In the 2008 vice presidential debate, Sarah Palin — former Alaska governor and John the Baptist to Donald Trump’s white evangelical Jesus — called upon Americans to remember their destiny as a City On A Hill, a shining light of unapologetic Christianity for all the world to see. She attributed the metaphor to Ronald Reagan, which makes sense because it was the former president’s favorite phrase to trot out every time he needed to justify… well, anything. We are God’s chosen people, are we not? A lighthouse of His righteous judgment, withstanding the world’s storm of godlessness. Of course, it wasn’t Reagan who coined the phrase; that honor belongs to Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop, who roared it on the bow of his ship in the 1600s as he and his Puritan pals set sail for modern day New England. In one hand: a Bible. In the other: The official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which depicts an American Indian in a loincloth begging, “Come over and help us!” Once he arrived, Winthrop established the first slave-holding colony in New England, and he and his son and grandson all became judges in the witch trials.
This is the history of the United States of America. Racism disguised as charity. Misogyny disguised as protection. Violence disguised as peace. Paranoia disguised as a Word from God.
Enter Jeanna Kadlec’s new memoir, Heretic, a deep, sprawling, incisive indictment of the Christian cancer that eats away at our souls. Heretic is part memoir, part cultural critique, part political analysis, and part history, all viewed through the queer lens of a woman who grew up in the Midwest trying her hardest to be a Good Christian Girl, before finally accepting she’s a lesbian and nearly gnawing off her own arm to escape before she could be burned at the stake by her personal Winthrops, including her abusive ex-husband. It’s personal, visceral and harrowing. And it’s academic, pulling on disparate threads, from pop culture to political punditry, and weaving them together with Maddow-esque precision to reveal the gory workings of white Evangelicalism.
Jeanna grew up in rural Iowa, an overachieving daughter of parents with varying, evolving degrees of commitment to their faith. But not Jeanna. She strived to be everything Jesus wanted her to be, to grow into that kind of Proverbs 31 woman the church reveres. The problem is: she was pulled to the way that wife of legend “speaks up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” and less drawn to the way she gets out of bed before the sun and goes back to bed after everyone in her family is clothed in garments she knitted with bleeding fingers and fed with food she grew and cooked with burnt hands. The boys in Jeanna’s youth group abused and harassed her. The men in her church condemned her outspokenness — and her femininity. She was admonished to be pure, while being treated as a perpetual object of lust. She had no desire to submit to her husband as she did to the Lord, the way Paul commanded, but she married a man anyway, because it was what she was supposed to do. Church was her life. Her faith was grounded in its teachings, most of her friends were similarly devout, and her husband had planned out her future with his God-given authority.
When she finally accepted her sexuality and came out, she didn’t just lose her marriage — she lost her whole community and the tentpoles of an identity she’d spent an entire life building.
A memoir with the scope of Heretic could easily turn into a tornado of outrage and despair. The point is: Christianity didn’t just try to destroy my life; it has — and always will be — intent on destroying everything of actual value in this world. But there’s an intellectual precision and rigor to Jeanna’s fury. And found within its white-hot flames are engaging stories of sex and love and community care and deep friendships and tarot and astrology and Dungeons & Dragons. There is a hard-won hope that permeates even the darkest moments and a genuine belief in the power of queer humankind. It’s a story about taking back your life by no longer consenting to be shamed.
When I heard conservative critics calling Heretic “inflammatory,” I laughed until my stomach hurt. It’s the oldest and most ironic play in the Puritan handbook. It’s claiming that it’s worse to be called a homophobe than it is to be a homophobe. It’s alleging that being held accountable for bigotry is its own kind of “intolerance.” It’s building a ship and sailing 20,000 colonizers across the ocean to inflict a genocide on native people so you can make money and be the new king, and calling that “fleeing religious persecution.”
It’s calling a woman a witch for practicing the art of healing.
Pat Robertson, the Religious Right leader who is thought to be responsible for Reagan’s whole city on a hill thing, once proclaimed that the feminist agenda encourages women to practice witchcraft and become lesbians. This memoir lays bare the hypocrisy and pure evil of Robertson and his ilk. Weirdly, though, he was correct about the witches and the lesbians. And thank God for that. Thank God for the heretics, for the Jeanna Kadlecs and the Jezebels, for the Bridget Bishops and the Anne Hutchinsons. For having seen what’s invisible, and for revealing it, so we no longer fear what any man can do to us.
Heretic by Jeanna Kadlec comes out October 25 and is available for preorder.