I have a situation that I thought you may be able to help me with. I’m a liberal Christian whose brand of faith has more to do with living out Jesus’ example of love than anything else — I tend to identify more with Quakers than most denominations I’ve run across, but the absence of a meetinghouse in my area has kept me from becoming more involved.
I have a dearly, dearly beloved aunt who, over the years, has become increasingly fundamentalist in her political and religious views. Her family is rather hard to categorize — they’re very right-wing politically, involved in the Christian homeschool movement, and tend to espouse the “package deal” view of Christianity you’ve discussed where political views different from theirs mean someone is doing Christianity wrong. However, they left a Baptist congregation because the emphasis on Christian Patriarchy was making their daughters bitter and, while there are several Quiverfull families at their current group home church, they personally aren’t followers.
In order to keep the peace and preserve my relationship with my aunt, I have never shared my actual religious and political views — she knows that I’m Christian and so assumes that we’re on the same page, and to avoid argument I have simply worn my Conservative Hat during visits rather than correct her. As a result my aunt and uncle have held me up to my cousins as a role model for what a Christian young adult should be.
Now that the kids are spending so much time socializing with Quiverfull families, I’m concerned that they’ll have no one to go to with questions or doubts as they get older. I worry that misrepresenting myself with my aunt is giving them a false idea of how attainable their idea of a good Christian young woman is — they don’t know that I lost my virginity at seventeen, for example, or that I’ve taken emergency contraception, or that I’m pro-choice, or that I’m currently sleeping with my best friend, or that I fail to feel guilty about any of these things. They don’t know that I’m politically one of the heathen liberals their congregation abhors. I want my cousins to know that there are multiple ways to be Christian, not just their parents’.
I want them to feel like they can talk to me if they have doubts. Mostly, I want them to know that I’ll love them and be there for them no matter what they do or how “Christian” their behavior is. But I don’t know how to do that without at best undercutting their parents or at worst truly damaging my relationship with my aunt.
Is there anything I can do or say to conduct myself as a more honest role model for my cousins? I’m quite content to let my aunt continue to think that I’m right on the Christian fundamentalist spectrum with her, but my cousins listening and watching complicates things. They’re great kids and I want to do right by them. Any suggestions? Or in the end is it not my concern?
I understand Kaitlin’s concern because it’s one i myself face. My siblings know that I have left many of my parents’ beliefs, but they don’t know that I have left religion entirely. They don’t know that I support LGBTQ rights. They don’t know that I am pro-choice. I worry that if one of my siblings were to question God’s existence, or to be gay, bisexual, or transgender, or to become pregnant out of wedlock, they wouldn’t know that they could come to me and find acceptance.
In my case, though, I think the fact that my siblings have seen me go against my parents and form my own views in at least some areas will be enough. While they might not know, for instance, that I am pro-LGBTQ rights, they would probably know that of everyone in the family I would be the most likely to accept them regardless of who they are.
Here is the advice I would offer Kaitlin:
1. Don’t be a complete pushover
I understand you putting on your conservative hat around your aunt. I often do the same sort of thing myself. However, if your cousins see you as a pushover, simply affirming whatever your aunt says and bending over backwards to agree with her in everything, that won’t help them if ever reach the point where they feel the need to stand up against your aunt and forge a different path. I guess what I’m saying is that there has to be a balance here.
2. Don’t hedge around your cousins
When you’re alone with your cousins, don’t be afraid to tell them if you disagree on something. Don’t make it a big deal of it, just state it as a matter of course. For example, if one of my younger sisters says something to me about her being under our father’s authority, or about college maybe not being important for girls, I simply state that I disagree and leave it at that. If she wants to ask more questions, I’ll answer them, but once again, simply stating things concisely and non-judgmentally. You’re not saying “I think your mother is wrong” but rather “I have my own thoughts.” Though those may be technically the same, they come across very differently.
3. Be strong and self-confident
Model what you want your cousins to see and emulate. Be confident. If you’re college, be driven and purposeful. If you have a job, do it well. The goal is for your cousins to see your life – as an independent woman who forms her own thoughts – as something that is familiar, possible, and attainable rather than foreign, ungodly, and distant. If they see you being happy and confident living your own life, that will normalize the idea. You’re not saying “you have to be like me” but rather “it’s possible to be a good person and live different lifestyle from the one you’re being raised in.” This opens the door and makes leaving and living differently seem like an actual option.
4. Be always willing to listen
Don’t judge your cousins. Listen. State simply and without judgement that you disagree with them if it seems appropriate, but don’t judge. (In other words, listening without judging does not mean simply agreeing with everything that comes out of their mouths, even if it is in your opinion completely crazy.) Always show them openness and your willingness to be a confidant and friend. That way, if they start to have questions, or run into conflict with your aunt, they will see you as someone they can turn to.
I’m no expert on this, I’m just trying to speak from my own experience. I hope my thoughts help, and I wish you and your cousins the best. I’d also like to open the floor to suggestions from my readers. You guys can be really insightful, and many of you have been in the place of Kaitlin’s cousins, so please speak up and add to what I’ve said!