My post-academia projects have brought me back to some corners of my bookshelf, which I have neglected for far too long. One such treasure is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, a novel so iconic it seems sometimes cliché to mention. Published in the early 1850s about life in a colonial Puritan town some two hundred years earlier, Hawthorne’s story captured perfectly some of America’s religious hypocrisy and even schizophrenia.
I’d last read the novel about ten years ago, since I’d opted to assign the less commonly read works of Hawthorne during my later years teaching at university. Picking it up now, two things struck me. First, reading it now as an experienced writer, I wish I could have sat down with Nat Hawthorne and helped him edit the book. I have a huge problem with writing things that are too long and not cutting enough out, but wow, this novel should have been a compact short story of fifty crisp pages. Yet let us leave this aside for a moment.
The other thing that struck me was how I’d missed the churchy references in the book when I read Scarlet Letter as a younger man with no experience dealing with actual church leaders. The book has four main characters: strong and enduring Hester Prynne, the energetic and seemingly naughty girl Pearl, the faint and fading Dimmesdale, and the conniving Roger Chillingsworth.
Spoiler alert–if by chance you haven’t read the Scarlet Letter, go read it and don’t read the rest of this article. If you’ve read it, I am sure you know the classic plot line. Hester Prynne is the wife of an absent husband as she starts a needlework business in seventeenth-century Salem. Mingling with backwoods witches and Indian tribes, the people of Salem compensate for the primitive conditions by seeking amusement in their harsh system of punishment. In the center of Salem there is a stockade built on a platform where people who’ve been denounced must go for ritual humiliation. (Who knew that Hawthorne could have been such a prophet about the ways of Twitter?)
Hester Prynne, described as a sensual and strong-willed brunette, must mount the platform and be shamed by screaming Puritans. The reason for this is that while her husband is away in some far-off land she has an affair with someone in the town and gets pregnant. Everyone knows she committed adultery so they brand her a sinner, forcing her to wear the red letter A pinned to her chest. Hawthorne knew female nature better than most modern-day feminists, so he is sure to include a few paragraphs describing how the women of Salem treat Hester. Far from coming to a sister’s defense they think she’s getting off with a light punishment and would rather see her face branded with a hot iron.
Because of how basic reproduction works, Salem’s people know that Hester’s an adulteress but they don’t know which of the men fathered her child. This is where the two men Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale play a big part in the story. Chillingsworth arrives with a bunch of homeopathic medical tricks he learned from Indians. He seems to come out of nowhere to Salem but his secret is, he’s actually the husband Hester cuckolded. Dimmesdale is an up-and-coming minister who holds a lot of respect in the town. Yet Dimmesdale is secretly the father of Hester’s daughter.
Both men expect Hester to keep their secrets. Chillingsworth doesn’t want to be publicly embarrassed for having played the cuckold. Dimmesdale can’t bear to lose his career as a preacher if people find out he’s actually a womanizing hypocrite. Hester’s such a stoic and enduring person that she keeps both their secrets, though the two men drive each other crazy. Chillingsworth becomes obsessed with Dimmesdale and vice versa, as they act like two bachelors who need a close friendship. They move in together, under the pretext that Chillingsworth will look after Dimmesdale’s health, though Chillingsworth has come to realize that Dimmesdale is the one who cuckolded him. So Chillingsworth really wants to poison Dimmesdale and cast evil spells on him to torment him as a passive-aggressive act of revenge.
The longer Dimmesdale lives with Chillingsworth the more the reverend finds his life force being siphoned out of him. Meanwhile Hester raises Pearl in a cottage away from Salem’s town. Nestled among trees she avails herself of her skill with needlework to start a bustling embroidery business, even making elegant designs for funeral shrouds and ceremonial garb worn by the famous governor Winthrop. Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth keep popping in and out of her life, while Hester carries on and won’t let their antics unsettle her.
For at least seven years Dimmesdale carries out his charade, refusing to acknowledge that Pearl is his daughter in public. He does this even though the guilt ravages his soul. He stays silent even though he visits Hester in her far-off cottage and admits he is head over heels in love with her. He does all this even as his own flesh and blood, Pearl, hints that she wouldn’t mind having him as part of her family.
Roger Chillingsworth is a toxic, wicked man but Dimmesdale is no better. When he finally decides to proclaim the truth before all of Salem, he does so during a big ceremony, in front of everyone, and then dies. Roger Chillingsworth dies and leaves his money to Pearl, who moves far away and lives out a decent life. As for Hester, she decides she likes her old cottage and returns there as an old woman.
Everyone loves Hester Prynne so I won’t spend much time here talking about her character. We like people who fight for their dignity and stand up to mean bullies. So naturally people are going to sympathize with Hester, especially since she’s dealing with a lousy husband and a seducer who’s emotionally stunted and cowardly. If I were her I’d work with my needle too and forget both of them.
But Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale are awful in that uniquely churchy way that I can’t stand. And that’s where I’d like to bring up some recent news from Elizabeth Johnston, also known as Activist Mommy. Johnston has ten children. She’s a tough, smart homeschooler who rose to national fame as she led multiple initiatives in defense of traditional family values. Taking on abortion, perversion in the culture, the LGBT lobby, and anti-Christian politics, she launched a website that drew a massive audience. Along with that, she drew a massive backlash from all the usual suspects.
As readership grew at her website, she received increasing numbers of speaking engagements. By 2019, she had become a highly demanded public figure, touring the country to deliver speeches beside many famous leaders of the pro-family movement.
Now living under a massive spotlight, she had to come forward with what must have been embarrassing and painful news. Her husband has committed adultery and been abusive, according to her statement, so she has to file for divorce and get her children to some place safe.
This news stunned me. But what happened next stunned me more. Soon after that, Elizabeth Johnston posted a note on her Facebook stage stating that conservative Christian leaders who have worked with her for over a decade now give her the cold shoulder. She said many remain silent or criticize her.
I wasn’t sure about whether to take her claim at face value. Part of me wondered whether she might be overreacting during a time of emotional vulnerability. So I posted a note on my Facebook page saying the conservative movement really hamstrings itself by doing things like this. She was one of the most valuable assets in our movement, reaching people–especially mothers–deep in the grassroots. And she communicated our values in a relatable and strong way that far surpassed the lukewarm and milquetoast statements that come from the supposedly respectable men leading Christian conservatism.
Why shun her now, especially when her testimony is as valuable as ever?
If I had any initial doubts about whether her perceptions were grounded, I got a few responses to my Facebook post that dispelled those doubts. Johnston was correct in perceiving that conservatives would view her as damaged goods and would not be inviting her to as many platforms. Several people quoted 1 Timothy and argued that as a public figure Johnston should meet the standards expected of ministers, pastors, and deacons. Since Paul writes to Timothy in that letter that pastors should have orderly families and be men of one wife (i.e., not divorced and remarried), Johnston would not fit the bill as a national spokeswoman anymore.
I tried to behave diplomatically but I think it’s total garbage to say that because Johnston’s getting a divorce, we can’t platform her anymore. That’s suicidal because she’s one of our best assets. But one conservative friend said that our conservative witness is damaged by platforming people like her. I reject entirely his reading of 1 Timothy because she’s not trying to be a pastor, she hasn’t done anything wrong, and she hasn’t remarried yet so even the clause against people who’ve had multiple spouses doesn’t fit her.
More importantly, think of all the imperfect people God uses in the Old and New Testament to deliver his covenant, spread his gospel, announce his promises, and declare his love. Think of all the imperfect people God uses to fight his battles against the devil on earth.
None of this should surprise me. These are the same folks who used me as a spokesperson and then took me to the curb with the trash when they decided I was too rough around the edges.
The conservative Christian movement seems to have three flavors of leaders. They have some good, upstanding ones, though these are few and far between. Then they have a lot of Chillingsworths: petty, vindictive creeps who slither around in the ecclesiastical infrastructure sabotaging people over jealousy and invidious, impotent rage. When I saw Elizabeth Johnston’s star rising about two years ago, I started feeling a little nervous for her. Once she got to meet White House people I feared some Chillingsworth was going to get envious and take her out. If it wasn’t her divorce it would have been something else. They can’t have someone drawing attention away from their own ineffectual and corrupt money-making schemes. They’ve been milking donors and getting nothing done against the left-wing culture for years. If anything Activist Mommy made them look bad because she did things they were too scared to do.
I’ve seen the face of Chillingsworth. Trust me. I remember sitting in the office of the provost at Southwestern Baptist, while Adam Greenway’s administration tried to gaslight me. I knew they were going to fire me either way, no matter how they tried to rig the game. When I refused to play along, they took me out.
And then the other flavor we have in our movement is the Dimmesdale flavor. This is the pale, retiring coward who knows that things are wrong but won’t come forward. Ever protective of his turf, ever fearful for his precious reputation, he will meet you in the woods and swear he supports you, when nobody is looking. Then in public he will vanish and let you get slaughtered. These are the people who would rather die than lose their sinecure at some university, thinktank, or foundation. They worry about what Albert Mohler might say, so they stay quiet. They only want people whose sins have been carefully swept under a thick carpet.
Think of Milo Yiannopoulos, Denise McAllister, me, and how many other people have been caught between the Chillingsworths and the Dimmesdales. We’ve all been there.
Hawthorne figured this out in the 19th century. Yet now the Activist Mommy case makes me think we’ve actually gone backward.
Elizabeth is being shunned because she is the victim of her spouse’s misconduct. That’s beyond what the Puritans considered actionable. Imagine if Hester were forced to wear a scarlet A and banished to the forest because Roger Chillingsworth had an affair with Dimmesdale but Hester did nothing at all. Then imagine if Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale were allowed to do whatever they wanted while she had to take not one girl, but ten kids out to the woods without a clue about how to feed and support them.
That’s where we’re at. We’re worse than seventeenth-century Salem.
I’ve read critics who’ve stated that Hawthorne misread the Puritans, projecting his nineteenth-century Victorian sensibility backward onto their culture. I wonder if those critics are actually projecting our twenty-first-century postmodern culture backward onto the Victorians and the Puritans. In a world of transgender toddlers, movements to legalize sex work, laws to decriminalize infecting people with HIV, growing acceptance of “intergenerational intimacy,” and Disney movies promoting homosexuality to kids, our Christian leaders are worried that Activist Mommy is a bad look because she is the victim of someone else’s mistreatment and had the basic integrity and courage to stand up for herself.
What a sad state we are in.
If you can donate to Activist Mommy, visit her site here: https://activistmommy.com/support-activist-mommy/
I would consider doing it because I know first-hand what slime weasels these right-wing leaders are. They will hem her out of speaking engagements and book deals whether she makes nice with them or not. They’re that horrible.
The good news for Activist Mommy is, Americans love two things. They like Hester Prynne types, and they love comebacks. Here’s looking at you, kid.