Thoughts on evangelicalism
How do evangelicals become “true believers”? I’m sure many recovering evangelicals have experienced the apparent contradiction of these three points:
- Their parents weren’t particularly aggressive about pushing their personal beliefs.
- Their pastors almost entirely refrained from right-wing screeds.
- 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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