Raised Evangelical: Shannon’s Story

Raised Evangelical: Shannon’s Story October 13, 2012

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 grew up believing in Christianity like I believed the sky was blue and 2+2 equals 4. Both my parents are firm believers. I remember asking Jesus into my heart when I was three or four years old, and I was in evangelical schools from preschool through 12th grade. It took me until I was about seventeen to start questioning such (in retrospect) ridiculous and abhorrent beliefs such as young earth creationism, the sinfulness of homosexuality, and the supposed justice of hell. After college (at a state university), I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t really believe Christianity anymore and started secretly thinking of myself as agnostic. Over the past six months or so, I’ve become somewhat comfortable with the label “atheist” as well.

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 family self-identifies as fundamentalist evangelicals. My parents, especially my mother, are aware of the origin of the “fundamentalist” label – from those pamphlets made by biblical literalists to push back against theological liberalism a century ago – and are proud of it. My primary religious community growing up, ironically, wasn’t my church (although that was important too), but my school – I attended the same Christian school for my entire primary and secondary education. The school was a weird mix of conservative Protestantism, with pretty much equal parts Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, and Calvinism. Where they agreed, though, was on the primacy of Christ and his scriptures, the reality of the Holy Spirit, and almost-universal support for the Christian Right. My family are pretty solid evangelicals: they attend a megachurch, respect James Dobson, support K-love radio, own all the Left Behind books, and so on. For my community, my family, and my younger self, Christianity is all about believing the right things about Jesus.

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 both became evangelical Christians in college – my dad mostly through osmosis, from what I can gather, but my mom had a full-on life-changing conversion experience in college. Without getting into too many details, she definitely ran into some serious resistance and some persecution from her atheist family, which I think further solidified her conviction of being right. My parents finished college part of a huge community of fellow Christian students, and as they got older and moved on they kept on pursuing evangelical Christianity.

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?

We actually attended two churches – one when I was still very young and the other after my parents had some serious disagreements with the previous church’s stifling and manipulative leadership. They were both Baptist-affiliated, but didn’t really make a big deal out of denomination. The first church was small and met in a high school auditorium, and while my family made some good friends in this church, my parents resented the amount of control the leaders tried to exert over their lives and finances and left on bad terms. Their new church, which they still attend today, is a megachurch that is probably some 5000 people strong. They purposefully chose a big church that they can remain relatively anonymous in so that they could avoid ever being under the manipulation of church leaders again. In their current church, the pastor is kind of like a CEO that gives weekly talks; most of the day-to-day pastoring is done by the youth pastors and other various staff members. I was involved in youth groups, which met a couple times a week, but being rather shy and socially awkward I struggled to make any lasting friends since everyone else attended large local public schools together, and I always felt like the odd one out.

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 first asked Jesus into my heart as a toddler, but my “real” born-again moment came during church in middle school. Growing up, I kept hearing about this “relationship with God” but I had no idea what it was. As much as I prayed and believed in God, I never felt much of a connection to him. I kept trying though, because I was never sure I wasn’t on a fast track to hell. Then, when I was in middle school, it finally “clicked” for me – I decided that I was done trying to please God and instead just let him accept me as I was. I felt a kind of peace that I have never felt since, and I figured that was what a real relationship with God was. In retrospect, I think what I felt was my own acceptance of myself, but I ascribed it to the God I was convinced existed at that point in my life. I’m not sure though – this is the one “spiritual” experience I have ever had that makes me wonder if there is something beyond the natural world.

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 inerrant Word of God. I remember one of my teachers in high school saying that there may be many different valid applications of a particular Bible passage, but that there can be only one valid interpretation. The environment I grew up in stressed the importance of knowing the Bible inside and out. The rule of thumb I grew up with was that there were certain “core” doctrines of faith that one must adhere to in order to be a true Christian (such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture), but that on “secondary” doctrines (like the role of women in the church) there could be disagreement. Of course, this doesn’t mean that multiple secondary doctrines could be true – there was only one truth – but that God allowed us some degree of leeway in discerning that truth.

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

My church was mostly white (as was my school), but race really wasn’t much of an issue. The few people of color that were members were treated equally, as far as I could tell. I think the whiteness of my communities was more due to preexisting racial disparities in socioeconomic status than overt racism. The outcome may have looked racist, but I don’t think it was the result of any deliberate discrimination by my school or church. Also, I grew up in a >90% white community, so an overwhelmingly white congregation was still pretty representative of the population as a whole.

Section 3: Gender and Family

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

I learned that the man is the spiritual head of the family, but that decision-making should be left to both parents equally. In the end, the wife should submit to the husband, but only if she feels the husband is making an acceptable decision. I also grew up with a pretty broad understanding of what “marital infidelity” meant – it encompassed not only cheating, but abuse, abdication of responsibility, and really anything that could be interpreted as the husband not obeying the command to “love your wife as Christ loved the church.” I was told, however, that full submission is the Christian way to deal with disagreements, and that compromise is a worldly, selfish value. However, in practice, what I learned from my Christian communities was that the husband may be the spiritual head, but that he had a gargantuan responsibility; if he failed to live up to it, the wife had legitimate biblical grounds to challenge him and in many cases even divorce him.

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?

Their marriage is pretty egalitarian. My mom was a stay-at-home mom for much of my childhood, but I think that was as much because she was burned out from her profession as it was due to having children. She went back to work when I was a teenager and now both my parents are employed. Around the house, both of them make decisions together. Occasionally, when they disagree, my mom feels like she has a duty to submit, but just as often she’ll choose stand up for herself too. My mom is pretty independent. I have always felt that my parents’ relationship is pretty healthy.

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?

There weren’t, really. At school, we did have a dress code that everyone thought was stupid, but in my family, if I could make a case for why I needed to wear something, I generally could. My mom even told me once that God gave us our bodies for a reason and there was nothing wrong with showing it off a little (not too much of course, but I could get away with showing some cleavage!). I remember being weirded out in high school once when a much, much more conservative friend asked me what I thought of her shirt: she was concerned it was too revealing because it showed part of her collarbone! I just laughed and told her it was fine.

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?

Again, we weren’t raised any differently. Not going to college and pursuing whatever career we wanted wasn’t an option for me or my sibling. I’ve always expected to be more defined by my career than my family, and it’s actually been disconcerting after graduating college not to have found a very fulfilling job yet. My mom was a homemaker when I was younger but eventually went back to work, and both my parents are extremely strong proponents of education.

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. My parents wanted to keep me from worldly influences as much as they could; plus, the public schools around me were mediocre at best. They felt my sibling and I would receive both a safer and better education at a private Christian school, and education has always been something they have been willing to sacrifice for. And strangely enough, they weren’t entirely wrong. Yes, I learned some serious nonsense about creationism and theology, but I also received a well-rounded education that prepared me for college better than public schools seemed to have prepared many of my college friends.

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 Christian school was very focused on putting God at the center of everything and teaching its students to view the world through a “biblical worldview.” I learned how to tie absolutely anything back to God’s Word. The Bible was the standard against which everything was measured. As far as sex education went, we learned essentially one thing – don’t. And if you do, you will have so many babies and STDs you’ll wish you had never set eyes on the opposite sex. Of course, this didn’t really stop anybody.

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 socialized almost entirely among children of like-minded families. As a result, I had very minimal exposure to anyone who believed differently than me – the biggest exception being sports leagues my sibling and I were involved in. This was pretty much my only contact with non-Christians, though. It wasn’t until college that I met a lot of non-Christians and realized that all the terrible things I’d been taught to believe about them were simply not true.

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

I attended Sunday school and VBS during the summers pretty regularly. It was pretty standard stuff – learn a Bible story, do a group activity, make a craft, learn Bible trivia. Several times, we made those colored bracelets that describe the Christian life – black for sin, red for Jesus’ blood, white for being washed clean, and so on. Looking back, I’m a little disturbed by some of the material we learned – we covered such kid-unfriendly topics as hell, the Passover and death of the firstborn sons, the Passion, Old Testament battle stories, etc. At the time, though, I didn’t really see anything inappropriate about it. I also went on an overseas mission trip and attended Christian summer camps. Mostly, church groups gave me the opportunity to make friends and meet women in the church who I could look up to as better role models than, say, Britney Spears.

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?

I was definitely taught that sex is meant only within the context of heterosexual marriage. I did not believe, however, that it was only for procreation, that birth control was wrong, or that kissing before marriage was sinful. I learned about sex from my mom – she bought some books from a Christian bookstore and went over them with me when I hit puberty. I remember they were actually pretty informative! I knew more about sex than most of my friends at the time. As for modesty, I received mixed messages from the many different Christian authorities in my life. Some people taught me that I, as a woman, had a responsibility to dress modestly to keep men from stumbling. From other people, I learned that I should dress in a way that I feel comfortable, and that it’s ok to show a little skin if I want to. I am naturally pretty modest, so I never really ran into huge problems since what I choose to wear isn’t usually too revealing. As far as dating went, I never was expected to do the “courtship” thing; regular dating was fine. Christian relationships in my community looked just like secular ones, except (supposedly) without the sex.

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.

Well, they didn’t really work out at all. I was taught that men were all looking to sleep with women; the whole “women have sex with men to get love, men say they love women to get sex” adage pretty much summed up how I thought the relationship between the sexes worked. Naturally, this didn’t give me a very healthy view of men or relationships, and I’ve always been kind of terrified of men. I am in my mid-twenties, have been deconverted for two years, and still have not ever been in a relationship.

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 my community’s teachings on sex and purity are outdated and quaint at best, and destructive at worst. I have seen a couple of my high school acquaintances’ marriages fall apart because they were forced to get married because they got pregnant or wanted to have sex and they believed that getting married was what God and their families required them to do. I do, however, still see sex as something meaningful, and I still want to wait until I am in a serious relationship to have sex. I don’t know if my perspective on this will change in the future, but for now this is how I see it. I haven’t really thought much about what I will teach my kids because that point in my life still seems so far away, but I imagine I’ll teach them to respect themselves and their partners and learn to make good decisions.

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?

For me, the most detrimental and long-lasting effect of purity teachings on my life today is in my inability to relate to men. I’ve been conditioned to be kind of terrified of them, and I haven’t really been able to overcome this very well. I am so much more comfortable around women because I don’t feel threatened by them or nervous around them. It’s probably just going to take time for me to move past this problem.

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?

When I was sixteen, I would have agreed with Dudley; at twenty, I would have vehemently disagreed. Growing up, the pillars of the Christian Right were woven seamlessly into my Christian worldview, and questioning them was as nonsensical as questioning Christianity itself. When I was eighteen, though, my belief in Christianity actually caused my politics to take a hard left turn. As I thought through what the consequences of the Christian Right had been for the church, I became an ardent secularist and gay rights supporter, even as I maintained personal reservations about abortion and homosexuality. I strongly believed (and to some extent, I still believe) that supposed Christians who use God to advance a political agenda effectively are using God’s name in vain, committing blasphemy by using God as a mere tool to achieve worldly political power. The way that Christian Right elites blatantly and unrepentantly use God to manipulate the believing masses into voting certain ways, often against their own interests, used to break my heart. After leaving Christianity, I am less saddened by this, and more just pissed off.

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 community was very much full of standard Christian Right supporters who seemed to think the Bible was as much a founding document of the U.S. as the Constitution. My mom is a staunch Christian Right supporter, especially opposing abortion and homosexuality. My dad, however, is a Democrat for economic reasons, although he too opposes abortion and homosexuality. My school taught us that Christians have a responsibility to be engaged citizens – not to usher in the End Times (although a lot of them probably thought this might be a bonus) – but to preserve America’s dominance in the world. I had several different teachers explain to us that America would prosper only as long as we continued to support Israel because of the “those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse” verses in Genesis. In their view, America also could only stand strong against “godless” communism and “demonic” Islam by worshiping the true God. This, coupled with a black and white view of morality, led my school as a whole to be pretty aggressively conservative in their politics. Preferences about the economy, however, tended to vary more by how rich you were than by what theology you held. Still, everyone voted Republican because of social issues and foreign policy.

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.

Every so often, my pastor would make an argument like, “We need to stand up for life, and take these anti-life arguments to their logical conclusions. If abortion’s ok, why not line up all the kids who are in foster care and shoot them? They’re unwanted! It’s the same thing!” He never, however, endorsed parties or candidates. Supposedly (although I have no way to tell how true this is), one time President Bush wanted to stop by our church when he was in my city and apparently my pastor turned him down because it would appear to be an endorsement of the president’s politics during a campaign. (I actually really wish he had let Bush attend – how cool would it be to meet the president at church, regardless of whether you agree with him?) As far as any political activism went, we didn’t really do much. As I got older, I enjoyed talking politics with my friends, but I never got involved in anything organized. As far as I know, neither did my parents.

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?

For my mom, abortion, hands down. For my dad, the economy and his job. For my teachers and peers at my Christian school, how closely the candidate or issue position tracks with the Christian worldview. For me, by the time I was of voting age, secularism and social justice were the most important factors in voting.

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.?

On the outside, we looked the same – we wore mostly the same clothes, went to the same stores, played the same sports. But I always felt sequestered. All my friends, even at my Christian school, were well-versed in pop culture, but my parents kept me sheltered. I only got to hear NSYNC or watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch at friends’ houses – at my house we only listened to Christian radio and watched PBS. I also remember my mom boycotting Disney on occasion. Even today I sometimes feel left out among my friends because there are a lot of pop culture references I missed out on. Even still, I wasn’t entirely sheltered from the outside world. I’d say that if you are so inclined, it is definitely possible to live your life within a self-contained evangelical subculture, but in my experience most people just don’t bother.

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

What finally made me start questioning my faith was seeing how Christianity misjudged the outside world. I went to college expecting non-Christians to be a certain way, and they weren’t. They weren’t in rebellion against God. They weren’t depraved. They weren’t even particularly sinful. They were just people who happened to have different opinions about God. I wasn’t being persecuted for my faith the way I was brought up to expect. Instead, I was actually disturbed by the persecuting that was being done by Christians! I was horrified at the way the Christians on campus basically ignored the LGBT students entirely. I started feeling very uncomfortable with the idea of a God who would send seemingly good people to hell for what amounted to at most a difference of opinion. Doubting my beliefs was a terrifying experience, and to some degree still is. Even now, every so often I have doubts about nonbelief, simply because the stakes of nonbelief are so high if Christianity actually ends up being true.

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?

Theologically, the hardest part about leaving Christianity at first was Jesus. It was like losing my best friend. Suddenly, the person I always could count on was gone, never to return. Then I had to come to grips with my fear of hell, and I still haven’t quite overcome it. Relationally, the most difficult part has been telling people. I’m still a mostly closeted atheist, except to people who have asked me directly about my faith.

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 of them still seem to believe more or less what they were raised to believe, with of course some variation on the particulars. Overall, I’d say at least 90% have stayed some form of Christian. I’ve also noticed that people who acted more like lukewarm Christians during high school have become much more serious about their faith after having children.

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?

No one really batted an eye. As long as I still professed belief in Jesus as God, no one really cared what the rest of my beliefs looked like as long as I could defend them biblically, which I could do. Of course, the not-fundamentalist-but-still-Christian stage of my life was relatively short-lived, since I eventually lost my faith altogether.

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?

Honestly, my relationship with my family hasn’t changed at all as far as I can tell. I still talk to my family frequently and I don’t really feel like there’s anything I can’t talk to them about yet.

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?

I don’t think my sibling knows. My parents only know because they asked me directly how my relationship with God was, and I decided not to lie. They actually took the news a lot better than I expected. My mom cried some, but mostly they just talked with me. I think they’ve seen some of their friends overreact to kids who have gone astray, which just pushed the kids farther away, and my parents don’t want to do that with me. At least that’s what I hope. They also might be in denial, since I haven’t heard a word about this all since I first “came out” almost a year ago. We still get along great, especially since they’ve become much less controlling after I became an adult. As far as my friends go, I’ve only told people I know will be sympathetic. Part of me feels like it’s not really anyone’s business what I believe anymore – that all ended when I left evangelicalism – and part of me just doesn’t want to risk my friendships.

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?

No one has left that I know of. Sometimes I wonder whether my sibling has, but I’ve never asked directly. Generally, I just don’t talk about religion around my family, and when they bring it up, I either ignore it or challenge it, based on how I’m feeling at the time.

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 sometimes feel like I don’t fit in very well because I missed a lot of shared cultural experiences when I was younger, and a lot of people don’t understand how traumatic it has been for me to realize I had lost the beliefs that had shaped me for twenty-plus years. But because it’s an overwhelmingly Christian country and I grew up in the middle of mainstream evangelicalism, I don’t feel too weird or out-of-place.

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?

My first steps out of conservative Christianity prompted me to take a closer look at politics, and I ended up studying how conservative politics and religion intersect in the U.S. quite a bit in college. I also think that being able to entertain two perspectives – secular and “biblical” – simultaneously on just about everything helps me to be understanding and compassionate toward people who hold different views than I do, even when I find their views abhorrent. I can understand where they’re coming from, even if I am thoroughly convinced they’re wrong, and in my experience this makes it easier for me to have constructive conversations with people I vehemently disagree with.

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 it was the greatest thing in the world, except for the part where I was a little more sheltered than my peers. I felt incredibly lucky to have been born into a family that worshiped the right God the right way. Now, I am extremely thankful I was able to break out of such a circular and comprehensive worldview, considering so few people I know have succeeded in leaving it all behind. I appreciate the perspective it gave me on religion, but I do regret having wasted so much of my life trying to please a God who was never really there.

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

The most beneficial thing for me about being raised evangelical was the way it has given me a better understanding of people who are religious. I feel as though I still speak “evangelical,” and as a result I feel better able to communicate with people who are still steeped in evangelical culture than someone who has always been an outsider to the culture. However, the most problematic aspect of my evangelical past has been learning to trust my own mind. For so long I believed that my mind was fallen and depraved and could not be trusted to evaluate spiritual matters. Now, as I rely on my own mind and experiences rather than the Bible, I can’t always shake the belief that I still can’t trust myself.

"Lol I’m trying to convince her."

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