The View from Jesus Land, USA
My great-grandpa was the only member of my mom’s side of the family never to abandon the Democratic Party for the Republicans. He would not leave the political party of his father. Similarly, a friend of my family’s who worked as a lawyer in a small Midwestern town for many years kept his Democratic Party affiliation because it was his father’s party. He made a point of telling people that he didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, and he was worried that his party affiliation might get him in trouble when he was appointed to a judgeship that would subsequently be subjected to the will of the voters. He didn’t need to be worried. In Jesus Land, an aging conservative white man who will not stop being a registered Democrat out of a sense of filial duty is about as remarkable as a cornfield.
One of my uncles, the pastor who brought a shofar back from a trip to Israel, owns several acres of the cornfield adjacent to his house. He has someone else cultivate and harvest it, but in a way it’s a return to his roots. Before getting kicked off the land and thereby embarking on a sort of accidental post-war American Dream story, my maternal grandpa, this uncle’s father, was a farmer. He was a farmer because that’s what his father and his father and his father had done, not because he liked farming. When the farmland my grandpa was renting was sold out from under him well before I was born, he ended up going to work in a machine parts factory. Promoted early and often, my grandpa retired as a civically engaged pillar of the community and an executive vice president in the company that owned the factory.
Papo, as we grandkids called him (we called our grandma Mimi), taught me to fish when I was a small child. He didn’t really like fishing, but this was something that men were supposed to do with their sons and grandsons. I was a bookish kid. I liked nature and being outside, but I don’t really care for fishing either. Thankfully, I somehow managed to avoid learning to play golf.
Grandparents frequently soften toward grandchildren relative to how they raised their own, and I am told that my maternal grandparents, who were very present, caring, and generous, were looser with disciplining my generation than they were with my parents’ generation. Mimi indulged my interests in reading and nature with an annually renewed subscription to Ranger Rick Magazine, and Mimi and Papo would take my sister and me on educational trips, including to Yellowstone National Park. Mimi and Papo also stood aloof from the apocalypticism of their children’s generation, the generation that went, as it were, cuckoo for culture wars, traumatizing me in the process. Even so, Papo was rather insistent when it came to little me playing with my food (which, stubborn as I am, I still maintain is an expression of creativity), and when I was older he would force me to get haircuts when I was staying with him and Mimi (I always wanted long hair) .
Even if my grandparents rejected the end times mania, no family meal (at home or in a restaurant) could begin without a prayer, no accommodations were made for any non-evangelicals who might be among us, and these prayers would as a rule be said by a man, usually one of the pastors in the family. There was little privacy in our close-knit extended family, and in many areas of life it was simply assumed that “we” do things “like this,” which could be unsatisfying to a precocious kid who wanted to know the reasons for things and was innately disinclined to accept the arbitrary simply because “that’s the way things are.”
I did not get a choice regarding my Christian school education, which was full of indoctrination in #ChristianAltFacts and involved mobilization for right-wing politics. I was allowed to choose where to go for college, and I went to Ball State University, which is in fact where my parents met through Christian Student Foundation’s Campus House. The children in a family I knew growing up were not allowed this choice; their parents demanded that they all attend a particular hardline fundamentalist Church of Christ school. They could have “rebelled,” I suppose, but that would have made their lives much harder. Situations like this are not uncommon in Jesus Land.
Meanwhile, at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis, where as elementary students my classmates and I said pledges to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible every day, the principal kept a paddle in her office, and she sometimes used it. On at least one occasion that my mom told me about, when an African-American boy and a white boy got into some kind of trouble, the African-American boy was paddled, and the white boy was not, leading the African-American boy’s family to withdraw him from the school. Mom tells me that race was not a factor in the principal’s decision about whom to paddle. Given white fragility and what we’ve learned in recent years about implicit bias, I find that hard to believe.
Systemic racism was certainly strongly present in the school, where very few POC were present, though it has become more racially integrated since I graduated in 1999. I’ve heard from other alumni that a history teacher, one I had when I was there, on at least one occasion singled out an African-American girl to take on the role of a slave during a Civil War demonstration. An alum of color has also told me that she was subjected to “jokes” about her immigration status, including from a high school teacher, and that on more than one occasion white boys told her they couldn’t date her because “God told us we need to stay with people of our own race.”
In my early years at Heritage, one wall in the elementary school building was emblazoned with “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,” a brief excerpt from Psalm 33: 12. (Here and below I will be quoting from the New International Version, or NIV, the Bible translation we most frequently used in my childhood and youth.) It didn’t take us long to learn what “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD” meant. It meant we were expected to be outraged that there was “no prayer in public schools,” and that God could well punish our nation for making such godless laws. It also meant that it was our job to try to get the mandates of “the biblical worldview” enshrined into law, because the whole country was supposed to be living in accordance with “the biblical worldview,” like we were striving to do. After all, since the fall in the Garden of Eden, all of us humans were hopelessly corrupt, and our only path to salvation lay in submitting ourselves to God’s will. The Bible told us that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) and “lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). We were not to trust ourselves, but to submit to divinely ordained authority.
Just as corporal punishment was used in school, my sister and I were subjected to spanking, including with a wooden spoon, at home. Evangelicalism, as a variety of fundamentalist Christianity, teaches that children’s wills must be broken in order to instill obedience to authority. In Jesus Land, a “strong-willed child” (a term that was often applied to my sister) is regarded as a particularly serious problem. This ideology is closely associated with Dr. James Dobson, the twisted evangelical answer to Dr. Benjamin Spock and the founder of the virulently anti-gay organization Focus on the Family, which moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1993.
Focus’s move happened to coincide with my family’s stint in the Springs, 1993-1995, during which time a then high-ranking Focus executive, Kurt Leander, attended our church, Community Church in the Rockies. CCR met at Rampart High School back then; I believe the church is now defunct. The way I remember things, my parents were proud of having a Focus executive in the church, although we weren’t the most Dobson-obsessed family I knew, by a long shot. I don’t recall us listening to his radio broadcasts (I heard some of them in friends’ cars and houses), and if memory serves, my parents only ever gave me one Dobson book to read, Preparing for Adolescence, which was published in 1980. In fairness, this little volume is not Dobson’s worst book, but that isn’t saying much, as Dobson’s entire fear-based, sex-obsessed ideology is toxic.
As should come as no surprise at this point, I grew up with a strong sense that voting for Republicans is required of Christians, mostly “because abortion” (“school prayer” was another regular rallying cry). As a five-, six-, seven-year-old child, adults at church and school functions were already leading me to conclude that “liberal” was an antonym for “Christian,” because “Democrats murder babies” and “abortion is a literal holocaust.” Voting for Republicans was thus imperative, which absolutely does not mean that our Christianity was “merely political” and “not really religious,” despite the desire of certain commentators to exclude from “real” religion anything that they don’t consider benign. We were intensely religious.
My parents both worked and work in ministry, my mom teaching in the Christian schools I attended and my dad working most of the time as a music pastor. This added to my deeply internalized sense, bolstered with fear of hellfire, that breaking away from evangelicalism–we just called it “Christianity,” effectively claiming a monopoly on the term–would be a betrayal to my family. After all, in addition to demanding obedience and honor from children to parents, the Bible has some things to say about what the family life of church servitors should be like, and this contributes to the pressure children of conservative Christians who work in ministry feel to avoid being “rebellious.” Take this passage from I Timothy 3 (the term “overseer” here is rendered “bishop” in other translations):
Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
8 In the same way, deacons are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. 9 They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.
11 In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.
12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well. 13 Those who have served well gain an excellent standing and great assurance in their faith in Christ Jesus.
Note how the author of the above passage draws a parallel between the family and the church and emphasizes the importance not only of children’s obedience, but also of maintaining a good reputation. This is central to authoritarian Christianity, and this emphasis on family and church reputation is a key root of the numerous abuse scandals that have been exposed and that continue to be exposed in both Catholicism and evangelicalism.
De facto, reputation and appearances become more important than people’s wellbeing, because authoritarian Christians are desperately afraid of the sense that any of their rigid, divinely prescribed rules do not actually work. Spoiler alert: they do not actually work. But when confronted with evidence of the harm that results from, e.g., opposing access to women’s healthcare and comprehensive sex ed while attempting to ban abortion in all circumstances, conservative Christians shrug, because the deity of these “law and order” believers is as punitive as the white supremacist American state. Individuals who have the audacity to have sex “deserve” to be punished, and if lack of access to birth control pills causes women with endometriosis unnecessary pain whether they’re having sex or not, well, God is in control and has a plan for everything.
The urgent need to maintain an appearance of propriety and avoid “all appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22) can be found throughout conservative Christian subculture, for example in my grandpa’s demand that I keep my hair short; in my mother snapping at teenage me for calling contemporary Christian music “boring” in front of a Walmart employee who might have been “unsaved”; in the vaunted and highly sexist “Billy Graham rule” that Mike Pence follows; and in the private shaming I received from a Calvinist college professor (yes, even at my state school) for wearing a Ben & Jerry’s t-shirt, because that made me look like a hippie who approves of drug use, at least in his paranoid mind.
To take another example, when I was first trying to find someone to tutor me in Russian during the summer after my first year of college, a local Ukrainian Baptist who had married an American refused to work with me because her husband would not be able to be present at all times. This is what we call purity culture, which is really just the fundamentalist version of rape culture. I have stories, and you’ll find many more on Twitter under the hashtags #ChurchToo, #EmptyThePews, and #ChristianAltFacts. We ex-evangelicals and other former fundamentalist Christians were subjected to powerful, often thoroughly internalized disciplinary mechanisms meant to keep us from ever speaking out about what’s wrong in our families, in our churches and other evangelical institutions, and with conservative Christianity in general, but we are now overcoming our socialization and reclaiming our stories as evangelicalism faces a reckoning for the many abuses to which it has given rise.
Family, Freedom, and Framing, or, Father Does Not Know Best
Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff has famously argued that liberals and conservatives operate with competing and incompatible concepts of freedom. (For analysis of the evangelical theocratic understanding of freedom, click here.) While the physical metaphor at the core of our understanding of freedom remains the same, liberals and conservatives cognitively frame that core concept in radically different ways that are linked closely to the two groups’ approaches to family. The “strict-father” model of family corresponds to conservatism (and authoritarianism), whereas the “nurturant parenting” model corresponds to liberalism.
Similarly, the moral foundations theory originally put forth by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham purports that humans have (in the most common and widely discussed versions of the theory) five innate moral building blocks: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal (associated with in-group/out-group consciousness); authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation (“sanctity” is also often referred to as “purity” in the relevant discussions). Liberals are highly attuned to care/harm and fairness/reciprocity, but conservatives, while valuing care, also emphasize authority and purity, which means that their approach to care/harm will be very different from that of liberals. (In fairness, many on the far Left also emphasize purity and fall into authoritarianism.)
Some of these ideas have been widely discussed in America’s chattering classes from as far back as the George W. Bush years, but my experience as a very public exvangelical suggests that many of the Americans who have read and participated in such discussions still have no idea what it’s like to grow up with strict-father morality and the emphases on authority and purity that, combined with religious fundamentalism, are both conducive to abuse and, as Cindy Wang Brandt frequently discusses, immensely psychologically damaging to children.
Filial duty–a concept that likely seems quaint to the majority of people familiar with the names of intellectuals like Lakoff and Haidt–is a hard thing to shake when you come from a patriarchal religious background. The extent to which family loyalty, and specifically loyalty to fathers, prevails in “flyover country,” and, indeed, wherever conservative Christian enclaves exist in America, may come as a shock to many people who grew up in liberal and/or “coastal elite” families, because, for them, it is simply very difficult to imagine. Having grown up in a very conservative state in an evangelical enclave, I continue to be surprised precisely at how surprised many Americans are at the prevailing extremism that passes for “normal” in Jesus Land. As the reactions to the revival of the #ChristianAltFacts hashtag on Twitter and the personal experiences of many exvangelicals show, things that are “normal” for evangelicals can often be shocking to those who do not know much about the subculture we come from.
I think it’s important for liberal Americans who do not come from a patriarchal religious background to hear our stories and to sit with that shock. Why? Because I remain convinced that if American civil society and the American press fail to come to grips with just how radically theocratic the Christian Right is, any kind of post-Trump soft landing scenario in which American democracy recovers a healthy degree of functionality is highly unlikely.
To put it another way, you may not come from Jesus Land, USA, but Jesus Land is coming for you. We will all be subjected to theocratic dystopia, to “one kleptocracy under God,” if we don’t stop the Christian Right. The Christian Right has been able to acquire massively disproportionate power in part because the press has allowed evangelicals’ slick, code switching PR spin doctors–such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell “journalists never ask me about my view that feminism is a heresy” Moore–to frame the national discussion of evangelicalism. The result is that the readers of major news outlets are presented with an unrealistically benign picture of a darkly authoritarian, cult-like branch of Protestantism. That’s one reason I’m writing this essay.
The other reason I am writing it, however, is that I know that many of my fellow exvies have, like me, struggled for years to make an open break with their families because of the pressure to conform that comes from inherently abusive fundamentalist socialization. The need to break away combined with the inculcated urge never to oppose or publicly criticize one’s family causes intense inner turmoil. People who are not fully open with their families may be wracked with guilt and uncertain about whether they are keeping quiet to protect themselves or to protect their families. They often go on exposing themselves to abusive and triggering behavior and beliefs in order to avoid rocking the boat. And they do not know, as I once did not know, whether their parents and other relatives are capable of loving them as they actually are.
Wherever the chips may fall, if you need to hear this, breaking with your parents’ religion and politics, and making your own ethical and political choices, is not becoming a traitor to your family. Of course, when you first break the news that you’ve charted your own political and ethical course apart from theirs, they will gaslight you, shame you, and attempt to silence you. I have had close relatives accuse me of being “brainwashed” (projection much?) and of “attacking everything we stand for.” None of this is fun to deal with, and your relationships may break for good.
But whatever happens, it’s on them, and not on you. The notion that becoming your own person makes you a “traitor” to your family, internalized by many of us, is the product of spiritual abuse. Your parents, siblings, and extended family have absolutely no right to override your moral autonomy, to dictate who you can be or who you can love. You are your own, and, if it is safe for you to do so, I encourage you to find your voice and tell your story publicly as an act of reclamation. The more of us ex-evangelicals and other ex-fundamentalists who “come out,” the better.
Now, for those of you who are shocked that what I wrote above even needs to be stated, let me tell you something. When undergraduate me heard one of my college professors at Ball State assert that he was glad when his children disagreed with him because it showed a healthy independence, I was shocked to realize there were any parents like that. The parents in Jesus Land want their children to believe and support the exact same things that they do. Growing up, I got a lot of nurturing and encouragement in terms of my reading and academic success, but I was supposed to stay within the lines. And keep in mind that, growing up with a more formal education-oriented (by all means read Bridge to Terabithia but please don’t challenge young earth creationism), middle- to upper-class evangelicalism, I got far from the worst of it. I also get along with my parents now, because we’ve had years of hard conversations that resulted from me going public with my criticisms of evangelicalism, and now they respect my boundaries. Many exvies are not so lucky.
In the subsequent analysis, I’ll further flesh out the coercive dysfunctionality of patriarchal evangelicalism in its obsession with “focusing on the family.” But first, a few illustrative #ChristianAltFact tweets:
“Never Go Against the Family”: Authoritarian Christianity and Abuse
According to the apostle Paul, the original manipulative Christian busybody, “You are not your own. You were bought at a price” (I Corinthians 6:19-20). That’s right, you killed Jesus, his blood “bought” you, and now you owe him. According to this same obsessive convert-grubber, Christians are “God’s children,” and “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:16-17). Note not only the rhetoric of family, but also Paul’s emphasis on sharing in Christ’s sufferings, as the expectation that Christians should suffer both deters Christians from speaking out against abuses and helps to establish the persecution complex that runs rampant through conservative Christianity. This persecution complex contributes in turn to the sense of urgency conservative Christians have around protecting the reputation of their families and their faith, creating a vicious feedback loop.
In the New Testament, familial metaphors are frequently used to describe Christians and what came to be construed as the universal Church. Christians are “brothers” and “sisters” to one another. Weirdly, collectively they are also the body and the bride of Christ. Wives are commanded to submit to their husbands “as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior” (Ephesians 5:22-23). This teaching of male headship is, of course, a source of much abuse of women in conservative Christian circles, and evangelical pastors have been known to abuse, to sweep abuse under the rug, and to counsel women that they must remain in abusive marriages since, after all, Jesus himself forbade divorce, and God can use suffering for good.
All of this in on display in the current evangelical reckoning; Google and Twitter searches will easily turn up many examples. The Southern Baptist Convention in particular is reeling from revelations of decades of widespread abuse, most prominently with respect to conservative takeover leaders Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. The SBC, whose 2018 annual meeting ended on June 13, is thus in full damage control mode. Nevertheless, SBC leadership is refusing to give up the damaging patriarchal theology pleasantly termed “complementarianism,” which bars women from teaching men or holding any leadership position over them. This “it can’t possibly be our dehumanizing theology” response is both utterly unsurprising and utterly insufficient; I thus reiterate my call to #EmptyThePews.
Clearly, the conservative Christian approach to family fits George Lakoff’s strict-father model. And the sense of duty to family, and particularly to male patriarchs, that characterizes white evangelicalism and conservative Christianity generally extends from the nuclear family to the church. Just as Christians refer to one another as brothers and sisters, you’ll often hear Christians discussing the congregation they belong to as their “church family.” This sense of being family generates a naive trust of coreligionists, and especially of church leaders, that narcissists and abusers can and do easily take advantage of.
Combine this with strict biblical injunctions about what Christian families are supposed to be like, with scriptural commands that Christians should handle conflicts among themselves as opposed to in the secular courts, and with the many New Testament passages that fuel the all-too-common Christian persecution complex, and it’s no wonder that Christian communities that insist on “biblical inerrancy,” a hallmark of evangelicalism, exhibit abusive dynamics. If you want to understand the Christian extremism that represents the single greatest threat to democracy and human rights in America today, it’s important to understand how authoritarian Christians read the Bible. So let’s look at some more of their favorite passages, starting with Matthew 18:15-17:
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Here the Jesus of the gospels (as opposed to the historical Jesus, about which we know very little) is advocating handling disputes among Christians privately if possible, and before the whole church if necessary, but still, in-house. No airing the “family’s” dirty laundry in public. Meanwhile, what amounts to shunning, a highly punitive action that can have devastating consequences and that is practiced by some Christians today, is the last resort presented in this passage. Paul espoused a similar teaching in I Corinthians 6:1-7, maintaining that it would be shameful for Christians to argue their disputes before unbelievers:
6 If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.
Enter popular Christian author Lisa Bevere:
(Hint: when provision doesn’t follow obedience, you will be told that it is your fault for not having enough faith or obeying enough, a message you will have heard so many times, if you were socialized in evangelicalism, that you will probably need no convincing and will be telling yourself before anyone else has to tell you.)
Lisa Bevere finds it very, very disturbing when Christians openly speak out about abuse in Christian contexts. In a recent video that has since been taken down, the righteously offended evangelical author said, “When we attack the church on social media, we are taking our mess-ups to a mob. Jesus already promised that the world is going to hate us. This does nothing but confuse the issue.” She also said, “I’m gonna quote The Godfather to you right now. The Godfather says, ‘You never go against the family.’” This was probably a bad idea, at least if Bevere didn’t want the church to be associated with the mafia. It is quite an interesting tell.
Public outcry forced Bevere to issue an attempted “clarification” on June 9, in which she stated, “Never in my wildest of imaginations did I ever think anyone would think this meant issues of abuse or illegal actions,” adding, “The abused should be believed by the church and empowered by the church in whatever way they need to find healing, justice and safety. Abusers should never be sheltered by the church to protect the church’s reputation. They should be turned over to authorities and their sin should be openly exposed to the congregation.” To be perfectly frank, this looks to me like so much spin and damage control at a time when evangelicals are deservedly under the microscope because survivors of abuse, some still Christian and others not, are exposing them.
On the most charitable reading possible, Bevere’s clarification is still a deflection from addressing the patriarchal theology that allows abuse to thrive in conservative churches. And whatever Bevere meant initially, what evangelicals hear when such statements are made is “You should suffer in silence in order to protect the reputation of the church.” After all the Bible tells us that we are to put others’ needs ahead of our own, and that suffering is redemptive.
Bevere’s comment, “Jesus already promised that the world is going to hate us,” provides us with a good example of the Christian persecution complex that adds so much fuel to the fire of evangelical toxicity. In John 16:33, Jesus told his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble.” This verse was frequently invoked in my childhood to explain that we as Christians should expect to be hated and persecuted. We would also dwell on what Jesus is supposed to have said about the end times and his return, which early Christians expected to happen within their lifetimes. See these verses from Mark 13, for example:
9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
It is salient that the kind of Christians I grew up among very much believed–and continue to believe–that we are living in the end times, meaning they expect severe persecution of Christians to occur as part of a series of events leading up to the end of the world. When this persecution does not occur, they manufacture it in the form of exaggerated panic regarding current events and paranoid conspiracy theories.
There’s one more issue worth addressing here that helps to explain the evangelical buy-in to authoritarian theology. Conservative Christians are promised that their faith will radically transform them, solving all their problems.
In II Corinthians, Paul wrote that in Christ believers will become “new creations.” This type of faith promises individuals shortcuts to something like perfection, and belief in this promise incentivizes people to insist that the promised shortcuts have worked rather than to put in the hard work necessary for authentic self-improvement. True belief in these more toxic New Testament concepts, which amounts essentially to magical thinking, is thus a recipe for remaining emotionally immature while believing oneself to have become mature overnight. When doubts about this creep up, when the cognitive dissonance threatens to boil over, the knee-jerk reaction is to repress the doubts, to double down, and to sweep any evidence that one may not have become “a new creation” under the rug.
True believers become so emotionally invested in their need to be feel justified that they often cannot face the ego threat of admitting that in fact they have not been radically transformed. Adults who join cults or cult-like religious groups such as conservative evangelical churches usually do so in an attempt to address some serious source of trauma in their lives. The children raised in these toxic faith communities then experience generational trauma. Indeed, psychologically, fundamentalism may be described as a misdirected response to trauma perpetuated communally and generationally. All of this is highly conducive to the proliferation of hypocrisy and abuse.
Leaving the Faith of Our Fathers Behind
We’ve all heard variations on the formula, “You can take the person out of X, but you can’t take X out of the person.” When it comes to the lingering effects of abusive socialization, this is tragically true. For escapees from evangelicalism, it is much easier to remove ourselves from Jesus Land than it is to remove Jesus Land from us. It is not for nothing that the often slow and painful process of disentangling oneself from a toxic religion in which one has spent decades, usually including one’s formative years, is frequently referred to as “deconstruction.”
I gave up intellectually believing in hell for over a decade before I stopped being afraid of hell. Why did my emotional makeup take so long to catch up with my mind? Well, I was terrorized by the threat of hellfire from my earliest childhood, and that terror was reinforced by the kind of theology and family dynamics described above. I had internalized the thought patterns and disciplinary mechanisms designed to keep people in the fold, and when your entire community tells you that believing certain things is more urgent than even a matter of life and death, it is awfully difficult to shake the sense that you could be wrong.
Evangelicals espouse a very dark view of human nature associated with their approach original sin, and sometimes with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. The belief that, without being “saved” by God, we are entirely corrupt, teaches us to doubt our own doubts. Ultimately, authoritarian Christianity leads to us learning to gaslight ourselves, and that is difficult to unlearn:
If you were raised in Jesus Land, even if you were not physically or sexually abused, you were spiritually abused, gaslighted, manipulated, and controlled, though you may find it hard to own this truth. When abuse was your “normal,” it can be difficult to start seeing it. It can also be emotionally fraught to start recognizing your friends’ and family’s behaviors as abusive. Learning to do so is painful but ultimately empowering. Another reason it is never easy to extricate oneself from Jesus Land is that the social and psychological costs of leaving an authoritarian faith community are high. Still. once you begin to see that the abusive ethos of Jesus Land itself is the problem, the source of your inner turmoil, you can begin to relieve the cognitive dissonance and to counter the negative self-talk and harmful old thought patterns with new patterns.
Remember this: you are your own person, you are morally autonomous, and you own your story. The more we talk back about why we reject the fear-based faith of our fathers, finding the voices in which to tell our stories and refusing to allow authoritarian Christians to frame them, the easier it will become not only for us to realize ourselves authentically, but also for others to escape from Jesus Land. If you are struggling with this, be gentle and patient with yourself. Authentic transformation, after all, does not happen overnight. Eventually you will find your way forward, whether in affirming and progressive faith or outside of organized religion and/or spirituality altogether.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that my parents met through Campus Crusade for Christ. In fact, they met through Christian Student Foundation.
*This essay has been further updated to correct minor inaccuracies and for purposes of clarification.
60 thoughts on “Escape from Jesus Land: On Recognizing Evangelical Abuse and Finding the Strength to Reject the Faith of Our Fathers”
Thank you for expressing my experience in such an eloquent way. My children were co-parented by an Evangelical dad and me, a humanist. Fortunately, they are intelligent and began to recognize the gaslighting when they were tweens. My birth family hasn’t spoken to them or me for years. And while it’s sad, we’re quite okay to keep it this way.
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Well written and thoughtful.
I disagree with some points. I believe one can reconcile Paul’s authoritarianism with the inclusiveness of the gospels.
Ultimately the bible like all religions is summed up with the concept of empathy, don’t treat anyone in manner you would not like.
My upbringing was somewhat different, in that my father didn’t become hyperreligious until recently. My mother was raised southern Baptist, so I was surrounded by this kind of thinking, which has only, scary to say, become more extreme with time. I didn’t go to a Christian school, for example, because there was no need. It was in the public schools already in rural environments. Group prayers, handing out bibles, etc. “Why weren’t you in church on Sunday?” Self-policing, you could say.
As an adult, I slowly came to understand that my parents were personality disordered, which fundamentalism attracts — the authoritarian impulse is highly sociopathic, after all. The view of “God” as punisher and disciplinarian only mirrored the sociopathy of the people. I ended up writing a book about recognizing toxic patterns and repatterning yourself, centered around the inner child (Discovering Your Inner Child: Transforming Toxic Patterns and Finding Your Joy). On my web site, I discuss what toxic parenting is (http://brighthill.net/?page_id=124), and it’s cognate is, of course, the toxic god (http://brighthill.net/?page_id=126). Not too surprisingly, they are probably the most popular pages on my site.
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Thank you for sharing.
I was 60 before I escaped. Fear, from my formative years & throughout my whole life, kept me in line.
I hear you. It’s such a hard thing to break away from.
I find your experience and perspective so fascinating. Growing up in a Jewish family, everything was always a debate. Respect for elders meant abiding by a final decision – but, until one had been made, strong advocacy was encouraged, even when it crossed the line into irreverence. I have always felt like I was wired differently from friends who grew up in stricter Christian environments — and I didn’t even know evangelicals! So thank you for providing this window into a world I honestly struggle to see as real. I can’t imagine life without questioning and coming to truths on your own. It’s the entire basis of how I became a moral person. That we have a pervasive ideology that preaches against critical thought is very, very disturbing.
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I have a different early and ongoing experience, Chris. My experiences with evangelicalism were shaped with and season from from more progressive biases. Yet, I have encounter all of these attitudes and continue to resist most. I follow you regularly on Twitter and generally agree with your contemporary insights. I linked your blog on one of my Facebook discussion pages with this statement:
“I do not come to all of Chris’ conclusions or accept every point of analysis, but I believe this needs to be heard and discussed more than confronted. If we do not have this dialogue, it is to our detriment and that of the movement Jesus began.”
Thanks for taking the time to think and write this through.
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Thank you for sharing this.
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Wow wow wow wow… if I still believed in god I would say he led me to this haha! The part about it took another 10 years to stop fearing hell after you conciously decided it did not exist… I HEAR YOU! I’ll reread this a few more times. What I could now write since parents and some others have died… whew!
Fantastic read. I was raised Primitive Baptist (they don’t believe you go to hell… it’s for Satan and his cohorts). Went wild and crazy for awhile, then went through too many traumas and was invited to a revival at a HAHA “non denominational” church…. I swear… that kept autocorrecting to demonic!!! We were with that church for over 15 years. All friends were through the church. Had longest running largest home group.
They ALL abandoned me when I needed help with mother (Alzheimer’s, incontinent – diaper- colostomy- bag too!- and legally blind and pissed off. Great combo!!! Took care of her in my home for 6 years – nearly killed me. But… I haven’t heard from anyone.
What nice people!!! (Assholes)
Oh the stories I could tell now that the blinders are OFF. Infidelities, lying, stealing, and these were long time members and staff.
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Thank you for sharing this, Pamela! I’m so sorry you went through that experience of abandonment in a time of need.
Reading this made me cry. I know this – I lived it, and I got free. It hurt me and it took me realising that I was hurting everyone around me – from my parroting of views that weren’t even mine – before I could break free. Even then, it took steps – I had to try to rebuild my faith before I realised that the fundamentals of fundamentalism are, themselves, broken beyond repair. So for the first time I opened my mind… and discovered things. I discovered my real self and slowly, slowly, accepted myself for who I was. I discovered that I didn’t love who I was supposed to love, and that I didn’t identify with the gender I was supposed to identify with. And armed with that truth, I cannot be hurt by those beliefs, those people, ever again.
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Thank you for sharing this.
Thanks for this essay, Chris. I’m 58 years old and have been struggling with the fallout from being raised in an evangelical church, breaking away from it, and all of the stuff still flying around since. I was starting to think that there was something wrong with me, as I was/am still emotionally tried by the doctrine that was pounded into me from a very early age. I can now accept that there is nothing wrong with me and I need to be patient and allow myself to heal.
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Very well written and expressed. I was raised Catholic, so a bit less dogmatic, but I bailed many many years ago and fortunately had parents that allowed us to find our own way after 16 or 17 years old. I am 59 now, I think faith is a lovely thing, celebratory rituals are lovely, funerary rituals are very helpful, but beyond that individually experienced faith is best. I feel that most churches are about control and power, nothing more.
Happy for you that you found a way
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The theme of supposed “white genocide” caused by diversity, immigration, integration, etc dovetails with this vision of persecution by others. Politically the two worldviews overlap perfectly, as does the fondness for authoritarianism.
If you haven’t read the secession declarations, particularly that of TX, take a moment to check them out. The Christian justification cited for both slavery and WN are both eye opening and alarming given the current political power structure.
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You are such a great writer in addition to being wise and compassionate. I left evangelical Christianity decades ago but still cower in the face of my parents telling me how i am shaming them because I am ordained and am open and affirming of LGBTQ persons. This article is helping. Peace to you.
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Thank you for following your convictions despite the family pressure and for sharing this with me.
It’s refreshing to read this, in a way, and in another way, disheartening. I am so sorry that you lost your faith because of mankind’s horrifying perversion of truth and misinterpretation. I, too, grew up in Jesus Land, tho farther south in Florida, and was raised in a conservative nondenominational protestant church. I can relate to some of your experience. We weren’t allowed to dance. That killed me as a teen. I rebelled big time. My friends could do so many things I wasnt allowed to. When I left home at 18 I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It tool years to understand that my parents’ expectations of me was cuz of their own upbringings, and that of their parents. The Puritanical influence on early America has taken a long time to dissipate, and I know it still exists in many forms today, especially in the Bible Belt.
I am so so sorry that you had to experience the authoritarian form. I feel your pain. Those verses you include there, when I read them, I don’t read them with the same anger and disdain you have. They mean something different because I know God and Jesus from my own discovery. I was able to shed the box my parents tried to raise me inside and learn on my own. You write with so much intelligence, so just know that the truth is out there, and that you don’t have to see the world or the Bible thru the lenses of your parents’ conservatism. It’s good to be angry and to express this irritation, and I agree with so much of what you’ve said. It’s sad and disturbing, and no one should ever be forced to be faithful. Even Jesus himself said that. Any nation who forces a religion on their people goes against God’s will. Free will is every man, woman, and child’s right.
Since the dawn of time man has been getting religion wrong. We will continue to do so. What I’ve learned on my journey is the best thing we can do for ourselves as human beings is research for ourselves. Set aside all predispositions and seek truth, however that may be–Internet, talking to people, travel, read–seek the truth with open eyes, open minds, and earnest desire for wisdom, and we will find answers. My answers led me back to God, and the Bible, but with a perspective all my own. I wish that for you as well.
Thanks for sharing your experience.
I don’t appreciate proselytizing. What I wish for me is that Christians like yourself would respect my moral autonomy enough to realize that Christianity doesn’t have to be for everyone. Sorry if this may seem harsh, but all the couching in sympathy in the world doesn’t make proselytizing not objectification. Proselytizing is always objectifying others. I maintain a very firm boundary on that.
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Thank you so much for explaining exactly what was going on in my head and my heart. I now understand why I ran from organized religion at the same time I changed political parties. I am now my own religious person, I found a way to protect myself and my family.
I feel a little more at peace with the decision I thought was crazy at the time. Peace ✌🏼
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Thank you so much for writing this. I was kicked out of my evangelical fundamentalist southern Baptist family when I was 15 years old (because I refused to marry the man they’d picked out, I came out as gay, I doubted their religion and I planned to go to college – not sure which was the reason I got kicked out but any would do.) At age 15 after walking about 3 blocks with my worldly goods in a black plastic sack I felt a huge sense of relief to be away from them. I found help and kindness from “non-believers” which cemented my thought that there was something “not right” with the evangelical family. Fairly quickly the family began, along with their church members, a long campaign of gaslighting me, trying to force me into gay-reparation-therapy (pray away the gay), trying to force me to marry a man, trying to force me back into their church, trying to “cut the demons” out of me and etc. Long story short when I was 25 years old I got a Victims Protection Order (VPO) in a court of law. Yes, it was beyond scary. The family and the church seemed all-powerful, more powerful than the civil court system. But I did it. And I am now 50 years old and getting the VPO and leaving the family (and Jesus Land) were the best things I’ve done! True that it is hard to un-do the Jesus Land brainwashing – but it can be done – healing has taken a long time but every day has gotten better! Going on and living well has been the best response! I’m very glad for this post and the reminder that I am not the only person this kind of abuse has happened to – though I am heartily sorry that anyone else has dealt with this. My wish is for your continued healing Chris. All the best to you.
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Thank you so much for sharing all this, Sue, and for the well wishing. What you went through is much worse than what I’ve been through, and I’m sorry you had to deal with so much! I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to get to a place of a good relationship with my parents, with boundaries respected. I know that for a lot of people from Jesus Land, that never happens.
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Thanks Chris – all pain is pain, the difference is merely in the details. Like Mark Twain said “A child’s loss of a doll is as important to the child as a king’s loss of a kingdom is to the king.” I’m glad we are both in good-for-us places now! All the continued best to you!
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I was raised by a single mother who was raised Catholic then converted to evangelicalism when I was 5. She is a college-educated (retired) teacher and divorced, but still has a lot of the Catholic/Evangelical mantra buried deep in her psyche. That said, her religion and intellect have been at constant odds w/ each other (still are). When my brother and I were young, we were expected to adhere to the evangelical teachings but were also given an interesting amount of freedom. Yet when we’d show any sort of contrast to the church’s teachings, we were snapped back (or at least she tried). Talk about confusing. I’ve always theorized she’s a self-stifling rebel. But as the daughter of a single mom with this interesting background, it makes me really consider your ideas on the yin yang of conservatism and liberalism.
You cited conservatism=authoritarianism vs liberalism=nurturing. That would help explain why, in the 70s, as single motherhood became more prevalent, the congregations of mainstream religion, Catholic or Protestant, really took a hit. I don’t believe, as a feminist, it’s sexist to say that women tend to be biologically more nurturing when it comes to parenting. Not all women adhere to this, mind you, but enough that it’s a clear pattern. It stands to reason then single mothers would be more likely to raise children with more compassionate flexibility than strict, decisive authority. [Note: I am not saying women are not and cannot be strict and authoritative–only that women tend to go towards the nurturing corner per capita than men do.] In doing so, during an era of feminism and women’s liberation, it makes sense that, culturally, Generation X and Millennials would be far more concerned with altruism and intellectualism than contrition and traditionalism.
Additionally, while Americans tend to give latitude to this authoritarian “piety,” it’s odd that so many of us view it as religious zeal, even cultism, yet don’t treat it as such when it comes to deciding our government, social norms, etc.
Think on how we view and treat those who belong to Scientology. We tolerate them, but they’re the butt of jokes more than pillars of respect. We enjoy their work apart from their beliefs (film, music, etc.) but they don’t dictate our laws and culture any more than the next person. Why then do we defer so much to evangelicals? I’m going to take a stab and say it has a lot to do with America’s Puritanical roots. While our country is comprised of myriad cultures and faiths, the social and civil laws were written by Puritans, Quakers and Whigs. I think most of us still bear a bit of that “to go against tradition is to go against patriotism.” Almost as though it was part of our DNA.
However with the rising and maturing of generations raised largely by women, we’re experiencing a huge shift in how we conduct life here. That shift is only going to increase and evolve as younger Millenials and Generation Z mature into social leaders. These up-and-comers are statistically turning the divorce rate back down in favor of delayed marriages that are far more partnerships than outdated “man and wife” setups. In fact, you have to figure in same-sex marriages, which is only going to add to dimension to all this. It’s going to be really fascinating to watch.
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Thank you for sharing some of your own story and for this fascinating analysis. I really appreciate the comment! I also really like the term “self-stifling rebel.” Some people really struggle with the repression they’re expected to submit to in authoritarian religious communities. As for me, I got far from the worst of evangelicalism growing up. I also had access to lots of reading material from “the world,” but would get pushback on accepting things we were not supposed to believe.
Just found this blog and thank you for this very insightful and enlightening essay. Having grown up Catholic in a very patriarchal household, I know well the use and misuse of power in such families. I do sense that mainstream Catholicism is perhaps a little more open to debate and questioning than the fundamentalist churches you describe, in part because of its strong tradition of private confession and examination of conscience, but it is still a very authoritarian structure and we have seen the tragic results played out in scandals of sexual abuse and the protection of pedophile priests.
Chris, thanks for writing this. My experience growing up in a Baptist General Conference church in west central Illinois was eerily similar to yours in Indiana and Colorado. I didn’t have a single epiphany where I realized “this stuff doesn’t make sense”. I had waves of clarity over 35 years and gradually came to a more materialist that values what is demonstrably real and recognizes beliefs are just that . Those waves still roll in occasionally. And It really helps to reframe it all honestly and to hear from other exvangelicals who offer a sense of camaraderie in processing the unnecessary shame, guilt, fear, and self-doubt that sprang up from such an upbringing. I am especially grateful for (and frightened by) your observation about the end times rhetoric in relation to the persecution complex manifested by many of my family and childhood friends. It’s right there. I have no idea how to help defuse that bomb but recognizing it exists is progress. Thanks again.
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Thanks for your comment, Jonathan. It’s always good to connect with others who have been there.
This is such an interesting article. I’ve often found that those of us in the U.K. who grew up with fundamentalist Christianity have a lot in common with those raised in the ‘bible belt’ of the US. Except that for us, because fundamentalism isn’t really part of the fabric of the U.K., in the way it is in parts of America, it’s in a way more lonely being exvangelical. If that makes any sense. I grew up in a normal (I suppose if there was a dominant religion it was Catholicism but not especially fervent) area in the North West of England but my family attended a really fundy Christian ‘fellowship’ and as such, so much of this rings true (except that weirdly, the church I was in was pro- women’s ministry). Because people on the street regularly took the piss out of us as ‘Bible bashers’ and so on, it definitely added to that persecution complex.
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Thank you for sharing this perspective, Rosy! I’m sorry that being exvangelical in Britain is a lonely road. There are some other U.K. exvies in the Facebook group Exvangelical and on Twitter if you’re interested in reaching out to connect with them.
Ok I get it you don’t believe in Christianity and you somehow have convinced yourself you are a victim like so many others. What do you believe in? Everything that has a beginning has a purpose, the universe had a beginning what is it’s purpose? How do you form your morals? How can you say one person’s morals are good or bad?
Not playing your games, apologist troll. I don’t owe you a debate.
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I don’t want to insult you. Just asking what you believe in now? What is our purpose as humans, do we have one? You posit some heavy claims against your upbringing. I grew up evangelical as well much like you in Christian schools. We rebelled but eventually understand our spiritual needs as humans.
Chris, thank you so much for this. I was raised Evangelical and sent to parochial school until high school. Beyond all of the religious dogmas I was fed as a young person, I also suffered many other forms of abuse within the “nuclear” family. Those monsters really do feed one another, and make it harder to free oneself from either circumstance. I’m still struggling after almost 20 years “out”, and trying to find my way beyond the irrational fear that’s been planted in my mind (especially late at night), but it’s really nice to know there are others out there who can relate to and articulate my struggle. I’m going to look into more of what you have out there. I have a feeling it’s going to lead me toward healing.
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Thank you for sharing this; I’m sorry you went through so much abuse. I wish you all the best on your path toward healing. Knowing there are others who “get” where we come from has always been a comfort to me.
I, too, grew up in a “Christian” church called the Church of Christ (not the organized Church of Christ—the Southern fundamentalist CofC). I was forced to attend 12 years of Christian school. Some women in the church were required by their husbands to wear doilies on their heads to show subjection to their husbands and fathers. After I left Alabama and attended college, it took 20 years for me to really overcome the fear of hell that was taught but his church that my great grandfather joined in the early 1900s. By the time I was 23 or 24, I could reason that what I was taught was wrong, but the fear lingered. My sister felt the same after leaving, but she died at age 55 from the ravages of cancer, and she was terrified; she couldn’t overcome that fear of hell and damnation that was instilled in her from age three. To a person who has been brought up outside of a cult, this is hard to explain, and I doubt that anyone who hasn’t experienced it can grasp how this form of Christianity gets its claws into a child’s psyche and won’t let go.
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I’m so sorry that you and your sister had to go through that. Thank you for sharing.
I am SOOO excited to find your website. I was raised evangelical Christian and left twenty years ago. I was very angry for a long time. I don’t feel the anger anymore but I have been just baffled at the Christian response to Trump these past four years. I have had so many conversations about it. A friend turned me on to one of your pieces. I definitely struggled with the anti-feminism that I grew up with in the church. I knew it was patriarchal but I didn’t really associate the subculture with being authoritarian. I felt like I was abused growing up but I didn’t recognize the religion itself as being abusive or that I experienced gaslighting growing up. I feel like so many lightbulbs are going off right now. I really like your writing. I look forward to reading more. Thank you for your insights!
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Thank you for sharing and for the kind words about my writing, Heather! It took me many years to be able to process all this in these words myself.