Are you going to hell?

Former born-again Christian John Marks journeyed back into the evangelical America he'd left behind and discovered the promise -- and limitations -- of faith.

By Louis Bayard
Published February 25, 2008 12:26PM (EST)

For news producer John Marks, it was the most loaded of questions. He had come to Dallas to interview evangelical Christians for a "60 Minutes" segment, and there he met Don and Lillie McWhinney. The McWhinneys were believers in the Rapture, the doctrine that Jesus will one day sweep his acolytes into heaven and leave the rest of humanity to suffer under the Antichrist. After answering Marks' questions, Don countered with one of his own.

"Will you be left behind?"

Marks had long since given up the born-again theology that claimed him at 16, but McWhinney's question resonated strongly enough to spark him on a two-year investigative odyssey through the heart of Christian America. Listening to the fiery testimony of megachurch preachers, traveling from Easter pageants and Focus on the Family seminars to Christian rock concerts and blogger conferences, Marks experienced firsthand both the promise and the limitations of the faith enterprise -- even as he queried, all over again, the grounds of his own beliefs.

The fascinating result, "Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind," is both generous and rigorous in its assaying of the evangelical mind -- and, in the end, cautiously hopeful that believers and non-believers can find patches of common ground.

Salon spoke with Marks by phone from Florida.

Your book comes on the heels of a raft of atheistic tracts: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, "God Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens, "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris. Did you see your work as a middle way between the two extremes of atheism and fundamentalism?

This phenomenon of religious experience is one of the oldest in our documented history as a species. And so, rather than simply say, "There is no God, end of story, everyone who believes that is an idiot or deluded or weak-minded," I wanted to go out and embrace the idea that religious experience is a real and valuable part of existence -- regardless of whether you believe in God.

You describe at some length your own struggle with faith. Can you pinpoint the exact moment when you stopped believing?

It was in the Balkans where I really had my reckoning. I was a reporter in Serbia, and I went down to the city of Priboj on the Bosnian border, and I interviewed some refugees. I sat across from this old man, and he told me that he'd been driven out of his village, that his next-door neighbor had been murdered in front of his eyes, that he and his wife had nothing, that they didn't know what would happen to them. But he had this one hope, which was that his sons were alive. They had been taken off a bus and taken to a labor camp in northern Bosnia, and when the war was over, [the old man believed] he and his wife would be reunited with their sons, and they would all leave and everything would be fine. And then the interpreter leaned over and whispered in my ear, "I happen to know that this man's sons are dead."

I'd been through this whole experience of trying to hold on to the faith, and at that moment, whatever was left just collapsed. I had everything in the world, every complete advantage, and this old man had managed to survive every conceivable devastation, and he had this one hope, and it was just gone. And I knew that whatever had happened to him was going on all around me, in every part of the region. All of those things together ... something snapped.

So, having abandoned the faith community, what did you hope to gain by going back?

Well, "The Passion of the Christ" had just come out, and it was freaking out all these people who were not in the evangelical world. I thought, as a journalist and a writer, I might be able to bring some kind of insight into the human beings behind this phenomenon. I felt like maybe I could be a bridge between these two experiences, secular and evangelical.

But when I got into it, I discovered that I had some unfinished business. When I ceased to believe in Jesus, I had not shared my loss of faith with the people with whom I had shared that faith. And at some deep level, I think I needed to walk myself one more time through that decision in the company of people who believed.

Your wife and son are Jewish. At one point in your journey, you write that you feared losing your "human love" for them in exchange for "divine love." Was that an omnipresent fear, that you would be coaxed back into the old-time religion? Did your family fear that as well?

Well, yes. My wife and I had many conversations about it when I was coming back from trips. There were moments when she would say, jokingly, "Please tell me you're not going to be a born-again Christian."

Born again again.

Right. Reborn again.

I didn't dare to tell her what I was going through because I didn't yet know myself. I had no idea that I would have such a strong emotional response to these people and to this life. And I couldn't go back to Debra and say, "Listen, just to keep you up to date, there's a 30 percent chance that I'll find myself back in the church." But as I started to write, I began to understand where I was in this, and when I gave her the book, it was my way of saying you don't have a thing to worry about.

Those of us on the secular side of the equation are used to seeing the religious right presented as a monolithic force, and yet one of the virtues of your book is that you distinguish very carefully between, say, fundamentalism, which is focused on an inerrant Bible, and evangelicalism, which is focused on Christ. I was also shocked to learn that, according to one estimate, some 40 million unbelievers are attending church services. What the hell are they doing there?

Because they like the church, they believe in what it represents, they believe in the social stances, they believe in the political values. But when you get to this central question -- Do you believe that Jesus Christ redeemed you for all time and do you live as if that's true? -- most people cannot tell you how many real believers there are.

In a way, I've always envied the confidence of the truly faithful. When I look at a Jerry Falwell, a Pat Robertson, I see a kind of imperturbable self-regard. And yet you suggest there's "a deep strain of self-loathing in many Christians."

There are plenty of evangelicals who have this strong, exuberant sense of who they are. But you scratch the surface, you get this immediate defensiveness. All evangelicals know that, once they get out of their own personal sphere, they will be seen as ridiculous at best, evil at worst.

I'm wondering if this accounts for some of the toll the movement exacts on its preachers. You mention, for instance, that Tommy Nelson left Denton Bible Church after a severe bout of depression. We've seen some fairly spectacular flameouts from the likes of Ted Haggard, Richard Roberts and Earl Paulk. Do you think absolutist dogma creates a kind of psychic strain?

All of these people, particularly the pastors of the biggest churches, have this Janus-faced existence. They look inwards toward their congregations, who are needy at every level and constantly want the support and advice of their pastor. They look outwards toward the community, where they have to be not only affable and friendly but also exemplify their faith at a time when people are looking for cracks. That's a tough life.

Is that one of the reasons the megachurch is in decline?

The church has understood within its own ranks that it's reached the limits of growth. You can't continue to grow in these cities from, say, 22,000 to 30,000 without becoming a source of more problems than anything else. Your traffic problems increase. The relationship between the pastor and the congregation gets ever more tenuous. It's harder and harder to provide the individual believer with some kind of intimate experience. And so it's very easy for people to walk into these churches, but it's just as easy for them to walk out.

So the faith community has reached a plateau in the number of people who can be brought into the tent?

They know that they have a certain number of people they can count on, but in terms of growing -- actual numbers -- that has not happened. In fact, there's a lot of evidence that people go to these large churches, have these warm and fuzzy experiences, then move on without having changed much in their behavior. All the social indicators in the faith community -- whether it's divorce, drug use, Internet pornography use, you name it -- are roughly the same as in the general population. So something is not working.

Regarding the current relationship between the evangelical community and President Bush, you say: "Future generations of conservative Christian Americans will look back and grasp that this was a one-time love affair, rarely to be repeated." Could you explain that?

When George W. Bush came along, there were a number of issues -- gay marriage, repeal of sodomy laws, the Ten Commandments on the courthouse -- all those issues allowed activists to go to pastors and say, "Look, this is coming right into your own backyard. These new laws are going to change your world, and they're going to lay the groundwork for the America your children will inherit. So either you vote or you let the country go and you lose your place it."

It was a moment of both political awakening and political naiveté. Because all of a sudden there was a sense of power that the evangelists could have as one bloc. But then they began to look at what they got for their vote, and they began to look more closely at the policies of the president that they had rallied behind.

The war didn't turn out well, and that had been seen, in some quarters, as an ordained venture. People said, "If we're really going to look at the Bible and Jesus as a model for our political involvement, what are we talking about? Christ never talks about homosexuality and talks a great deal about poverty. What about that?" Rick Warren, the most influential evangelist in America right now, is talking about AIDS in Africa. That has to do with a whole different part of the teachings of Christ.

What role do you see evangelicals playing in electing the next president?

I think this year has been an extremely confusing one for evangelicals. Mitt Romney posed all kinds of questions because of his Mormonism, even though he was right on the money in terms of social values. McCain has never been someone who can be relied on to appoint the right judges, to be an ear. He might be right on abortion, but he's wrong on most everything else; I think that's the way a lot of evangelicals feel.

So they're going to be scattered. A fair number are going to hold their noses and vote for McCain, a fair number are going to stay home. A fair number are going to vote for Obama, I think. A man walked up to me in North Carolina last Sunday and said, "I am a Republican all my life, I'm a conservative Christian, but I am seriously considering voting for Obama."

Your oldest and closest male friend is the gay playwright Doug Wright ("I Am My Own Wife"). Were you surprised to find gay people still trying to find a place for themselves in the evangelical church? Didn't you just want to tell them, "Give up"?

Yes, I did, I really did. I had seen this gay pastor at the Evangelical Theological Society, and at first I thought he was trying to be a gadfly. Then I realized he was avidly trying to become a member -- again -- of the conservative end of his faith. I couldn't understand why he would want to take that on. But many gay believers have a real sense of ownership about this faith. They grew up in it. They may know it as well or better than those pastors who are vilifying homosexual life.

[In that situation], some gay people bail out. They say, "Well, I'm just not going to be around people who have such a low opinion of me and my behavior." But there are plenty of others who say, "I'm staying because I have a right to be here. I know that I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." In some ways, the faith of someone like that is the most impressive evidence for the vitality, the meaningful depth of this religious experience.

It makes me wonder if faith is hard-wired into the American mind.

I don't see America outgrowing its faith. But what God is telling the church to do is changing. If you think of the evangelical community as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, you're going to be surprised at every turn in the next 20 years. You're going to see many more evangelicals becoming staunch Democrats. You're going to see much more focus on race, especially with the immigration issue. Once you really start taking the Bible seriously as a political manual, boy, there are a lot more questions than answers.

With this book, you've positioned yourself as a force for breaking down the wall between believers and non-believers. I have to confess I'm still a little skeptical. When someone like you ventures to the other side, it's a fact-finding mission. When an evangelical comes over to our side, it's for the purpose of converting souls. Can a real dialogue arise out of such contrasting motives?

It can be done but only with both sides acknowledging that the other won't change. For this to work, people are going to have to be able to talk about the stuff they disagree about and they're going to have to talk about it in heated ways. Which is one reason that I think the Hitchenses and the Sam Harrises have a real value. If we're going to somehow accommodate this divide in our country, we've got to make sure the conversation is out there and loud and even angry if it has to be.

In an interview shortly before she died, the Canadian writer Carol Shields admitted that she herself was not a believer but that she believed in belief. Is that a good way of stating your position now?

At every turn, I find enormous questions about our right to believe in a God that has so unevenly distributed the good things in life. I don't know that I want to believe in belief. But I can't give up on the notion that religious experience is intrinsic to human beings. I believe we cannot help ourselves. We yearn, so many of us, to find God or something that can be a god that I can't possibly say we oughtn't have that.

I also think that among the many forces that religious faith has exerted on human affairs are good impulses. Abolitionists, in their ardent, sometimes scary faith, were crucial to the emancipation of the slaves.

The civil rights community ...

Absolutely. A real living belief in God led to social change. And that happens all over the world in small ways. Faith can be, and often is, an engine for positive social change. And it's why, on the question of faith-based initiatives, I'm ambivalent. I see the objections of the people who are wary of the collusion between church and state. But I've seen for myself that churches are often the most decisive institutions in poor communities and are often the places that catch people who are otherwise going to fall. So, gosh, you've asked the toughest question of all.

No, here's the toughest question. Judge Reinhold, according to your book, is now a born-again Christian. When did this happen?

I think we really need to go back in the archives there. It definitely came after "Stripes."

Definitely after "Beverly Hills Cop."

I think it's possible that his conversion experience may have happened around the time he did that "Seinfeld" episode about the close talker. Something about that suggests a spiritual crisis.

Louis Bayard

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer. His books include "Mr. Timothy" and "The Black Tower."

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