Raised Evangelical: Joy’s Story

A post in the Raised Evangelical series.

Section 1: Introduction

Question 1: Please introduce yourself before we get started, providing a brief snapshot of your background an overview of your beliefs today.

My name is Joy; I am a 42-year-old wife and working mother of 2. I was raised in an evangelical home that was fairly well-integrated into mainstream culture. My mother is a conservative evangelical and my father is a progressive evangelical (think Jim Wallis).  I grew up to question some of the foundational evangelical tenets I was taught due to personal experiences and academic explorations.  I still identify as a Christian, but a liberal/progressive one.  Which means sometimes I am a little bit agnostic and other times I feel fairly traditionally mainline Christian.  I am still drawn to the Jesus of the Bible and his teachings, and regard the Bible as the “stories of my people” rather than THE INERRANT WORD OF GOD.

Question 2: How did your family and religious community self identify? As evangelicals? As fundamentalists? Or as something else? What did these terms mean to your parents and religious community?

We identified as “Christians.”  We were “saved.”  I realized that there were Catholics out there,  we had some Catholic friends, but I didn’t realize there were any other flavors of Christianity than that and ours.  The church—a large church– I was raised in was part of a small Anabaptist denomination, but was actually more like Baptist churches in faith and practice.  The historic peace witness of the Anabaptists was not present, and our church actually included a lot of active-duty Air Force people from a nearby base.  We later attended a large non-denominational evangelical (and more, I think, fundamentalist) church when I was in my teens.  I think if you’d asked my parents they would have said we were evangelical if we had to pick one of the terms.

Question 3: How did your parents become evangelicals or fundamentalists? Did they grow up in evangelical or fundamentalist families, or did they convert later?

My mother grew up in an evangelical household.  My father was raised Jewish, but not particularly observant.   When he spoke to my grandfather requesting my mother’s hand in marriage (such a nice old-fashioned boy for a Jewish liberal), my grandfather “started talking about Jesus.”  My father realized that in order to marry my mother he needed to persuade her pastor and father that he was a Christian, so he made a pro-forma conversion and they got married.  After I was born a few years later, he made a genuine conversion.

Section 2: Theology

Question 1: Briefly describe the church your family attended while you were growing up. What role did the pastor play? How large was it? What sort of programs did it offer? What denomination was it? How many times a week did you attend church? How about Bible study or Bible club?

At my childhood church, the pastor ran the show.  No question.  It was a large church in a small Anabaptist denomination; there was also a school run by the church which I attended.  The pastor was headmaster of the school also.  There was Sunday morning service (Sunday school and then church service), Sunday night service, Wednesday night clubs (Pioneer Girls, Christian Service Brigade), and of course, school every day.  I was well-integrated into the community; my best friends were at church/school. Later there were youth events on Friday and Saturday.

At the church we attended in our teens, the pastor was more of a preacher/teacher and the church was run by the board of elders.  We had the typical youth groups – Sunday morning Sunday School, church service, Wednesday and Friday night Bible studies as well as the standard “fun” events and retreats.

Question 2: When and how were you “saved”? How did your parents and church community respond? Did you have a “relationship with Jesus”? If so, at what age did you form this relationship? Please describe what all it entailed. Or, if you attended a church that was more liturgical and did not emphasize the specific moment of salvation or having a personal relationship with Jesus, what were considered to be most important milestones of a religious upbringing (i.e. confirmation, etc.) and how did you experience them?

At age 5 my kindergarten teacher told me about asking Jesus to come into my heart and I prayed a little prayer by myself to ask him into my heart.  Periodically during my childhood I would “renew my commitment to Christ” and when I was in 4th grade I made a profession of faith in church during an altar call. I didn’t do this because I had some experience then and there, but because I felt it was time I was baptized—this was the major milestone of faith in our church, going forward and being baptized– and 2 other girls my age had already come forward.  I was baptized during an evening service, by triune immersion.  After that I was allowed to take communion, which was a semiannual event involving (sex-segregated) foot washing.

Question 3: How did your family and church view the Bible, and what role did it play in your life growing up and in the life of your family and church? How often did you, your siblings, and your parents read the Bible? Were you guided by your parents or pastors in how to interpret the Bible, especially certain passages, or were you generally free to form your own ideas about what the Bible said?

The Bible was certainly held to be the word of God, inspired, inerrant in the original autographs.  We read the Bible anywhere from daily to weekly at home.  My father used to read the Bible to us at mealtimes and sometimes at bedtime.  Sometimes we read the same passage over and over until I memorized it.  I can still reel off some of the Psalms without having to think about it.  There were also rewards for scripture memorization in school, and I set out to win those because memorization was easy for me.  There was instruction on what certain passages meant, of course, but I always felt free to form my own ideas.  Theology has always interested me.

Question 4: What role did race play in your church? Were there any black or Hispanic families? Were they treated differently?

There were some black families in our church (the county we lived in was in the process of what white adults called “turning over” from white to black and there were a lot of black students in my church-run school, who were my friends).  Very few Hispanic families, which reflects the area demographics at the time; there were a few  Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. I don’t recall them being treated any differently, but I probably lacked the perspective to pick up on it if they were.  There was, characteristic of the 1970s in general, some mildly racist things said by white adults, mostly about how multiracial marriages were “so hard for the children” or some such claptrap and complaints about kids being bused all over the county for public schools.  But my impression of the racial attitudes within the church is that they reflected the attitudes of the larger community in general of that time and place.  My later church was in a different county (we moved) and there was a greater amount of diversity and even less overt racism (this was the late 1980s).

Section 3: Gender and Family

Question 1: What did your church teach about gender roles, the family, and marriage?

These are from the church I attended as a teen and young adult, but I think they are pretty consistent with my childhood church. Women were allowed to teach Sunday School and run the Sunday school program and be very involved in children’s and women’s  ministries.  But they were not supposed to teach adult men.  So women could only teach adult Sunday School if it was a women’s class or as a team with their husbands.  Women could be deaconesses but not elders (in the church the elders run) and of course a woman pastor was unheard-of.  Women could of course be foreign missionaries or work in campus ministry.  Boys’ ministries (Brigade)  usually involved more interesting activities (camping! Canoeing! Woodworking!) than the girls’, but I think this may be changing now.

As for the family, no sex before marriage, divorce was frowned upon (but the church would remarry divorced people subject to some conditions I never researched),  fidelity in marriage. I suppose there may have been some teaching or another on wives submitting to their husbands but it was not really emphasized to me as a child/teen/young adult, even in our premarital counseling (which was actually  practical and helpful).  Women in our church worked outside the home, and it wasn’t disapproved of in general, although some individuals may have disapproved.

Question 2: Describe your parents’ marriage. Was it complementarian (i.e. “soft” patriarchy), or more openly patriarchal, or in practice egalitarian? Did your family or church use any of these terms?

I don’t recall the church using either word (complementarian or patriarchy). My impression of my parents’ marriage is that it was probably closest to egalitarian in practice—if anything, as a child I thought my mother ran the show because she made the decisions that most affected me.  But as their child I wasn’t really privy to the inner workings of their marriage.  There was a certain amount of agree-to-disagree and it’s-ok-to-argue that probably stemmed from their political differences and different backgrounds.

Question 3: In what ways were boys and girls in your family expected to dress or act differently from each other? Were there certain things it was appropriate for girls to do but not boys, and vice versa?

Not really, unless you mean that boys didn’t wear dresses/skirts.  I mean, I would have loved it if I hadn’t had to mow the lawn but we were all treated more or less similarly as far as chores went.   As the oldest child, I felt birth order influenced their strictness/curfews more than gender.

Question 4: In what ways were boys and girls in your family raised differently vocationally? Were the girls expected to be stay at home mothers or to hold jobs? Did your mother work, and if so, how was that viewed by your family and church?

My mother was mostly a home-maker who did some part-time work like substitute teaching (she had a master’s degree), but many of her friends held part- or full-time jobs.  My parents wanted me to take more math and science and be more career minded, when I was more inclined to dedicate my life to literature.  There were plenty of working women at our churches, though most were teachers, nurses, secretaries, librarians and the like—more traditionally women’s occupations.

Section 4: Education

Question 1: What sort of education did you have: public school, Christian school, or homeschool? What reasons did your parents give for choosing the method of education for you that they chose?

Christian school through grade 8, public school 9-12.  Christian school both for Christian education and because the public schools in that county were notoriously bad.  When I was a teenager, we lived in a county where the public schools were excellent so I went to public school then.

Question 2: Briefly describe the academic aspect of your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool), focusing on the role played by religion. If you were public schooled, did your parents try to counteract anything you were learning at school with different teachings at home (i.e. sex education, evolution)? Or, did the public schools in your area find ways to include things like creationism or abstinence only sex education?

I do not recall my parents trying to counteract anything I learned at school with different teachings at home, either for Christian school or public school.  Sometimes we discussed issues and had some interesting arguments and discussions, but these were not obviously linked to what we were learning at school.  My father, although in many ways evangelical, agrees with theistic evolution.  My parents were fairly reticent about sex; my mother just handed me a few books and then I did some reading of my own.  (Their monitoring of my reading material was haphazard after I was about 13).  I was a high academic achiever and read widely with basically no interference in my teens.

Question 3: Briefly describe the social aspect of your upbringing, especially as influenced by religion. How did your educational experience (public school, Christian school, or homeschool) affect your socialization? Was your friend group religiously diverse or more homogeneous? If you were public schooled, did your religious background cause you any social problems in school?

As a child my friend group was fairly homogenous and evangelical.  In high school, after I got over the shock that I was going to school with non-Christians, I promptly made friends with a bunch of Jewish kids first.  I probably fit most in with the Jewish kids but I made friends with people of all backgrounds.  I have wondered if I felt more comfortable around the Jewish kids because of that part of my background.

Question 4: Did you attended Sunday school, youth group, Bible club, or church camp? Please describe your experiences.

Yes, yes, yes, yes.  It was the same kids doing the same things for the most part.  There was the part where the adults told us what the Bible said or what the Bible story was, and then there were fun and games and talking to people which was probably the real draw for me about 2/3 of the time.

Church camp was funny.  There were the boys’ section of camp and the girls’ section of camp, and a bunch of 12-13-year olds trying to evade this to pair up!  In retrospect, it was hilarious.

I went on a mission trip to New Guinea when I was 17.  I felt like a failure because I didn’t share the gospel with anyone, although I did build a few houses and make friends with the other  people on the mission team.  A few years later the man who ran the mission was convicted of child molestation.  My feelings about it remain ambivalent; I’m unsure it did any good at all.

Section 5: Purity

Question 1: What were you taught about physical and emotional purity, and also about modesty? What did your family believe about dating and/or courtship? How was sex education handled?

There were sessions (sex-segregated mostly) telling us about how sex worked, and drilling into us the fear of pregnancy and STDs and telling us to stay virgins until marriage because that’s what God wanted.  I hit adolescence when AIDS (then always fatal and mostly untreatable) hit the scene.  Also, my mother gave me a book and Dobson’s _Preparing for Adolescence_.

I dated normally just like mainstream culture kids did; I had a serious boyfriend in 11th grade (whom I told front-out that I was saving myself for marriage) and a few in college.

Question 2: How did the things you were taught about purity, modesty, and dating/courtship work out for you in practice? Did you date, and at what age? Did you have sex before marriage, and if you did, did you experience guilt? In essence, explain how belief met practice and with what results.

I dated starting at age 15.  I had a serious boyfriend at 16. We mostly kept things above the waist, which I felt no guilt about . In college I was sexual with my boyfriends but didn’t have standard intercourse with them, for the reason I thought I was saving myself for marriage, so I told myself I didn’t need to feel guilty because I wasn’t really having sex (which may have been my greatest act of self-deception).  I did sleep with my now-husband after we had been engaged a while, but by that point I didn’t think that was wrong so I didn’t feel guilty.  In my early 20s I started to realize that I am at least a little bit bisexual, but my  upbringing kept me from exploring that.  While I made tentative moves to come out, I ended up focusing my emotional and sexual energy on relationships with men.  I don’t know if I would have felt guilty if I’d had a relationship with another woman.  Now I probably wouldn’t feel guilty were I single again and fell for another woman, but at the time I wasn’t sure whether it would be right, for me, especially since I had other options.

Question 3: How do you feel about your family and church’s purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings today? Do you think there are any parts of these teachings that still have value? How do you plan to handle these issues with your own children?

I think they are irrelevant.  I have developed my own approach to sexual ethics which I plan to teach my children.  I believe sexual relations should be among mature people, engaged in as safely and responsibly as possible, and be affectionate and loving and ideally in a committed relationship.  It is a lot of fun but it’s also serious.  If you aren’t willing to deal with the negative consequences of sex (STDs, unplanned pregnancy) with your partner, you need to think about whether you should be having sex with them.  I think sex-is-for marriage is a kind of dumbed down version of this.

Question 4: Do you feel that the purity, modesty, and dating/courtship teachings you were raised with still have lasting impact on your life today? If so, how? What do you feel is the most detrimental effect of purity teachings?

I feel they are irrelevant to my life now. I  would caution my children to be careful in their sex lives, and stress that it is most fitting in a loving, trusting committed relationship (ideally marriage), but I won’t tell them that premarital sex is wrong wrong wrong.  I think overemphasizing purity as such and avoiding talking about sex or being weird about body parts can sometimes damage a person’s developing sexuality (i.e. cause dysfunction and repression) which I have seen in other people who had it emphasized to them more than I  had it emphasized to me.  But a lot of this “piece of your heart” purity stuff hit the evangelical world after my marriage so I didn’t experience that the way I think kids who grew up or married later did.

Section 6: Politics

Question 1: In his book Broken Words, Jonathan Dudley argues that a fourfold opposition to abortion, homosexuality, evolution, and environmentalism constitute the markers of evangelical tribal identity. What role did opposition to these four issues in your fundamentalist or evangelical upbringing, and would you agree with Dudley?

This makes me feel old! My family and church openly opposed abortion, and my church openly opposed homosexuality (I don’t recall my family discussing this issue, like most sexual issues, when I was young).  The other two certainly seemed open to, at least, debate (I debated the other two, as well, because I felt free to explore the ideas.  Also even then there were evangelicals that thought that even if you personally opposed something like abortion or homosexuality, the Christian way was not necessarily that you could change people’s hearts through legislation).   I speak mostly of the 1970s and 1980s; that was 30 years ago.  I think these emphases are stronger today.   I can’t say I agree with Dudley about the evangelical *past*, but I haven’t read his book so can’t really say.

Question 2: What role did you, your family, or your church community believe Christians should play in politics? What did your family or church hold was the end goal of Christians’ involvement in politics? What were your family and church community’s beliefs about the end times, and how (if any) did these beliefs affect their view of Christians’ role in politics?

There was not huge engagement in politics.  There was a ministry at our church (the 2nd one) that seemed to promote anti-gay, anti-abortion politics and distributed tracts and voter guides.  I was seriously turned off by that.  And certainly there were people outspoken about their politics, which to me was consistent with my impression that politics were a matter of individual conscience.  But due to my family’s political background, I took it for granted that Christians could agree to disagree on political topics.  After all, my own *parents* never agreed on them.

The end-times view was standard rapture stuff but my parents never emphasized it much.  They bought a few Hal Lindsey books that I read and then I laughed when he turned out to be wrong.  From relief.  I found that end-times rapture stuff to be horrifying, like a horror book by Steven King.  It gave me the creeps.  I was so, so glad to be able to jettison THAT.

Question 3: Were you, your family, or your church community involved in politics? What all did this involvement include? Did your pastor ever preach a political view from the pulpit? Did you ever picket an abortion clinic, attend a “defense of marriage” rally, or participate in any related activities? Describe your experiences.

My parents did the March for Life and fundraisers for Crisis Pregnancy Clinics.   On this they agreed. My father is a liberal Democrat and my mother is a conservative Republican (more, I think, in the Nixon/Reagan way –she thinks the Tea Party is full of nuts).  They would say things like they were canceling out each other’s votes and “I won’t give to the Democrats if you don’t give to the Republicans.”  I was so used to this kind of light-on-content crossfire, by the time I had to register to vote I had to actually interview them to find out whether I should register Democrat or Republican.  I felt free to develop my own political opinions, and, unlike many kids who drink in a political position with their mother’s milk, I developed mine after age 18. So I never did anything overtly political as a kid.  In college I went to gay pride events, studied feminism, went to hear Molly Yard speak, and sought out experiences and events that would challenge me to think about issues with new perspectives.

I don’t remember overt politics from the pulpit. There may have been covert political position espoused, but I was oblivious to it.

Question 4: What political issues did you, your parents, and/or your church community see as most important in deciding who to vote for and why?

Abortion was the only common thread to me between family and church where everyone was agreed.  But you were able to prioritize other things like “foreign policy” if you wanted to—my dad did!

Section 7: Questioning

Question 1: In what ways did the culture of your family and church differ from “mainstream” American culture? To what extent were you integrated into or isolated from “mainstream” American culture? To what extend do you feel that evangelicalism creates a sort of self-contained culture of its own, with Christian bookstores, Christian music, etc.?

We were, for such an observant family, well-integrated into the mainstream culture. We read Christian books and listened to Christian music, but we also read mainstream books and listened to popular music.  If anything, I felt that I moved back and forth between the 2 subcultures; it was as a child I was most immersed in the evangelical subculture but as a teenager, I went back and forth and as a college student I was mostly mainstream.

Question 2: What first made you question evangelicalism/fundamentalism? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?

In college I read the Bible without being as closely ensconced in a pre-provided faith community, and studied the world and the people around me.  There I saw a bunch of things that the Bible said that were obviously not the case.  I was also able to critically read the Bible and see the inconsistencies it had with itself and the way the New Testament writings  manipulated the Old Testament writings.  It was kind of frightening in a way, but also liberating. I already had my father—a progressive evangelical is what he would be called now–as a model of  a Christian who didn’t necessarily accept everything that “everyone” at church seemed to believe.  Also I encountered mainline Christianity at that time, and started falling in love with a more liturgical mode of worship as well another model of Christians who didn’t have a pre-commitment to believe the things that weren’t the case.  The things that seemed obviously wrong to me were creationism –even the Bible’s creation stories aren’t remotely consistent with each other; and inerrancy.  There are obvious incorrect things in the Bible.

Another factor was getting to know people of other or no religions, and gay people, who were obviously good, kind people; and getting to know the kinds of Christians that I didn’t want to be remotely associated with–loudly self-righteous and annoying.  And of course there was the coming to understand political and social positions I hadn’t been familiar with before and listening to both sides with an open mind.  And finally, I had to come to peace with what I really think about the afterlife (I doubt it exists; and I don’t consider an eternal punitive hell any idea of real justice.  And the Bible teaches resurrection, anyway, not heaven.  A lot of Christians seem to have that all mixed up).

Question 3: What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and leaving evangelicalism/fundamentalism? What was the hardest part?

Telling people. Getting to the point where I left the evangelical churches.  I was in my 30s before the actual exit and even so I just said I wanted to be a Methodist now.  I move very, very slowly.  Also talking to my husband about it is difficult because although he has his own issues with his religious background, they are different than mine.

Question 4: Among those you grew up around who were also raised evangelical/fundamentalist, what proportion still hold those beliefs and what proportion have also left them?

It seems roughly 50-50 to me.

Section 8: Relating to Family

Question 1: How did your parents and siblings respond to you questioning/rejecting evangelicalism/fundamentalism? How did the friends you grew up with respond?

Well, my brother calls me a socialist and says he doesn’t see where I get my ideas but we also still get along great. Everyone else just treats me normal.  I have had some arguments with my husband. But, you see, I haven’t left Christianity.  I just left an ecclesiastical tradition.  I think if they thought I was leaving Christianity they might have more of a problem with it.

Question 2: Now that you’ve questioned and left evangelicalism/fundamentalism, what is your relationship with your parents and siblings like today? What is your relationship with the friends you grew up with like?

Things are pretty much the same with everyone.

Question 3: For those who are no longer Christian, are you “out” to your parents or siblings or friends from growing up? If so, how did you do it and how did they respond?

N/A

Question 4: Have any of the rest of your family, including parents and siblings, left evangelicalism or fundamentalism? How do you approach the relationships with those who have not?

I think two of my siblings are roughly in the same place I am, although I also think they think about it less.  And as I said my father has always been a progressive evangelical.

Section 9: Coping

Question 1: Does having being raised evangelical or fundamentalist has made you feel “different” from the rest of society, or like you stick out or don’t fit in in some way? Explain.

I feel like I am familiar with a subculture that the larger society may not even be much aware of –but on the other hand I don’t feel part of it anymore, so I don’t feel that much different than most people that way.  I think 1st generation immigrants may also feel similarly.

Question 2: What do you think is the biggest way being raised in an evangelical or fundamentalist family and church community has influenced who you are today?

I am still a regular churchgoer!  I like going to church.  I always have.  And in the mainline I have a lot more Biblical knowledge than a lot of the other Sunday School teachers.

Question 3: How did you perceive your childhood and evangelical or fundamentalist religious upbringing at the time compared to how do you see it now?

Then I saw it as positive and loving, especially as a small child.  Now I see a much darker side of it, but I still think there was a lot of good in it too.

Question 4: What do you think were the most beneficial things about being raised fundamentalist or evangelical? What were the most problematic things?

The idea that you are loved unconditionally, to the point of self-sacrifice, by God—this is good.  The problematical thing is the idea that somehow there is a Hell and you’re going there.  How does that go with unconditional love?   I went to my old church and saw a baptism on Easter.  There was a 5-year-old kid getting baptized and when he gave his testimony it was obvious he got “saved” because he was scared of hell.  I don’t think that’s at all a responsible way to try to convert a child!  It’s horrible!  I have a huge problem with the idea of hell.  Also I hate the politics of hate that have taken over the church I loved as a kid and I hate that it has become so intertwined with some right-wing positions that have nothing to do with the Jesus of the Bible and what he taught.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • ScottInOH

    I think sex-is-for marriage is a kind of dumbed down version of this.

    I think you are right and the grains of truth or wisdom in “save it for marriage” are what give it its staying power with parents trying to teach their kids. As you point out, though, that instruction includes so much more than those grains of truth; it can really mess people up for a long time. So much better to teach the grains of truth directly!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lucrezaborgia lucrezaborgia

    Re: the whole issue of bringing people over to do mission work and feeling like you have not accomplished much.

    I feel that this is a very misguided way to do mission work. The money that was spent to bring you over and house you could have easily been spent employing local people to do the same job. It doesn’t help to bring in outsiders unless they have a skill that absolutely no one in the local community has. Even in those cases, it is best for that outsider to teach the local population how to do what they do if at all possible. Case in point, there is a group of physical therapists who go to orphanages in Eastern Europe and teaches the caretakers how to help children with disabilities develop their muscles and whatnot so that more of them are adoptable and independent.They also bring donated equipment to help facilitate this. Adopting individual disabled children doesn’t do anything for the children left behind.

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