“Have you heard the good news?” I said to the woman in a muumuu, looking confused behind her screen door. “The good news of the Kingdom?”
This was on a Saturday or Sunday many moons ago, when Blockbuster and Kmart were still suburban kings. If I was lucky, the door would slam in my face and I would be relieved from kid proselytizing until the next stop. If I was unlucky, I would be invited in and forced to carry on a conversation with the other adults accompanying us in whatever musty living room we found ourselves in.
Of the facts that surprise people most about me is my brief but traumatic upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. My parents made my sister and I attend twice weekly meetings, plus door-to-door ministry, until I was about 11, when they separated and my mom mercifully left the church on her own volition. “It wasn’t the truth,” I remember her saying about the faith that members commonly refer to as “The Truth.”
The older I get, the harder it is to remember much of what JWs believe anymore. Relatives and childhood friends swiftly cut us off as we drifted further and further away, back into mainstream society. I had my first *real* birthday party when I was 16 — mom rented a limo out of guilt, I think, for the prior 15 birthdays that went unacknowledged. Luckily, I never had to worry about voting when I turned 18, something JWs also prohibit members from doing. I think the only real lasting influence of the church was always feeling like an outsider.
That feeling is cultivated by the faith — and many other fundamentalist religions — to make their members feel special, but also trapped. The more you conform to their rules, the more virtuous you are. Perversely, you start to think those outside the group are actually the ones blindly conforming — because they don’t know “the truth.” It’s earned a reputation as cultish. I recently fell down a rabbit hole watching young JWs with TikTok accounts making inside jokes about all the weird rules they follow, and it made me profoundly sad.
The Good News of the Kingdom™ was actually pretty grim. Some might even call it Bad News. Many Christians believe mankind is so rife with sin that only the return of Jesus Christ can redeem humanity, but only a handful try to predict when that will be. JWs were bold and set dates for Christ’s return at least twice over the last century, leading to disillusionment and large declines in membership when it didn’t come to pass. Now they’re just going with the movie trailer version: Armageddon is “coming soon” to a town near you.
I am no longer religious, but my upbringing may have helped prime me for my career and our current age of conspiracy theories and disinformation. If I can find any good in the bad of it all, it’s that I treasure my personal agency and right to vote more now that I’ve seen what it’s like to have it taken it away under the guise of piousness and truth.
JWs do not believe in self-government. Therefore why vote or try to improve it at all? You’re waiting to frolic with domesticated tigers in the New World (an actual thing they teach). It’s an extremely self-serving point of view that seeks to disenfranchise people from trying to make things better in our society. This brand of Christianity shares some DNA with the toxic individualism of our current politics and culture, which has so far contributed to more than 170,000 COVID-19 deaths and millions more lives put on hold for six months.
While I do not put all my faith in our current system to fix everything, there’s no reason not to try and make it better. So, like JWs, if a political party or pietist or president is trying to convince you not to vote or sow doubt that your vote will be counted or even matter, better vote like your life depends on it. That’s the truth.