“In the Land of Believers”: Gina Welch goes undercover at Jerry Falwell’s church

“In the Land of Believers”: Gina Welch goes undercover at Jerry Falwell’s church June 3, 2010

{Gina Welch. In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. Metropolitan Books 2010. 352 pp. $25.00}

Gina Welch grew up in an atheistic, anti-religious household in Berkeley, California.  After she moved to Virginia for graduate school, she found herself surrounded by evangelicals, at the very time that evangelicals were credited (and often blamed) for the re-election of George Bush.  To investigate what makes evangelicals tick, and to confront her own personal prejudices, Gina resolved to go “undercover” and fake a conversion at the fundamentalist Thomas Road Baptist Church, where the pastor was a certain Jerry Falwell.

Patheos’ Tim Dalrymple recently interviewed Gina Welch, author of In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church.

Why did you undertake this project in the first place?  Why would an Atheist Jew devote such time and energy to examining evangelicals?

The idea for the book came about in 2005.  I had been living in Virginia for three years, and had been startled to find myself uncomfortable around the evangelical community, which was very strong in central Virginia.  I had always thought of myself as someone who was comfortable with whatever personal identities people might subscribe to, yet I found that I had this particular problem with evangelical Christians.  Part of that problem was based on conservative politics.  But part of it was an aesthetic judgment.  Since I was raised in an actively anti-religious household in the Bay Area of California, conservative evangelicalism wasn’t something I had had to confront before that point in my life.  In Virginia, I found that I felt a sense of superiority.  That troubled me, because I hadn’t thought of myself as judgmental.

What did you find most compelling in the lives of the people you came to know through Thomas Road Baptist Church?

Their individual selflessness.  Their willingness to help other members of the ministry.  Their willingness to work.  Their individual humility.  I found all of that really compelling.

It sharply contrasted with my preconception, which was that evangelical Christians were domineering.  Yet the in-person experience was that they really embodied this idea that they were put on earth to be servants and their own personal interests should be secondary.  That was very moving to me.  I felt that I learned a lot from it, that I took a lot of instruction from it.

What, in turn, can evangelicals themselves learn from your experience?

My experience of this particular evangelical community was that there was a real fear of the outside world, fear of people who didn’t adhere to the same principles.  When we went on the mission trip to Alaska, even though we were interacting with homeless people in a tender way, even though we were reaching out to these children in a way that actually bothered me, I think that there was a baseline us-versus-them attitude.

From my vantage point, that sort of insularity creates many of the problems I have with the conservative evangelical church, as in their stance on gay rights, for example.  The fact that they are not open to conversation on lots of these issues, because they don’t speak to people outside of the church, creates these calcified positions that do not incorporate moderating information.  Recently I listened to a live-stream podcast of a two-day conference held at Liberty University.  The speakers were all evangelical leaders and lawyers who talked about how to get around anti-discrimination hiring policies and how to educate children to stay away from gays.

The one gay speaker they featured at the conference was someone who had “overcome” his sexual orientation.  He was there to talk about how to approach gay people in a way that invites them to do the same thing he had done.  The fact that there was this two-day conference on homosexuality that didn’t feature any voices from the outside, or even any progressive evangelical voices, was depressing.  Depressing.  That’s a real problem.  If I can say that I hope this book inspires anything in the evangelical community, I would hope that my willingness to take their attitudes seriously would inspire a parallel willingness to take progressive voices seriously within the conservative evangelical community.

Read the full interview here.

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