Robert Lanham, the author of The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, once believed in god. Raised by ultra-conservative Evangelical parents (his mother is a permanent a housewife, believing that women should not hold positions of power) in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, he was a believer up until that fateful time where temptation lurks around every corner: college. At Virginia Commonwealth University, surrounded by people with different ways of thought than his own, he began exploring other existential possibilities and eventually eschewed religion. Now 40, a Brooklynite, and staunchly atheist, the writer spoke to some NYU SCPS journalism students about how his background as a God-fearing redneck from a public university helped him become the deity-doubting satirist he is today.
NYU: Your parents hoped you’d fail and fall flat as a writer (and atheist) in New York. Do you maintain a relationship with them in spite of your success?
Robert Lanham: By the time I moved to New York, there was already quite a split between us. I really don’t see them at all. They’ve had a difficult time accepting that I am not walking the straight and narrow line that they would want me to. They said they didn’t read Sinner’s, but I don’t believe them.
NYU: Was there ever the fear that they might be right and you would end up back in Virginia the prodigal son?
RL: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but there weren’t too many opportunities in Virginia. Writing is a way to deal with some of my background stuff, some of the frustrations that I’ve had with everything from growing up with a crazy family to just finding a voice for the things I was dealing with artistically. My parents thought New York was Sodom and Gomorrah, but I immediately fell in love with it. Having grown up outside of New York helps me see things with clear, fresh edges. But it was a challenge when I first came here. As a Southerner, people here treated me as a backwoods hick. I was happy to show people that they were wrong.
NYU: Your sister is gay, which caused a rift between her and your parents. Did this influence the writing of Sinner’s?
RL: The rift was part of the reason I wrote the book, which is dedicated to her. I knew she was gay from the time she was 12-years-old. If my parents are not gonna embrace my sister for being honest about who she is, I don’t have a much place in their home, either. I feel like I was put in a position where I had to take sides. When the book came out, she was still Evangelical. I think it helped her come out of religion. She and I are each other’s family now.
NYU: You went undercover as a true-believer at Ted Haggard’s church to do research for Sinner’s. How did you interact with the patrons there, considering your true agenda?
RL: I spoke the language, having grown up in an Evangelical family in a conservative town. But I always had to bite my tongue, especially with gay rights issues, as close as I am with my sister. After the book came out, I maintained a friend from he church who was shocked and appalled that Ted Haggard was gay, and not that he betrayed his wife or lied. I did not bite my tongue then. And there were certainly a couple missteps where people were onto me. The biggest one was I forgot to bring my Bible. I went to a debunking evolution class, and I showed up with my Gideon’s Bible from the hotel. It turned into a Bible study about getting saved.
NYU: How did your personal interactions with church-goers affect your criticism of Evangelicals in Sinner’s?
RL: I went out of my way not to be critical to individuals who have faith but to be critical of leaders who manipulate their followers. I think Ted Haggard is a valid target. I don’t have too many regrets about the venom I reserved for him in the book. When his scandal came to light, I wasn’t happy, I was upset at all of the disappointment his followers had that someone had manipulated them. I also had hundreds of Evangelicals write me saying, “Thank you for representing us and calling bullshit on these people that don’t represent my faith.” I felt like the fanbase for the book was mainly within the Chrisian community.
NYU: Even though you think that there is no god, which is in direct opposition to the Evangelical mission?
RL: Well, I’m careful not to say there definitely is no god. But as any good atheist, I think I’m completely right.