Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Fundamentalist Finds His Salvation

I almost got a RATM star tattoo. Thankfully, I didn't.

Two events my junior year of high school were the genesis for my eventual rejection of the Republican ideology that surrounded me as I was growing up. Jingoism and American exceptionalism were not only woven into the fundamentalism of my youth, but also into the Reagan-era, cowboy-booted dance of much of 1980’s pop culture. Watching movies like Top Gun, Iron Eagle, and Rocky IV, not to mention the cartoon and toy cultural zeitgeist that was G.I Joe, reinforced the message that communism was evil and the U.S. of A. was good[1]. My confusion and questions about my parent’s faith and their God didn’t extend to my parent’s patriotism. I mean, all the cool kids were doing it, too. At one point, in second grade, I, like many other grade-school kids in the early ‘80s, came up with the idea to make toilet paper out of little Soviet Union flags. In middle school, my brother and I were friends with a kid[2] who had built a mini-Maginot line in his grandparent’s backyard; he was convinced that the commies were going to invade any day. However, by the time my junior year rolled around in 1992, my patriotic fervor had been dampened quite a bit by my fervor for playing basketball and chasing girls. That being said, I was still a proud American.

The first event revolved around the 1992 Presidential Election. Being only seventeen years old at the time meant that my interaction with the election was limited to participation in the related assignments for my Civics Class. Since I attended a very conservative Christian school, it was made very clear who the “acceptable”[3] candidate was and who wasn’t. However, in 1992 there was a legitimate third option to choose for those of us wanting to express our independence[4] - Ross Perot. The only things that I knew about Ross Perot were that he was short and said funny things. My dad did take me to hear Perot speak at a rally held at the Pensacola Fair Grounds. I don’t remember any of his speech, but I do remember my dad teaching me the art of pushing your way to the front of the crowd[5], an activity that was rewarded with meeting Ross Perot after his speech and shaking his tiny hand. (Interesting historical tidbit - Ross Perot was the second celebrity that I ever met[6].) Proudly wearing my Ross Perot button to school, I engaged in the lively class discussions about the upcoming election; I wrote my paper for Civics Class about him; and I bonded with my friend who was the only other Ross Perot supporter in the class. The day after the election, in front of the class, the Civics teacher yelled at me and my friend for helping elect Bill Clinton. Being yelled at in front of class didn’t faze us since we got yelled at in most classes[7] on pretty much a daily basis, but the absurdity of being angrily (the teacher was close to tears) accused of helping win the election for Clinton because we supported Perot even though we didn’t even vote caused me to wonder if maybe when the adults in my life said “patriotism,” they actually meant not tolerating any differing opinions, no matter how benign. That and the hatred spewed in the direction of President Clinton caused many of us, specifically me, to furrow our brows. My understanding of political theory was abysmal, but even I knew that Bill Clinton wasn’t Gorbachev[8]. We were supposed to hate commies, not fellow Americans.

The second event that year was a debate in which I was assigned the affirmative position for President Clinton’s proposed base closures. Living in a military town on top of being Republicans meant that any and all talk of base closures was considered very close to an unpardonable sin. I wasn’t happy being given the affirmative, but I dutifully did my research. Lo and behold, while doing my research, a strange thing happened. I found that I began to agree with President Clinton’s arguments. Now, and I want to make this very clear, in this post, I’m simply recounting what a seventeen year old John Ellis concluded in the spring of 1993. I have no way of knowing[9] if my changing opinions were justified or simply a product of the fact that I was reading all pro-base closure material in preparation for the debate. So, please do not flame my blog, my twitter feed, nor my Facebook page about how I’m an unpatriotic dumbass, because you’ll be calling a seventeen year old a dumbass and that may be illegal. Regardless, the debate and my prep work for the debate caused cracks in my staunchly conservative views.

Over the next several years, my slide into liberal politics corresponded with my increasingly bold rejection of Christianity. Now, for one side, that fact means far less than they think. However, for the other side, that fact means far more than they’re willing to admit.

With the first one thousand words of this post serving as the intro, I guess, time to flash-forward … Not long after leaving Bob JonesUniversity, I found myself in somewhat of world-view vacuum. Granted, that vacuum was only external, because my entire life was characterized by the world-view of self-worship. Politics can definitely be an idol, but ultimately, politics are a subservient idol to the main Idol – the individual. And that has definitely been true in my life. But, it’s hard to be interesting at parties, at work, and life in general if one is overtly bowing to the altar of Me. It’s best to channel your self-worship in respectable, or, at the very least, cool directions. Most of us , if not all of us, aren’t able to deny the desire for something to worship. And, unless you’re completely blind or willfully naïve, it’s impossible to look at the world and not realize that something is wrong. Something is broken, and the world needs saving. Needs saving from something, and needs saving to something. Rejecting God eliminates *a* solution; rejecting God doesn’t eliminate the problem. And, so, I had a problem – how to save the broken, shitty world around me, and, by extension, save myself.

I had read The Communist Manifesto, Bertrand Russell’s Roads to Freedom, and had written a paper at BJU on the travesty of McCarthyism. I had also seen the boot of the bourgeois on the neck of the proletariat; although, my definitions were somewhat muddled at the time. What I hadn’t done is even closely approximate any nuanced understanding or articulation of Marxism, Socialism, or economic theory in general. I wasn’t stupid, though; I understood that when I told people that I was a Marxist, I didn’t really know what I was claiming. In political discussions, most people’s response to my angry new-found “Marxism” translated in my head to the equivalent of a pat on the head and a patronizing, “That’s nice.” I knew that to be taken seriously would require far more intellectual investment than I was willing to make at the time. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there were many avenues of “liberalism” open for me to find my salvation.

As hard as I try, I have been unable to remember what prompted me to even consider animal rights, much less embrace it. At that point in my life, I hadn’t even heard of Peter Singer, much less read his nonsense. Regardless of what idiocy moved my heart, I joined PETA[10]. Protesting circuses was easy; giving up meat was hard. But I did it. I even managed to be vegan for a few years, bookended by good old fashioned vegetarianism.

Upon joining PETA, you receive a packet of information filled with helpful tracts to pass out. These tracts detail things like the horrors that Bessie the Cow goes through to provide you with the milk for your cereal or how Clucky the Chicken got her beak sawed off so that you can have an eggs benedict at breakfast. What’s worse for poor Clucky[11] is that the fascist, pointy-nosed jailer/farmer who sawed off her beak wasn’t paying attention and also sawed off a part of her face. Not only does poor Clucky no longer have a beak, but she also has to suffer the slings and arrows of the other chickens who mock her deformity. The tracts are filled with statistics and information about the number of animals murdered every year so that awful humans can sate their dripping lust for the consumption of bloody flesh. The tracts that detail the sins of humanity aren’t the only tracts in the packet, though. There are aesthetically pleasing and gently toned tracts assuring you that not only is a vegan diet the moral thing to do, but it’s also even tastier than that icky, flaccid steak that you were only conditioned to believe that you wanted. … Anyway, enough about PETA, and, to avoid corrections, I’m assuming that all of PETA’s information is generally distributed online now and not through the snail mail. Don’t forget, I joined in 1999.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how incredibly gracious my longsuffering family was to my newfound animal right’s zeal. I will say this, to my credit, I never expected people to cater to my vegetarianism. When someone would ask me over, including my family, I would offer to bring a vegan option or I would make sure that I ate beforehand. My go-to vegan dish was lasagna. I took my mom’s recipe, that everyone loves, and substituted vegan ingredients creating a dish that no one loved and that many possibly hated – I know that I hated it[12]. I made that food abomination for my family several times, and every time my mom would gracefully and kindly choke some down and say, “It’s not bad, John. Thank you for your bringing it.” I remember my oldest sister eating some, too, but there was usually plenty left over for me to take home. Not a single member of my family ever made a disparaging remark in my presence about my animal rights activism or my vegetarianism. They would politely listen as I would rant and rave, using the information from the PETA tracts, about the atrocities of the food industry. In fact, one of the things that caused me to eventually distance myself from PETA was the awakening realization that my fellow animal rights activists and I were far more ungracious and obnoxious in our witness than any Christian had ever been when sharing their faith with me. That was a couple of years down the road, though, and before that happened, I had found plenty of other causes to be fanatically obnoxious about in my witness.

After the 2000 election, George W. Bush became a convenient and useful foil for many liberals, including myself. President Bush gave us an easy target that allowed us to conflate all of our various grievances and causes into one nicely packaged enemy. Participating in potato drops for Oxfam International became anti-Bush rallies. The vitriol at protests of the School of the Americas was mainly directed at Bush. Even those involved in Adbusters seemed to bond over their hatred of all things Bush. That was all fine with me, though. Bush was our Satan, and people needed saving from him.

While living in Atlanta, I began dating a girl who was an intern for a production that I was in. She was young, too young to be dating a 26 year old getting-divorced man[13], and too naïve to be dating a proselytizing atheist. When I met her, she was involved in her church. Four years later, after my conversion, I called her to let her know and she cussed me out. She kept saying, “You don’t have the fucking right! You don’t have the fucking right! You took my faith! You don’t have the fucking right!” As long as I live, I don’t think that I’ll ever get that phone call out of my head. Anyway, our dates began to revolve around social justice issues and she also became a real vegetarian[14]. I was very proud of myself for having saved this girl from a life of repressive religion and for having helped her direct her energies to good things.

Something was wrong, though. I was only really happy when I was around my stupidly Christian family, and even then I felt like my happiness was simply residual happiness. I always felt like I was on the outside looking in on something that I didn’t understand. And, even as I participated in anti-war protests, a cloud of seemingly pointless vanity hung over my head. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how dedicated and committed I was, things seemed to get worse. The world wasn’t getting any better, and as I studied and devoured any and all information about my activist forebears, going all the way past the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Susan Glaspell, and John Reed of Provincetown and Greenwich to men like Walt Whitman and Robert Fox, I concluded that our efforts were useless and the world was getting worse[15]. I wasn’t giving up without a fight, though, and a seminal book in the world of bohemian activists had inspired me to take my own pilgrimage that would renew the joy and energy of my salvation. Little did I know that during that pilgrimage, God would begin to noticeably and painfully crush my rebellion.                     

[1] I’m not saying that there isn’t any truth in that, in fact, I believe that there is. But, platitudes like that don’t generally allow for any nuance, and nuance is exactly what’s needed to move discussions into the land of helpful. However, this post isn’t about that, so don’t expect any nuance from me.
[2] To be fair, this kid’s parents were missionaries in South Korea, which meant that he had grown up within grenade throwing distance of some actual commies.
[3] Fundamentalists in the South, at least those I was around, both in ’88 and ’92, were not big fans of George H.W. Bush. I think, although I may very well be wrong, that the first time I ever heard the platitude “the lesser of two evils” was in reference to Bush Sr.
[4] Translation – rebellion.
[5] A skill that comes in handy at concerts.
[6] The first was hall of fame pitcher Don Sutton. It was at his mom’s funeral. Thankfully, my dad had already gotten me his autograph, otherwise I might have had a very awkward blog post that I could write about that funeral.
[7] Especially the required Choir class. Sulphur stink bombs were our quiet yet “deadly” revenge for our Choir teacher’s insistence that we actually sing. 
[8] I’m well aware that by the time Clinton was elected, Gorbachev was no longer “leading” the defunct Soviet Union.
[9] Well, I do, but unlike the 17 year old John Ellis, the 38 year old John Ellis has zero desire to research it.
[10] I think that I was an official member for only a year. At least, I only remember paying membership dues once.
[11] I’m making these names up, I think. I still have much of the PETA material, but it’s packed up 500 miles from my current location, otherwise I’d check.
[12] Have you ever had vegan “cheese”? It’s disgusting. And it doesn’t melt.
[13] But not so young at to be illegal. I want to make that very clear.
[14] When I met her she was a “vegetarian” who ate chicken. That’s like being a four-point or less Calvinist. A contradiction of terms.
[15] That conclusion is admittedly a head scratcher considering how much things have actually improved, but it’s hard to explain, at least in a blog post, the incredible amount of pessimism among us. Research Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide in 2005 and that may give you some context.


  1. Several things stood out to me. You cannot possibly "take" anyone's faith. We are each responsible for our own faith. Sure, your faith can be challenged, but you cannot take anyone's faith away any more than you can give anyone faith.

    I hope you have run across Thomas Sowell. He grew up in poverty in Southern Georgia, and then New York City. He became a communist in adulthood, and then started working for the government. He's now a libertarian. He's one on my most admired list. One quote: “Most people who read 'The Communist Manifesto' probably have no idea that it was written by a couple of young men who had never worked a day in their lives, and who nevertheless spoke boldly in the name of 'the workers'.”

    1. I know that you can't take anyone's faith, but that was a direct quote. That, and regardless of what I "know," the existential weight is still there.

      Although I am not a libertarian, by any stretch of the imagination, I appreciate Thomas Sowell and found his book Basic Economics to be helpful. Since I've stopped thinking of myself as a Marxist, I've studied both Marx and his "theories." Something no one tells you while you're hanging out in a Marxist book store after an anti-Bush/war rally is that Marx himself refused to go inside factories because he despised the "dirty" workers.