly coy–but Satan was right out there playing his brass band down the middle of Main Street. Say what you want about the fellow, but if you needed shit done, Satan was your only real option.
Halloween pays off on every one of those needs. But reality keeps getting in the way.
Despite all this screaming and yelling and pointing and pants-shitting, somehow the country hasn’t been totally destroyed by occult superpowers. Somehow kids who go trick-or-treating keep not turning into serial killers. Somehow Wiccans haven’t emerged as the network of power behind every single throne. Catholicism–the organization fundagelicals in my day thought was dominated and controlled by infernal powers–is declining so fast they’re closing parishes and actually prosecuting pedophile priests. The world is moving not toward a New Age, but toward a dawning era of secularism and humanism. Far from turning into hellholes, secular communities and nations are actually emerging as near-utopias of freedom, liberty, education, and kindness–while theocratic-leaning ones are heading in the opposite direction.
Freaking out about Halloween may be very satisfying for the Christians doing it, but they need to understand something: they’re putting the cart before the horse. They’re only reminding the rest of us that their faith system has no evidence for its claims, that their threats are always empty, and that reality never seems to line up with their thinking. (Also that they seem remarkably well-informed about what demons think.)
Until they can demonstrate that there is a tangible threat posed by this wild upside-down night of a holiday, their increasingly-frantic threats are going to sound laughable at best. Threatening me with demonic possession for allowing kids to trick-or-treat won’t have much of an effect if I don’t think demons really exist. Their threats are a very visible sign of their religion’s growing irrelevance, in the same way that over-the-top threats are a sign of a parent’s weakness, desperation, and ineffectiveness. Yeah, I think I’ll just keep parenting myself and save them the trouble, if that’s all right with y’all.
Halloween is winding down as I finish this post, and life tomorrow will look much the same as it ever has despite Christians’ hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over the “demonic” holiday. Life goes on, just like it always does–and my household discovered that lesson in a very visceral way. I’ll share what we discovered the next time we talk. See you Tuesday!
* I don’t know what’s worse, really: that toxic Christians seriously think a god told them to rush right out and grab for the role of America’s parents, or that they’re so obviously shitty at parenting that I wouldn’t trust the vast majority of the ones I’ve met to house-sit my cats.