STRANGE TURN

Why Are Some Evangelicals So Angry?

Rick Santorum brought back the myth of Columbine martyr Cassie Bernall while defending Kim Davis, and it is a reminder that evangelicals thought things would be very different post-Columbine.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

At the undercard debate this week, Rick Santorum exhumed the myth of Columbine martyr Cassie Bernall to defend the Kentucky clerk trying to keep gays single. I re-debunked that old chestnut Wednesday evening. The story that Cassie professed her faith at gunpoint and then died for it in the Columbine library. But it was all a terrible misunderstanding: it was a different girl, Valeen Schnurr, who spoke, after she was shot, and lived to tell. Cassie died without a word. No martyr.

But setting aside the buffoonery of Santorum's attempt, it's actually quite revealing about the seething anger within much of the Evangelical community. Many of us roll our eyes at Huckabee’s and Cruz's shamelessly pandering to this group, flying to Kentucky to elbow each other off the anti-gay stage. But Santorum actually framed it in the wider context that Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz disregard—hopes of a Third Great Awakening shattered into a "post-Christian world."

Take a look at the contrast Santorum was making, picking up right at the end of his statement about imaginary Columbine martyr Cassie Bernall.

"We saw her as a hero. Today, someone who refuses to defy (sic) a judge's unconstitutional verdict is ridiculed and criticized, chastised because she's standing up and denying—not denying her God and her faith. That is a huge difference in 16 years."

That's why Evangelicals are so angry. And distraught. Not just the stunning pace of gay acceptance, but the contrast to the post-Columbine future they foresaw. Many of us have no connection to a living, breathing Evangelical, and imagine their objectives in electoral terms, maybe Supreme Court justices. But it runs so much deeper.

Colorado has a fervent Evangelical community, and I immersed myself inside it for a month after Columbine, for a Salon story "I Smell The Presence of Satan."

I did long, deep interviews with youth pastors, danced wildly in the aisles with a charismatic congregation each Sunday, got chastised for failing to snatch a woman's glasses to safety while she convulsed and spoke in tongues, and enrolled in bible study at Cassie's church, where we happened to be studying the Book of Revelation. Most of the pastors were more thoughtful and less colorful, but they mostly shared a vision—and a deep melancholy, at having been born into "a post-Christian world." That's how they saw it. Despite more than two billion Christian adherents still roaming the planet.

I stuck around semi-regularly for another year, ventured into congregations in Laramie, Wyoming as well, and forged sincere friendships with compassionate Evangelicals, who accepted me fully, gay and all. I was still spending considerable time with them when George W. Bush was elected. I expected them to be ecstatic. Nope. They saw it as a minor secular victory in on the long, slow slog to defeat.

A taste of the exuberance I found in 1999:

“This is a church on fire!”

It’s Sunday morning, less than a mile from Columbine High School, and Trinity Christian Center is heaving and rumbling like an old-time tent revival. The frenzied congregation thrusts its arms up toward the heavens, belting out the spirit their souls just can’t contain. No one’s got the fever like a sunburned young high schooler, radiating from the choir like the wild orchids bursting through her sundress. Head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, her lips keep charging straight through the instrumental jam:

This is a church on fire!This is a Holy Spirit flame.We have a burning desire,To lift up Jesus' name …

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But into the joyful delirium, a darker streak would intrude:

One after another, grieving students described the victims as “servants of Christ ” and spoke of their “personal relationships with Jesus.” The morning after the shooting, almost 100 students piled together into a huge group prayer hug in Clement Park, arms raised to the sky, voices joined in hymns to the Lord. The cluster alternated between songs and spiritual proclamations. “We feel the presence of Satan, operating in our midst!” a young girl cried out. ....

While [Rev. Bill] Oudemolen has had words of comfort for mourners in all of his sermons since the tragedy, his primary focus is on Satan. “I smelled the presence of Satan,” he announced the Sunday after the shooting. Dozens of times he repeated the theme: “It’s coming from Satan … Satan had a plan … What we saw Tuesday came from Satan’s home office.”

I heard an earful about Satan at some churches, but other congregations refused to invoke his name. The Enemy they called him, in hushed tones.

And through the aftermath of the massacre, hope. A dazzling fresh wellspring of hope.

Night after night, after the tragedy, kids were flocking to the churches for comfort. “Men and women, open your eyes!” shouted the Rev. Bill Oudemolen from the pulpit at Foothills Bible Church the Sunday after the massacre. “The kids are turning to God! They’re going to churches!”

I felt the hope, palpably, in those first heady days. Weekly Standard writer Joseph Bottum vividly captured what I experienced first-hand. He was speaking for, and writing to, the broader national audience of Evangelical hope. Here's how I summarized his take ten years later in my book, Columbine:

Bottum really had the fervor. He compared Cassie to the third-century martyrs Perpetua and Felicity and “the tales of the thousands of early Christians who went joyously to their deaths in the Roman coliseums.” And the response felt like the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, Bottum said. He foresaw a generation of kids rising up to recast our cultural landscape. He later described a national change of heart, “trembling on the cusp of breaking forth. . . . It’s an ever-widening faith that the whole pornographic, violent, anarchic disaster of popular American culture will soon be swept away.”

Wow. They really had a vision in 1999. Which Rick Santorum clearly shared. For his audience, Santorum was deftly using one myth to illustrate another: the moral decline of America.

I'm struck not just by the positive nature of the post-Cassie vision, but the searing negativity—which Santorum constantly evokes, and did again in that exchange Wednesday night, where he again demonized gay guys like me as affronts to "Natural Law" and "God's Law"—with Rick Santorum as self-appointed spokesman for both God and nature.

Instead, they got liberty for people like me—which they see as valueless, because they have judged me as a corrupt abomination. So it's all downfall in their eyes: society accepting me as fully human, instead of ostracizing me until I come to my senses.

It's the chasm between what the Santorums had hoped for, and what they got that has people like Rick so enraged.

Worst of all, many of their own Evangelical youth have made gay friends—and black friends and Asian friends. They are not racist or homophobic, and are no longer interested in dehumanizing any of their fellow humans that way. To some eyes, they're losing their own flock.