Charles Marsh was a teenager in Laurel, Mississippi, when, on the edge of the woods one day, he came across a jettisoned Playboy. He dared take a look, to see the naked breasts that graced the magazines crumpled, mildewed pages. To, in other words, grievously sin.
It’s a memory that makes multiple appearances in Evangelical Anxiety, Marsh’s memoir, out this week. And it’s a moment that’s emblematic of the freighted nature of the evangelical upbringing Marsh details within the book’s pages, an upbringing steeped in conservative, white evangelicalism and the psychological baggage such an upbringing can bestow. For Marsh, now a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, the imperatives of “purity” inherent in his religious education, the ever-present narrative of a cosmic battle between a righteous God and the ruinous temptations of Satan, led to both crippling anxiety and years of afternoons spent on an analyst’s couch. For the reader, the book is an erudite glimpse into the psychology of white evangelicalism and how the current proliferation of white Christian nationalism could spring from the religious imperatives Marsh details. Rolling Stone recently talked with him about religion, mindfucks, and mental health.
As I was watching the January 6th hearings, I kept thinking about your book, and white Christian nationalism and its psychological effects.
I mean, we’ve seen the evangelical commentary industrial complex crank out hundreds, thousands of stories on the strange, dangerous, shocking behavior of white evangelicals over the years, but I don’t think we’ve really understood or tried to understand the psychological shape of that worldview. One of the things that is not typically conveyed in all the stories about evangelical harm—and the dangers of the American evangelical project and its nationalistic or messianic ambitions—is that an evangelical childhood is a total mindfuck. I mean that in a multitudinous sense: it may have a kind of rapacious quality, but it also is exciting and thrilling.
The world of the evangelical is really overcharged with meaning. I mean, there is nothing more associative than the evangelical mind at first blossom. It’s a psychedelic kind of world that you inhabit. In those times when you are in worship and celebration and repentance and in the deep community of evangelical fellowship, you feel that you are right in the center of the metaphysical whirlwind, and you have been invested with a divine, almost superhuman destiny. That excess of emotion and feeling and energy leaves its mark.
It puts white evangelicals at the center of history, the center of the human story.
This kind of evangelical formation does create a profound sense of entitlement, cosmic entitlement. But I think it also has an effect of obliterating difference or of prescribing political and social strategies that obliterate difference.
Can you explain?
Well, let’s propose that the next issue of the DSM includes a diagnosis called evangelical anxiety. It would have descriptions of rapture fears and terrors of the body and all these attendant manic and panic types. But also, I think, it would need to somehow ground that in what is finally this narcissistic identity. It’s an identity that is totalitarian in its understanding of the world and its understanding of truth. It doesn’t admit difference. If it sees difference—whether sexual, political, or racial—it wants to obliterate that or consume that or overwhelm that by its own powers. The awakening into a new identity, a born-again identity, is also an awakening in too many cases to a sense of having an answer for every question and a prescription for every kind of sexual behavior, human behavior, of having such supreme confidence that you’ve been brought into this one truthful, eternally enduring identity. And so when it observes difference, it simply can’t abide difference. It can’t ignore difference; it has to remove it.
Having supreme confidence in one’s intolerance—that sounds like a pretty good definition of Trumpism.
Honestly, I’ve asked myself, “What did Trump offer white evangelicals from a psychological perspective?” Well, he is quite obviously not a man troubled by doubt. Donald Trump is not a man who has any worries about the second coming of Jesus Christ or his eternal salvation. I mean, he may be a slow-moving apocalypse, but he is not worried about the Day of the Lord, right? And so he offers a kind of balm, a temporary balm, to evangelical anxiety of a certain sort. He speaks unapologetically to and beyond our deepest resentments and paranoia and cultural anger. He’s an antidote. Unlike [George] W., who may have tapped into white evangelical, global, militaristic ambitions, Trump is like Christian history’s most influential Grace Pimp. You know, “God not only forgives your prejudices and your nativist, nationalistic attitudes, but God loves them.” These nativistic beliefs have become like sacred dogma.
That’s amazing. I will forever refer to him in my mind as “Donald Trump, the Grace Pimp.”
I mean, I was part of the first fully integrated school system in Mississippi. We imagined that it was our mission as white evangelicals to preserve the purity of the sovereign, sacred South and to preserve the purity of the South’s attendant expressions of purity: the white woman’s body, the sexual body, the body of the church. This Jesus we professed and the idea of the Christian life was very much a projection of these cultural and psychological fears and anxieties.
In my mind, I always think that the number one value of fundamentalist Christianity is a certain conception of purity while the number one value of more mainstream Protestantism is a certain conception of justice or fairness.
Yeah. I mean, we saw race, we saw sexuality, we saw the federal government, we saw civil rights acts as defiling forces that not only would soil our cultural and regional ideals but would wreck us as men and women. It would unsettle us in the same way in which I learned that losing my virginity or losing my purity would bring about a profound and inescapable psychic ruin, that young people who had lost their purity had also lost something central to the integral self, to the self as a coherent functional unity.
If we’re talking psychology, of course we’d end up talking about sex.
God is exceedingly interested in your genitalia and my genitalia and what we do with it. I heard in the earliest sermons on the meaning of life and our eternal destiny and the cosmic import of every decision we make in our life and matters of heaven and hell, that sex is right at the center of that. And so, you know, it’s literally a world charged with the insatiable erotic energies of God, with God and your religious authority figures as micro-managers of your sexual desires and of the things you do with your body.
That sounds healthy.
And there was a sense in which these predatory forces, these little demonic forces, were always after me. I was very enamored by all the persecution passages in the New Testament because I understood, as a young man of God seeking to remain pure and do God’s will, that I was under a constant state of persecution by the forces of the world, and they could take many forms but the intent was an assault on purity and on this ideal of coherence that followed from that. I remember I went out to dinner one night my freshman year in college with this guy from my youth college ministry, and we were talking about sexual temptation and he told me, “Well, you know, Charles, the way I feel about it is that if I ever succumbed to desire and in the excitement of the moment had premarital sex, once I came to my senses, I would have to kill myself.” And I was like, “Oh, wow, that’s awesome. I feel the same way. I’d have to kill myself too.” And we were both like, “Yes!” The irony, of course, is that I technically followed the straight and narrow and kept my purity and went crazy anyway—maybe as a result of that. It was just absolutely too much for my mind and body to bear.
But you ended up on a psychoanalyst’s couch instead of a white nationalist rally or, God forbid, the capitol on January 6.
Yeah, the fire has to go somewhere. The fire would have, in my instance, led to suicide, which is a violence. I mean, I do think that violence is the end of both of those trajectories if there’s not an interruption of grace in some form or fashion.
Why don’t more “recovering Christians,” as they’ve been called, seek out the sort of grace you did?
I mean, the white evangelical project is wracked by inner anxieties, but [for many] it feels that it would be somehow unholy or unseemly, if not even sinful, to interrogate those inner anxieties. There is still a pervasive fear of the psyche and a sense that most mental health problems, depression and anxiety in particular, may find some relief through talk or through medication, but their real source is a spiritual lack, an absence of a certain kind of commitment to the disciplines of the Christian life.
And yet, as the book details, you still consider yourself a Christian even if you no longer have the same commitment to those disciplines?
Yeah, you just have to figure it out on your own in fear and trembling. But I do think in this country, in this time, it takes a certain detachment to maintain that sense of hope and loyalty.
Does anyone escape this upbringing totally unscathed?
I think in some ways evangelical culture in its non-lunatic forms is much healthier than it’s ever been. I mean, my wife is an evangelical campus minister, and she hosted a queer evangelical event about six weeks ago, and there were 45 evangelical Christians who found themselves here. I feel like this is a voice now that has a place within evangelical culture more broadly. I also think, with the rise of psychotherapy programs in churches and psychotherapy graduate programs at places like Fuller Seminary, that things are better. I have to say, though, that just on the announcement of this book, I have been surprised to hear that this trope, “too blessed to be stressed,” is still pervasive within evangelical culture. That it’s just such a formula for mental torment. It’s a cruelty that really needs to be exposed.