Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It.
Every haircut, my dad's barber asks if he's been saved. My dad is okay with this. He replies no, and the barber carries on unperturbed. This has been going on since the 1980s.
British Columbia has always had its religious pockets, from the Russian Doukhobor communities to the infamous polygamists of Bountiful, and a thick Bible Belt whose buckle is the farm country outside Vancouver. The province's largest Christian population is evangelical. Kelowna, where I grew up and where I still live with my family, is no exception, home to a few enormous Baptist and Pentecostal churches and dozens of smaller ones. An approving Facebook review of one of the bigger places notes, "Lots of free parking."
The devout and the secular park in a tight orbit, as was very apparent when I was a kid. The evangelicals seemed particularly close to the non-spiritual world, listening to their own versions of pop, rock and country music, and fostering skateboarding. My brother Jon and his skater friends used to gather at one of those churches, which had built elaborate ramps on its big central property. The boys would have to listen to a bible reading from a youth leader before they could go in. Jon says it was never high-pressure, and mainly a fun place. He does remember one of the leaders approaching him to say in sincere confusion, "You don't smoke or drink, you don't swear, but you're not a Christian. I don't get it. Why not?"
Jon didn't convert, but kept going for the ramps. At 16, he visited a skater friend in Los Angeles, who took him to his megachurch. When Jon admitted to his inquiring pew neighbour that he wasn't saved, he was pushed up to the stage before the hundreds of congregants. The pastor grabbed his shoulders and prayed over him, speaking in tongues, the microphone making his voice crackle and echo around the huge two-storey space. People in the front row chanted and raised their hands, some even fainting. After the service, a stunned Jon was taken backstage for a one-on-one chat with a young church leader, who said, "That felt good, right? Could you let the Holy Spirit speak through you, too?" Jon gave it a few seconds' try, being Canadian and polite, but he says, "It was pretty creepy for a 16-year-old. They were super nice, but I couldn't do what they wanted, and I could tell they were sure I was headed to hell without their intervention."
Illustration by Bryan Gee/The Globe and Mail
Evangelicals have been much in the news lately, given their backing of U.S. President Donald Trump: According to NPR, eight in 10 white evangelicals voted for him in the 2016 election, and, while support has somewhat weakened, 61 per cent still approve of the job he is doing, according to a poll released by Pew Research last month. These numbers might seem baffling, given Mr. Trump's general lack of Christian conduct. The support could be out of concern for his soul, or because of his positions on abortion or race or sexuality, but it's likely coming from the theory that he's somehow the man to bring on the apocalypse and rapture, when the saved will be taken to heaven and the rest abandoned. Mr. Trump's recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital fits. After his announcement, historian Diana Butler Bass tweeted, "Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God's will to these Last Days."
Another historian, Julie Ingersoll, studies how North American popular culture in the late 20th century spread the "end-times framework" via mass-market fiction such as the bestselling Left Behind novel series (some made into Canadian-produced films starring born-again eighties heartthrob Kirk Cameron). The books oscillate between holy and worldly, mainly focusing not on the saved, but instead on lax Christians who see the error of their ways too late. Postrapture, they try to maintain their faith in a terrifying world. One book has the series hero note how "this shower of fire and ice and blood, reminded him yet again that God … keeps his promises. [He] was assured again that he was on the side of the army that had already won this war."
The books have sold 65 million copies, with their comforting implication that there is a right side. A friend who read them when younger says, "A lot of the church friends I knew saw them as actual addenda to the Bible." Riffing on the culture wars and nuclear fears of the eighties and nineties, the books also foreground the idea that a wrong team exists, too – look at the series title, or some of the specific volume titles: Soul Harvest: The World Takes Sides is one.
Despite its call to God's team, the story can't exist without that other side, the unrepentant one, a darkness you could fall into any second without constant vigilance. Twitter's #RaptureAnxiety hashtag is a long list of posts by former evangelicals haunted by growing up under these beliefs, many having read the teen versions of the Left Behind books, or seen the widespread 1972 church-sponsored rapture film, A Thief in the Night. They recount being petrified that the world could end any second, and living in hyper-alertness that anything they did wrong might put them among the unsaved, the constant backdrop.
I've been thinking a lot lately about that "wrong" side, as political rhetoric about unity in divided times surges. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, who has called himself a "born-again evangelical Catholic," took his oath of office on a bible open to 2 Chronicles 7:14, in which God says: "If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will … forgive their sin and will heal their land." Mr. Pence takes "land" to refer to the United States specifically, which he plans to unite under God. But there again is that sense that there are "My people," and then there are the extras brushed aside when the apocalypse does come along.
Mr. Pence's calm mannerisms and the way he calls his wife "Mother" remind me of some of the Christian dads I knew growing up. They, too, had that permanent readiness to smile, that utter sureness they were right, sitting comfortably in their big head-of-household chairs at the table or in the living room. Roy Moore also smiles and talks a lot about unity, when he's not on the attack. Before his senate election loss, in the first online message he released since his sexual-abuse scandal broke, he said, "We are in the midst of a spiritual battle with those who want to silence our message."
What is the message? It's always been join us, but beneath that, it might be I need you to measure myself against. I'm reminded of another family, very kind people in our neighbourhood who prayed over us kids when we invited ourselves to stay for dinner. One Christmas, they took us on a visit to their church, where the pastor also had a microphone, and the pews were full. Everyone sang "Happy birthday, baby Jesus" to a nativity scene set up with one of those blinking baby dolls in a cradle. All the children could line up to pick up the doll: Personal Jesus in action.
I was afraid to, feeling unworthy among all the holiness. When I didn't take my turn after his daughter, the family's dad smiled at me with a little nod, and I understood. Someone needed to be left behind.