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Thoughts on evangelicalism

How do evangelicals become “true believers”? I’m sure many recovering evangelicals have experienced the apparent contradiction of these three points:

  1. Their parents weren’t particularly aggressive about pushing their personal beliefs.
  2. Their pastors almost entirely refrained from right-wing screeds.
  3. At some point, they were obnoxious “religious right” types to some degree.


Seemingly out of nowhere, usually during adolescence, evangelical youth will “try on” the religious right persona — suddenly being very concerned about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, or whatever. Sometimes that carries with it certain other “evangelical Republican” tenets, such as the desirability of free market structures as a way of motivating hard work and other appropriate behavior, the church’s shameful abdication of it’s “job” of caring for the poor and the state’s usurping of that role, etc. That happened to me for a period, though I came out of it relatively quickly and already no longer cared about the talking points by the time I started at Olivet.

It seems to me that in evangelical environments, the religious right nonsense normally isn’t directly pushed. There’s a critical mass of true believers, of course, and they tend to be more motivated to volunteer to help out with youth group or Sunday School, so there are those influences. The most insidious influence, though, is Christian popular culture. Parents give their kids this stuff because it seems safe, but it very often carries a much more radical message than the parents themselves espouse.

The lyrics tend to inculcate a persecution mindset, which appeals very much to adolescents. Not only are people in school out to get you with evil influences, but the teachers and other authority figures are ultimately anti-Christian as well — persecuting students who pray or read the Bible, forcing godless doctrines on everyone, etc. It’s a weirdly anti-authority brand of authoritarianism, and I think that for a certain subset of evangelical kids, it’s the best of both worlds — it’s safe, but it allows them to indulge their rebellious impulses, too. More than that, it dignifies their rebellious urges by making them into a kind of mission from God, something that very few binge-drinkers or experimental drug users can claim.

And if the parents seem to be personally more tepid in their beliefs, all the better. Again, it’s a double-edged sword — the kids can put themselves forward, consciously or unconsciously, as “better” than their parents, stronger believers, more militant fighters, and the parents have a hard time figuring out a way to complain about it, if they are inclined to do so. Are they going to punish the kid for being a pushy jerk by… not letting him go to church? Is it better to keep a kid from her Christian friends and open her up to “worldly” influences?

A lot of times, the aggrieved right-wing stance goes away by itself as a person mellows with age. There are complications, however. Going to a “secular” school can actually solidify a person into a very militant and defensive form of belief, as the persecution complex sets in. To that degree, I’d say that if your goal is to help someone come out of that, a Christian college might be a better solution, at least for the first couple years. There will always be those who find the Christian college “too liberal,” and others for whom it will be “just right” and basically lock them in, but for many, it will be a case of getting overstuffed with what they ostensibly want and then looking for a way out. In any case, the Christian college environment will cut off the sense of persecution and grievance that seems to motivate certain youths in this regard — once their right-wing positions no longer seem daring and transgressive, it might no longer seem to be worth the trouble.

Certainly they will keep their pro-life or anti-gay positions as a kind of “default,” but the affect will be changed: over time, they’ll basically stop caring. Continuing to hold the belief is itself a way of not caring anymore, because trading in one’s beliefs indicates that they’re important. For such people, it seems to me, there’s no use in trying to get them to believe that the religious right has betrayed the gospel, that the Republicans are railroading them, etc. — the resentment route has already been exhausted, that bridge has been burned. The way to get them to care about the widely acknowledged positive aspects of the gospel — caring for the poor, seeking peace, etc. — is to get them to care about people, not to give them a new dogma with new prooftexts.

Even on the specifically religious right points, such as homosexuality and abortion, getting them to think about actual people is crucial. Discussion of abortion among doctrinaire types is almost always conducted on a level of absolute abstraction: the mother practically doesn’t exist and her personal conditions don’t make any difference, a blob of cells is a fully-functioning human soul, etc. The abortion-seeking woman is paradigmatically a heartless woman trying to rid herself of a petty inconvenience, just as the homosexual is paradigmatically a libertine violating moral law for its own sake — otherwise, how would “slippery slope” logic make any sense? For the evangelical, homosexuals get off not directly on sex, but on breaking the rules. Virtually no one actually fits with that stereotype of a homosexual, just as virtually no one is actually using abortion as a casual method of birth control.

The key here, though, is that to get through to these evangelical types, you have to regard them as actual people, too — people with complex personal histories, people who don’t know quite what to do with what their history has left them with. There are irrevocably indoctrinated religious right types — probably more per capita than there are homosexuals who get off on breaking the rules or women who get an abortion like they get a dental cleaning. Those people are generally scary, as is the fact that so many others allow themselves to go along with them.

I have to think that for most of the people in the pews at evangelical churches, though, their heart isn’t really in it. They’ll continue in the well-worn grooves as long as nothing disrupts them, but at bottom, they don’t really care. A few of them are true believers, but belief is hard work — convincing yourself that you still believe, grappling with doubt, struggling to discern your precise degree of sincerity, all of that is hard. Churches have to have special programs to try to inculcate that. They have to have special, emotionally-manipulative services to try to jumpstart that kind of self-reflexivity in their members. Whatever results from that generally burns out, so they have to try again next year, or next quarter, or sometimes even next week — week after week, “preaching salvation,” trying to raise the question of whether they really believe, whether they know where they’re going when they die, whether they’re setting the right Christian example for their family, whether they’re giving their friends up for dead spiritually. It’s exhausting, and really very few people have the energy for that in the long run.

What they fall back on, then, is that for them, Christianity is just normal. They go to church because they go to church. They vote Republican because they vote Republican. They listen to Family Life Radio and give their kids Christian music because they’re Christians and they want their kids to be Christians. And maybe they’re a little embarrassed at how obnoxious they’ve been in the past — or would be, if someone could come up with a way to address it that didn’t set off the persecution narratives that are lingering just below the surface and that they’ve never consciously worked through.

As hard as it is for Americans — and especially evangelicals — to believe, people never fully choose who they are. The peculiar burden of the evangelical is that they’ve been raised to believe that they do, that everyone does, that their decisions and motivations and actions can be made entirely transparent to themselves and to God — and their eternal fate hangs on that. Most of them wind up simply going with the flow, producing another generation who embraces that very same narrative — maybe for a few months, maybe for a few years, and in some extreme cases for their entire lives — and then goes with the flow, feeling inadequate, feeling vaguely guilty, needing to be told what they can do to at least do their duty. The crazy people, the ones who really believe, are happy to tell them what they can do: show up for church, send your kids to the youth group, vote in this certain way. And they do all those things, glad to have God off their back for another day.

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October 29, 2008 - Posted by | religion

11 Comments

  1. I think the experience of being a true believer was put best by Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief (also found as monologue in Adaptation by Kaufman):

    The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.

    Comment by Jared Sinclair | October 29, 2008

  2. Well, you hit the nail on the head, at least in my case. Though I never went to bible college, I did become a real fundamentalist for about two months, and more or less totally apathetic for about two years after that. And you are absolutely right, I had too much of this Christianity, too much fundamentalism, and it didn’t even take a wishy-washy bible college. I didn’t want to end up like “them.”

    To use a “Zizekian” analogy, I would say that a lot of the evangelical church is sort of like the chocolate laxative, and I think this fits with what you say. Feeling bad about God and church? Get some more God and church, but without the stuff making you feel funny, and you will be cured!

    Comment by Colin McEnroe | October 29, 2008

  3. This is, like, a classic Weblog post already. I keep rereading it, just to take stock of where I’ve been. Reading this post stirs up old memories. It feels like returning to an essay-in-progress after a long coffee break, skimming through it from the top to get the momentum going again.

    I like what you say about the crucial need for them (or anybody, actually) to consider actual people. I think the way this would be accomplished is to merely put them amongst one another. Proximity promotes sympathy, especially when no Big Other is looking. Evangelical leaders must be aware of this natural tendency to sympathize with one’s neighbors, because I can remember all the many strongly-worded exhortations to fraternize with other christians as a way to strengthen faith. The (intended?) secondary effect is a lack of basic life experience among “secular people.”

    Comment by Jared Sinclair | October 29, 2008

  4. I thought the bit about the radical nature of “Christian popular culture” was pretty insightful. (It’s a good post generally; I just wanted to particularly praise that bit. Don’t recall seeing that point before, or at least not so clearly made.)

    Comment by Daniel | October 30, 2008

  5. I agree this is a very clearly articulated piece, if not completely new ideas and I think it is indicative of many people/groups regardless of faith–it is so much easier to be told what to do than thin! I’m interested in how deeply embedded these indoctrinated values are even for those who have started thinking for themselves. How has this past effected your ability to fit into other groups and other more emotional aspects of life? I ask because I’ve actually had 2 relationships with ex-evangelicals and I noticed a similar sense of detachment emotionally. Of course it could just be they weren’t’into’it. Haha, I sound a bit stuck on myself there!

    Comment by Phil | October 30, 2008

  6. The detachment thing is not unusual. Being in such an emotionally manipulative environment, being strongly pressured to make promises you can’t keep and don’t even understand — it takes its toll.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | October 30, 2008

  7. I was a regular at a Baptist church for about 5 years in high school until I became a fundamentalist. My parents are definitively not evangelicals, so my engagement was definitely a surprise for them. More than once did I feel like I was being “persecuted” by them, usually when I wanted them to drive me to church and they were too busy.

    Sure, there is some emotional detachment, it comes with inability to process complexity and deep abstraction with regard to principles like homosexuality, evolutionary biology, and abortion. And all of my evangelical friends at the time could not be upset, only bright and happy and nice, and I figured we were all just the best of friends. Funny that when I left my church I didn’t get a phone call from one of them and it didn’t really seem to bother them much, and when my friends left for their evangelical colleges they all lost touch with me. Even the pastor I did bible study with for three years didn’t seem too bothered by my leaving, he only mentioned it in passing one time if I recall.

    But then again, I was only involved for a few formative years, and from my subjective perspective I would say that it is surely something one can snap back from. After fundamentalism I became more or less nothing for a while, deeply detached from the world around me and incapable of looking outside and seeing anything interesting. And for all the cheesiness that Emergent is, they surely helped me for a period of time to just get over the weird feelings I was having.

    So the reaction for me was somewhat the opposite- a sense of distinct anger, heightened emotion and embarrassment towards my past, a sense of torture about my christianity and a deep resentment towards both myself and those who I met along the way. Of course, this is obviously allowing the past to continue to define my path and thoughts, and it is only in the last few months that I have not been angry or disturbed by myself and I feel like I have started to move on from it.

    So I guess I had a few things going for me. No lifetime achievement awards, no family trying to draw me back into the scene, and a pretty bad experience with fundamentalism. Also realizing that no one really cared that much when I left was kind of nice.

    Comment by Colin McEnroe | October 30, 2008

  8. This is a really good post, Adam.

    Comment by Kim | October 30, 2008

  9. check out crazy for god book. Author on NPR now

    Comment by Phil | October 30, 2008

  10. Adam,

    Just wanted to add another tally mark to the “great post” column.

    In my opinion, posts like this are the highlights of The Weblog.

    Comment by Jarrett | October 30, 2008

  11. I think this is an insightful post. I can kind of identify with the whole “more religious than parents” thing, although in Bangladesh it was much more complex because syncretist Sufism is very much a mainstream form of Islam there.
    It’s hard for me not to lash out at conservative Christians, because I was persecuted by my landlady’s family when I came to Canada as an adult, and I take the damage the religious right has done to Muslims and feminists quite personally. I went on to be persecuted by a raging white male right-wing misogynistic atheist asshole, hence my deep hatred for the meme that atheism will magically eliminate prejudice and suffering from this planet.

    Comment by Sajia Kabir | October 30, 2008


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