“Would you be OK with taking a pregnancy test to prove your innocence?"
There’s a place where pregnancy is a crime. I’m not talking about some future dystopian fiction, but rather what happens at Pensacola Christian College. Students who have attended school there say they are encouraged to turn in their peers, whether for a violation of one of their extensive rules, or more serious “crimes” like suspected homosexual activity or becoming pregnant. Lillith was seen throwing up in a garbage can, so informants reported her to Student Life. She was called to the dean's office on a Sunday to take a pregnancy test.
What happens at PCC is not unique among Christian colleges. Most fundamentalist colleges require far-reaching control over their student body (both physically and emotionally). Yet these kinds of schools have problematic curriculums as well. That’s why most remain unaccredited, which is a big problem if you want to transfer credits to a better school. Regionally accredited schools have rigorous educational standards and are widely accepted, but it also means you can’t teach nonsense like Earth creationism, flood geology, or archeology that pretends dinosaurs were ridden by humans.
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One of my favorite TikTokers is a young woman who was raised in an evangelical fundamentalist Christian household. She was homeschooled and then went through several years at PCC. Today, Cherie Mae has left fundamentalism, is happily married, and shares her stories on TikTok as TheCanceledChristian. She overcame her years of brainwashing and fear of hell to break free from the religious cult that tried to control her.
To say the rules she had to live under at college were strict is an understatement. They are akin to North Korea, except even Pyongyang allows dancing. Students are not allowed to use the internet, nor are they allowed to listen to any rock, folk, or new age music—not even gospel music. School officials can, and do, inspect their students’ computers at any time.
Mae chronicled her deconstruction with fundamentalism and put her videos together with clever images and music, with titles like: “Things I got in trouble for at my college,” “What my college did to women,” and “Things fundamentalists say after public tragedies.” It gives a good glimpse into the mindset of the fundamentalist. One of her videos that struck me was about how her fellow students were trained to squash any connection with empathy.
Fundamentalists and conservatives are trained to ignore their empathy…
The homeless guy? He needs to get a job.
She got pregnant? She should close her legs.
Mass shootings in school? They’re not taking my guns! People should just homeschool.
These messages are ingrained in us from a young age. We are taught to ignore our empathy and our feelings.
But there is hope. I had a community that accepted me and gently corrected my views. They showed me what real love and acceptance looks like. They allowed me to get my empathy back.
Life is better without fundamentalism.
While most of the content is funny, like exposing her college’s weird rules and the ridiculous things they were forced to learn, there is also a much darker side, such as how women are treated. Women in these schools tend to get blamed for everything, from pregnancy to rape. Mae told me in an interview, “In Sunday school, they would say women are worthless if they are not virgins. I knew girls who had been assaulted as children and were constantly re-victimized by having to hear how ‘dirty’ and ‘worthless’ they are.”
Another former student, Samantha Field, was sexually assaulted at PCC. She reached out to the school’s Student Life Office, as she was told to do, but said she was told she was the one who needed to repent for it. “I stammered, ‘He—he hurt me.’ She continued as I sat there in disbelief, ‘It’s important, though, that you face what you are responsible for. If you don’t repent, then your relationship with God is broken and can’t be mended. You need God’s grace and forgiveness—and you need to forgive your ex as well.’”
The Pensacola News Journal requested information on the college’s policy and procedures on sexual assault victims but was denied. Because PCC does not participate in federal student aid programs, it is not required to contribute to the U.S. Department of Education’s national database of alleged criminal offenses reported to local law enforcement agencies. In response to allegations, PCC has claimed allegations about how they treat rape victims are part of a campaign to harass the school, and President Troy Shoemaker stated that "reports of harassment in any form have been quite rare."
However, it’s not just PCC that’s the problem. Bob Jones University, according to a multi-year investigation, shamed sexual assault victims for decades and urged them not to go to the police. A teenager was allegedly forced to confess her "sin" of being raped before a school trustee's congregation.
At Visible Music College, a fundamentalist college in Memphis, Tennessee, a student rape victim was banned from campus. Becca Andrews was raped multiple times at Moody Bible Institute, one of the country’s most prestigious evangelical colleges, but the school wound up investigating her instead of her attacker and simply failed her at every turn.
Christian schools are profoundly influenced by a phenomenon known as "purity culture." Within evangelical educational settings, lessons on sexuality and gender roles begin at a young age, instilling a set of beliefs that place a strong emphasis on sexual and emotional purity, particularly concerning female virginity, prior to marriage. These teachings frequently convey the idea that women are expected to be subservient to men, mirroring the way Christians are called to serve God. It is in this environment that the onus is placed entirely on the women to prevent their own rapes, because men can’t be expected to control their own sexual desires. (To be fair, this is a mindset prevalent in many religions, from Muslim women wearing burkas to Orthodox Jewish women wearing wigs after marriage.)
Furthermore, Mae said her school played deeply into this gender role for women that their primary purpose was to get married and become completely submissive to their husbands, which means never saying “No.” “They would tell women that their job is to have as many kids as possible, and support their husbands. Pastors and staff would comment how Muslims have a higher birth rate than Christians, and so Christians need to have more children. Their goal was to put men into politics and create essentially sex slaves of their wives.”
That’s exactly what is happening. She told me a former PCC student actually helped on the case to overturn Roe v. Wade, and another one of her former student friends became a higher-up in Donald Trump's campaign. “So many PCC students end up in Washington, D.C.”
Even Liberty University’s former vice president of communication was appalled at how active a role his school was taking in politics, in violation of their tax-free status. He secretly recorded the new president, Jerry Prevo. Prevo took over after the Falwell scandal. (Conservative televangelists are infamous for preaching to others how to live while engaging in questionable moral, sexual, and financial behaviors.)
Prevo said he wanted Liberty to become a more effective political player with the goal of helping to influence elections, Politico reported. “Are they getting people elected? Which is one of our main goals.” Prevo holds the Christian nationalist worldview that claims the U.S. is a Christian nation and everyone should be forced to adhere to laws rooted in the right-wing evangelical interpretation of Christianity. (By the way, if Trump returns to power, expect to see these evangelical students assume primary positions of power under the terrifying Project2025 plan.)
According to Politico, when Scott pushed back, Prevo replied, “For 30 years, I’ve known how to handle that and not get into trouble. The homosexual community has tried to take me down for at least 30 years, and they have not been successful because I know how to work the 50c3.”
There was always a big reason for separation of church and state, and it wasn’t to protect the government from the church, which is what most people believe: It was to protect religion from politics. The cults at these schools are taking everything Christianity is supposed to stand for and twisting it to become a set of right-wing political principles. The students at these schools are told how to vote, even if the people they are told to support contradict all of the church’s teachings in how they live their lives.
Suddenly, Christianity isn’t about Jesus—which many evangelicals now believe is a “weak” figurehead and “doesn’t work anymore.” It’s about Trump, guns, destroying the environment, and hurting the people you hate. Christianity simply isn’t equated with love anymore. And despite Jesus preaching against the evils of excess wealth in every book of the New Testament, preachers who like the high life created the fake so-called “prosperity gospel” to worship wealth.
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Ironically, the parents who send their children to these Christian colleges are doing so because they feel they will be kept safe and learn good values. Unfortunately, the opposite can be true. The most frightening belief that can take root is that there are people worth destroying. The world has witnessed too many times what happens when cultish extremism embeds itself. With a combination of propaganda and the systematic erosion of empathy, “normal” people who consider themselves religious become monsters. Less than a century ago, groups within German churches started to embrace many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology. Once the Nazis seized power, these groups sought the creation of a national "Reich Church" and supported a "nazified" version of Christianity.
There was no separation of church and state as the Nazis took over the church. The same thing in the early stages is happening here in America. Right-wing conservatives are trying to stake claim to Christianity, and shape it into their hateful world view. A visiting pastor of Christian colleges who had his own megachurch, Kevin Young, said he supported Trump blindly even though how he treated marginalized communities was at odds with Jesus’ behavior. His final straw was COVID-19, he wrote in Reconstructing Faith. “I didn’t recognize my Christian and conservative brothers and sisters. Their callous response to the health of others shocked me. All told, I lost 19 people to COVID. All of them would be alive had conservatives and Christians practiced ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’”
The common thread among people caught in these fundamentalist cults is that they found one or more people who challenged their world view. For Young, it was a guy in the church media department who was a closet liberal who he said simply led by example of how to love. For Mae, it was friends who cared enough to be patient with her. She told me, “I had people over and over again send me an article that disputed a point I heard on Fox News. I had people just say over and over how treating the LGBTQ+ with love and acceptance is Christ-like. I am so grateful people stayed as my friend while I had hateful beliefs and helped me work through them and see the error of my ways. I use that now when I talk to my parents or fundamentalist family members.”
People who believe they are doing God’s work are often those who commit the most heinous of actions. I don’t mind engaging if the opportunity presents itself, even though it likely isn’t going to change someone’s mind, at least not right away. In researching this story, I talked with a number of caring, compassionate people who ironically didn’t become that way until they left their cult. They are now trying to get others to leave as well. Considering the stakes with what their leaders are trying to get them to do, I think it’s worth the attempt—no matter how frustrating it can be.