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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change #080: Lance Aksamit on living and leaving far-right evangelical Christianity
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Theory of Change #080: Lance Aksamit on living and leaving far-right evangelical Christianity

Episode Summary

This episode of Theory of Change is the second in our "Why I Left" series featuring Lance Aksamit. He is an associate editor at Flux, and the author of a new autobiography about life in the missionizing evangelical sub-culture called Youth Group: Coming of Age in the Church of Christian Nationalism.

Beyond telling his story of being born and raised in a homeschooling evangelical family that preached the gospel in Latin America, Lance also talks about how the beliefs he was taught derived from the larger far-right Christian supremacist tradition which began in the former Confederacy.

It's a very necessary book because it shows just how mentally and emotionally dominating extreme Christian viewpoints can be, so it's worth reading, especially for those who don't have direct experience with totalitarian Christianity.

You can watch the video of the conversation or continue reading below for the transcript or read it on the web.

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About the Show

Theory of Change is hosted by Matthew Sheffield about larger trends and intersections of politics, religion, media, and technology. It's part of the Flux network, a new content community of podcasters and writers. Please visit us at flux.community to learn more and to tell us about what you're doing. We're constantly growing and learning from the great people we meet.

Theory of Change on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheoryChange

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Matthew Sheffield on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mattsheffield

Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Lance.

LANCE AKSAMIT: Thanks for having me, Matt.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So, your book is a memoir about your time growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical environment. Tell us where the setting begins and let's maybe go from there.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so it starts a little bit with me already deeply entrenched in evangelicalism in youth group, but as far as me personally and my interaction inside of, Evangelical, very strict evangelicalism.

My parents were missionaries in Panama in Central America. We were in the depths of the Davian jungle when my parents were deported during the war with Noriega. From there we moved all the way over to [00:03:00] Wisconsin where my parents started training other missionaries in getting them ready for going to the field.

We worked for an organization called, at the time it was called New Tribes Mission, which the whole point was to put as many people in as remote of locations as possible. And it was a non-denominational organization, which is just pretty much codenamed for strict evangelical organization.

And from there, we kind of moved back and forth between being, missionaries on the mission field in Panama and Nebraska, eventually, where I ended up and where my youth group years really started.

SHEFFIELD: For a lot of Americans or people living in the more industrialized world. They don't see a lot of missionaries from evangelicals running around the place. You basically see Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, yeah, the evangelical missions generally don't spend too much time in the United States except for on like reservations as well as to the Amish. I actually have had a few friends who were missionaries to the [00:04:00] Amish, which is an interesting endeavor, if you ask me, but yeah, so NTM, New Tribes Mission, was I think still is the second largest missionary organization from the United States and they, like I said, specialize in sending into remote locations but interestingly enough, primarily they were sending people to Already evangelized locations so, for example, where we were, the Catholics had already come through, almost a hundred years prior, and a lot of the people were already Catholic, so we were being, we were evangelizing to Christians, ostensibly except for at that time Catholics were not considered Christians by our organization so, from all across the world.

Tricking locals into Christianity

AKSAMIT: I think a good example that I have in the book is in Papua New Guinea, where there is a small group of people, and they were being evangelized to by New Tribes Mission. They had been Catholics for a very long time, but some missionaries showed up and [00:05:00] essentially kind of, kind of tricked the people into becoming Christians, but they wouldn't even call themselves Christians.

They would call themselves followers of the New Tribes Mission, which is I think a good indicator of how that went. They show up with a Bible, and in this culture, they had a local deity called if I'm pronouncing it right, Tiki Loko. And this local deity was a god that had many different personas, many different faces.

And during World War II, one of those personas Ended up being one that came from America because it kind of transitioned into a bit of a cargo cult. And when the New Tribes mission showed up, they used that history and saying, oh, look, your God is just, this is the same God, but he goes by the name Jesus here.

And look, he's in this book, he's in this book and pointing to the Bible. And they're like, Oh, our God's in your books. That must be, how we that must be the right book. And then they essentially became followers of the New Tribes mission via that kind of persuasion.

SHEFFIELD: And that, and that's an interesting tactic because [00:06:00] it is like, it is, if you actually look at the history of missionizing Christianity, like it was a very common technique.

Yeah. They did. I mean, it's in the Bible. Paul, Paul does it in the book of Acts. And curiously enough there's a parallel with Mormonism because they actually have done that with an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl. Yes. Who they claim is Jesus because in the Book of Mormon there is a story of Jesus after he's resurrected coming and visiting the ancient Jews who lived in America.

And according, and then, so basically, they use the Quetzalcoatl. Story to tell people, see, this was our guy, you should join up. So it's an interesting it's, sometimes people, so the term for this, the scholarly term for this is syncretism where you take a piece of one religion and stick it into another one, and sometimes people who are in the culture we're talking about here, they don't— [00:07:00] I don't like to think that that's what they're doing when it comes to their more basic beliefs, but, in terms of their evangelizing, they absolutely are doing this.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, absolutely. And I, it's so disingenuous on the part of a lot of the missionaries because I'm not speaking for Mormonism here, but I do know for a fact inside of our mission field, they did not believe that was the same God at all. Like, they did not believe that this This person was Jesus.

In fact, it was something that was, is actively discouraged by the mission. I must give them that. They say, don't do this thing that these missionaries that did. The interesting part is that my later after, about maybe 40 years after that whole incident took place, my father, who he actually worked on video productions for a while, he created a video about the evangelizing to this people group and I grew up watching this video.

And when I was researching for this book I came to mind and I was able to reach out to an anthropologist Who like the only anthropologist who worked with this group of people and talked to him about it and getting those two viewpoints Between the anthropologist and what you know [00:08:00] My viewpoint of watching this video and my dad's for making this video and a few other missionaries and it was You know kind of a fascinating personal connection to that group of people all the way across the world

SHEFFIELD: And so now the name New Tribes, what's the derivation of that?

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so New Tribes Mission was essentially the idea, like I said, to send people into the most remote locations. It was essentially, when a man, when someone accepts Jesus to become a new creation. Just that with tribes. So New Tribes Mission. And they have changed their name to Ethnos 360, which is I guess trendy branding. Also because New Tribes Mission has in the last 20 years found itself in a lot of scandals sexual abuse, scandals, physical abuse, scandals, all sorts of things across the globe as mission organizations are what to do.

SHEFFIELD: And we'll talk about some of that a little bit later. But what age were you when your parents [00:09:00] decided to go and do that?

Father Deported from Panama to Florida

AKSAMIT: I was born in Panama. So I've you know got dual citizenship, which is nice, but I was born there. I was about one and a half years old. I don't remember the whole deportation that's recounted in the book. That was from interviewing my parents. Essentially, they my, during that time, anyone who was kind of in a sensitive area for Noriega, the dictator of Panama at the time was suspect for being an American spy, especially if you were American.

And so they kind of showed up at our house and said that we had an illegal radio, which we didn't at the time. I mean, we did have one, but not then. And then they took my dad, left the rest of us there in the jungle. And We heard back from him a week later. He was in Florida. Apparently they had questioned him thoroughly and were either too afraid that he might actually be a spy or that he wasn't a spy and either way, they didn't want to just make him disappear because it might, they were kind of in a precarious position with the United States at the [00:10:00] time.

So they decided the best thing apparently was just to put him on a plane to Florida. And then he called us called the mission and the mission told us that we, he was alive in Florida. Then we've gotten a plane in the following week.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, so the time frame here. What was this?

AKSAMIT: The yeah, that would have been that would have been in 1989.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah, so just for people who don't know who Manuel Noriega was, maybe you can tell us?

AKSAMIT: Noriega was a dictator that was a CIA puppet for the majority of his career. He ran afoul of George. H. W. Bush when his name kept coming up inside of some kind of clandestine files so anyone who knows anything about Bush senior knows that he was the head of the CIA, but apparently, he was the head of the CIA.

Just spontaneously. He had no affiliation with the CIA before he led it, which is a little bit irregular. It's come out more recently that he was likely part of the [00:11:00] CIA before that point. But yeah, so when that started coming out, it was a little bit embarrassing connections to Noriega. Noriega had a lot of drug dealing, a lot of different, he was essentially a thug of Panama.

He had come into power. Via his CIA connections and also writing a r of kind of a wave of popularity from his predecessor Omar Tor Torrio. Torrio was a, not necessarily a Democratic hero, but he definitely was a hero of Panama. He represented the people in ways that no other leader at that time had, and he died in suspicious ways and, The CIA was indicated in that.

So, Noriega, when he came into power, and then his CIA connections kind of came out into Panama, the Panamanian citizens didn't really like him, and then the U. S. didn't really like him, and it kind of ended with his ousting in 1989.

Living in missionary compounds and going to church-run schools

SHEFFIELD: so your father's sent back to Florida. What happens after that?

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so at that point they were trying to sort out what's they [00:12:00] could do, they didn't, they were still inside the mission the mission placed them inside of a missionary training boot camp, is what they called it, up in Wisconsin.

It was a compound, essentially a commune, a Christian commune, everybody worked, they had gardens, it was self-sustaining. And my parents helped train other missionaries to go to, did they call it a commune? No, they did not. They did not. It was a bootcamp, very militaristic, it was a bootcamp.

And yeah, so they had classes teaching theology, all these things. Women were not allowed to teach any of the classes. Women weren't allowed to wear jeans for the first part. It finally switched over towards the end. They're able to wear. pants. They had to wear dresses at first. You weren't allowed to play cards.

We weren't allowed to go to the movies. Very much, strict fundamentalism ideology and theology. As a kid, I grew up, being taught about the end of the world from like a very strangely young age, right? I remember my sister and I—I write [00:13:00] about this in the book—we were convinced that my dad might be the Antichrist.

Because our kindergarten teacher had told us that the Antichrist would be somebody that everybody liked, who was really nice, and, but then turns out to be evil. And so I'm like, wait a second. The nicest person we know right now is our dad. He's probably the antichrist. So yeah, there was a lot of those sort of things I would wake up every morning and like go down to the window to look out the window to see if Jesus had come back yet Because that was, the thing that we were all supposed to be looking forward to I would, I was constantly terrified of Going to hell because like I didn't fully understand, it's impossible to explain Theology to a child and I didn't understand any of it.

I just knew that hell existed, and it was a terrible place. I didn't want to go there. And so like, I would have like panic attacks as a child, like for years being like, I don't know. This is a bad place. I don't want to go there. And my mom would have to explain it. We don't believe you will like that kind of stuff.

So it was it was an interesting upbringing in that area, but we were there until [00:14:00] 95. And in 95, we were able to go back to Panama because all my dad. Apparently, his records had been, had disappeared.

Seeing Satan everywhere as a child

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and so to just go back to what you were saying about this end of the world obsessions I think, having had some of those same things inculcated to me when I was born in fundamentalist Mormonism.

I think a lot of people haven't really seen that up close, and that's part of why I was glad to do a blurb for your book and to support you here because I think a lot of people, they don't really understand like this is a totaling worldview. Yeah, yeah. Talk about that a little bit if you could.

AKSAMIT: Yeah. Yeah. There's It's something I think that I was definitely on the more extreme end of what children received inside of, evangelicalism, the more fundamentalist not everybody inside of, who went to Sunday school where [00:15:00] it was taught about the antichrist or that demons could possess anything.

That's one. Another fear that we had was that our stuffed animals were possessed by demons because, they could possess anything. So, we had lots of fears, all entirely based upon things we were taught inside of our Sunday schools and preschools and kindergartens, because we, they were all inside the same area being taught by the same people.

And the very prominent amongst all of the teaching was that the end of the world was coming. And I think, I believe that most people personally believe that the end of the world was probably going to happen before they died. I know that's, that was conversation that I would pick up on a lot was like, it's a fallen world.

We need to do our best to reach all these. That was part of the whole point of missions was that they believed that by contacting all these, law, all these tribes around the world, all these remote. Places was that then the, and then Jesus could come back because Jesus said that every tongue will speak, and everybody's confessed that Jesus Christ is [00:16:00] Lord.

So they can't do that if they have never heard about it. So missions were essentially to bring about the end of the world.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, I mean, it is, I can't emphasize enough that, we're, we live in a country where there are literally millions of people going around every day and they think about this stuff every single day.

AKSAMIT: And I do think that something is kind of lost on some people when they see, I mean, and there's millions of grifters out there, don't get me wrong, but when they see these people. Spouting what seems to be nonsense. They assume that they're grifting. They assume that they're trying to take advantage of people's fears.

But, in my experience, the reality is that while there are some very prominent grifters, a huge number of them truly believe this. This is something that they are doing because of a heartfelt conviction. This is something that is like, I was one of those people. I was trying to, gain influence through my, my Christianity.

It was because I thought that people I cared [00:17:00] about were going to go to hell forever and the world was ending. And that. Which all ties into, like, why global warming doesn't matter, or any of these things. A lot of it's tied into this belief system that, the world's ending, it's a fallen world, why are we concerned about these things? We should be concerned about saving people's souls, not feeding them.

Why many fundamentalists don't care about actual government policies

SHEFFIELD: Hmm, yeah. Well, yeah, and that is, that really does fit into a lot of republican policy ideas now that they, especially in regard to the environment. I mean, you see that a lot that, well, it doesn't, none of this stuff matters because Jesus is going to come back and fix everything.

So yeah. Who cares?

AKSAMIT: Yeah. And he promised you'd never flood the world again. Right? So we don't have to worry about that, ice melts or anything.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, yeah. Good point there. And another kind of example of this sort of nonchalant attitude about terrible and tragic things and sort of a refusal to plan or even respond to them in [00:18:00] any way was during the COVID 19 pandemic in 2021. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said something that was extremely revealing, and I'll just put it up on the screen for those watching and then read it off here.

He said, I'm often asked by some of my friends on the other side of the aisle about COVID and why does it seem like folks in Mississippi and maybe in the Mid-South are a little less scared, shall we say, when you believe in eternal life, when you believe that living on this earth is but a blip on the screen.

Then you don't have to be so scared of things and. So he caught a lot of flak for that, but not enough. I don't think. I think to this day, most people have, outside of people who do cover this stuff in journalistically like you and I do, I would say most people have never heard that quote.

AKSAMIT: Yeah. And I think it is I think it's indicative of how the majority of American press deal with any sort of religious. [00:19:00] Anything they give it a pass in a way that doesn't exist for anything else like They can say people can say the most obscene and ridiculous things, but as long as it's coded in biblical language, they're able to just be like, okay Yeah, that's, that's okay.

Like, and it happens all the time. The most ridiculous things are uttered by pastors from the pulpit. Pastors who have massive, massive followings and not just like fringe ones, politicians, like they say these things and then the media either just doesn't cover it or they even cover it in almost a positive way.

Like, well, that's a one way of thinking of it kind of deal.

SHEFFIELD: Mm hmm. And you, do you think that that's because they've just got this sort of, I don't know, reflexive, braindead well, we have to respect everybody's religion. Is that what it is?

AKSAMIT: Yeah, I think that's part of it. But I do, that definitely does what it does exist.

I think also a huge part of it is just the civic relate, Civic religion of America, being Christianity [00:20:00] and everyone's kind of grown up in it in some aspect or another. And so when you hear these things that would be outlandish to anyone from like, the Netherlands to us as Americans, we hear like, Oh, yeah, like, like, we don't even We don't even question why people are saying this or how this is a belief that exists in the 21st century.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's a good point and some people who do kind of write about far-right movements and sort of, neo fascism to them, they want to check everybody and put everybody into the Hitler Mussolini box. And the reality is, most of these people have never read anything from Hitler or Mussolini.

Might not even know who Mussolini was. So to say that this, so like I some people, I think are kind of ignoring it in another, for that reason as well, that it's it doesn't have the language, this explicit Germanic and, neo I don't know, sort of, Nietzschean [00:21:00] overtones, and so it's hard for them to see the authoritarianism as a one off thing.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, it, they, and I think that, like, we've come to see authoritarianism. As not as dangerous as it is. Like, we think of In America, at least I think a huge percentage of the population thinks authoritarianism and communism are the same thing, right? And they don't think authoritarianism, like, even, they're excusing so much, so many forms of authoritarianism that exist outside of Stalinism.

It's like, that they're, don't even have a problem with it. And it's also we also have the quote of United States of Amnesia, right? We have a very limited. Historical knowledge. I we're very much like, oh, the past doesn't matter. It doesn't influence us in any way.

The only thing that matters is what we're doing right now. And we're not influenced at all by the, the fact that Franco and DeSantis have a lot in common. Like, there's not like these things don't matter to us in a way that if we were a little bit more.

Historically literate, I think we would be a bit more on edge, a little [00:22:00] bit more ready to act when these things are thrown up, these clearly damaging ideas and these clearly, like, dangerous propositions are put out there.

Roaming the jungles of Panama as a child

SHEFFIELD: Alright, well, so you moved around a bunch and so you, when you were back in Panama as much as they, as, you, you write in the book about how you So, while you were sort of curricula was strongly controlled your sort of personal time really didn't involve a lot of supervision.

AKSAMIT: None.

SHEFFIELD: Tell us about some of those stories.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. So my personal time had very little supervision unless those times were us being out with like local people. There was very much a fear of being too close to the Panamanian citizens, like there's too, a fear of being too chummy with our neighbors because there was a [00:23:00] different, culture between obviously evangelical missionaries and just everyday people living in the community that we were, our compound was placed into.

And that, so there was very much supervision when we were with these guys, because they didn't want to, their sinful nature rubbing off on us. But as far as if we were just to go out, like my friend and I, we would go oh, we would stay out all day. We'd bike to this river, which is this river, this place has a special plate, I think a lot of people have like a special spot in their mind that they go to, if they're trying to like, maybe calm down or whatever I think it was where Herzog, he talks about his, is this waterfall in in Germany, but mine is this river.

In Panama that I would take, it was several miles from where I lived. You'd have to cross these cow pastures with these really angry bulls who would always chase you. And if they ever got to you, they would wreck you. Like one time one got to me, and I had to throw my bike at it and just destroyed my bike.

But I got through it, and we get to this river and the rivers got is full of came [00:24:00] in these little, crocodiles and there's toucans everywhere. There's these, beautiful wildlife. And I would spend my entire day there. To hunt these crocodiles, which I was a kid thinking I could do that.

I never obviously got one. We would make these wooden spears out of sticks, and we'd throw them at them, and it just bounced off their backs. But one time I did try, and I came up with an idea where I had a dead bird and I was caught, climbed out over a branch over the water and my friend was with me and we're, dipping the bird into the water, trying to get the alligator, the crocodiles attention.

And they all kind of came. There were about 30 of these guys in the water and they're all underneath us. When my friend said, I think this branch is a little a little unstable and it cracked. It cracks between him and me. And I was on the branch that fell into the water, and he was still up in the tree.

So I fell about, I don't know, maybe five or six feet into the water, tangled up in this branch, holding a dead bird while these alligators are even more interested in all the commotion kind of came even closer. And my friends ended up shouting, throw the bird. But I had just spent the better part of the day.

Trapping and killing this bird to use as bait. And so I didn't want to throw [00:25:00] it, and it held onto a really long time until I could see the eyes of these guys, like, in my eyes. Tossed it, and I swear I ran on water. Back to shore, managed not to get eaten, but yeah, that's where I, that's where I spent all my time and in my as far as special places go, that's always got a special place in my heart, that river.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and did you tell your parents what had happened?

AKSAMIT: I think probably like a few days later, yeah, and it didn't influence their decisions at all on whether or not I should go back to the river. Just kind of like a bit of admonishment. You got to be careful, Lance. I guess it worked out.

But yeah, no, I like as far as supervision goes and I remember we would have access to a crazy amount of like fireworks because there's fireworks a big deal down there and I would one time I cut open a firework, got all the gunpowder out to, like, just blow random stuff up. And unfortunately, I wasn't very careful.

I had a sandwich bag full of gunpowder in my hands that went off. And it just burned all the skin off my hands. All of it. I had to go to the hospital every other day for, like, 12 days for them to, like, [00:26:00] cut the dead skin off. It was terrible. Again, very little change in my oversight after that as well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, so hopefully that should give people an idea of how it works.

Attending home school

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's a good point. Alright, so you, so, you were doing this, you were brought up and, so not only were you living in these facilities and basically in the middle of nowhere you were also extensively part of the homeschool culture.

And I think that that's another aspect of, this extremist evangelicalism that a lot of people haven't really seen a lot and maybe they're getting a little taste of it with Some of the recent documentary about the Duggar family.

AKSAMIT: I haven't seen that yet. Actually, I'm going to watch it eventually.

I've got it. It's on my bucket list. I got to get to that.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Yeah. Well, it's So, I, but, I mean, that's part of the idea of this being a totalizing ideology, that, that not only are they giving you [00:27:00] constant you have to go to religious, explicitly religious instruction all the time, but then also your, they control your secular learning as well, and basically turn that also into religious instruction.

Tell us how that worked for you.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so like, I transitioned from either private school to homeschooling to private school, and by private school I mean private Christian school. I didn't go to a public school until one year in middle school, and then again in 10th grade in high school. So those were outside of those timeframes.

It was all either homeschooled or religious private schools. And my friends were homeschooled. My best friends, they were homeschooled. It was very much a belief that education, the public education system's entire endeavor was to indoctrinate us to, it, convince us that God wasn't real and that [00:28:00] evolution was.

Essentially, I think that's, if I could boil down what I thought the problem was as a kid was that like they wanted me to believe in evolution and that if evolution was true then God wasn't. And so It's an interesting ecosystem that you get put into inside these private Christian schools, like I think there's a lot that can be said for, for homeschooling, there's, I got some, a good education out of it, but it is a, definitely a form of making sure that you believe what your parents do. And, I was taught inside the private schools, the private Christian schools, that for example, that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time. In fact, I had a coloring book as a kid that had dinosaurs. It was like a Christian coloring book.

It had Noah's Ark, all that stuff. It had dinosaurs with saddles on them. So that way you could, like, people rode dinosaurs. That's, that was because they had to exist at the same time, so people had to interact with them, so I guess they wrote them at some point. We were taught inside of my school that the earth had a large ice [00:29:00] shield around it at one point, which trapped in higher levels of oxygen, which was what allowed lizards, which all dinosaurs are lizards that grow really big and the higher amounts of oxygen cause the lizards to grow into dinosaurs.

And that's all that they were. And that was all, 6, 000 years ago. Very, very recent, and the flood is what caused them all to be buried in layers that are, not at all uniform, I guess. There's some hazy logic that takes place there, but the science was definitely one of the most difficult things to start taking when I went to public school.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And I think, people, again, so many people, like, this is such an insular subculture that people who haven't seen it themselves or known someone who was in it It's almost impossible, as you were saying, it's impossible to believe that people in the 21st century have these ideas.

Like, you don't want to think that, because, I mean, it's like they, it's [00:30:00] like they thought the Flintstones, you thought the Flintstones were a documentary.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, essentially, like, that's what it was like, there were people and, pre flood, that's probably what life was like for most people.

How Biblical literalism prepares people for political conspiracy theories

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and, and it's related, though, because this type of, deliberate delusion because like, I think, and I don't want to speak for you, but like for me, I knew, I didn't believe necessarily in the 6, 000 year old earth idea, but I did believe that, somehow or another, it was-- I never tried to completely make it make sense because I just couldn't.

But there's always that tension though and that everybody who is brought up in these beliefs has, that science debunks your beliefs. But you also know that your beliefs have to be true because they're based on the Bible and the Bible is true because the Bible says it's true.

And, and [00:31:00] it's like it created the environment, like this type of, kind of messed up epistemology, like Donald Trump is the perfect person for this. Like when people say, well, how can people really believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election? How can they really actually believe that?

And it's like, well, talk to Lance.

AKSAMIT: No, for real. Like I, I think that's what I write about. I was like, when you grow up in an ecosystem where believing the most bizarre things is counted unto you as righteousness, right? Like, that your faith in the most obviously untrue things is a good thing.

When you're brought up to believe that, then believing other random BS is not hard to do. Right? It's not just not hard, it's second nature. Which is kind of why, like, when, Trump did, like, I expect, when I saw him on there, I was, I expected him to get the Republican nomination when I saw him running, I was like, he seems like, he's saying all, like, [00:32:00] all the things that captures the grievance culture that I grew up in, like, I, this was like, yeah, he's going to get, I was surprised when he won I thought the Electoral College was going to, go with Hillary.

I was convinced of that, but I was surprised by that, but that he was the nomination. I was like, of course, like that, that makes tons of sense.

Switching to public school in 10th grade and going to youth group activities

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Well, so, so you went to high school for your 10th grade year public high school. How so science was hard for you.

What else, what other sort of culture shocks did you have?

AKSAMIT: Like, that my school had gay kids, that was like, like, cause that was something that I was completely unfamiliar with, so it was really interesting cause I went there and I was weird enough that like, nobody was really, like, Nobody was really my friend at first and the first group of people to like accept me were like the goth kids and Most of the goth kids were the term didn't really exist at a time as far as I was aware and any of them were Aware, but they were probably like, we would call like non binary kids [00:33:00] today Like and they were super accepting of me and super kind and I just immediately fit in with that group of kids And that was a really hard thing because like these guys were like really awesome.

I really liked them. And so the, I remember one particularly cringeworthy event where I was, because it was my duty to proselytize and get these kids to church because that's what youth group was all about, was getting the lost sheep back to the flock trying to get these kids into church.

And so I, I would invite them to youth group all the time and a lot of them would go with me and, they would be like, okay, that was fun and not come back. And so like, I got a lot of them, and I remember one conversation I had with this girl that I really liked. I had this huge crush on and she, like, she was bisexual, and I knew that, and I was like, I love you, but I hate the sin.

Like I had that, I literally had that conversation with her and I, looking back on it, it's still like, I like clenched my teeth. Like, it's just so painful to try and remember that. And she was. [00:34:00] incredibly gracious with me. She was just like, okay, all right. And just like, kind of just let it roll off her back.

And we still hung out and we're friends. Like I, I wouldn't have been friends with me, but she still was. And like that was something that like, just recognizing that these, people that weren't. Evangelical Christians. They weren't even Catholics. They were good people, right? And like that was kind of like hard to reconcile.

And then I think also it was inside of a classroom. This is when like I think the very first like real crack in my belief system happened was When we were having a debate, like I had a really great teacher, an English teacher Miss Sarah Skeen, who I love to death. And at the end of the year, she would have these debates and we pick different ones.

And one of them was whether or not creative design should be taught in the classroom. And of course I was in the pro, creative design argument. And I started having, we had this debate with this other kid, and he brought up. Kangaroos, which I had never heard of at the time. He's like, okay, well, [00:35:00] kangaroos only their skeletons only exist in Australia.

They never found kangaroo skeletons in Europe or North America. And if they were all over the world, like in the world was all one thing that recently how and why are the bones only there? And I was like, like, it's weird that that simple, silly little fact was the first thing to just like, just it hit me so hard that for like the rest of the day, I remember just kind of like.

running over it in my head a million times and just being like, I don't know. Why is that? Why is that the case? And I think that was like a kind of a keystone moment for me. And from that point forward, I definitely every bit of factual evidence, every sort of thing that kind of came my way, that just.

I considered it at a deeper level than I had ever before, and when you get enough of those things, it's just, it becomes impossible to, to maintain the this these two worldviews in your head at the same time, it's, it, and you have to select one at some point.

SHEFFIELD: Hmm. Yeah. [00:36:00] Well, and so the title of the book is “Youth Group.”

AKSAMIT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: So you started going to Youth Group. So, I think maybe people might have some general idea of what these are, but tell us about the ones that you went to.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so, yeah, I went to lots of youth groups, because it was one of the few opportunities for like unsupervised between me and other people were.

So like mostly like, that's where girls were. I was, I'm, a high school boy. And like, that's where the only time I was able to see other people that weren't inside of my religious clique mostly. And so I went to youth group the primary youth group I went to every single Tuesday night, but then I went to another church's youth group every Wednesday, I went to one, which was in the mornings, at my school every Wednesday morning, and then another one. So, essentially, at one time, I would go to five different youth groups a week. And they were all, these If anyone who went to these things kind of knows what I'm talking about when I talk, when I say that they are just kind of [00:37:00] glitzy, lots of, like, lights, trying, the whole idea was to try and get kids.

And so they would have the most ridiculous events, like, I had a goldfish eating competition where, like, you'd eat live goldfish? Like, that was a thing that just happened in a church. Like, they would have, like, these bizarre events to try and get lots of kids. into these things. And these youth groups were very, I mean, still are but were very, very popular across my experience was mostly the Midwest.

And they would, they, in these groups, once they'd have kind of like a cycle, right? They'd start off with at the beginning of the year, just talking about the basics of Christianity and these different things. And then as the year progressed, they would eventually always get back to the end of the world, which is always something that we would discuss with.

Just a bizarre amount of like levity which like when you talk about like it was really a deep and heavy conversation But we were all super excited about it like kind of like, Yeah Jesus is going to come back and he's going to Kill every everybody like everybody's going to die who's not a Christian and they're [00:38:00] going to go to hell for forever.

But we were excited about it. But we knew we weren't supposed to be, and these conversations would come up all the time and we would just talk about, like, that's, that's why our, my church I went to, which was a Christian Missionary Alliance Church one of their big things was missions. And so, like, our church youth group would go to, we went to Haiti to, on a missions trip to try and, I don't know what we were trying to do there but try and save people.

Getting brainwashed about sex in youth group

AKSAMIT: But yeah, these youth groups, the whole intention was. It's essentially an evangelism tool to make sure, one, that the church kids stayed in the church, and two, for the church kids to get outside kids who weren't in the church into the church. So that was the whole point of youth groups. And they would circulate some of the most oftentimes sexist and awful messages, misogynist messages when it came to like, like purity culture and all those things.

As a guy, I was lucky enough to kind of be on the male end of that, which was bad enough. Like I would meet every Thursday morning at a Burger King at 6am where we would discuss the [00:39:00] last time we watched internet porn or masturbated, like, and we would be like, I called it an accountability group, and this was something that we had to do.

And we'd read every man's battle, which was a terrible book. And this was like constantly guilting, like, guilting us into like. Just feeling terrible about ourselves was, which was not the point they would say, but essentially it was because every single bit of it was like, you should feel really bad.

And that's why you shouldn't do these things. And if you do these things, God's really upset with you. And then obviously girls had it really terrible too, because their entire value. Was placed upon purity culture like if they were impure they had no value to God or to their future husbands Which they of course wanted so like it was it that was probably I think if you talk to anybody inside of youth groups in That time frame that's probably one of the first things that they might you know come to mind.

SHEFFIELD: And just to step back. So in case people were casually listening to what you just said, your church group [00:40:00] was requiring teenage boys to get together and tell on each other if they were touching themselves.

AKSAMIT: Yes. Yes. That was I should say it was a soft requirement. You could still go to the youth group, but it was very much like the leadership team was required.

Like, it was, I don't remember them saying you have to go, but like, yeah, you had to go. And I was in the leadership team, and it was about five or six guys every Thursday morning. And that's what we did. And it's interesting because later, much later on in life, I started reading Jeff Sharlett’s book C Street, and he talks about how the Family, the Fellowship, they actually did the exact same thing. They talk about where they have these accountability groups.

SHEFFIELD: But adults, who are government officials. Government officials.

AKSAMIT: And I doubt they met at a Burger King. But they would have the exact same accountability groups about the exact same things.

And I was just like, wow. [00:41:00] Alright, like, I, it was kind of I don't know, that was kind of eye opening for me as well. I thought it was just kind of something they were able to pull on unsuspecting teenage boys, not grown government officials.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but on the other hand, if you were born and raised in that environment where being asked questions about, such a personal nature, that that's okay.

Then you can be asked that at any age.

AKSAMIT: Right. Or if your entire housing, like in the case of C Street, is being paid for by the people asking you to go to these things, then there's also that. .

Traveling the world as a young adult and beginning to lose faith

SHEFFIELD: And so, alright, so you somehow survived your childhood. Somehow. Yeah, and so, you start, you're thinking about college. How, what, let's get into that experience for you.

AKSAMIT: So I again, I was in high school, and I was in youth group, and it was pretty much a given that I was going to go into the mission field at some level.

Like there was one was I couldn't, the way that I grew [00:42:00] up, being free to like wander around in the jungles and catching snakes and spiders and everything like that was very much influenced what I wanted to do. And I knew that I didn't want to just go to. Didn't want to just go to college.

Like that wasn't for me. I couldn't envision myself going through what I thought to be just another four years of high school. So I was like, I could go to the mission field, like that would be okay. So I was going to go to Bible school. So I went to visit a couple of Bible schools. I went to one in Wisconsin which was New Tribes Missions Bible school that they, train all of their people in non—I believe at the time, non-accredited school, I'm pretty sure it still is non-accredited school, hermeneutics or whatever, and then send them off to the mission field.

And I went there and it was such a strict like, the rules there, I remember even for me, like, I was like, oh my goodness, I can't do that, like, the boys and girls, weren't allowed to interact without supervision of chaperones, and it was like [00:43:00] the buildings were completely different where the girls and boys could interact at all, like, and there were always very strict rules on what you could and couldn't do, and I was just like, I don't know if that's for me either.

But I knew I wanted to go, I wanted to be in the missionary. I want to be a missionary. That's, cause that's the only thing I could think of that was even close to being what I grew up with and what I wanted to. Wanted to do with my life, so I was really lost. I was like, I didn't know what to do So eventually I just was like, you know what?

I'm going to travel like I'm going to I'm going to take pack a bag buy a ticket I'm going to just I'm going to travel the world so I end up working really Crazy amounts like around 80 hours a week at multiple jobs saving every penny And then I bought, as soon as I had enough money, I kind of ran a little bit of a scam on the U.S. Mint. I don't know if that's a story you want to get into here. It's in the book. And bought a ticket to Vietnam. Because like, that's what I wanted to do. At this time, my evangelicalism had been cracking enough that I knew I wanted, I couldn't [00:44:00] fully dispose of these old beliefs that I had, but I knew that I couldn't exist inside of that same, inside of the same frame of mind and do what I wanted to do.

So I kind of was shifting to more of a kind of bland spirituality. Like, there's God loves everyone that kind of, kind of. Vibe I didn't want to think about, like, what my views were on hell were, because I knew I had, like, in my mind, I had to believe in hell if I believed in God, so I just kind of was like, I just kind of stopped thinking about it, and just was like, I'm going to, I'm going to, I'm going to travel, and so I packed my bag and went to Vietnam.

SHEFFIELD: Do you want to get into the Vietnam stuff, or do you want to like, I don't want to spoil the book for people. No, no.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, the book itself, I mean, it is it's more than just my life.

It also has, like, the historical foundations of Christian nationalism in America through, four timeframes of the Great Awakening the Civil War, the Russian Counter Revolution and Ronald Reagan. So there's a lot in there that I don't know if we're going to jump into any, much of that.

But as far as mine I'm more than happy to talk about [00:45:00] yeah. So like Vietnam was something completely unexpected for me. So when I got there, I immediately felt like there wasn't room. In me for like what I was encountering and experiencing and for who I was at the time when I arrived.

I kind of, I came across so much, up to that point, I had essentially what I think of as two religions. I had, Christianity, Evangelicalism, and then I also had American Exceptionalism. And my view of American Exceptionalism completely shattered. In Vietnam and Cambodia when I was, like, confronted with, like, the war crimes of Henry Kissinger or what took place in Vietnam and, like, what America had done in Southeast Asia and the realities of those situations of seeing still orphanages full of children with deformities from Agent Orange and, like, seeing these things And putting that into like my belief system of like, America is the [00:46:00] city upon the hill.

Discovering atheist thought

AKSAMIT: It just didn't work. And so that I think shattered my, my, my first religion, which was, American exceptionalism, the first religion to shatter, I should say. And when that broke the remnants of Christianity. Wasn't far behind. So traveling throughout Southeast Asia, I eventually worked in Laos, which is ostensibly a communist country. And kind of realizing that the strict lines between good American capitalism, bad communist any form of socialism that, that kind of, that was done away with.

And in, in short order, I kind of started, I did kind of a Benjamin Button of Christopher Hitchens actually, which is something I don't really write about, but I started kind of looking into things, started reading things, and, of course, I came across a lot of the debates with Christopher Hitchens and those guys, and that kind of started having me reevaluate my religion, and I started following his stuff backwards towards, [00:47:00] towards socialism because at the time, I was still a proponent of the Iraq War and all these different things, and so was he.

And so it kind of got me in there, and I wanted to read more, so I read back, and then I started disagreeing with him, and kind of, dovetailing kind of splitting away from that, but it was kind of, I've recently come across a lot of people who have had a very similar reverse growth when it comes to Christopher Hitchens and how they kind of helped break out, break them out of their religious fundamentalism but then starts parting ways when it came towards more of the American interventionism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And after that happened and you kind of began pulling away from how you were raised, you also you write toward the end of the book about you got sucked into another subculture on the internet which unfortunately has become a lot more prominent since you experienced it and tell us about what that culture was and your, how it was for you. [00:48:00]

AKSAMIT: Yeah, so that was at the very beginning of the Christopher Hitchens phase. So Christopher Hitchens, I started watching his debates there, anyone who's watched them, he's an eloquent speaker. Very persuasive, even if he's not the most in depth as far as his actual critiques go as, as far as Christianity goes.

So I was like looking for a bit more. So I started finding Harris and the other what do they call them, the four horsemen all those guys, and I was like, okay, this is interesting. Kept reading and watching it, but very quickly the new atheist line is because, this is YouTube knows what it's doing to get views would really shift you into white genocide.

Like you would go from like watching something about. How all the religious fundamentalists in the 20th century were primarily fascists, like fascism and religious fundamentalism. And that was almost equitable throughout a huge period of time. And also the next video was like, yeah, there's a white genocide.

And you're like, what there is. And so like, you're watching this, and you start watching things like [00:49:00] Auschwitz had swimming pools. Like there's all these videos that just are shot at you. And. Luckily enough for me, when that I had met, my wife at that time, she was a big help with like, cause I would, a lot of times the people who are watching these things are single dudes and they don't have a whole lot of people to talk to who aren't outside of that sphere.

And so, like, I had somebody to talk to that was like, some of these ideas were like, like, oh did you know this? And she's like, oh, that sounds right. And I personally, I hate being wrong, like I absolutely hate being wrong about stuff, and so I did more research, but there was a time frame for about maybe two years where I think it was borderline.

I could have been, I could have been at January 6th on the wrong side of things very easily. Because the conspiratorial thinking that, that is so prevalent amongst this group of, QAnon guys and stuff. I never, this was before that, so I never was introduced to that. But this conspiratorial thinking [00:50:00] is something that I was very familiar with, right?

It smelled like hope in a lot of ways. So like the conspiratorial thinking that was introduced to me, through YouTube when it comes to whether or not the, Nazis were actually that bad, or whether there's an actual white genocide or the Great Replacement taking place in America. Those conspiracies, these ideas that there was a powerful elite, a powerful group of people trying to keep the truth from me, and That was a very familiar sensation, because, that was essentially what I was told as a kid, that, the truth is what I'm being taught from my parents and my church, and that there's a whole powerful in the public education system, the government trying to force feed me propaganda, and I need to not listen to it, make sure I only listen to the truth, but like, so that, that conspiracy thinking, that conspiratorial thinking was something very much familiar, and I almost, almost bought into it.

There's a period of time for about two years where I think that I was on the edge there, and if I didn't have my wife, or I didn't have [00:51:00] the disposition that I have of—I love research and I love reading and I hate being wrong. And every idea that I come across, I have to find the opposite idea.

Like, just because I want to weigh them, I want to balance them. I was like, okay, does the opposite idea make more sense than this one? And if it doesn't, I generally go with whatever the one that makes the most sense. And I think without those sorts of things, that we would've been having a much different interview or no interview at all. I don't know.

How personalized content recommendations can radicalize people

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, probably not. But there's two things about that experience for you that do strike me one and maybe we'll talk about them sequentially here the first is that I think people again, the internet as you see it and as I see it is different than the internet that Somebody watching this right now or listening to it right now.

We don't see the same internet especially in social media platforms. And so, [00:52:00] again, this is another example of how these insular cultures can be invisible to people who are not, who are not around them or inside of them because, You, you wouldn't, if you weren't watching the, if you were not watching, let's say, a Jordan Peterson video or something.

He was thankful, yeah. Yeah, you're not going to see, YouTube is not going to send you, oh, and also let's talk about, how the Nazis weren't all bad or something like that. You're not going to see those. You're not even going to know that they exist. And it's a very serious...

Responsibility and problem for the people who own these platforms and for the public to shame them for what they're doing.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, it's a hard thing. It's because like the Allure of secret knowledge is something I think we all have, right? I mean we all want to be in the know We all want to like And we all have an innate sense of justice of like, it's there and there [00:53:00] has been, and that's, I think that's one thing that on the mainstream and more left, we don't want to, we don't acknowledge enough is that the enemies that a lot of times that these crazy conspiratorial people the QA non people are angry at, there is a lot of things that they have done wrong.

Like there's a real, there's a real problem here and yet they go with the most bizarre. Our left field crazy answers to these problems, like instead of being like, Oh yeah, Oh, like the most common one I just ran into while visiting in laws was this guy talking about how Barack Obama's wife is actually a man and they had stolen kids and it's like, there's plenty of wrong things that Barack Obama, his drone program killed thousands of civilians.

But yet this is the thing that you're like, so there's a real issue that isn't being talked about inside of mainstream very much. So, the drone programs, these things, but instead of going with the things that are, actual, they go with the most bizarre conspiratorial things. And I think a lot of it is like what you're saying the feed that they get on these social medias, [00:54:00] the internet's not the same.

Then, when you start clicking on these things, it's like, oh, you like this, you like this, you like this, keep, keep on, keep on feeding it to you. And then how to fix that. And that's, that's a whole. We'll know the conversation, but I do think that there needs to be a conversation around the reality of bringing somebody out of that. I think there has to be an acknowledgment of that you're right, a lot of these enemies that you see, there are enemies out there, but you're going to a crazy direction with this.

Like, Big Pharma, that's the big thing right now, right? Big Pharma has done lots of terrible things to everybody.The government's done lots of terrible things. Why are you going with this most obscure thing? We have well-documented cases right here. Let's read about these. Let's try and fix the real problems. And the real problems, I think, are being swept under the rug by both sides because they're both responsible for them. Whereas the bizarre ones, they're allowed to flourish. [00:55:00]

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, I think that's a good point though. Their right to see that there are problems in society. And one area where this is especially true is that the Republican Party does not actually represent the people who vote for it. And so their voters do rightfully feel like their concerns are not heard by society.

But the problem is, they're blaming the wrong people for this. And they should be looking inward, and looking to the people who lead them as the people who did this.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, that's something I write about a little bit is how the Republican Party shifted from having a platform of policies to a platform of values as a way of being able to get their base to not recognize that what they're doing is harmful to them. So like when the [00:56:00] Republican Party shifted to essentially being the party of evangelicals.

They had a problem. So for up to that point, the Republican party was a party of wealthy business owners and wealthy business owners. The thing that mattered the most to them was obviously policies, taxes, all those sorts of things. And there's holdovers obviously for that. But when they became the party of evangelicals for the most part at the time, it, With Carter and then into Reagan, they, even though they didn't have money, they weren't wealthy individuals, so they couldn't maintain the same platform of being like, Yeah, we're going to actively hurt you guys, but vote for us.

So they switched over to, Oh, we're the party of family values. We care about these things. And they're vague enough to be able to get people like, yeah. I'm going to put whatever meaning I want to that and this is what's, this is what we're going to vote for. I want to vote for the party that is all about America, right?

Like whatever that means. So they were able, because they knew that what they were doing wasn't going to help their base. [00:57:00] So they had to shift it to a whole new thing to be able to maintain the evangelical base.

"New Atheism" as a vector for reactionary ideas

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's right. And the other thing though about like your process, personal process that I think is illustrative of another larger trend is that they're the sort of emergence of online atheist activism in the—so we're talking about in the period of like the mid-2000s and 2010s or so.

AKSAMIT: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Like let's say 2007 roughly to like 2013 or something like that.

AKSAMIT: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's probably right. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And the thing about that though is that this community that kind of emerged, it actually was sort of the resurgence of secular conservatism. But they didn't understand that that's what they were doing.

So in other words, they took the same epistemology that they had had when they [00:58:00] were religious, but they just changed the justification, like the starting point. The thinking processes were all the same, everything is about the elites coming out to get you, to suppress you, and the hidden knowledge, and I'm the lone person who's the only smart one, the only rational one.

That's really ultimately what these content creators on YouTube and elsewhere, and you can see it now manifesting with Sam Harris recently, who just made a comment in which he said that he favored getting rid of civil rights laws because the market, the free market will determine whether businesses that discriminate against black people that it will eliminate discrimination all on its own. And that’s Barry Goldwater right there.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, I stopped listening to Harris so I did not hear that bit. I think that that's one reason [00:59:00] that for me at least, like, Christopher Hitchens early on was such an attractive person for me was that he always spoke of these classic authors like Spinoza and all these different guys. And that's what got me into reading those people.

Whereas I feel like Harris and these other guys they were always talking about, it led to obviously like the rise of Jordan Peterson and others. Essentially these self-help gurus that were libertarian leaning. Like the atheist part of it was kind of a hook to get into libertarianism, right?

Where that wasn't Hitchens; he was an old school socialist, even though he turned into pretty much a neocon. But that libertarianism was something that I had come out of by that time. I was a libertarian forever. Libertarianism and evangelicalism, to me, were the same thing, like in my mind. Not the exact same thing, obviously, but they were paired.

So, like, I had been a libertarian since forever, so when introduced to those ideas, it's like, I think this, obviously, like, to me, [01:00:00] it just smacks of just failed philosophy, whereas when I started reading Hitchens and started going back and reading his socialist stuff, I was like, oh, this is something new to me, at least. So, that's what is more interesting for me.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I mean, maybe for you, were you kind of thinking that, oh he's having me rethink not just my religious beliefs, but also my political.

AKSAMIT: Yeah, because I mean, at that time, I was very much still, like I said Hitchens was, diehard Iraq war guy and all this stuff.

And I was too. So like that was because, I, from everything I knew, like, yeah, we totally should have invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein, bad dude. So, I think that was a way of, like, easing me into it, and then him introducing, like, it was literally reading backwards through time. Like, I would start reading his stuff from, like, The nineties and then into the eighties and I was just like, okay, it started making more sense as we went further back [01:01:00] and like, and then his ideas kind of led me to other authors as I read them and then I start really realizing all the people that he used to like Noam Chomsky and all these other guys, which there's other issues with, but like all these other guys now disowned him.

And I'm like, why are the people that he used to be, Super chummy with why are they now disowning him? And so that's our reading them and the more recent stuff and like it oh, okay this starts to make sense. And that's I think even though like Southeast Asia and stuff had really broke my American exceptionalism I hadn't really connected that with the present political state of the wars and different things, I was kind of all over the place with the cracking of my personal religious beliefs, my belief in America, all these things that are kind of broken and they're being re-put together.

And there's still all sorts of remnants in my brain that I haven't really thought about, like, oh why do I think that? Those sorts of things are still, I find every so often.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I, I think that's definitely true for a lot of people.

How friends and relatives have responded to leaving the faith

SHEFFIELD: And so, Let's maybe end here with: So you made these transitions for [01:02:00] yourself, religious and political how has it been for you with your relatives? How did they feel about it all?

AKSAMIT: When it comes to how I relate with my family now, my dad and I used to get into arguments a lot about like. All of these things. And I think since we had our last big kind of blow up about religion. We kind of, it's become a bit of a truce. We’re just going to just exist with each other.

I love my parents. They're great parents. Despite all their faults, in spite of all their faults they are still incredibly loving. And my family is an incredibly loving family and they just they bought in really hard because they came from a very poor fam, both of them were very poor they both came from very rough families, and for them, their youth groups, which is interesting, it was youth groups that got them into And Evangelicalism were places that were healthy in comparison and [01:03:00] so that brought them into the fold.

And that's kind of what religion saved them in a lot of ways. And so they're not going to give up on that. And I can respect that. And they, I think they have come to a point where they can respect that they're not going to be able to really change my mind. And luckily enough for them, they believe in a theology that once you're saved, you're always saved.

So I'm still going to heaven. So it doesn't really matter, I guess. But yeah, they have, I don't know if they've read the book. So I'm visiting them on the 4th of July. I guess we'll see.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, hopefully it goes well for you. Now I guess like, so what's your, I mean, For the future, I think, when you look at the demographics, younger people seem to be walking away from a lot of these fundamentalist beliefs and I think that is something that even the evangelical fundamentalists and other stripes, they can see that's happening, and this is why they're so [01:04:00] angry, because they feel like, that America, they are supposed to own it, and they're seeing that they won't ever be able to.

AKSAMIT: Yeah. And I think what I'm a little worried about is that what's going to replace it will be more dangerous. So right now the, like you said, churches are losing their congregations, but what's growing are these parachurch organizations, these parachurch organizations that have large youth. Components. For example, there's an organization called The Send that had Jair Bolsonaro speaking at it in Brazil, had like 200,000 people, like an insane amount of kids and these guys are, in a way, post-ideological in their own conception of things, like they don't really care if the world's 6,000 years old they, these things aren't important to them, they're very much the Seven Mountains Mandate, N.A. R., like the New Apostolic Revolution like these guys.

These guys [01:05:00] are kind of everywhere, and they're growing in numbers, and while I do think it's about power, it's about power, it's about power, exactly, so like, they don't need, they don't need these, the trappings of evangelicalism.

It's very attractive for some people, like Benny Hinn, for me, like my parents thought Benny Hinn was like this lunatic, crazy person, and now Benny Hinn is speaking at these groups to kids, and kids are buying into this.

I don't quite understand, it's essentially, I guess it's what I grew up with, but with magic, so like, it's pretty popular and they're having huge conferences and they're taking over even the Southern Baptist convention, you see like these seven mountain mandate stuff in there. You see it it's coming into a lot of different aspects of mainstream religion, because they see how successful these guys have been and they're trying to import whatever they can from it, seems like without trying without changing their ideologies too much. [01:06:00] But I don't think they'll be able to maintain that so what's going to happen next after these fundamentalists are out is going to I don't know. It might be even worse.

SHEFFIELD: Well, hopefully not. I mean, but I guess we don't know.

All right. Well, let me put the book up on the screen here for the viewers. So, the book is called Youth Group: Coming of Age in the Church of Christian Nationalism. And Aksamit. Thanks for being here, Lance.

AKSAMIT: Thank you, Matt. It's been a lot of fun.

SHEFFIELD: All right, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us, and you can go to theoryofchange.show where you can get full access to all of the episodes, and if you're a paid subscriber, you get the video, audio, and transcript of everything, so I do encourage everybody to do that. You are making this show possible.

Thanks very much to those who are already doing it, and if you're not, I encourage you to sign up. You can do that [01:07:00] on Substack or on Patreon, whichever one you prefer. So thank you very much for that. And if you are not able to subscribe now for whatever reason, please do share the episodes with your friends and family or colleagues.

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.