“Are you worried about how they’re trying to take away religious freedom?”
“AOC and all them Democrats. They’re trying to take away religious freedom and make the country Muslim.”
I recently purchased a lawnmower on Facebook Marketplace, and the dialogue above was one part of my conversation with the seller. We met early in the morning at a local grocery store parking lot where I was planning to exchange $70 for a renovated 21-inch, self-propelled Craftsman mower. That’s a good deal. But had I known beforehand that I would also submit myself to 20 minutes of religious and political conspiracy theories before my fellow Iowan would give me the mower, I might have looked elsewhere.
That’s what prompted his comment on American Christianity’s victim status. I generally don’t disclose that I’m a pastor when I first meet people because it can provoke all kinds of strange reactions. Some turn on a long-latent righteous switch in their brains, and they start apologizing for swearing. Others, noticing my casual dress, assume I’m a conservative, evangelical pastor, and they immediately distrust me. And then there’s some like this Facebook Marketplace meetup who want to commiserate over the godless fortunes of the good ole’ United States of Christendom.
“Oh, wow, I don’t think that’s the case,” I said. “I think religious freedom is safer than ever.”
He flinched. “Really?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Joe Biden goes to church more than anyone I know.” He looked alarmed. “And the Supreme Court is decidedly pro-religion, even pro-Christian.”
He grunted. “Where do you get your news?”
“Twitter,” I said.
“Oh, you can’t trust that,” he said. Then he turned and pointed to a sticker on the back of his large SUV. In the middle of the back window, he had affixed a Newsmax sticker next to a blue line flag. “You heard of this news outlet?” he asked. “You got to get your news from them and no one else.”
Resisting the urge to scream, I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
What is there to say in moments like these?
Here’s the dilemma: if I were to challenge him outright, he would simply brush me off as one of the deceived. Also, he might walk away with the mower I wanted. If I were to go along with him without any pushback, I would give my silent consent to the madness. So what was I to do? What’s my responsibility in a conversation like this?
After I said I wasn’t sure about Newsmax, my new Facebook friend looked at me, studying my face for a second. “What do you think about hemp?” he asked.
Jesus. I sighed. At least it wasn’t about the COVID-19 vaccine. The next 20 minutes consisted of him asking my opinions about hot topics. When I offered ambiguous responses, he used them as a springboard for mini sermons interlaced with personal anecdotes. Eventually he got to the point of telling me how two of his childhood friends were made gay because they served as Catholic altar boys.
“That’s not how it works,” I said, trying not to tell him to go to hell. “All the science and research and personal stories indicate that people are born with their sexual orientation. No one is made to be gay through their childhood experiences.”
He took a step back. “Hey, I don’t have a problem with it. They want to do whatever they want, that’s their lives. I’m only saying what I know to be true.”
“I see it very differently,” I said. “Now about that mower.” From there I did my best to keep us focused on the exchange of goods and not ideas, and I escaped after only a couple more Newsmax regurgitated talking points. His benediction was about how immigrants—hundreds of thousands of “illegals”—were pouring over the southern border, bringing with them a new COVID variant. It was biological warfare, he told me, as I slammed the trunk of my minivan. I didn’t say anything in response.
What if I had withheld my money and walked away, explaining that I wouldn’t do business with a homophobic racist who swallows misinformation from Newsmax? I might have caused him some inconvenience, enacting a real world consequence for his poor life choices. (I would have caused myself some inconvenience as well.) More likely, I would have reinforced his narrative of victimhood and fueled his resentment.
Here, even the folks who don’t vote Democrat mostly concede that the 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen, and COVID isn’t a hoax. But every once in a while I’ll meet someone who is caught in the growing alt-reality matrix. I will again face the challenge of how to engage a fellow citizen with whom I share so few values.
Our friends, family, neighbors who have been caught in the trenches of cultural warfare, plunged down deep in the misinformation and victim narrative? How do we help? Is the goal to maintain connection and relationship, or to get them to see reason, or something else? I read articles on a semi-regular basis that encourage listening and dialogue, but what about the chance encounters and small pockets of opportunity?
If anyone has any tips, or a magic wand to make this all go away, I’ll be on Twitter where I get my news.