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Surviving "God Land" in the age of Trump: Lyz Lenz on faith, politics and the Midwest

Salon talks to the author about evangelicalism in the Midwest, from megachurches to Trump (and even "hot Jesus")


Erin Keane
August 2, 2019 11:00PM (UTC)

Even before Donald Trump was elected president, the relationship advice started: “Break Up With that Trump Supporter,” Jill Filipovic wrote for Time in September 2016. Emma McGowan, writing for Bustle, advocated a forward-looking approach: “Why I’d Never Date a Trump Supporter.” A year later, in Harper’s Bazaar, Jennifer Wright urged readers, “If You Are Married to a Trump Supporter, Divorce Them.”

In practice, nothing's as simple as a headline suggests. But in 2017, Iowa-based journalist Lyz Lenz, a married church-going parent of two, did just that, filling for divorce from her husband of 12 years.

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“I had supported Hillary Clinton. He had voted for Donald Trump,” Lenz writes in her new book “God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America,” an uncompromising yet empathetic blend of memoir and reported nonfiction out this week from Indiana University Press. “And once we realized that, our marriage was so broken, there was no fixing it.”

At the same time, Lenz was in the process of another break-up, with the conservative, white evangelical Christian faith tradition she was raised in. Culturally and politically, it's all related:  Exit polls showed 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump, and that support hasn't wavered much, with a recent Pew survey showing about seven out of ten white evangelicals approve of his job performance.

After a lifetime of trying to fit her outspoken feminist and progressive self into the silencing conservative mold, even founding a new church with the hopes of creating real change from within, Lenz had had enough. To be a white Midwestern evangelical now is to be enveloped by Trumpism, which Lenz describes as "a civil religion deeply connected with Christianity but also influenced by capitalism, regionalism and politics." 

The regional connection of the Midwest to Trumpism — meaning, the straight, white Christian face of the Midwest, of course, like those of Lenz's church — made Lenz's home ripe for interrogation as well. "The power of the Midwest is that it is the sanctifying myth of America," she writes. "Of course, the realities are more complicated than the myth." Why is rural Midwestern conservative church culture considered such a standard of normality in America, and what has enforcing that version of normality done to us as a country and to the church? 

From the heart of the so-called Heartland, Lenz embarked on a personal and political reporting mission to crack open those foundational myths, to examine the divisions within the region, to talk openly about why her church and others had failed, and ask what, if any of it, can be repaired. 

We spoke recently by phone about her memoir, the allure of the corporatized megachurch, post-church anxiety, the conservative bubble, and — because why not? — why white fundamentalists need to portray Jesus as a devastatingly handsome man.

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Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Who were you imagining reading this book when you were writing it? Were you writing this primarily for fellow Midwesterners, fellow Christians? 

Initially, I wrote it for people who felt betrayed by their faith. There's a lot made of the religious "nones" in America, that growing contingent of people who still consider themselves people who believe in something but don't attend church. Statistics show that they are very disillusioned with religion, and I was also feeling that way, but still attending church, just because of my marriage and my life. I felt like I had to, to keep things going.

That's who I initially wrote it for. But as I was driving around and talking to people, I realized so many people who still consider themselves Christian feel very disillusioned by their faith, and so that was a really interesting discovery. But really I just wrote the book for myself. I wanted to know what was going on, and other people seemed interested in that. That was good enough for me.

It is surprising how many people have read this book and [told me], "I grew up Catholic and I feel what this book is saying." Really? Cool, that's amazing. But the short answer is, I wrote it for myself, because I'm selfish.

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I think there's this idea out there that if you come to the understanding that the faith that you were raised in isn't for you, then it's easy to just go shop around for a new one. But your book really shows that it's not actually that simple, at least not for everyone.

No, and honestly, I'm very pro people shopping around for the thing that they need. I think if you grow up in a faith that is constricting, that doesn't allow you to be in because you're queer or trans, or if you're in a place where people are telling you that you're deviant and to leave, you know what I mean? I think a lot is made of church shopping, but actually, I think a lot of it is that people just finally have choices. If you're somewhere where you're miserable, you don't have to be.

I think one of the greatest things that came out of this was me saying I'm done. I quit. I cannot put my body into a chair in another evangelical megachurch and feel OK about myself, because I'm complicit in their silences. I'm complicit in their patriarchy and their white supremacy, even if I'm just sitting there, not agreeing with them. I'm gone.

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Then when I left to go to a Lutheran church — wild and crazy rebellion, I know — I didn't know I could belong in a place. It's just been this really powerful experience to sit with a minister and to say to her, "I don't believe in hell." And her [answer is], "Sure. That's fine. There's a lot of people who don't." And I'm still welcome here.

I think radical welcome, if people don't have that, then they should leave. Actually, I think more people should be leaving their centers of faith if they are toxic, and a lot of them are. Go, get out.

I hope the whole message in my megachurch chapter is don't go there.

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We'll talk about megachurches in a second. I'm just curious, to follow up on that though, why didn't you become a "none"? 

Because I had grown up very conservative fundamentalist evangelical, and I had never, never, never felt like I was OK. I'm a type A, a little bit of an over-achiever, especially as a kid. I was a rule-follower, highly anxious, and I always wanted to be the good one. It's not like I was just in this constant state of rebellion — I was trying really hard, and no matter what I did, I didn't fit in. And that happened as an adult too. I talk about that in some of the earlier chapters.

Just by being myself, I didn't fit in. Not only did I not fit in, I was told that I was bad and wrong and everything about me was awful. I was miserable. I felt so betrayed by this thing that I had put so much of my life into, and so many of the people around me had put their life into, and that had been this foundation of my life, and no matter what I did, it wouldn't accept me. I couldn't fit in just because I was a woman, and I talked sometimes.

Whoa!

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Some wildly radical thing! And then of course, in seeing how if I was "deviant," then how did other people feel? That made me feel really betrayed by something that's supposed to be this radical form of love and community, and can just be so exclusionary and harmful, as we've seen happening right now in America.

Anecdotally, most of my friends who grew up in the evangelical world and have moved away from it struggle with anxiety as an adult. Do you think that there's a connection? 

I was in an Uber in Philadelphia, and the Uber driver was asking me about what I did, so I told him about the book.

He started telling me, "You know, I used to be a drug addict and I got my life together. I thought the church was the place that would accept me when nobody else would." He went to this church — and he was very vague on the specifics — he's like, "But what happened there was one of the worst things that ever happened to me, and that includes the stuff that happened when I was deep in my addiction." And he's like, "Now, every time I walk by a church, I want to throw up." He's like, "I feel like I actually am going to throw up."

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He's just this big dude telling me this story of pain and loss and I'm crying in the back of an Uber, because, yeah. I think PTSD is a real thing. I have a lot of friends too who are in therapy who grew up very fundamentalist, and they talked about having those real violent, anxious reactions to churches and places.

I always feel really on edge if I'm out in public and I see somebody dressed in a jean skirt, which they're real popular now. That used to be the evangelical [look] — the jean skirts and the jumpers and the long hair — which now, everybody dresses like that because it's Madewell.

So whenever I see that, I'm always like, oh no, is somebody going to proselytize? Do they know I used to be one of them? You know what I mean? I'd get really anxious. The chapter where I talk about going to Morton, Illinois, with some Baptist ministers that whole week, that whole thing was a really hard week for me because I was sitting there listening to all the words and the phrases of the things that I've heard my whole life, and was desperately trying to escape.

And so yes, the short answer to your question, is it is absolutely the anxiety and, I think right now, there's a big conversation happening in our culture about purity culture and abstinence-only education which comes out of this extreme faith-based movement that infiltrated our politics.

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Speaking of that conference that you went to about teaching ministers basically how to hide in plain sight in rural areas, how to go forth after you're out of seminary and minister in rural areas. I found the question that you ended up asking really fascinating: Is there any effort to flip this around for rural churches and rural church leaders to understand urban values or city values?

Can you talk a little bit about how that question was received? I feel like that does definitely get to the heart of a problem in how we talk about "bridging the divide" in America right now.

I think when we say "bridging the divide," we're really using coded language for privileging the white heterosexual male American experience. And so when we say "bridging the divide," we're always talking about reaching out to middle America, and what that looks like in our minds — although we don't say it — is the blue-collar working class white man.

He doesn't really exist in the way that we think he exists. But when we say "bridging the divide," we never mean reaching out to communities of color. We never mean reaching out to trans people. You know what I mean? That whole language of divide sounds so innocent, but the question in and of itself is so toxic. That was an understanding I had when I was sitting there with all those men — and two wives, and one lady pastor, and me.

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I live in the second biggest city in Iowa. But it's still 150,000 people. I live here. I know that we have communities of color. I know that we have queer people and trans people, but the whole conversation was privileging this other kind of experience. So I kept asking that question. Also in my experience, nobody is better at a bubble than a conservative. I literally grew up homeschooled, separated from the world, for religious reasons. Because there's this whole idea about being in the world but not of it, which is a very Christian idea. That's the whole idea of a bubble.

But then post the election, everybody was talking about "liberal bubbles," and I was like, what the hell? Please don't mock the liberal bubble, you literally invented them. So I wanted to challenge those assumptions, and I did in good faith want to ask, because I wanted to know, is this a thing that happened? Can we flip that conversation? When we say bridging the divide, do we mean bridging every divide? The best way to ask that was to kind of flip it around.

I asked in the beginning, people were kind of a little upset about it, but then I was told to ask the question at the end of the week. So then they asked the question at the end of the week, and I think by then everybody was a little upset with me because I had spent the whole week saying things like, "Can you prove this?" Basic journalism questions like, "What are the statistics on this?" Because they throw out all these numbers, and I had read all the materials for the class cover to cover.

There were times when they were saying, "We don't see addiction rates out here in rural areas."

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Sorry, excuse me?

Not true. We invented that!

The opioid map is clear.

Right? It's the summer of 2017, we're at peak opioid crisis here.

This was not in the book, but at one point we visited this hospital, it was one of the few remaining independent hospitals in this very rural town in Illinois.

We were walking around and I asked, "Do you see a lot of addiction patients here?" The hospital administrator just didn't want to talk about it. He said, "I'm sorry, are you one of the ministers?" And I was like, "I'm just a journalist, just a girl just trying to learn everything." And he said, "Well, no, we don't really see that." Really?

But yes, by the end of the week when I said, "OK, I asked this question in the beginning..." I thought I had gotten this really great answer from one of the leaders, who was telling this story about taking a group of people from rural America into the city a couple of decades ago, and showing them a fancy upscale store — and I have these notes, I have these recordings. I bring that up because at the end of the story, it gets weird.

He was saying, maybe buying this really expensive suit is akin to buying a tractor. One of the pastors wives' who was there, and she was young — she was probably younger than me, and looked very beautiful and super hip-looking, like she would be an Instagram star or something like that — she started telling me that city values were ungodly and that I was ungodly. It was a relief to hear it said out loud, because when you feel something a whole week, you can be a little gaslighted.

It got a little intense, and actually, I sent parts of the book to the people I had talked to and interviewed, some of them, because I didn't want them to feel re-traumatized or feel like I was taking advantage of them in any way, and then others for fact checking. The ministers, I sent them parts of this, that middle chapter. They were like, "We would never tell a story like that about going into the city and doing ministry like that."

"But I have it recorded. You said it." And they're like, "We would never say that."

I actually thought that was a great moment, you know what I mean? They were not happy with me at all, which I guess I didn't expect.

When I think about $100,000 suits, I also think about megachurches, which are literally big business.

Have you seen that Instagram account, PreachersNSneakers?

No! 

It's basically pictures of megachurch pastors in these fancy, expensive sneakers.

Wow.

And it says how much they cost.

That's hilarious.

Oh my god, I love it. It's caused a little bit of upset feelings.

In the book, I thought you did a really good job of showing both how small rural churches that have deep roots in these tiny, isolated communities struggle to keep a large enough membership in order to stay open and alive. But also meanwhile, suburban megachurches and exurban megachurches are booming in America, and have been for a few decades now.

Every city thinks they invented the "Six Flags Over Jesus" nickname for their local megachurch. That's such a common joke about them, and yet those churches are mega for a reason. They attract a whole lot of people. What is the appeal, do you think, of the megachurch?

I think it's a community unto itself. People go there to feel like they're surrounded by people who share their same values. Megachurches are not like communities, they are communities. There's coffee shops and clothing stores and bookstores. They have baseball teams and, good grief, you can live your whole life basically in and around the megachurch, and never have to talk to anyone else who didn't look like you or go there.

I think that's what they're designed to do, and in a way, that's comforting. We all crave safety, we all crave security. An important tenet of Christianity is to be with other believers in community. Now the hip phrase is to do life together. Basically your whole neighborhood, your whole world is based around this church. That's the appeal. A lot of small churches are drying up because people in smaller communities want to go to a bigger church, because maybe they actually have a youth group, whereas your little 50-member church right next door to your house doesn't.

There's more opportunities, there's more things to do. It's more fun, the music is cool, there's smoke and drums and your pastor, maybe he has a tattoo and wears a beard and says thing like, "Kicking it with Jesus." It's kind of fun, right? It's this whole world unto itself. Again, it's another kind of a safety bubble.

The worst part about me is how obsessed I am with Milan Kundera and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting." I re-read it every year. It's the bro-iest thing about me, and I'm pretty bro-y sometimes. I talk about his idea, and I quote him in the book, about the safety of a cloister. I think we all seek that. I think that's the appeal of a megachurch.

In the book, you write, "The problem of the megachurch is the problem of the faceless corporation, the problem of power." That's the other side of that community. How do these communities then wield this kind of power?

Well, because they are worlds unto themselves, and it's very much tied up in this idea of capitalism, they become not palaces of worship but places of commerce, which is, first of all, very, very toxic. It's truly the most American thing there is, is tying religion and commerce together in a toxic way to control the masses. It's what we do. Ever since the pilgrims.

They come with this, and they are worlds unto themselves. Lots of problems right now we're having with the #MeToo movement — there's been talk about the #ChurchToo movement, but you don't really see a lot of changes in these churches. There's been some, in the past year, even as I was reporting out the book, there were some big sexual abuse scandals with the pastors and megachurches. But nothing has changed, and it's because people, when they become members, they sign these covenants and they agree, basically, if there's any problems to go to the church elders first.

It's like forced meditation in corporate America.

Right. But there's no legal restriction, it's just a spiritual restriction. There's all these Bible verses that they use to justify it. Recently, Joshua Harris has been back in the news, because he's a man who promoted purity culture, separating from his wife. But one of the things that he has admitted to doing as a megachurch pastor, is when he's heard claims or accusations of sexual assault and abuse, instead of going to the police, they would just handle it as church leaders. These are just men who went to seminary — they're not therapists, they're not mandatory reporters.

It's so awful, the silences, and the [attitude of] we can handle it, we don't need the outside world. And there's no oversight of churches at all.

There's no authority that they report to except for the God that they created in their own image. You know what I mean?

Have great people come out of megachurches? Absolutely. As institutions, I just don't believe in them at all.

The personal journey in this book is connected to finally having a breaking point after Trump was elected. You classify Trumpism as "a civil religion deeply connected with Christianity but also influenced by capitalism, regionalism and politics." That really encapsulates what he was able to tap into with his campaign and now with his administration. How is that civil religion fed by actual religion in this country?

I think our conception of what it means to be an American is very tied up in our idea of what it means to be a Christian. It becomes more of a cultural or civil Christianity, rather than an actual theological thing.

Right now, you can see this happening on the border. A lot of statistics show the majority of people who are religious in America think that what Trump is doing on the border is fine. And then you get all these other religious people saying if you really cared about God, if you really cared about what the Bible says, you wouldn't be putting babies in cages. Very valid argument; completely misses the point of this cultural Christianity that is less about what this religion actually practices, and more about what we believe is constitutes being a good person in America, which is white, upper-middle class.

I think those two sides just don't talk. You can stare at a "Christian" who supports Trump and tell them, show them, the Bible verses about caring for the stranger and the babies and the hungry and the widows and the orphan and the immigrant, and they can just be like, "Yeah, well I do that but I also want them to go home." It's a logic that's really more based in cultural conceptions of what that theology should be, which is tied to capitalism.

If you actually sat down and read the New Testament, that shit is socialist. It's more Karl Marx than Adam Smith, and yet our idea of capitalism is so tied up with our idea of Christianity.

That answers the question of why it feels like when very well-meaning people on the liberal or left side of the aisle are countering with Bible verses, it makes no dent. 

The funny part is, they'll sit there and say — I've heard people say to this to me — they'll say, "You're not a real Christian because you voted for Hillary Clinton. You're not a real Christian because you got a divorce. You're not a real Christian because you sleep around with men. Clearly you don't have a saving faith." They think they have this lock on the Bible, but it's just as much a manipulation of the words than anything.

But it's also a really confusing book that's subject to a lot of interpretation. It's this weird conversation where people will be like, "I know I believe in the literal version of the Bible." Rachel Held Evans did this in her "Year of Biblical Womanhood" book, where she's like, "How literal is literal?"

But then they'll be like, "Jesus came and he saved us from those rules, so it's fine to eat this bacon but it's totally not fine if you, a woman, get a job." Wait, what?

But then I have been told this by dear friends, people in the book who looked at me and said, "You are an idolater, you're manipulating the word of God just so you can justify gay marriage." I'm like, I'm not using the Bible to justify gay marriage — I don't have to. This is a confusing f**king book. I just can believe in gay marriage and grapple with the weird literary text on my own time.

In the wake of Trump's victory, there was this push for if you are in a relationship with or if you are dating a Trump supporter, you just need to dump them. You're the only person that I even sort of know who actually did this.

I think I am the only person I know who actually did this.

I do hear a lot of women who are like, "You know, I'm not happy with what happened and I'm not happy with the things that my husband or family says."

I know a lot of people in very quietly divided marriages, who would be very unhappy if I outed them and I wouldn't. But I really don't know anybody who did [leave].

It's not like everything was great and then the election happened and then I was like, "Well, goodbye." I think that's actually the problem with America. It's not like America was great and then the election happened and everybody was like, "Whoa, where did that come from?" This doesn't just come out of nowhere. It builds and it builds, and were you actively paying attention, or were you just ignoring it because you were comfortable?

Honestly, I think that 53% of white women who voted for Trump, they're comfortable. They don't have to pay attention because it's not their bodies on the line. I think more and more of them are feeling like, yes, it is our bodies on the line, because of the Kavanaugh hearings, because of the #MeToo movement, but I don't know if enough of them do. No, people are comfortable. My whole life changed, you know what I mean?

I think that's the other side of it: Anyone who has ever been through a divorce or a major breakup knows that it's never as easy as "just dump them." 

I remember, growing up, divorce was the worst thing that could happen. You would sit and hear sermons about how God hates divorce and it's in Malachi and it's in Matthew, all this kind of stuff. Pastors would talk about a culture that takes the easy way out — instead of sticking to your marriage, you're divorcing and taking the easy way out.

After two years of really intense couples therapy and my own personal therapy, we were going every week and we were trying really hard. And then saying, finally, I'm done, and then having to go through that, there would be times where I would just and be like, this is not the f**king easy way out. What would have been easy is to just stay and be comfortable and never think about anything ever again. You know? That's the easy way out.

That's the question then that goes back to leaving a church, too. There's the easy way and the hard way to do that. It's not always as easy as saying, as you wrote about in the book, OK, what if we formed our own church? This sense of trying to make it work with the church and trying to make it work within a marriage, doing all of the counseling, all of the work that you're supposed to do, seems very parallel to me.

Yeah, to just leave a faith is to leave a huge part of you. I think that really hit home when I would sit with and talk to people who were queer, who really, really didn't want to leave the church, but there was no place for them. And I think that's such a universal story: I don't want to give up on this, I think there's something here, but trying over and over again and no matter what you do, still being told you're awful, bad, and a sinner.

That really sucks. Are there people who take the easy way out? Absolutely. But I don't think it's the ones who are leaving. I think the ones who are leaving are doing the work, and are leaving heartbroken and upset, and anxious. We all need a lot of therapy.

One of the wonderful people who I've had the pleasure of meeting while writing the book is Julie Rodgers, who is this amazing activist, and a gay woman. She goes around and tells her story about growing up in the church. She grew up like me, conservative and homeschooled. But unlike me, she is gay and she was sent to conversion therapy. Her whole life's work is still being a person of faith and talking about it. You know what I mean? Can you imagine?

She's not evangelical anymore, but that is not the easy way out.

We ran a story back in the spring about Mike Pence being named the commencement speaker for Taylor University in Indiana and the internal uproar over it. I think it really surprised people, because of an assumption that at a conservative Christian college like Taylor, there would be no dissent within the ranks over Mike Pence coming to be the commencement speaker. But the school community was divided about it. And folks who were upset about it — whether students, or alumni, or faculty — were vocally upset about it because of Pence's role in the Trump administration. That's rare for us in the wider culture to hear that's there's dissent.

You're not supposed to hear that dissent.

I grew up in this space, and I was taught there's this one way to do things. And when you revolve a religion around the fact that women are not allowed to speak up from the pulpit — sure, women can teach under the headship of a man, that caveat makes all the f**king difference. It silences people of color, is inherently racist in the way that it talks about bodies and is homophobic. You create this space where the only voices that are valued are heterosexual white men, and you create it not based on hierarchy but based on culture. That's what's good, is listening to these men and submitting to them and submitting to God. That's how goodness is defined.

The radical Catholics fighting for socialism down in South America, Dorothy Day, you never hear about that. You're not supposed to hear about that because of the defining voice of Christianity in America, despite evidence to the contrary, are people like Mike Pence.

You also never hear controversy because, I mean, we talked about the reporting structure of a megachurch. That's how it works there too. You're not supposed to speak out, you're supposed to first go to the person and tell them your concern, and try to work it out.

It's a silencing effect. I talked about it in my own church experience where I had helped build the thing, I had done a lot of work to make this space happen. Physical labor, on every level. When I finally sat down to speak up and say, what we're doing is not OK, a room full of people with whom I had "done life with" for so many years looked at me and said, "You don't get a say because you're a woman." Whoa. And the person I was married to was saying that too.

I think that experience is not unique. So many people have had that experience where you work in this community, live in this community, and then something happens and you speak up, and you say, "This isn't OK." And you're immediately silenced: Work within for change. Don't speak up, don't rock the boat. Don't air the dirty laundry.

Because that's how movements get started. That's how people get organized.

Let's close with something slightly more lighthearted, and deeply weird. Let's talk about Hot Jesus.

Let's talk about Hot Jesus.

From religious art for sale in Bible supply stores to the covers of Christian music albums, why does Jesus always look so hot?

Because sexual repression, obviously. Think about the language of someone who loves Christianity — white fundamentalist Christianity, I want to make that clear. You're supposed to be married to Jesus, give yourself up to Jesus. Women who are single are like, "I'm not dating men, I'm dating Jesus." It becomes this thing that replaces these other things. It replaces sex.

I was taught hardcore abstinence-only, the hardest of cores. Raw abstinence.  It was basically like, don't masturbate, pray and think of Jesus instead.

What then are the men of white, straight heteronormativity Christianity supposed to do with Hot Jesus?

Well, they're gay for the Hot Jesus thing. I don't think I'm too off-base here. Being a Jesus-hot man, hanging out with a bunch of other hot men in robes, that's the whole Bible.

It's funny because it's surreal — how you're supposed to think upon Jesus, look at the cross and save yourself from these impure thoughts. But in this way, it's so twisted.

That's why it's this cultural trope and that's why people get really f**king weird about church and Jesus and God and things like that. I really think Hot Jesus is just sublimated desire. Look, if the evangelicals would just loosen up, have a little extramarital sex — good sex, have an orgasm — and then maybe we could finally get pictures of Jesus where he actually looks like he's supposed to.

But what if Jesus wasn't hot? What if he was just a normal looking dude, average?

What if he looked kind of like a Middle-Eastern Steve Buscemi?

He's still Jesus, right? Is he still Jesus? I think that's the question for fundamentalist culture: Is he still Jesus if he's not hot?

There's so many crossover Christian pop hits where you're like, is she singing about her love for Jesus, or is she singing about her love of men? I don't know!

It's such a real, actual thing. That was Amy Grant's whole thing.

I was just thinking of "Baby, Baby" being crossover for Amy Grant. It was just a half step.

Exactly. There's all these worship songs that are just, I'll do anything for you, Jesus. There's one song where the chorus is like, "Make me, mold me, fill me, use me." Yeah, I've seen that porn too.

Hot Jesuses in your area — singles, call now!

But there is a whole movement of religious ecstatics from the ancient times who would basically flip out and have orgasms while thinking about Jesus. Look, it's a rich history of being completely f**ked up about sex and Jesus. So I love it.

Thank you for going there with me.

Thank you for asking.


Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's deputy editor in chief.

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