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No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross of Cults: My Experience at Wisconsin Lutheran College

Feb. 27, 2023 at 3:15PM

There’s nothing like dropping, “Did you know I went to a far-right creationist college?” into a conversation to elicit shock, confusion, and awe. 

Even for those who know me well, the stark juxtaposition between my progressive worldview and my experience at the reactionary institution that is Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC), is always a good source of laughs when regaling the endless travails and oddities. 

WLC is a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)—that, at the least, bears many indicators adjacent to religious fundamentalism, cults, and patriarchy.

The peculiar experience deepened my fascination with the psychology and power structures found within religious fundamentalism after experiencing its peculiarity firsthand. 

When presenting some with the oddity that was my undergrad experience, many people assume that I grew up in a doctrinal, conservative household but later had an awakening into secular and progressive ideology. 

It is not uncommon for people to grow up in conservative religious bubbles—and when presented with secular and diverse worldviews—to have an awakening and reject their once-reactionary views.

My case is much clumsier than this. While I have progressed in my worldview, there was no great awakening to my backasswards environment, but rather my own shock, awe, and horror of unwittingly stumbling into the depths of robust social control, religious fundamentalism, and a whole mess of batshit craziness.

First Things First: Why Did I Go to a Creationist College?

I grew up in a working-class Catholic family and attended Catholic school until college. My high school experience at Saint Thomas More High School, a small private high school on the south side of Milwaukee, was relatively positive. 

The students at Thomas More had diverse backgrounds in terms of race and class at the time. This diversity forced everyone to leave the bubbles of their upbringings. In addition, having a class of 89 people forced everyone to interact with everyone, partially out of a lack of available alternatives. 

While namely a religious school, its push for Catholicism felt more like a nudge than anything overtly forceful. Many students, including myself, identified as somewhere between atheist and agnostic.

Throughout my early life, I dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. In high school, I was a solid ballplayer with at least some prospects for college baseball. My dreams had a wrench thrown into them when I broke two vertebrae—needing metal screws inserted to fuse the bones into one inflexible vertebra. 

My dream of playing professional baseball was probably always pie in the sky, but post-spinal surgery, it was nothing more than fool's gold.

So, when Wisconsin Lutheran College’s baseball coaches reached out to recruit me, I jumped with excitement. Sure, I had never heard of the school before, but still, I'd be able to keep the glimmer alive.

After a tour of the school and reassurance from school staff that people from all religious denominations were welcome, I thought, “Catholic Jesus School was relatively chill; I suppose Lutheran Jesus School will be about the same.”

As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know the right questions to ask, so my inquiries into the true nature of the school ended about there.

On Fundamentalism

Religious power structures—whether fundamentalist or not—often center status and power on leader-follower relationships. Overlapping tendencies of death cults, fundamentalist sects, and personality cults, such as Trumpism, involve unquestioning loyalty to leaders and behaviors that are only rational to devout adherents.

The priest, pastor, cult leader, or shaman are given special status and benefits by their followers—often finding themselves above their followers' moral and legal consequences. 

A cult or fundamentalist group typically only has that label in the eyes of the outside observer. Growing up in Catholic social circles, there was frequent talk of the absurdity and crankery of Islam, Mormonism, and a host of other groups. We lobbed these castigations as we partook in what we believed was the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Until I reached high school, much of my identity was tied to Catholicism. The sexual abuse scandal chipped away at my firm belief in the Catholic institution. It wasn't just the rampant abuse; more broadly, it was the church-wide conspiracy to protect child abusers from consequence while aiding and abetting their abusive and traumatizing behavior. A pattern of abuse enabled from the bottom rungs of followership all the way up to the papacy. 

From this perspective, Catholicism does have some elements of a cult that has been mainstreamed—more similar to the creationist strain of Lutheranism that I encountered than I may care to admit.

Home in a Society That Makes Us Feel Alone

Yet, I understand the attraction of religious fundamentalism. In a capitalist society with intense isolation and social fracture, the robust social organization of religious organizations—and cults—that provide material and emotional support while society has failed to provide a humane social safety net is incredibly appealing. 

The problem with religion isn’t religion. Some of the most inspirational movements in history—such as the anti-slavery movement—have been inspired by religious ideals. It is a fundamentalist approach that subverts the freeing aspects of religion, such as community and mutual aid, and turns them oppressive. 

Religion is problematic when it uses power to demonize out-groups, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, racial groups, immigrants, and others, to reinforce hierarchies that place social and emotional control over people.

Sometimes people misplace their hate of the dark side of religion towards all who are religious. Atheism and agnosticism can turn into their own forms of fundamentalism. While I do not consider myself more than an armchair scientist, it is undeniable that a great swath of our existence currently evades scientific understanding. That at least leaves room for the possibility of some sort of higher power.

It is a perfectly healthy approach to say that much of organized religion has been corrupted and serves the interests of a select few. However, it is also healthy to say that when faith inspires people to form inclusive communities, undertake acts of service, and promote the dignity of all human beings, it is cruel and foolish to decry it.

But today, that’s not what we're talking about. We’re talking about good old-fashioned right-wing Christian fundamentalism.

An Inauspicious Start

Nervous beyond belief to start a new chapter of my life at WLC, I was also excited about the profound possibilities that come with uncharted territory.

Unfortunately, early on, the shapes of monsters lurked as silhouettes in the mist.

On move-in day, I met my roommates, Nick and Trig. I quickly learned that Nick was Jewish and Trig was Catholic. Seemingly, we had our living assignments with the purpose of separating the non-WELS population of the study body from the WELS. It was a foreboding sign. I suspected I had been sold a bill of falsely inclusive and accepting goods. 

Next came our orientation to the dorms.

Our Residential Coordinator shared a laundry list of dos and don’ts for the dorms and campus, including the prohibition of alcohol on campus.

Much of the orientation featured a lengthy diatribe about the strict consequences of being caught with a Ouija board. The conversation was utterly strange, paranoiac, and thorough. There was significant concern about summoning demons and spirits to campus.

I had always thought Ouija boards were mostly for spooking children, but I began to wonder if I could actually summon a demon to campus using one, given the intense unease their mentioning brought about.

We turned next to sexual harassment and assault. This was glossed over after a cursory mention. 


The Troglodyte Sleeps Here

Nick, brilliant and handsome—resembling a jacked Seth Rogen—and I became fast friends. Trig, on the other hand, was a dull and arrogant football bro. Nearing the end of our semester living together, Nick and I hung a sign above Trig’s bed, reading “The Troglodyte Sleeps Here.” On brand, Trig never figured out what troglodyte meant nor seemed overly concerned about this sign.

Though WLC was a dry campus, I didn’t drink at the time, so the prohibition on alcohol wasn’t overly concerning to me. However, Nick was fond of the occasional beer in the dorm.

One day, Nick and I decided to see how Trig would react if I pretended to get pissed at him for violating school rules by drinking.

So, with our plan in place, Nick cracked open a beer. I walked over, grabbed the beer, and threw it against the wall screaming, “I told you no fucking beer in the room.” Nick and I proceeded to push, shove, and scream at each other—grabbing anything in sight and throwing it, including chairs, books, and everything in between.

We stormed out and reconvened in the dorm lobby.

We both exclaimed with frustration, “HE DIDN’T EVEN REACT!”

Nick moved out the next semester, citing that he couldn’t live with the Trog (Short for troglodyte) anymore. My friend David, from Thomas More, transferred from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and moved into the space Nick had vacated.

It turned out that Nick’s move was needless—Trig failed out after one semester.

Know Thy Place

The core tenet of WELS doctrine is biblical inerrancy. The practice holds that the divinely inspired text of The Bible is without error and must be taken literally. This practice pigeonholes followers into believing that Earth is undeniably 6,000 years old. The strict literalist interpretation is dubious, especially given biblical Jesus’ tendency to speak in metaphors and parables that were objectively intended to be interpreted figuratively. 

It is also difficult to square with the immense challenges of translating ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into modern language and parlance. A basic understanding of linguistics illuminates that translations between modern dialects of language lack some of their original intended meaning—let alone translations that include thousands of years of language evolution and cultural shifts.

This literalist interpretation is used as justification for intense bigotry towards the LGBTQIA+ community, cherry-picking from scripture that homosexuality is a sin that must be condemned. Though official WELS messaging somewhat crafts the principle to seem less spiteful, in practice, much of the WELS community is hateful to those who don’t conform to traditional gender roles and sexuality. It was typical to hear people on campus snickering and scorning gay people.

Though I didn’t venture into hateful territory, I now understand that some of my speaking regarding LGBTQIA+ topics was regrettable.

Since God appointed the husband to be the head of the wife (Eph 5:23), the husband will love and care for his God-given wife (1 Pe 3:7). A wife will gladly accept the leadership of her husband as her God-appointed head (Eph 5:22-24).

As the head of the wife and family the husband has the prime responsibility for the spiritual instruction of the family (Eph 6:4). - Wels.Net

WELS ideology also reiterates the biblical teachings that it is the female responsibility to be submissive to male headship. Dogma ranges not only from hierarchical power structures and bigotry but also to outright conspiratorial. 

For example, it is WELS doctrine that the Papacy is the Antichrist. Given the WELS tenet that the Pope is the Antichrist, I find it strange that Catholics were recruited by a WELS college.

It’s like I was summoned to the school despite being a demon imp of the Antichrist.

It seems like they were playing with their own Ouija board.

Dinosaurs? I Don’t Think So.

My four-year ethnography of the strange and curious habits of a far-right Creationist school didn’t reveal its extremism in one fell swoop; rather, it was an edifice that was slowly chipped away.

With a burgeoning fascination with not only the fundamentalist social structure but human social structures in general, at the recommendation of classmates, I enrolled in Anthropology 101. 

Sitting at the intersection of human behavior, biology, evolution, and culture were right up my alley. Even better, I had heard about how the Anthropology professor, Nedley Barley, was an electric speaker.

On day one of the class, I quickly realized that Barley was about as electric as a potato with a few nodes plugged into it.

Not only did he drone with a slowness that makes Ben Stein seem like a tour de force of charisma, the opening lines of the class were, “Just so everyone knows, everything taught in the class is not true, but we have to teach about human evolution for accreditation purposes.”

My experience in Anthropology 101 can be summed up with my final research paper. The experience of one of my friends—whose family are scions in the WELS church—illuminated the practice of favoritism for WELS students. I helped them write their term paper. They received an A+; I received a D- for an abysmal performance—which was interesting as they were essentially the same paper. 

This came quickly on the heels of a professor asking me why I would come to a school where Catholics weren’t welcome. The school recruited me, but ok.

I didn’t put up much of a fight at that point; I largely understood that my grade was fait accompli. Other non-WELS students frequently spread stories of a double standard for WELS students and those of other religious denominations. 

My friend Kevin took a chemistry class in which the professor scoffed about people who believed in dinosaurs. Kevin asked the professor, “If the world is really only 6,000 years old, how do you explain dinosaurs?”

The professor smugly responded, ”pfffffffftt, Dinosaurs!?!?!” as the entire room mockingly pointed and laughed at Kevin. He never did get an answer, though.

One of my friends was awarded a research grant for biology studies. After initially being promised that a portion of the funding would be used for her tuition, the school mysteriously awarded the grant elsewhere. When she inquired with a friendly professor, he replied, “I’m sorry, but since you’re Catholic, the school decided to divide it among eight WELS students.”

Small Acts of Rebellion

On the way to the school library, Kevin expressed his concern that any day now, non-believers would be rounded up and crucified in the campus square. Kevin had transferred to the school as a Junior and was baffled that I had managed to put up with its theocracy for nearly four years at this point.

In reality, I had really only managed out of necessity. I desperately wanted to transfer.

Given the dubious applicability of the WLC curricula to the graduation requirements of secular colleges, I would likely need a whole additional year to complete my degree. Reluctantly, I decided the time and money required of this outweighed the benefit. 

As an act of defiance, Kevin and I set about the strangest pranks on the school. On one occasion, we flipped the orientations of several classrooms on their axis to a meticulous degree of detail. Every chair, poster, marker, etc., was replaced on the exact opposite side of the room as a form of psychological rebellion.

We didn’t want to damage anything, and our rebellious acts weren’t even targeted at any professor or sole person—many were kind, caring people—but rather, we felt like we had to do something in response to our predicament.

Economics Class Bingo Board
Economics Class Bingo Board

Also, tired of the experience in his own way, my roommate David and I undertook other outlandish coping mechanisms. One example was we made a bingo board of the verbal tics and repeated phrases of our economics professor. 

We included some of his ad nauseam quips such as “Make Some Sense” and “If You Know What I Mean,” but also more obscure categories such as “Allusions to Dominance” and “Jerry Dies.” 

While “Allusions to Dominance” was in reference to phrases such as “completely submitted to the United States economic hegemony,” the “Jerry Dies” one baffles David and I, in hindsight.

Jerry did ask a lot of questions, hence “Jerry Asks a Question,” but Jerry is a really nice guy that I am glad is alive. I guess we just wanted to cover all of the bases.

We would play the bingo card each class to pass the time. 

Initially, the rest of the class was grossly offended by our classroom bingo. However, they must have warmed up to it because everyone requested a copy of the bingo board and played along on the last day of class.

There were countless more examples of subtle insurgencies, such as frequently detuning the school chapel’s organ slightly and taking the batteries out of classroom remote controls.

The saddest example of an unintentionally impactful prank was when Kevin turned off a projector before class. Thinking it would take no more than a minute to figure out, IT was summoned before class could begin.

Later I would mix up the cords for the audio and visual ports. 

To my amazement, not only did the professor declare that the projector was broken, all classes were canceled until the school procured a replacement projector.

The Unbecoming of Professor Glenn

After leaving the pre-pharmacy program that I had initially enrolled in—due to the existential terror of the mundanity of sorting pills for the rest of my life—I embraced the humanities in my quest to dive deeper into the behavior of the human animal. Psychology and philosophy sparked a burst of creativity and passion.

Philosophy classes were a port in the storm of the turbulent waters of religious orthodoxy. The philosophy department’s sole professor was the tour de force that was Dr. Glenn Schwartz. 

Dr. Glenn was an incredibly brilliant and thoughtful man who opened my eyes to new worldviews and helped give me the tools to think critically and compassionately about the world.

I entered his classes with a general hatred of religious institutions that developed from watching the Catholic church actively aid and abet pedophiles, while Archbishop Dolan preached the greatness of the War in Iraq.

Dr. Glenn shared the wisdom that if there is God that allows for genuine freedom of choice in its creations, those creations are free to do bad and corrupt things. These acts are a result of freedom of choice, not necessarily cruelty and callousness of the higher power. While a double-edged sword, the gift of evading pre-determined fate was cultivated. 

Essentially, a corrupt religious institution was a reflection of itself, not the higher power it ostensibly worships. While I still haven't found a religious institution I have any particular allegiance to, this lesson has given me a lot of patience and empathy to those who find meaning in faith, even if the institution they are part of is odious. 

Other WELS professors taught that the only article needed to cross the gates of heaven is faith in Jesus. To take their proclamations to the farthest endpoint, I would ask if saintly people who never had heard of Jesus would go to heaven. These inquiries were met with scorn and spite.

Despite being a WELS pastor, Dr. Glenn taught the teachings of C.S. Lewis, in which a person who leads a good and moral life follows a divine path, whether they know it or not. Essentially, in this worldview, no matter if one professes to be Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, etc., they are following a righteous path. The inclusiveness of the logic resonated profoundly.

On one occasion, David and I were seated in the second row of our ethics class. Dr. Glenn turned his back to the class as he wrote on the class whiteboard while lecturing. He rhetorically asked the class if they had a guess as to the obvious location of the origins of the so-called “Vienna Circle.” My ADHD bubbled to the surface, and I shouted “Detroit!”

Obviously, the Detroit response was completely nonsensical, but it felt as if a higher power compelled me to torment our poor professor.

Dr. Glenn responded, “Detroit, yes, that’s righ—wait a second!” as he erupted with laughter.

A few classes later, the same debacle played out with a slight twist. Once again, Dr. Glenn quipped about the origins of the Vienna Circle. This time, David retorted, “DETROIT!” 

As Dr. Glenn and the class again exploded with laughter over the moronic comment, Dr. Glenn turned around and laughed, “Detroit! Who said that this time!?” 

David pointed at me, and Dr. Glenn retorted about my obsession with Detroit. 

I was convicted of a crime I didn’t commit.

Despite suffering immense personal tragedies, Dr. Glenn was the most compassionate man I had met. Sensing my difficulty navigating college, he provided special attention and guidance for post-graduation career paths, namely his strong encouragement for me to pursue law school. While I did not seek legal studies, the belief from such an accomplished figure helped build my self-esteem and worth.

Much of my current worldview was built through lessons in our philosophy classes. Dr. Glenn would shock students by decrying capitalism as an innately cruel system. While I chuckled at the figuratively dropped monocles of my classmates, the lessons were indelible—any system that cannot exist without destroying the people and planet needs to be reformed—and if it cannot be reformed, it must be unwound.

On finals day for our last class with Dr. Glenn, my roommate DJ and I made cookies for Dr. Glenn. When we presented the cookies, we received a standing ovation from our classmates.

We discovered that Dr. Glenn didn’t eat sweets but forced down a cookie anyways. He offered the rest of the class the remaining cookies … and quipped to David and me, “maybe we should give the cookies to Detroit.”

Last I heard of Dr. Glenn, he was writing on his blog that Jacob Blake deserved to be shot. Later, he was included as a finalist to be the president of another university. After he was not selected he wrote an anti-woke screed comparing the plight of the modern conservative to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. He even got a test run as an aggrieved academic in The Federalist

I suppose if you live long enough, you’ll see your heroes become aspiring Jordan Petersons

Some people change in sad, strange, and depressing ways. So it goes.

A Darkness We Could Have All Seen Coming

At Wisconsin Lutheran, it was common to hear about the inferiority of the female sex from both men and women—with many women having internalized the consistently reinforced patriarchal values. A perverse anecdote of fundamentalist patriarchalism was a theology professor proffering that it is a spouse's biblical duty to fulfill her husband’s sexual desires no matter what. 

A classmate pushed back, asking if that is the case even if a woman is violently ill from something like chemotherapy treatment. The professor responded that while it is less than ideal, it is still her duty to please her husband. (Most of us would call this spousal rape.)

Sadly, the consequences of such social hierarchies are dark and depressing. 

A friend of mine was raped by another student, causing immense psychological trauma and pain. She reported the sexual assault to the administration of the school.

Sickeningly, she was then actively discouraged by the school from reporting her attacker to the police. Instead, the school set about slut shaming her and banning her from interacting with males in certain contexts. The accused rapist was quietly forced to transfer to another school rather than face any legal repercussions—to keep things quiet.

Shortly after, the school emailed students exclaiming that the campus had another year without a violent crime.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

Evidence of social structures of social control also pervaded in less violent forms. Theology classes reinforced notions that women’s primary role is to be vessels for childbearing. This ingrained norm pervaded much of the student body.

A substantial portion of women from the school married with extreme haste after graduation and quickly had as many children as they could. It became a joke to see how much of a loser people would settle down with to fulfill social pressure to procreate with haste. 

The cycle must continue—have children, send them to WELS schools and churches, ingrain fundamentalist values, encourage them to procreate and dictate church norms to children, and so on.

The internalized sexism would sometimes take on a darkly comical gaze. On several such occasions, I had countless arguments with women on campus about equal pay. Paradoxically, I argued with women in which I insisted that they, in fact, do deserve equal pay.

One occasion stung more than others. I argued with an open-minded friend that she deserved equal pay in the workplace for equal work. She crooked her head curiously and said, “I’ve never heard that before.”

The Grip Tightens

My senior year at WLC felt like an uncertain eternity in a trap with an ever-tightening grip. Despite entering the year with an abundance of extra classes, the prospect of graduating on time was dim. Despite my distaste for small-brained business school thinking, I had previously transferred to the business school as the most expeditious path to graduation. Many of the professors regurgitated theories of the Friedman school of economic thought as religious doctrine rather than dubious economic theory, but I trudged on.

Despite assurances from academic counselors that a myriad of credits, such as AP and language credits from high school, counted towards general education requirements, I was informed my senior year by an unpleasant dean that, due to unforeseen circumstances, none of these classes would count towards graduation.

The crotchety dean grumbled over my consternations about the school lying about the applicability of classes. My complaints were largely to no avail. However, he did agree to let me break the school’s maximum course load requirements for my final two semesters.

Many other non-WELS students also found that the school had misled them about general education requirements. It was a pervasive rumor—though unconfirmed—that the school was trying to fill budgetary holes by forcing students to pay for another semester or two to meet suddenly onerous graduation requirements. 

The idea of an extra semester of classes was an existential threat to my existence—I decided that no amount of sleep deprivation or long hours of coursework could stand in my way. And it worked—at least until my final history class.

History … If it Didn’t Happen the Way I Say, Did it Even Happen?

The professor, a mousy but mostly friendly woman, passed out the course curriculum. To my chagrin, she included a required contract for students. The contract included signing an affidavit saying there was no such thing as moral, societal, or biological evolution. I vociferously refused to sign such an oath.

For weeks, my professor and I stood our ground as an unstoppable force and unmovable object imminently set for collision. I could tell that my refusal seriously bothered her, as she nearly cried on a few occasions while trying to talk me into signing.  

There were threats from both her and the dean that if I did not sign the contract, I would neither be able to finish the class nor graduate on time.

The whole thing was dropped when I had a friend pass away mid-semester, and the professor took some pity.

I never had too much animosity towards the professor for the ridiculous inquisition. We even established a quite friendly relationship as the class carried on. I did feel a little bad for her that even the smallest fissure in her insular worldview caused such distress.

Flipping the Bird All the Way to Freedom

Finally, I crawled across the finish line and made it to graduation. I had a few loose ends to tie up, such as having a local technical school submit language credits I used to meet graduation requirements, but in all effect, I had made it.

Reluctantly, at my family's behest, I attended my commencement ceremony with at least a bit of pride. 

After the convocation, my family—as I was the first to receive a four-year degree—excitedly asked to see my diploma. 

I marched to the registrar's table to pick up my diploma. I picked up a large envelope with my name on it. 

It was empty.

With a degree of shock, I asked the school registrar where my degree was.

He smugly informed me that I wouldn’t receive it until the local technical school submitted my last language credit.

Out of anger, I stood for several minutes, flipping the registrar the bird as students flowed by to pick up their diplomas. 

Eventually, I made my way back to my family empty-handed and informed them of the last twist of the knife WLC had in store.

It didn’t really matter, though. 

I was free.

Mike Pence Enters the Story for Some Reason

My negative beliefs about some of my classmates were challenged when Wisconsin Lutheran announced that Mike Pence—the highest-ranking theocrat in the history of the United States government—would be the school’s commencement speaker as part of the Trump/Pence 2020 campaign tour. 

My reaction was along the lines of, “Fuck that, but it makes sense that this fucked up place would have a ghoul as speaker.” However, many of my fellow alums quickly organized protests and an open letter to the school protesting Pence’s participation in commencement, leading to the school having to pull the campaign event/commencement speech from the school.

The most pleasant surprise was that many of the leaders of the anti-Pence movement were people I had once argued with for their backasswards, regressive views. It was apparent that hell hath no fury like an escapee of the WELS bubble.

However, seeing my once-reactionary classmates send Pence for the hills also taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes those trapped in insular religious fanaticism are the very ones who can break the chains of social oppression and patriarchy.

While researching this piece, I stumbled across WELS in the Reddit cult thread in a post titled Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) Cult. Along with several other similar online threads, it was apparent that I was not alone in my strange travails.

It was also apparent that others who were once steeped in WELS tradition and regressive worldviews vociferously rejected their once reactionary beliefs. 

This is not to say we should be tolerant of bigotry and fundamentalism. To the contrary, they should be condemned and fought at every turn.

But if we’re going to heal this fractured, isolating society of ours, we also need a path back for those who have renounced their reactionary damaging beliefs. Solidarity isn’t always a comfortable task, but it is a necessary one.

[Editor's Note: Some names in the article have been changed to provide anonymity]

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About the author

Alexander Nikolai

Making Milwaukee weirder one day at a time.