Note: If you’re a conservative Christian, you probably don’t want to bother reading this. You already know everything I’m going to say, and how I’m going to say it will annoy you. I know that because it would have annoyed me a few years ago, before you all elected a mean-spirited bigot and sent me spinning into a crisis of faith.
As a senior in high school, I watched a video one night at youth group that depicted a group of teenagers just killed in a car accident facing judgment and then plunging, screaming in terror, into the fiery pit of hell. Just before the door to the cage they were placed in slammed shut, they cried to their Christian friend, who was of course spared this fate, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
I assume and sincerely hope that this particular VHS has been removed from the shelves of the Christian Children’s Video Library (or wherever youth directors get these things), but the message embedded in the video is still a central theme in conservative Christian teaching. We have the truth. They are lost. If you don’t convert them, they will burn for eternity.
Recently I was talking to a woman who was expressing her bewilderment over conservative Christians’ attitudes: “I don’t get it. If you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one! If you think homosexuality is a sin, don’t be in a same-sex relationship! Why do you have to impose your beliefs on everyone else??”
Answer: See description of video, above.
“Live and let live” is not an option in this paradigm. There is only one truth. There is only one way. We learn about narrow gates and broad paths that lead to destruction. Your way is not simply another viable alternative; it’s wrong. If I am a faithful disciple, it is my responsibility to lead you through the narrow gate.
So if all of this is about concern for your eternal life, why do you feel more self-righteously policed than loved to salvation? For me, believing that I was right and you were wrong led to a sense of moral superiority that trumped love. That doesn’t happen for everyone. My own weird mix of pride and insecurity made “having the truth” manifest for me in uglier ways than it does for some, but I’m certainly not alone.
Because I was right and others were wrong, my beliefs and values warranted protection from those who wished to assault them. Legalization of abortion, broadening acceptance of homosexuality, increasing tolerance of divorce and sex outside of marriage…all of that is threatening. These things don’t just run counter to my own religious beliefs- they’re wrong. Because my religious beliefs are Truth. So not only must I not engage in them- I can’t condone them.
Of course I was taught to be kind, but there were many times when being kind clashed with being right. My “lifestyle” aligned with biblical principles of morality, even if my attitude often did not. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I went to church every Sunday. I dressed modestly and was so extremely cautious about sexual contact that I couldn’t manage a healthy dating relationship. I didn’t cut class (well, once, to hide in the library and finish an essay on Edgar Allen Poe that was due that day, but that’s so nerdy it seems like it shouldn’t count), I didn’t swear (which in my house included “butt” and “fart”), and I didn’t take God’s name in vain (I still don’t, even though I interpret that commandment slightly differently than I used to). And for the most part, my life was charmed; my parents were married, my home was comfortable, I always had more than I needed, and I coasted somewhere around the top 20% in school without a lot of effort. When you follow all the rules, and life is pretty easy, it’s easy to consider yourself “blessed” and to attribute other people’s hardships to their own immoral choices. Homeless and addicted? Shouldn’t have used drugs. What? I never did. It’s not that hard. Pregnant with a child you aren’t ready for and can’t support? Well, serves you right for having sex. Dying of AIDS? The Bible warns about homosexuality. The list goes on. Should have stayed in your marriage. Should have complied with police. Shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally. It’s not that I’m not compassionate; it’s just that we’re all accountable for our moral choices. And why was I so easily able to float above it all? Free from neighborhood violence, tensions with police, the anguish of divorce, a life of poverty? I’m blessed.
This line of reasoning worked for me for a LONG time. I had people in my life who questioned it, but I disregarded their perspectives because they weren’t Christians. They didn’t understand. They were lost. The belief system reinforces itself and inherently blocks out competing ideas.
I grew familiar with systemic inequality sort of organically. 20 years in public education made me more aware of the relationship between race and class and success and less sympathetic of wealthy parents demanding schedule changes, lifted suspensions, and a host of other privileges for their deserving children. But a few specific incidents disturbed my religion-based moral compass. When I was a new assistant principal, a colleague mentioned, almost in passing, that many people in her community regard U.S. policy as having created the economic conditions that lead to illegal immigration. A community I was newly a part of erupted, uniformly, in outrage when Darrin Wilson was acquitted in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I sat across the table from a Muslim friend as she described the marginalization the Muslim American community experienced after 9/11 and how that felt to her as a second grader. I rescinded a comment I had made about Christians’ treatment of the LGBTQ community that had offended conservative Christian friends and realized that by pulling back, I had hurt my LGBTQ friends. A friend I deeply liked and respected was visibly offended when I used the phrase “being a Christian” as a synonym for being kind and gracious. I started to question prayer requests from friends that their children be granted transfers to “better” schools (what happens to the children left behind?) and social media posts praising God for blessing a couple with the perfect house (why would God want you to have a 3000-square-foot house and allow another family to live in their car?). I became suspicious of any sentence that began, “The Bible is clear…” In fact, the Bible, like any text, is socially and culturally situated, and it is rarely as “clear” as I was raised to believe. It’s not that I’d never confronted these questions before; I’d just always been able to answer them within my framework. But each new story and new experience stretched my framework, until eventually, not coincidentally right around November, 2016, it broke.
When I look back now and wonder how I lived 40-something years never questioning, never recognizing that significant strands of what I considered my Christian beliefs directly conflicted with the core themes of Jesus’ teaching, I alternate between anger and shame. I should have questioned. I should have known. But I also remind myself how strong the pull of ideology is, and how powerful a force it is to live in a community of people who share those ideologies. I never wanted to be anything other than a strong Christian, standing on the solid rock of the truth of Christ, but the notion of truth is complicated, and it is surprisingly easily misused.
So I’ll continue to search, and wrestle, and challenge, and question, but I’m not deceiving myself. It’s an uphill battle. And I’m significantly under-qualified to fight it.
But here’s the upshot: although it appears to be a baffling contradiction, it’s not a giant leap from Sunday School to Trump.