Trump and the Politics of Evangelicals: Complete Q&A with Randy Roberts Potts

QUESTION: Will you give me snapshot of how you were brought up, what it was like and talk about your journey out of the church.

RANDY: I was born into the Televangelist Oral Roberts family. He paid my mom to make my middle name Roberts, with an S. So, I was stamped at birth with the mark of a televangelist. We lived on what the family called “the compound.” It’s like a nine acre, gated, family compound in Tulsa. My family actually moved to Colorado for about half of my childhood. While we were in Colorado, we still went to Pentecostal Assembly of God churches. The second half of my childhood, I lived back on the compound in Tulsa. There, I went to an Evangelical Christian school and Evangelical Church. Until late high school, I probably didn’t ever interact with anyone who wasn’t evangelical.

QUESTION: What age did you go back to Tulsa from Colorado?

RANDY: So from 9 to 18, I lived in Tulsa, on the compound, but we left for seven for years. Mom was actually ex-communicated. It was a long, weird thing and then we came back.

QUESTION: Why was she ex-communicated?

RANDY: My parents have told me one thing, but I’ve read about it in books. It had to do with a slush-fund Oral setup for his kids that was secret and then my dad, apparently, bragged about it – something to do with that. They had to leave in infamy, but were invited back seven years later. But I was in the evangelical milieu no matter what, because even in Colorado we went to little Assembly of God churches. I wasn’t going to a Christian school in Colorado, but my brother and I had to memorize at least two Bible versus a week. We were always having to learn hymns. Not just in church, but we would be assigned to learn certain hymns. We were shown “Focus on the Family” films all the time. It was our world 24/7. If I came home from school saying something that my mom thought at all conflicted with the evangelical worldview, she would tell me, like, “Don’t let the school poison your mind.” So, I was soaked in it for my first 18 years.

QUESTION: And then you left at 18 and never went back?

RANDY: I turned 18 in the summer and went to college that fall. I went to OU because, once again, my family had another falling out. So, thank goodness, I wasn’t actually pressured to go to ORU. I went to the University of Oklahoma instead.

QUESTION: Did you go to college identifying as a Christian?

RANDY: Well, in high school, I started to read on my own. I had big John Steinbeck period and by ninth or 10th grade, I privately identified as a socialist, sometimes a communist. I would draw the hammer and sickle on things. Part of it was rebellion and trying to piss my parents off, but I had this deep conviction that socialism was the only Christian economic system. I fundamentally pushed back against almost everything that the prosperity gospel is about. But I kept it all to myself because if I voiced any of it, my parents would go crazy. By the time I turned 18 and went to college, I mentally was ready to just leave all that behind. At college, I hung out with exclusively liberal, secular [people]. We were probably annoying. We were those obnoxious kids, smoking clove cigarettes and pot, trying to talk about existentialism. I was dedicated to erasing my whole past by the time I was 18. For the next 10 years or so, I would see my parents about once a year, but it was always uncomfortable. We weren’t close, but we didn’t have a big break until later.

QUESTION: During this time, in college and after, did your upbringing as an Evangelical Christian shape your world-views?

RANDY: Absolutely. I was always surprised as a kid, since I was in church all the time, probably 15 hours a week, that other kids didn’t take it as seriously as I did. It was very internalized. I would sometimes pray for an hour a day. I would read the Bible on my own. On the compound, I didn’t really have friends. So, Jesus was sort of my friend. So it was all within Christian framing. In college, my first semester, I remember telling someone that I was a Fundamentalist Christian. I quickly realized the absurdity of that because I wasn’t in any way, shape or form. Pretty quickly, I just said I was agnostic, that’s what I’d tell people in college. I never identified with atheism because I felt like I had this bond with Jesus. I still feel that I have a spiritual connection to the same thing I called Jesus, even though I’m not specifically Christian anymore. I don’t feel like I’ve actually changed my beliefs. It’s more like the framing has changed, but the beliefs are similar and they come out of Christianity, the messages in the gospel.

QUESTION: How long did the Evangelical dogma follow you around?

RANDY: It still does. It’s funny, because in my head I haven’t honored that tradition since I was 18. A dramatic example [is] I married my husband almost five years ago. I’d been out of the closet for seven years and had completely no qualms. But about two months before the wedding, I had these crazy panic attacks and visions. We’d be getting married and the earth would split open and demons would drag me to hell. I’d be driving to work and this stuff would pop into my head. I found a therapist and was like, “What the hell? I don’t believe any of this stuff,” but the reptilian part of my brain was like, “No, you need to remember this. This is what’s going to happen.” Part of me was saying this was absurd, but my body was enthralled by fear and memory and the visions of what was going to happen when I married a man. By the time I got married, I’d worked through it. I didn’t realize how latent that stuff was and how easily it could just come up. They say that when you learn things from pain, you never forget them.

QUESTION: Where are you at now with your beliefs?

RANDY: Strangely enough, I realize that I’m still a Pentecostal and that I’m a lifelong Pentecostal. Sort of like being Jewish, I’ll be Pentecostal when they put me in the ground. I don’t even know if I would call myself a Christian, but I would definitely call myself a Pentecostal, which is bizarre because I don’t think there are any prominent Pentecostals who’ve accepted gay people.

QUESTION: That Pentecostal attitude really comes through in the piece that you wrote for The Guardian, about your uncle’s suicide and your coming out.

RANDY: I really went about it the way a Pentecostal would. Whereas, like, a Catholic would feel like, “What are the rules, what are the structures?” I was like, “No. It’s all [about] my senses. I want to feel it.” My connection with being gay was the way a Pentecostal would connect with Jesus or the Bible, very individual and sensory. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I can’t escape that even if I want to.

QUESTION: Do you remember what age you were when you started having doubts about Oral’s message?

RANDY: Sometime in middle school. I’d been reading C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia,” like every Evangelical kid my age. I was reading “Mere Christianity” and “The Screwtape Letters” and his space fantasy trilogy, which is much more intellectual. That’s when I realized how different I was from my family. I think I was 12 years old and that was my first argument with my mom. C.S. Lewis talked about how Jesus turning water into wine wasn’t actually breaking the laws of physics because if you really think about it, there’s a vine that takes up water and over time, the water becomes wine. Jesus was just speeding up the natural process. He intellectualized it. My mom was just horrified. She was like, “Oh, no, no, no. That’s the devil and you can’t believe that.” Basically, at that point I just shut up and was like, “Well, I still believe it, but obviously I can’t say it to the people I’m around.” It was at that age that I started to look at Oral’s message and the prosperity gospel, especially, and question it. What’s interesting, as I started to interview people for the memoir, I gained a lot more respect for the prosperity gospel as a vehicle that minorities often use for some forms of success. My grandfather was a poor Native American kid who used it as a vehicle to become white and rich. He was very sincere in teaching what he’d done to other people.

QUESTION: In your memoir, “The Devil Went Down With Birdie Jean; an elegy,” you write about being terrified of your grandfather. Can you talk about that?

RANDY: He wasn’t a family man. He was all business all the time. Children were a complete annoyance to him. It wasn’t specifically me. I went to visit my grandmother twice a week, but if he was in the house, I knew to keep my distance. He didn’t know my name. I thought of him as a mean old man. He just literally had no times for kids. The women were supposed to raise them and he was busy. He gained an interest for kids as they became intellectually aware. Then he could talk to them. I think a lot of men his age were similar. I don’t think he was unique in that way and I wouldn’t say that he was an asshole. He was just a workaholic.

QUESTION: Did Oral ever preach about politics from the pulpit?

RANDY: Oral was almost completely apolitical as far as in his public speaking. He did, every now and then, say a little bit against communism in the ’50s and ’60s, when everyone did. It was one of the appeals for why people should send their kids to ORU, like “They’re not going to be around the liberal, pinko-commies at ORU.” He was a Democrat. Of course, he tended to hobnob, especially later in life, with Republicans because of the moral majority. Internally, he was very much for the liberal welfare state, an FDR Democrat. He came of age during The Depression, in Oklahoma of all places, and very much accepted and believed in the welfare state. He actually was a self-taught intellectual. He would read a lot of theology at home, but he never used any of it in his sermons. He kept his sermons very much for the layperson because of his Pentecostal roots.

QUESTION: Were your mother and father political?

RANDY: They were very politically oriented. One of my first memories of that was in high school, during the Clarence Thomas hearings. My mom would talk about Joe Biden as a snake and a viper. Anita Hill was a professor at ORU for a while and my mom had her. She said [Hill] hated men and that, obviously, she was lying. Democrats were literal evil and trying to enact Satan’s agenda on earth, that kind of thing. I do remember her mentioning at one point that churches were completely apolitical, as far as a pastor and that that was important. She appears to have since changed her mind, but she did have that old school, “We don’t mix politics and the pulpit,” even though, personally, she was a very conservative Republican.

QUESTION: She’s since changed her stance?

RANDY: I know from afar that she works with anti-abortion groups and has joined some of that very political church-based movement.

QUESTION: What was your relationship with your father like when you were growing up?

RANDY: My father’s a sociopath. He’s a lot like Donald Trump in the sense that I don’t think he actually has beliefs, but he’s very forceful in whatever belief he supports that moment. He sexually abused me and others, boys and girls. There’s a chapter about that [in my memoir] and that’s why he doesn’t really come up in my life.

QUESTION: Are your mom and dad divorced?

RANDY: No, no, no. They’re still together and that’s really why we don’t talk. Before I came out of the closet, my mom said, “Why don’t you honor your father, call him on father’s day,” and so I told her about the sexual abuse. She believed me for a weekend, which completely shocked me. My dad was out of town and when he came back, I didn’t hear from her for nine more months, not over Christmas or anything. Then I got a letter on a legal pad. She’s a lawyer and she was refuting, legalistically, everything that I said and how it couldn’t have happened. We essentially haven’t spoken since, except at funerals. If you’re a mother in that position, you have to choose either your children or your husband. There’s not much middle ground when the husband won’t admit it. She made her choice and, honestly, I think it was a logical choice. She hadn’t really been close to me for 10 years, at that point. Although, I think she knows what happened and she must somehow know she’s living with a monster. I have a lot of sympathy for her even though it is the way it is.

QUESTION: So there’s no contact?

RANDY: No, not at all. Actually, recently, I think it was two years ago, three years ago – I’m not sure – she took my brother and I out of the will. I just assume that I’ll never see her again and that’s that. We had a few phone conversations over the last 10 years. When I made the “It Gets Better” video, she left this long voicemail, like, “How could you do this, drag the family name through the mud.” Then she started bawling, saying, “How could you do this to me?” I deliberated for months and didn’t call her back. I didn’t know how there would be any kind of fruitful conversation. That’s the only voicemail she’s left in 12 years.

QUESTION: You mentioned therapy earlier, have you stayed in counseling?

RANDY: I haven’t stayed in it, but I’ve had probably four therapists at this point. I didn’t see a therapist until I was 27 – nine years of being an adult when I should’ve been seeing a therapist, but it was that background. When you’re growing up evangelical, therapists are like the devil, at least in my family. All evangelicals know that if you start seeing a therapist, they’re going to be telling you all kinds of things that aren’t in line with the Bible. Even though I was completely secular as an adult, I didn’t have the courage to see a therapist until I was 27 and the only reason I did was because I was dreaming of death every day. I was like, “Well, I have to do something,” but it was terrifying to go to a therapist. It was such a hard thing to trust someone. By the time I had a second therapist, it was much better.

QUESTION: Are you and your brother close?

RANDY: Yeah, we’re close. He’s gay as well. He actually came out a few years before I did.

QUESTION: Are you older or younger?

RANDY: I’m two years older. He didn’t get married or anything like that. He actually kind of came out when he was in the Air Force, but it was still don’t ask don’t tell. So, he didn’t directly tell people, but he would walk around town holding hands. I was worried for him, but then he left the Air Force as a conscientious objector. We’re very close.

QUESTION: Earlier you said you could see some good aspects of the prosperity gospel. In general, do you think it’s a good thing for people? How do you think it shapes people’s world-views?

RANDY: As far as that goes, I think it’s detrimental. It suggests that government has no place in economic advantage and prosperity. It’s detrimental to most people who invest their time into it, because most people who do are not wealthy. It’s a shame to me that it turns them off government intervention or government programs. It can be important in community building, especially for minority communities. Just like the faith itself, you have all these people who use precepts of the prosperity gospel for their own pockets, completely knowing that it’s not helping people. I don’t know if you read that piece about VOUS Church that Jeff Sharlet wrote maybe six months ago. It’s just the most obvious thing that this pastor has no concern for the poor at all. It’s a farce, a way of making money. Oral wasn’t like that. Although he loved being rich, he had an actual concern for poor people. I don’t know that I see any of that sincerity in Joel Osteen or a Rick Warren or some of the people today.

QUESTION: Why do you think Christians supported a man like Trump?

RANDY: He seems, in retrospect, kind of obvious. I came of age in the ’80s when the moral majority business was going on. All of that was railing against popular culture. [There was] this theme that Christians were a minority, were out of place and America was changing its values. The devil was taking over and that the anti-Christ was coming today. I’m convinced that gay marriage is just the tipping point. My whole life, gays were always the absolute worst. We didn’t have fear of Muslims at the time. There were no ISIS and the fear, the scariest being on the planet, was the radical, homo-fascist gay person. When gay marriage became the law of the land through the Supreme Court, I think for a lot of people it was a [huge] thing. I’m convinced that’s what threw the switch and this feeling developed that the end of the world is, literally, tomorrow and we have to do something. If you think the end of the world is tomorrow, then you hire the biggest, meanest, baddest gun you can find to obliterate it. That’s what Trump is. Here’s an absolute slime-ball, we all know internally he’s a slime-ball, but he’s the guy that’s going to do it. They compared him to King Cyrus and if you look at the versus [in the Bible] that talk about King Cyrus, it’s hardcore, what Cyrus is going to do. Of course, they will say that Trump is a Christian, but I feel strongly they all understand he’s this sick, deranged, twisted person who will water-board the fagots if that’s what it takes to restore America’s greatness. It’s like, “He’s our guy. We don’t care how he gets it done, but someone has to get it done.” He seems like the natural conclusion or fulfillment of everything I heard my whole life.

QUESTION: Do you feel there are any parallels between evangelicalism and authoritarianism?

RANDY: Absolutely. I’ve thought about it a lot. When I went to an evangelical school, we were called the Army of the Lord. When the teachers taught us that we were the Army of the Lord, it was literal. It was this militaristic thing and we were being trained to fight evil in the world. My [parents’] parenting style was very authoritarian. Anything that came down from the parents was the word of God and was not up for discussion. Any of pushback was insolence. My brother reminded me, recently, that if we slammed the door, like if we were mad, we would then have to close it softly 100 times or do 100 pushups. I had a smile-chart growing up because I didn’t smile enough. So it was very much like, “We own your body and your soul and your spirit and we are shaping all of that to serve God.” It’s absolutely an authoritarian system. What helped me come out of it is I started out as a teacher at a very liberal private school in Oklahoma City. Their whole ethos was the absolute opposite. All of our classes – I taught middle school – were sort of Montessori, very discussion based. The whole philosophy was there was no line between the teachers and the students. We all debated and discussed things. It took me a few years to adjust to that and it influenced my own parenting.

QUESTION: How old are your kids?

RANDY: They’re all teenagers now, two high school and one middle school.

QUESTION: Have they been brought up in church?

RANDY: My ex-wife and I have 50/50 custody. They’re with her for a week and me for a week. They have a conservative Christian upbringing at their mom’s house and then whatever you want to call my laissez-faire, pinko-commie ways. Strangely, they seem like balanced kids that have their stuff together. I don’t even know how they’d rebel because between the two of us, we’re so different that they couldn’t consistently rebel against us both.

QUESTION: Do you find evangelicalism unwittingly promotes racism?

RANDY: Unwittingly, yeah. I never in my whole childhood ever heard an openly racist remark. It was very important to anybody that I grew up with to not see themselves as racist. I think in many ways the evangelical project itself can be boiled down to “seeking whiteness.” It’s a way to achieve whiteness. Even if you don’t have white skin, that means behaving a certain way. It means having a certain amount of wealth. I’ve visited Pentecostal Native American Churches and Pentecostal Black Churches where, of course, some of that gets turned on its head. But I do think that evangelicalism in America kind of represents a ticket into whiteness.

QUESTION: The Senate invoked the nuclear option today and we’re now faced with the impending confirmation of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Do you worry about Obergerfell v. Hodges being overturned?

RANDY: I’m not sure Gorsuch would go that far. What I think will happen is the same thing that happened with, say, the Civil Rights Act, just a constant whittling and chipping away, but maybe much quicker since they have every branch of government. Already Texas is mounting huge challenges to gay marriage. They never let up. No matter what, if they stay in power, the net effect will be that it’ll be overturned in practice, sort of reinstitute an LGBT version of Jim Crow in all the states that they can.

QUESTION: How is it living in a state that’s opposed to your right to be married?

RANDY: It’s hard. I’ve lived in red states most of life so I’m used to it. I’m a writer, but I have day job to pay my bills. At my day job, everybody knows I’m gay. They have no awareness that I’m a part-time activist or writer. I understand that if I present as too gay, I could be fired. I couldn’t come to work with eyeliner or nail polish. I have to present as straight and that’s just part of the deal if I want my paycheck. Everybody will quietly, quote/unquote, accept the fact that I’m gay and married, but not really. I feel very uncomfortable walking down the street holding hands with my husband. I do it sometimes, but it’s more like, “Damn it, I’m going to do it.” It’s not enjoyable at all. It’s like a statement. It’s not like, “Oh, la-di-da, we’re just holding hands.” My husband and I are 10 years apart and he grew up in Dallas, in a socially secular family. I pretty much assume that it will always be bad in Texas for LGBT people and that we will always be fighting for our rights. Whereas, he feels like it’s already pretty much okay and it’s just going to keep getting better. I don’t believe that. I think just like racism, it will morph and change and consistently stay not good. That’s probably the pessimist in me and it’s probably my upbringing as well.

QUESTION: Why do you think it’s important for Fundamentalist Christians to dominate public poly and govern the behavior of the whole country?

RANDY: It’s the idea that even as Christians, you’re always one step away from the pit of hell, being dragged there by demons because of some kind of temptation. It’s a sort of baseline insecurity of, “If I’m surrounded by evildoers, then I will be tempted and go to hell as well. So I have to control everything I possibly can to keep those temptations away from me.” For instance, you can’t let gay people walk down the street holding hands because you’re children will see it and they might fall into that and go to hell. You don’t just fight for laws against gay people, you fight to keep the stigma there so that gay people won’t dare to walk down your street holding hands. You have to scrub the public sphere of everything that might lead you or your children or anybody to hell. I think people believe that very strongly. I don’t think it’s a fake thing. They feel that way. So how do you counter that? I don’t honestly know. If someone really believes that, there’s no compromise.

QUESTION: What is your day job?

RANDY: I do social media for the restaurant industry in the Dallas area, which is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to writing on Instagram. I do that for a living and it’s become natural to me. I see so much potential in different kinds of presentation on social media.

QUESTION: And your 2017 project is documenting the lives of Muslims in Dallas, is that right? What inspired you to start that project?

RANDY: Any time I did reporting on Muslims, it was always evangelicals protesting. When Pamela Geller had her draw the Prophet [Muhammad] cartoon contest here in Garland, she’d actually had a protest two months before. I went to cover it and take pictures and it was 100 percent evangelicals protesting, my people. I feel like I have this responsibility. The bad guys in this story are the people I come from. I have a specific understanding of them. After that, I continued to cover a lot of protests. Dallas is the most embattled Muslim in community in America right now and I just happen to live here. So, I decided to devote my reporting and a book project to the community here. It comes out of my upbringing because all the impetus behind it is that it’s my people, evangelicals. It’s still kind of reporting on my past in a way.

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