Raised on Televangelism

Not long ago, at the end of a public reading from my recently published novel, Eulogy, I was asked how writing the book changed me. Though eleven years had passed from first scribblings to final publication, I’d never given this question any thought.

Yet the answer was sudden, instant, and clear. The gift this book gave me—how it changed me, if you will—is that writing it and sending it out into the world allowed me to know more clearly my relationship with the religion in which I was raised.

We followed the televangelists. That’s what our family did. The televangelists came into our home through cable, showing us miracles and speaking to us the truths by which we were to live if we wanted to achieve paradise, if we wanted to escape hell.

They came into our town on tour buses, and sometimes we would travel to see them— Ernest Angeley, Jimmy Swaggart, Morris Cerullo, a young Benny Hinn. We joined them in packed venues like the Ottawa Civic Centre to capture God’s magic, which flowed through them and would flow to us if we believed. We had to believe, always. To allow a moment’s doubt was to risk all. Salvation was precarious; I was always one little sin away, they would remind me, from the brink of vaporizing damnation, and doubt itself was a sin.

“It has been predicted by several prophecies,” said one evangelist from the stage to a packed house, “that the Antichrist will appear next year, 1981.” His white suit glowed, as did his face. He spoke with ardent conviction.

They cheered. Everywhere—behind me, in front of me, next to me they cheered. They cheered with moaning mumbles or with earnest “praise the lords.” They prayed in tongues and clapped their hands, waved their arms and raised their fists. It went on, in waves of praise and moan, crescendo and crash.

The end was near! This world and its evils would soon pass away and we would all be with Jesus.

And ten-year-old me wasn’t happy.

Though I clapped and cheered, as I was supposed to, I had no connection with this group joy. I would have liked to believe it was good news. They were all so happy and so sincere. Who doesn’t want to be happy?

But I hadn’t yet had the chance to do all those things for which many broken souls that day were repenting. And while the world was a mean enough place, I didn’t want it destroyed. I couldn’t celebrate on command the looming demise of humanity or find relief in having my earthly life cut short, with or without Jesus.

This was a malignant dark secret, because not wanting to be instantly with Jesus made me destined for hell.

It would be years before I would observe that people who boast threats of an otherworldly hell are also inclined to create hell on earth for themselves and anyone who will listen.

Still they cheered. A growing roar. The lord would bring us home, the championship would be won, all would be well.

Not only did I not want to be with the lord, I didn’t even want to be in that stuffy arena. I would rather have been playing baseball or riding my bike, like a ten-year-old. But it was duty to be there, because that was serving God, the evangelists said, and to not serve God was worse than bad. I couldn’t say what I felt—even to myself—because the merest doubt would put me at risk of damnation.

The dissonance was haunting. The Antichrist—evil incarnate—would soon reveal itself on the planet, and this was cause for joy?

We followed the televangelists and I never told anyone, despite the commandment to spread the word.

They told us what they said was all true, so it had to be true, and my parents told me to believe, so I did. My closest friends knew that we went to church a lot, but I don’t think they knew our family was preparing for the Rapture. When I was eight years old a friend asked me if the end of the world was real. I stammered through an explanation of the rising up into the clouds of all the believers, in the blink of an eye, the dead believers also, plucked from their graves and the seas, and then the “great tribulation” set loose up on the earth with the rise of the Antichrist.

This is what I was taught: Jesus will come back to Earth, but not all the way back, and everyone who is a believer in that moment will disappear into the sky with him, as will everyone who ever died as a believer. It will happen very soon, maybe even today.

This is what I was taught: if we’re not right with God at that moment, we will be left behind and the only way to get back to God will be to die as a martyr in the great tribulation, which will start immediately after the Rapture, and will last seven years, until Armageddon.

This is what I was taught: being saved means you get in on the Rapture and don’t have to die as a martyr. But it’s also wonderful to die as a martyr for Jesus in the great tribulation, because martyrs will get special treatment in heaven.

I had to believe all this. Those were the rules, but speaking these rules was mortifying, and those endless services of prayer, salvation, and healing were life-draining. Healing services were long, loud, and stressful. Nothing ever happened to me, and it became a mark of ongoing shame that I wore glasses, because rightfully I should have at some point been healed of my eye condition. I failed. I didn’t believe enough.

Today, as I watch the fast-moving ideological waves of our time (pick yours, for or against), I think back to the sad boy who found no resonance in an echo chamber. I have known loneliness among ten-thousand cheering people. To be raised fundamentalist, to doubt and to leave, is to know what it means to be secretly isolated. I accept that people find community there, and I ask them to accept that I don’t.

If you have religion, know that for it to work, you must be free to leave. You are free, and if anyone threatens or coerces you, they are wrong.

And know also that my not being part of your religion doesn’t diminish it one bit; you don’t need anyone who doesn’t want to be there. To all the religions that come door-knocking, click-baiting, comment-trolling, airwave-hollering or street-proselytizing to recruit, to save, to seduce me with promises, to judge, and tell me how I should live, I say no thanks.

All writers, all artists, hope to make something universal. It’s an unachievable vanity, but a sustaining one. If there is one universal thing that emerges in Eulogy, I hope it’s this: every person faces a decision, sometimes fraught, about the beliefs and religions in which they are raised. And every family has beliefs—religious, atheistic, pagan, rationalist, you name it. The decision is whether to accept the beliefs in which you are raised, or to find another way of relating to the world. For some people it’s easy. But for me, partly because of the nature of who I am and the strictures of the religions in which I was raised, it was not easy. And while the main character in Eulogy, William Oaks, is in many ways different from me, it’s not easy for him either.

And for me, contemplating how a book changed me? Well, this summer was the first time I’ve been able to speak of all this. It only took forty-five years. Now, perhaps, I can write something else.

  • Jerussha

    This describes my upbringing almost to a T. With the exception of actually attending those huge evangelistic meetings. Our little church had revivals that scared the crap out of me for all of the same reasons. I used to tug on my moms dress and tell I had to go to the bathroom and then I would go down the basement where the restrooms and classrooms were and wait for the yelling and foot stomping over my head to stop before rejoining her. They would speak in tongues and sometimes my mom would “translate”. It was all about the end of the world over and over and over again. I know she was doing what she felt was right but it was actually doing just the opposite of what her goal was. She raised 5 children and only one of us ever attended church on a regular basis as adults. She was a loving and wonderful mother who was misguided. She did her best but if she were alive today I think she would admit it was a mistake to force such fear and negativism into our lives.

    • Ken Murray

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Makes me all the more glad I wrote this piece.

  • *hugs the lonely little boy*

    • liaisonsus

      Hugs for all lonely little boys and little girls who even suffer more in organized religions..

  • FredZimmerman

    Raised as a conservative baptist in upstate NY. Church 3x a week, intermittent revivals, choir practices, Jerry Falwell, crystal cathedral watching Before church. Brainwashed, escaped through college and army relocation. Thanks for sharing. Yup, I can relate.

  • Thin-ice

    It took me 46 years (at the age of 60) to escape the gravitational pull of evangelical, “Jesus-will-return-any-day” hysteria. Even spent several years as a missionary. The worst thing about Jesus coming back for believers was that I would miss out on having full-blown, male-female, sex with penetration if Jesus came back before I got married! As it turned out, Jesus didn’t come back “next week”, and when I got married (still a virgin) at the age of 26 I was finally able to experience it. (Turned out to be better than masturbation, but without the guilt!)

  • liaisonsus

    To do this to a child is child abuse..A child should be free to play and free of all man made dogmas. Children should be taught free thinking and art…Religion and God is man made and a fairly new concept in our short human animal history..It started out of fear of the hostile elements..Organized religion and misogynist, paternalistic monotheism, is the purest form of fascism and the worst thing that happened to this planet.

    • Lindsay

      I agree that this kind of fear mongering is child abuse. I went to a Baptist school and I was told many times, graphically, of how my non-believing parents would be tortured for eternity, and how it was my duty to do everything I could to save them from that fate. That’s a lot of pressure for an 8-year-old. I couldn’t sleep, I lived in constant fear, and developed OCD at a young age and other disabling psychiatric disorders as I got older.

      I have no doubt that these teachings handicap people. They keep them from being able to engage intellectually, to connect on a deep level with others – on so many levels, individuals and society are damaged by these beliefs. I wish I could reach out to others, the way Ken has, to share the message that things do get better once you leave the church behind.

  • Luminya

    Wonderful article!

  • Mark Farber

    I had no idea that people in Canada experienced this crap. My wife (Canadian) is swearing and saying that it can’t be true lol

    • liaisonsus

      It is true around the World and the sad thing is that they did this also to indigenous people and killed a lot of them off in the name of a man made God..We are not even sure that Jesus existed.Thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans who were in that region for the Salt ( oil of those days) and the soldiers were paid with salt, hence the word salary. We are doing the same now in the name of oil and destroying this planet animals and all. We do not have a Democracy in this country. It is pure fascism..Believe in Christianity or else. There is no room for freedom of thought and the slavery of man made beliefs..I liberated myself many years ago and have never been happier.

  • Dan Boek

    Discernment; the ability to judge well. It is the one thing lacking in most all religion today. This lack of it by others resulted in your seeing what was wrong and is what justifies your view. There is a level of hope unique to humans. Hope allows us to wait and watch. Faith allows us motivation to seek. What is the object that we hope and seek or work towards? Clarity of thought? Equality in justice with one set of rules for rich and poor? Recognizing everyone’s potential if given the freedom to both seek in faith and wait in hope. Faith Hope and Love ( in and toward each other) are the tools for and the reward of peace. It takes discernment to discover or keep them in the correct balance. Every one likes everything black and white.. Ok most everyone, but private thoughts.belong to you. And that’s when we all need to respect the gray areas and their contribution. Many religions have morphed into cults. Pick some principles to believe in, that help you with your relationships in the here and now and let tomorrow take care of itself. The TV healers think they are copying Jesus. I strongly suspect if/when he healed anyone, that it was all about caring for one person at a time and never about “putting on a show ” You can call it my grey area. Ken Murray: Thank you for your work.

  • Nelson

    I constantly see the damage this evil has done in my partner’s family – nothing but judgement and hate for anyone who is not a ‘believer.” This sort of religion is the ultimate in narcissism – we are better , we are god’s true people, and only we are going to “heaven.” The best thing I ever did in my LIFE was give up the church and the insane belief in a “god.”

  • Colorado Native

    Before I was even conscious of religion, I was a Southern Baptist. At least that’s what my mama told me. Then she converted from Baptist to Catholic. So then I was a Catholic too, and there I stayed until I was 60 years old…but all the while trying to believe the silly dogma and finally just giving up. Now all the weight and all the pressure of trying to live up to the ideal of some invisible god, it’s all gone. I am much more content as an atheist than I ever was as a god-fearing person. Should have done it much sooner.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Wow, after reading this article and the comments here, I feel glad that I was raised Catholic. While they did fill our heads with all the nonsense about what it takes to get to Heaven and taught us bible stories frightening to children, at least they for the most part were light on the Tribulation and the Rapture was non-existent. I feel sorry for everyone who was raised in fundamentalist churches being told that the end of the world was going to happen at any minute.

    The article brings up a good refutation to anyone who is hostile to those who don’t believe in their religion. Why do you want someone in your religion who doesn’t want to be there?

  • Penny Sue Dove

    My biggest issue is the fact that a co-worker at my job told me if I want to be with my dead relatives when I die I should except Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. She even put pamphlets on the office desk for me to see. I would have complained to my bosses but other that the unwanted sermon this lady is very nice. I shoved the pamphlets under the printer and went about my day. I have not heard anything from her since.