In May 2007, deep into her time as a stealth member of Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg, Va., congregation, Gina Welch had become unsettled about her comfort level there. The most recent alarming development: Falwell -- fundamentalist preacher, Moral Majority founder, bête noire of the American left -- had just died, and Welch, a Berkeley native and lifelong atheist, was sad about it.
Grief, however, was not the reason she stood a few days later in the crowd of mourners near the entrance to Falwell’s mega-church, a “Jesus first” pin adorning her chest. She was “undercover,” as she puts it, “posing as a church lady” to gather material for her first book.
Following the trend in hip nonfiction, Welch’s “In the Land of Believers” records something of a wacky stunt: A 20-something, Yale-educated secular Jew from California infiltrates a nerve center of the religious right, pretending to get saved and evangelizing with the faithful, all the while concealing her true identity.
For all that, Welch explains, the impetus for the project was serious. She wanted to understand, for her own edification, “what my evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the ‘liberal media.’ ” To get at the truth, she writes, her subjects “needed to know the microphone was off.”
And yet, this is disingenuous, for Welch’s microphone is never off. The people she encounters are always on the record; they just don’t know it. They also don’t know her, although they think they do.
As she becomes a regular at Thomas Road Baptist Church, joins a singles group there and journeys to Alaska on a mission trip with 16 others (their goal to win 100 souls for Jesus), some of her subjects genuinely believe she is their friend. When her slumbering conscience is half-awakened by the unwavering kindness of two of those people -- a young woman she calls Alice and a pastor she calls Ray -- Welch begins to have trouble compartmentalizing her different lives.
That, in the end, provides the queasy fascination and suspense of this Judas kiss of a book: not Welch’s unsurprising discoveries about evangelicals (it turns out they’re human, even lovable) but the awareness that eventually someone -- she or one of the people she’s fooled -- will unmask her, and heartbreak will follow.
To her credit as a writer, we ache for those who’ve left themselves vulnerable to her, but Welch’s behavior throws the book off balance. Intended as a work of anthropological investigation, “In the Land of Believers” morphs into melodrama, with the author in the role of villain.
One needn’t be a Christian, nor even believe that religion inherently merits respect, to cringe at the nonchalance with which she tramples on her subjects’ most sacred traditions.
In the 2004 movie “Saved!,” when Eva Amurri’s Jewish rebel character fakes getting saved at the mall, it’s comical. When Welch feigns the same thing one Sunday at church, it’s appalling, all the more because of her retrospective attempt at self-justification: She “didn’t yet have a deep understanding of how much it mattered to lie about this.”
Months later, as she’s about to be baptized in the pool overlooking the sanctuary, she’s put off by the “breeziness” of a church volunteer’s instructions to her. It’s impossible not to marvel: You’re calling her out for insufficient solemnity?
But worst is Welch’s betrayal of numerous individuals who don’t know they’re being studied -- some with a rather cruel eye; she is especially derisive of meticulously coiffed, heavily made-up women. Such a significant ethical transgression, a striking irony in a book intrinsically concerned with morality, is the fruit of a lie writers tell themselves sometimes: that collateral damage can’t be helped.
And yet, quite often, it can be.
One can’t help but wonder what kind of book Welch might have written had she decided against her elaborate masquerade. As Daniel Radosh points out in “Rapture Ready!,” his incisive 2008 exploration of Christian pop culture: “By definition, evangelicals engage with the culture at large.” With honesty, Welch might have earned the trust of the people at Thomas Road, or at least their cooperation.
Instead, with a youthful blend of cynicism and naïveté, she approached Falwell’s flock as if they were the enemy -- thereby setting herself up to be totally disarmed by their humanity. In this minor skirmish of the culture wars, score one for the evangelicals.
Collins-Hughes is a writer and editor in New York.