In my debut novel, Cat in the Flock, the protagonist goes undercover in a fundamentalist Christian church, where she finds redemption and goodwill amidst hypocrisy and lies. To write this world convincingly, I drew upon some powerful real-life experiences.
First were my familial relationships with fundamentalists, most importantly the in-laws from my first marriage. My ex-husband's family was conservative Lutheran, the type who listened to Rush Limbaugh and agreed with him. We prayed before every meal, even in restaurants. Children in the family were given--sans the permission of their parents--picture books for Christmas that refuted evolution. Once I was invited to join in a photo of all the women in the family, a grouping of "moms and future moms," as if that was the natural and sole identity of any woman. And no one thought to ask me or my husband about our family plans; it was just assumed.
I remember my then brother-in-law, who is a math teacher, once set up his telescope outside, providing us with a stupendous view of the craters on the surface of the moon. "Whenever I see something like this," he said, "it confirms my belief in the Lord." I envied his conviction, even if I didn't understand it.
But as certain as the majority in the family were about their beliefs, they were loving and respectful to those of us who didn't share them. They really were Christians in every sense of the word, kind and warm and incredibly giving. They worked hard, played fair, trusted in their God, and comforted each other in times of grief. I felt welcomed by them, one of the family.
And I knew where they were coming from, despite my liberal/progressive/political college days and young adulthood. I'd grown up in very conservative environments, and while my military father was at best agnostic, my mother was a loyal Catholic who dragged all four of her kids' butts to mass on Sundays whenever she could, without my father's help.
Now there's a huge difference between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, as my former in-laws would be the first to tell you. I remember getting a bit of anti-papist sentiment at family gatherings. One member of the family scoffed at a Catholic friend's offer to light a candle for him, and when I shared stories of my brother playing with the kneelers in our church pews, a family member snottily remarked, "Well, we certainly don't kneel." I had been raised haphazardly Catholic, was never confirmed, and hadn't set foot inside a church in years, but that remark made me want to show up at the next family gathering swinging incense and dowsing everyone in holy water.
But like my in-laws' Christian beliefs, my mother's Catholicism trended toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Furthermore, and she will probably berate me for sharing this, but she became even more conservative in the 1980s thanks to the PTL Club. Yeah, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's shows broadcast like mad in Sacramento, and my mother, left alone to raise us while my father was off on TDY to South Korea, climbed into that clown car and thought for a while she was among friends. But we don't have to judge her for this. Who among ye hasn't been momentarily led astray, especially during hard times?
Unfortunately for me, this coincided with a burgeoning junior high-aged discovery of music, and thanks to the Bakkers, and a silly stunt pulled by Ozzy Osbourne, I came of age only to find that all the most enticing music was now off limits. So the PTL Club made its mark on me.
Still, I credit the Catholic faith with saving my mother during a traumatic time in her life. Her journey back to God is one I deeply honor and respect. And my own political activism was founded within the Jesuit tradition. Like Cat McCormick, I graduated from St. Louis University, and I still hold a great deal of respect for Jesuit education (my own was rigorous and query-based) and the Jesuit tradition of service.
All of this was in the background as I wrote Cat in the Flock. While my own beliefs, such that I have any concrete ones, sway far from the fundamentalist fold, I admire those who find redemption and liberation through a closer walk with God, however that manifests.
In Undercover Christians, Part II, I'll describe another inspiration for Cat's fundamentalist church undercover work: My husband really did go undercover in the Ted Haggard church. Yes, that Ted Haggard.