WL: Where are you from, and how did you end up in Virginia?
GW: I grew up in Oakland and Berkeley. (After graduating Yale in 2001), I started my MFA program at University of Virginia in 2002, finishing in 2004. I thought moving to the South would be this performance art project. It was alien to anything I’d ever experienced. I enjoyed it in a condescending way. I liked going out to eat BBQ or going to dive bars in Central VA, but then I made friends there, built a life, and ending up feeling comfortable.
WL: What is the story behind the book?
GW: There was a confluence of certain factors that got me thinking about how little I knew about Evangelical Christians, how little I knew about the philosophy of conservative religious people. I grew up with no religion at all, in kind of an anti-religious household. At the same time, I thought of myself as this really open-minded, multi-tolerant person, being from Berkeley.
But there was this whole unacknowledged intolerance I had for religious people. I thought they were stupid, I thought they were arrogant for wanting everyone to believe what they believed. I knew several Evangelical Christians in my personal life in, and they weren’t like that. I felt a pretty profound disconnect between what I saw and what I read. There were some competing feelings that I had going into it, but I had some curiosity. I wanted to see for myself.
WL: Were you surprised by what you found?
GW: I went in having no experience with church. There are some things I saw that might seem kind of banal to religious people that were really stunning to me. One of the things I cover a lot in the book, because it disturbed me personally, was the extent to which Evangelical Christians, Christians at Thomas Road, proselytize to children. It wasn’t something I’d been around – talking to children about hell, telling children they were born sinners.
But, I think there was a lot that was surprising to me in the positive sense. I mean the book isn’t a love letter, but I think it is the story of learning to admire and respect a lot of the common character traits of the people I met who by and large want to be good people, who are trying to live according to their principles which for the most part are honorable principles. I think that I personally learned a lot about living right from the way they moved through the world. That was certainly a surprise to me.
WL: What is your hope for the book?
GW: I think that this country is really polarized between secular and religious people. I think it’s very polarized politically. I think there is a tremendous amount of scorn that each side has for the other side. And I think when you feel scorn for people who don’t politically agree with you or people who don’t share your system of beliefs, there is no possibility to compromise on any issue. I think that that is tragic. The attitude that I had, and that attitude is shared by a lot of people who believe the things I believe, cuts off the possibility of any influence. And it seems pointless for me to dismiss such a huge demographic as misguided, past the point of reasonable conversation.
My hope for the book is that it will humanize conservative Christians for people for whom they seem like a mob. I think that the reason that somebody like me might read it is implicit in the book, but I think that the reason that Evangelicals might come to the book is a little subtler. I think it would be good for them to know how a person who doesn’t agree with them on anything interacts with their ideas instead of just writing them off as misguided.
Gina Welch will be hosting a book reading at Politics and Prose on March 13 at 1:00 pm. You can find more information on Gina Welch here: