Raised Evangelical: Lina’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.

I’m Lina, and I’m everywhere I thought I wouldn’t be. I grew up as a homeschooled pastor’s daughter, firmly on the side of the religious right, and am now vastly more liberal and married to a girl, V. College is really where things changed for me; I went to a conservative Christian school, and by the time I graduated, I couldn’t give a shit about God. I’m currently a nanny for almost 4 year old twins, and trying to support V as she completes her Master’s and we start a photography business. I blog about all of the above at findingsnooze.blogspot.com.

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 were evangelical fundamentalists. We were evangelical because we believed in spreading the Gospel to all, and we were fundamentalist because we believed in the Bible as everything we needed. We were also Pentecostal, as we believed that the gifts of the holy spirit in Acts 2 were still happening. (I’m going to revel in this little excited twinge I got by not capitalizing holy spirit.)

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 parents divorced before I was 3, and through that experience, my father was “saved.” I spent half my time with him (and my stepmom, who was around by the time I was 5, with her three boys, all older than I). My father was raised Catholic but never cared, and then his Air Force chaplain and my aunt (my dad’s only sibling, of 9, to not be Catholic still) both played roles in bringing him into the evangelical world. My mother had no use for religion, but then when I was about 12, she converted to Catholicism (my stepdad’s religion), at the same time as the two of them started having kids.

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?

My father was asked to take over our tiny church when the pastor left; he turned it down, but apparently God changed his mind. We moved it closer to where we lived, renamed it, and the obsession of my next ten years was born. Having my father be the pastor, I now realize, thoroughly confused me. When I began to disagree with him, I felt like I was going against God, and vice versa. The church grew from 13 to over 100. We were Church of God (CoG), Cleveland, Tennessee (that last part is actually important); I didn’t realize at the time, though, that we were not typical CoG. When I later went to the CoG university in the south, I realized that my church’s lack of choirs and pastor brow-mopping rags definitely was uncommon. Because I was part of the pastor’s family, and my dad and I were always close, I was the unofficial second in command from the time I was about eleven or twelve. I ran the PowerPoint for music and my dad’s sermons, I made the weekly bulletin, and I was the secretary and answer-er of all questions. I was also there all the time, but that never bothered me; it was my whole world.

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?

I was never specifically “saved,” and that always bothered me. I wished for a sinful past so that I could be a great repentance story; instead, I was raised in church since before I knew what it was, and I never really erred. I was baptized at 7, at church camp. I later regretted that I hadn’t let my beloved father do it. I very much had a relationship with Jesus, though the pesky gifts of the spirit never seemed to show up for me.

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 the true source of knowledge and counsel. It had an answer to every trouble and a solution to every problem. I don’t remember if I read it daily, but I know it was often. I memorized chunks. I knew the books in order. My dad’s sermons frequently looked back at the Greek or Hebrew words and unpacked them; as a budding English major and linguist, I loved it. My understanding of the Bible tended to come from others, though I would not recognize that fact until much later. It wasn’t so much that other people told me what it meant, as it was that the Bible seemed to so obviously be meant that way.

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

One of my dad’s great frustrations was the lack of diversity in the church. We had one black lady; apparently her friends asked her if she was attending a black church, and she said “It is now!”

Section 3: Gender and Family

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

Most of the marriages I saw were fairly equal—though definitely in a complementarian way. The men always drove, always paid, always were the final decision makers; there were a few exceptions to that rule, and we knew they were abnormal. Still, the line wasn’t nearly as firm as in other churches. One of the “backwards” marriages, where the wife clearly drove it, was our youth leaders’. Divorce wasn’t condoned, but since my father was divorced, it was never really condemned either—mostly it wasn’t recommended. Marriage was God’s blessing, and he knows we were all sex-starved teenagers. Marriage was not, however, something to rush into or that should happen immediately upon finishing high school.

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?

My father is a very dominating, charismatic personality (five years after he moved to a different state to be near his grandchildren, people still want him to come back). None of the terms were used, but he certainly called the shots. However, my stepmom could be very firm, and they definitely presented as a team. Behind the scenes, though, I often wondered how much influence she had—though I think that was more to do with my dad’s personality than a Biblical belief.

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?

My family is, to put it mildly, messed up. I have three older stepbrothers, who never really connected with my dad, and I’m the baby of the family and his only biological child. I had a lot of privilege in my childhood that I didn’t recognize at the time.  I followed them around and was a general pest, finding their hidden forts, interjecting my Barbies into their GI Joes, etc.  Modesty was certainly something that only I heard about and had to keep in mind; otherwise things were fairly similar. They always had the outside chores, but we all split the inside ones. When my stepmom worked late, though, it was understood that I would cook dinner. I got in trouble once for trying to force them to eat vegetables.

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 stepmom always worked; she was a single mother before her and my dad’s marriage, and was married to a man before that who couldn’t or wouldn’t hold a job. She’s a nurse by training, and no one ever batted an eye that she held a job. Girls were expected to have jobs just as well as boys, and while having a stay-at-home mom was considered ideal, it was in no way forced. Because I’ve always been more academic than my brothers, it was always assumed that I would be the one to go to college. My dad still says he’s waiting for me to get my doctorate.

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?

I was in Christian school from pre-K until second grade, at which point I was homeschooled. Having four children in private school was expensive, and my mom, with whom I lived half the week, was moving an hour and a half away. My oldest stepbrother went into public high school, and my stepmom homeschooled the other two and me (though with me, it was a cooperation between her and my mom). Unlike my brothers, I did not go to public high school, mostly because I couldn’t have made it work with the joint custody schedule.

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 don’t recall specific religious instruction tied to school. It was very much just a part of daily life. My brothers used Sonlight, but I was with Calvert School until 8th grade, which was much more secular. In high school, we used mainly Christian curricula, but not really A Beka or the other crazy ones. My mother created an incredibly rigorous academic program; I never knew until later that some people homeschooled and their kids didn’t receive such a stringent education! My subjects were split so my mom taught English and Math, and my stepmom taught History and Science. For science, we used Apologia, and I remember my stepmom being very interested in Answers in Genesis, but I think I remember her at one point saying she was more on the side of old earth creationism.

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?

I had one, tiny social world: the church. I honestly didn’t have any friends outside that group (I had a few at my mom’s house, but they were also religious). We all agreed with each other, though I was on the more conservative end (most of the other kids/teens were in public school). Partially due to my responsibilities at the church and my homeschooling, I’ve always felt more able to relate to adults than people my own age; at 23, this still holds true.

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

I attended everything the church did. Well, I tried to get out of Friday prayer meetings—three or so hours of praying, but then after, the group of ten or so would go to Denny’s, and there was a good chance my dad would start singing along to Boston (or once, to Quiet Riot, which made me aghast). But there was a girls’ purity group that turned into a Bible study; there was Sunday school the hour before Sunday service; there was VBS every summer that I always volunteered for.

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?

Physical purity was hugely important, but everyone had to decide their own line. The general consensus was the kissing was okay, but nothing really beyond that. Emotional purity was harder for girls. I came to hate the phrase “guard your heart.” I wasn’t explicitly not allowed to date, but I hardly knew anyone, so it wasn’t a big deal. Sex education was mainly explained through the purity class and girls’ Bible study; we could get answers to pretty much any question, but we were all a bunch of blushing, giggling, shy girls. Modesty was just kind of understood. I knew the “rules,” though they were never that explicit, and I knew not to cross them: no spaghetti straps, no two-piece swimsuits (though I wrangled a tankini when I was 16), nothing super tight or short.

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 never dated—officially. I had a friendship near the end of high school which everyone told me was dating (and my dad repeatedly asked if I was guarding my heart); the guy apparently thought we were dating, so he was heartbroken when I called him from college to tell him I really didn’t feel like we connected anymore. When I unexpectedly fell in love with my best friend, she and I did a lot of spiritual wrestling before we ever got to any physical wrestling; yes, we had sex before marriage, but marriage is complicated when you’re two girls!

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?

Oh how I wish I was still in touch with some of the girls younger than I, especially now that someone else is leading the church; someone who is much stricter and Church of God than my dad was. I specifically hate modesty, because it propagates that idea that girls are responsible for everyone else. Yes, I think there is value in not “giving away” yourself physically, but I feel that it should be when you are comfortable, not for someone else. With my kids, I want them to respect themselves and others. So much stems from that.

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?

It took me a long time to get over the guilt for anything I did. I’m free now, finally. The problem with being so extreme is that I’ll now go out in public in an outfit that I’m not even sure I am entirely comfortable in, just because I can! But I feel like they harmed me. In a way, the purity movement stole my first kiss: a very dear friend of mine and I had gotten close, and there was a moment where we almost kissed. Looking back, it was the ideal first kiss scenario. Someone I trusted implicitly, who respected me, and the perfect summer evening, and yet we didn’t. Had we not both been under the pressure of our upbringings, I’m convinced we would have. We should have. No one told me I could ever regret what I didn’t do.

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?

I absolutely agree with him. Abortion was the evilest evil; I’m honestly surprised that I never made it to the March for Life in DC. Homosexuality was a lot of confused people, and while I personally believed they could do whatever they wanted, any time it intersected with the church I was virulently against it (Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopalian bishop ordained in 2005, for example). Evolution was also a lot of confused people. Environmentalism was never really discussed when I was younger, but now I would definitely add it as a fourth pillar.

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?

I don’t remember explicit teachings. There was definitely a lot of emphasis on the importance of voting. That was the way to bring reform. Also lots of quoting the verse in Joel about the nation turning back to God. We were premillenial Tribulationists, if I remember my terms correctly. The Rapture would occur, then the seven years of trials, and then Jesus’ millennial reign. I don’t remember that having an impact with politics, though.

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.

We never actively were involved, that I remember. Looking back, that surprises me. I just grew up with “assumptions” rather than statements: of course Clinton, then Gore, then Kerry, were evil. The closest we came to actually “fighting on the front lines” was that my dad was on the board for the local crisis pregnancy center, and many of the church members supported their fundraising events.

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. Everyone was a single issue voter.

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.?

No secular music. That was the biggest, although even that was bendable; my dad would turn to 70s and 80s rock stations on the rare occasions when the three Christian stations were all doing something else, or when we were on vacation. My brothers listened to some secular music in high school. For me, though, there was a definite separation from “everyone else” even in areas where there weren’t overt rules. There was very much a self-contained world. In college, campus life was referred to as “the bubble,” and in many ways it felt like a continuation of childhood. It’s one of the things I’m most grateful to have left. “Set apart” is a recipe for nothing good.

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

College. My college was stricter than my childhood in many ways, and it left no room for people growing up on their own, learning their own limits, or in general becoming adults. That bothered me all through freshman year, though I was still fine with the theology. But the controlling nature kept bothering me more and more. My wife and I both say that if we had gone to state schools, we very well may have remained religious; attending a too-conservative school, though, drove us both away. My questions the shit out of me at first. The first time I sat in my car and screamed at God, I half expected a lightning bolt to strike the steering wheel. But I began to be more and more frustrated with the entire church experience; it got easier to feel that without guilt. Once I questioned enough to realize that I couldn’t stay in the belief system of my childhood, it was all liberation.

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?

Guilt! The thought of hell kept me in line for awhile, and then the crushing guilt of disappointing God and family. This is especially where I ran into problems with meshing my father and my deity. I never felt like I had too much choice, though: once I realized I was in love with V, and started to accept that, I knew I had to pick her or God. There was no category for having both. By that point, I’d struggled enough that I threw out God. I was still terrified of hell; I went Christian “light” – Episcopalian, occasionally Unitarian Universalist, and now pretty much nothing.

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?

Most are still there. I’m not very in touch with people from my childhood; my brothers have all stayed very religious. I think one of the dangers of fundamentalism is that, growing up in it, it is never “too” serious or weird: in general, we weren’t the ones having multiple digits of kids, and forbidding wives to work. Clearly those people might have some struggles and want to get out, but not us good, normal, Bible-followers. Except 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?

My dad told me he knew I knew better. One of my brothers told me he thought I was an idiot. The other two have stayed quiet. My dad himself has moved slightly out of the fundamentalist world, but not by much. I don’t tend to keep long friendships, so the handful I’d hung onto since middle school were all fine—they had been either not raised as I was, or on their own journeys away.

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?

My dad and I are in a place of agreeing to disagree. We don’t often discuss the “truth” of issues; I’m free to call him and ask him questions about joint finances, even though he doesn’t support my marriage. He’s good at looking beyond it. When V and I got married, we chose not to invite any of our parents, and we had a very small, intimate ceremony. In the future, though, we hope to have a big reception to celebrate us, and hopefully by then our parents will want to come.

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?

Very much out, and at the same time, very much not. After spending senior year of college having to keep V’s and my relationship super-secret, I was bursting to tell everyone. That made it pretty obvious that I no longer believed the same things as I used to, but the degree to which I’ve “fallen away” is still a secret. I was able to skip that part by simply coming out as gay; it killed two birds with one stone, both sexuality and religion, but I imagine it won’t be until we have kids that we have to be explicit about our lack of faith. I’m all for putting off that day; there’s been enough coming out in my recent past. In many ways, I think the response to our coming out about religion will be on par with or even worse than our coming out about our relationship.

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?

As I mentioned, my dad has shifted slightly left, but for the most part, everyone is right where I left them. My sister-in-law is very understanding that people may have a different view of the Bible, etc, and asks us how we like marriage, etc. No one really knows the full extent to which I’ve given up on God-related things.

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 don’t have this isolation to the degree that more fundamentalist-raised people do, but it’s still there. Between my tight church circle and being homeschooled, I don’t remember the hit song of 5th grade or necessarily know all the shows—though my brothers and I did watch TV after school. Most of my friends have a similar background, so we all form our own odd little collective. What really startles me is when I talk to someone with a completely different background, and watch their mouth gape at some of the things I say. Everything I was raised with is so normal; it’s only now that I can look back and think, Wow, we were weird compared to everyone else, and, Wow, I really did go to a highly conservative college.

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 miss the community. I grew up with a hundred people who knew my name, who loved me, who were interested in my life. It didn’t help that I was the darling of the church. But on the other side, I don’t take things for granted that other people might. I still have a moment, every Sunday, where I’m grateful to not be rushing off to church and feeling guilty about something or another. I don’t feel like I’m responsible to any sort of higher power for my thoughts or actions, and that’s hugely freeing. I spent a lot of my growing up years never feeling good enough, for my dad, for God, for anyone. I still struggle with that, but it’s getting better.

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?

At the time, most of it was just normal. Now I can look at a lot of Pentecostal beliefs, teachings, and actions, and honestly be weirded out. A group of people with their eyes closed, singing this song, waving their arms, and “feeling” something? Finally, I see the strangeness. But since my whole world was pretty much fundamentalist, there didn’t seem to be anything too off. And anyway, I knew we were on the right path, so anything that was weird got brushed off.

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

The sense of community was a big one. Also, sometimes it’s comforting to believe in an outside force to answer your questions and steer your life. I connected to my parents deeply, and much of that came from being a pastor’s family and being homeschooled. Honestly, in a lot of ways it “saved” me—I can’t say who I would’ve turned out to be, but the joint custody situation I’d always lived in, and my sometimes severe depression, at times made a bad combination. That said, there was a lot of unhealthiness in those years. I felt constantly held up to standards I couldn’t meet, though I was doing much more than “normal” people my age. The same depression that crippled me, I couldn’t mention; I knew if I did, I would just get told to pray and trust. Those never came through for me. I grew up terrified of eternity, because hell was, well, hell, and yet heaven never appealed. Eternity as a concept is something I abhor. So even in the “next life,” I knew there would be problems, and they would never end. The various pressures were more than any child should be dealing with.

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