Evangelical Christians are a growing force in America, to the frustration—and sometimes fear—of nonbelievers like Gina Welch. Raised a secular Jew by a single mom in Berkeley, California, Welch moved to Virginia in 2002 to complete her master’s degree and became fascinated by the hardcore Christians that surrounded her. To learn more about these people, what drives them and why they’re so interested in converting the rest of the world to their point of view, Welch infiltrated Thomas Road Baptist Church, the church founded by über-evangelist Jerry Falwell. She spent two years pretending to be a Christian—even getting “saved” and baptized and going on a mission trip to Alaska—in order to get at the truth of who evangelicals are as individuals and what the movement means for America. She shares what she found in her book In the Land of Believers.

Readers less cynical than Welch may find her initial treatment of the faithful harsh and mean-spirited. She didn’t seem to take what she was doing seriously, and readers may wonder why she wanted to spend so much time getting to know people she clearly didn’t respect. In time, though, she began to see the members of the church as more than their ideology and to find comfort in their community, the regularity church attendance brought to her life, even the cheesy praise music sung at every opportunity. In the end, she says she felt “a kind of belonging” and understanding that evangelicals are so enthusiastic about their faith because they see its potential to change other people’s lives just as they feel it has altered their own.

No matter the reader’s opinion of evangelicals, Welch says they’re a group that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored: “Listen to them, include them in the public conversation, understand the sentiments behind their convictions, and you invent the possibility of kinship.” That’s what Welch aims to do with her book, which provides a candid inside look at faith for people who don’t have a clue where evangelicals are coming from. If readers can make the same sort of mindset change Welch made by writing the book, it could forever alter the way they think about people of all faiths.

Sarah E. White is neither an evangelical nor a Christian. She writes from Arkansas, home of former Baptist preacher-turned-governor-turned-evangelical darling, Mike Huckabee.

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