Raised Evangelical: Angie’s Story

Raised Evangelical: Angie’s Story September 10, 2012

A post in the Raised Evangelical series.

Section 1: Introductory Questions

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

I am Angie, a 24-year-old recent college graduate who is married. When I was around 5 years old my mom and dad became involved in the Church of God denomination; they became more and more involved as I grew up and my father served as youth pastor to our church during my teen years. I grew away from my parents’ beliefs in college and am now an atheist.

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?

My parents considered themselves “Pentecostal holiness,” which I now interpret to be part of the fundamentalist movement because if it’s focus on “old-fashioned values” and gender standards from an older time. My parents considered Pentecostal to refer to speaking in tongues and being compelled bodily to dance, run and shout when under influence from the holy spirit, or holy ghost as they called it often. The holiness bit referred to appearing separate from the rest of the world, in speech, action and mostly appearance. This is where the focus on modest clothing and men dressing as men and women dressing as women came in.

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 converted in their mid-twenties because one of my uncles had already converted and was a preacher. My father converted specifically when he had survived a hospital visit that he considered particularly frightening for treatment for kidney stones.

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?

The church we went to was part of the Church of God denomination and had about 100 people in attendance regularly with about half of the members being over fifty. The pastor was a very respected figure and gave sermons 90% of the time with the rest being other members of the congregation and special visitors. There weren’t many programs offered except age-divided classes for young people. Services were held twice on Sunday and once Wednesday nights.

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 had a difficult time accepting the concept of salvation, and experienced no insignificant amount of stress over whether or not I was saved. As a child I literally couldn’t sleep at night because I would be asking god to forgive me over and over again in case I had sinned. Eventually I became more secure in my salvation around the age of 13 and my family was very happy, both because they were less worried about my soul and because the nighttime problems lessened.  The stress continued over whether or not I was sinning, but I at least had some stability then. There was definitely a focus on the moment of salvation, and after that one was expected to work towards “sanctification.” This was an acceptance of holiness in one’s life where vices were given up and commitments were made. These commitments ranged from women vowing to always wear skirts and dresses to promising to never drink soda again. The purpose of this was to prepare one for the holy ghost and “baptismal in the holy ghost” which speaking in tongues was the evidence of. I never made it that far, something kept me from being able to speak in tongues.

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 viewed as entirely perfect, non-contradictory and literal. We were encouraged to read it daily, and for most of my teenage years I did just that. There was definite guidance in interpretation from sermons, youth group classes, and one-on-one when I had a question about a passage.

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

No, aside from one foster child the entire church was white.

Section 3: Gender and Family

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

Gender roles were emphasized with clothing, men wore pants, women wore dresses or skirts. Activities were not governed as harshly though, they thought it was fine for a woman to have a farm or to do manual labor, just not to dress like a man. In the family, the man was unquestionably the leader and the final say in any situation. Marriage was to be defended against divorce and the gays and ideally be between two virgins with the consent of both sets of parents.

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 church didn’t use terms like this, only taught that the man was the head of the family. In practice though, there were certainly families where the woman was more authoritarian than the man. This was not the case in my family, it was more that my father acted as if he was in complete control but my mother, my brothers and I more placated him with obedience and hid things from him that would displease him.

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?

The differences were often more in clothing than anything else. Boys and girls in youth group were both allowed to participate in backyard football, as long as the girls were in skirts and the boys in pants. This extended to extreme circumstances, such as beach and lake trips with the youth group. We were quite a sight, a bunch of teenagers playing at the beach fully clothed.

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 church was very practical in this matter, few families could afford to live off of one income so nobody thought twice about both parents working.

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?

Public school, they would have preferred homeschooling but couldn’t afford it. They did consider private Christian schools, but in my county private schools were not prestigious or high quality, more for kids who got kicked out of public school and people too afraid to subject their kids to the secular world.

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?

My mother refused to let me attend sex education the first two years it was offered because she “didn’t want anyone teaching me how to get pregnant.” They tried hard to counteract the teaching of evolution, subscribing to Creation Magazine and buying me many books about creationism since I had a strong interest in science and especially dinosaurs. Oddly enough my belief in creationism was the first thing to go.

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 was a social wreck at school (public), wearing only skirts and dresses did not suit my tomboy nature and lead to me having absolutely zero self-confidence. In addition I screened all potential friends against my religious standards and not surprisingly, few people passed far enough for me to accept them. It was only in college that I began to learn to make friends and be social.

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

I went to Sunday school and Wednesday night youth group services. My father taught Wednesday’s because he was the youth pastor and because of this I was expected to be a model for the other kids more so than I would have been otherwise. They were not bad experiences, definitely more enjoyable than services with the larger congregation, and thus contributed to most of my indoctrination because they were much more palatable. Wednesdays consisted of a short socializing time, usually a metaphorical game of some sort followed by an explanatory serious talk by my father. Things were always wrapped up with prayer that usually asked for participation. A common ending was everyone bowing their heads (except my father) him giving an alter-call like speech, then asking all who were certain they were saved to raise their hands. This would be followed a request for those who were not certain being asked to raise their hands if they wanted to be saved. Then my father would instruct them on how before ending the prayer and the class.

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?

Dating was seen as perfectly okay, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of emotional purity, only physical. My parents never broached sex education, I guess they figured I didn’t need to know until I got married and then I’d just figure it out.

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 didn’t date until college, but mostly because I was shy and because my father was opposed to me dating. He never said no, but I knew he didn’t approve so I didn’t try too hard to find a boyfriend. I had my first boyfriend at 18 and ended up having sex with him 6 months into our relationship. I was already questioning my beliefs at the time and that was just another step in the breakdown of me being Christian. I didn’t feel guilty about the sex itself, but in the months previous to it I felt very guilty about the other sexual activities we engaged in. Other than that I didn’t experience a lot of stress over the event.

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 the teachings of my church were totally unrealistic, and lead people to make the decision to get married too early in order to have sex and it not be sinful. I feel like that teaching ruined life for several of the people I grew up with because they married people they weren’t actually compatible with. I get that they wanted people to be careful about sex, but their version of careful went too far and lead people to make bad decisions. I’ll teach my children to be careful about sex, and be sure they’re waiting until the right time with the right person, but not necessarily until marriage.

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?

The worse is how modest affected me. I still have trouble wearing what I want to wear because I was taught to be overly conscious of what people thought of how I looked. We had to look holy, pure, and make sure we weren’t tempting anyone with how we looked. I can’t let go of this, and have trouble wearing clothing that is feminine even now. Even when I don’t dress in a way that is “sexy” I still think way too much about what I’m wearing and whether or not anyone will have a problem with it.

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?

Aside from environmentalism I would say this was true for the community; nobody ever came out and said that belief in all four was critical, it was more that they were discussed individually in a very serious manner.

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?

My pastor took special care not to mention any names when it came time for elections, he trusted that “each person would follow god’s will.” Voting was expected, but not really because of a Christian status, more because it was cultural value that in order to be able to state an opinion about politics one should vote. They believed the end times were very very near, as in the rapture (bodily removal of Christians from Earth by God before the end times/tribulation) could happen at any point in time. This didn’t influence votes as much as it gave them comfort when things didn’t go the way they had hoped in an election. An undesired result was chalked up to the end times being near.

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 church wasn’t involved in political activities at all. The most that would happen would be a sermon about following god’s will in an upcoming election.

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?

Whether or not the candidate professed openly to be a protestant Christian was the biggest factor, and the more vocal about it the better. Stances on gay marriage were important as well. Another big issue was where a candidate stood on policy towards Israel; unconditional support was believed to cause god to give favor to America.

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 differed by how we dressed, what we were allowed to read, what we watched and the music we listened to. I was unfamiliar with all music outside of contemporary Christian and didn’t read Harry Potter until I went to college because it was “witchcraft.” I would agree that they created a self-contained culture, they wanted to, wanted something separate from the rest of the world because they believed it would keep us all safe.

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

I questioned before I became officially “saved” and it was terrifying. I was scared to the point of insomnia that I would die and go to hell because I couldn’t have faith that my parents’ beliefs were true. Eventually I was at peace with them but that period of time was very unpleasant. The questioning when I went to college was much more productive, scary and disruptive, but it resulted in growth and positivity in the end.

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?

The hardest part was and still is the desire to throw myself into the hands of someone else. There was something so comforting about believing you had placed all of your being in the care of someone greater. When I stopped believing that something greater cared or was even there I felt very alone for a while. I still feel lonely from time to time, but I view it more as a part of growing up intellectually, just as we learn to live without our parents when we become adults.

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?

I’m not entirely sure, I don’t speak with them any more. From those I do know, I’d say about 1/4 left fundamentalism for more mainstream Christianity and only I left Christianity all together.

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 family was rocked by the news of my deconversion. My mother was very sad, but still cared enough for me to tell me she loved me regardless. My father responded by sending me a series of aggressive emails with Bible verses and claims that the devil had subverted my mind and I had to be under control of a demon to say the things I did. I was no longer in contact with most of my friends from childhood, but the one I did speak with had also left fundamentalism and was happy I had as well.

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 mother and I are still close, and my brothers are cool with me, but things are still very tense between my father and I. We avoid religious topics all together except for when they try to guilt me into going to church on holidays or when my brother is participating in the service. I don’t talk to any of the people I grew up with anymore, I suppose partly because I know they wouldn’t accept me any more.

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?

Only “out” to my parents; I did it the worst way possible, through an email. I couldn’t face my parents in person and tell them, my father had a history of blowing up when he was given news he didn’t like and I just couldn’t take that at the time. My mother responded with love, my father with anger and claims I was possessed by demons.

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?

One of my closest aunts has left fundamentalism, but the rest are still in it. I interact with them in a segmented way, carefully steering away from topics I know would lead to religious discussion. I hide parts of my life from them, my father still doesn’t know I have a large back tattoo because I am seriously afraid he would disown me if he knew. He and I are not close, and I have no hope we will reconcile.

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.

It has made me very self-conscious. Growing up with the mindset that you must be different from the rest of the world makes you notice how you appear to people far too much. It’s worse now than it was when I believed because now I notice and am embarrassed that I am different and there’s no favor of a god to justify the separation I feel.

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 think it has made me a less confident person, always making me feel different from those around me, I really do just want to be normal, but that’s not possible for me.

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?

I thought myself so lucky to be one of the few doing things the right way, the way god really wanted. Now I think of myself then as deceived and taken advantage of because of the indoctrination that I went through. I am still a very bitter person when it comes to these memories.

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

There as a definite in-group feeling, something that made me feel secure at times, like I really belonged. The problem was when I was outside of that group and felt like I stood out as much as possible.

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