One thing that seems to crop up in the news over and over again are the constant struggles between America’s secular government and increasingly-secular citizens, and that particular brand of over-controlling zealotry that masquerades as religion. Scores of lawsuits have been filed trying to stop this overreach on topics ranging from religious-based science denial to ostentatious religious displays of idolatrous monuments, most of the cases decided in favor of secularism.
The newest of these conflicts involved a super-Christian legislature that didn’t realize that by authorizing religious monuments on public land, they were opening the door to a bunch of Satanists wanting a similar monument for themselves. To the rest of us, that’s obvious, but to the Christians trying to strong-arm their religious idolatry onto the rest of their people, it very obviously hadn’t occurred to them–just as it had not occurred to the super-Christian legislature in Louisiana that if they allowed Christian schools to get free money under their voucher program, why then obviously other religions’ schools–like those of (GASP!) scary Muslims–might also want some of that free money they had just made available.
The outrage of these Christians is quite obvious–and hilariously so. As one Louisiana Republican lawmaker whined: “‘I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this,’ he said.” Why not? Oh, he just meant that money to be for Christians? With as many laws as we’re seeing lately trying to expand government-sponsored religious displays, especially considering that the vast majority are getting passed in Southern (and Christian-heavy) states, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out just what religion is meant to be displayed. One of the more right-wing of Christians has incorrectly even said out loud that religious freedom as a concept only applies to Christians, not anybody else.
If I were setting out to design a paradigm guaranteed to induce a martyr fetish, entitlement mentality, and persecution complex, I couldn’t do better than how right-wing Christianity has here. They’ve arranged themselves a house where only they get to feel at home, a house where only their things are on display, a house where only they get to decide what’ll be watched on TV, listened to on the radio app, and what’ll get played on the console. They’ve arranged a house where only their words are the ones that matter, where their feelings on any subject are the only ones that carry any weight at all, where their voices are the only ones that should get attention.
And they don’t even have the shame to feel ashamed of how they’ve run roughshod over everybody else to reach that dominance. Oh no, instead they whine and moan about how poor widdle them, they don’t have the dominance they used to, instead of recognizing how that dominance was won: on the backs and at the expense of others who do not share their views.
In much the same way, when I deconverted, I began to realize just how one-sided my relationship with Biff was when I began to want things Biff didn’t want.
I hadn’t realized before just how much our house reflected Biff’s likes and dislikes. Many people who visited thought it looked like the set of a children’s TV show (“Romper Room” was the specific comparison I heard the most, and this was well after “Romper Room” had faded from relevance). We had a Chinese dragon puppet head on one wall (the huge, full-body sort you see around the Chinese New Year), his art and sculptures all over the place, and Lego dioramas littering most horizontal surfaces. I took a long time to realize that there really wasn’t much of me in it. When I expressed a desire for a home that looked like it had adults living in it, my requests were met with disdain and outright ridicule. I should not have been surprised.
Christianity itself doesn’t deal well with dissent of any kind. Just having a different opinion is unacceptable. We’re dealing with a religion that makes a variety of truth claims that cannot be proven or verified, so all there is to it is opinions. So a differing opinion is a huge threat, and it is dealt with as such. The more toxic sorts of Christians even believe that a child must be forced by any means whatsoever–using violence, emotional abuse, blatant manipulation of any sort–into lockstep with the parents; if a child exhibits dangerous levels of self-determination or dangerously differing opinions, that stuff must be beaten out of that child to ensure that the child never, ever gets to the point of defying the parents. This is why, when you hear about a child getting murdered by his or her parents, it always seems like it was some minor event that sparked the beating that killed that kid, like wanting candy or refusing to use a required honorific. Healthy parents realize that kids are going to act like that sometimes, and they know how to deal with it in a way that honors the child’s emerging sense of self and boundaries but also keeps the kid in some kind of familial harmony. Unhealthy parents just know to fear and hate that emergent personality and to subjugate it by any means possible.
In marriage, as well, I found that my sense of self-determination got undermined at every conceivable opportunity. As a woman, especially, I was a second-class citizen and the inferior to every single man in my denomination, and you can bet I was reminded of that constantly–every single day, almost every breath I took. I was allowed to have opinions only if they meshed with my husband’s opinions and those of our church leaders. Now I suspect that women get the treatment they do because the men in such churches desperately need that affirmation of dominance. Back then I just knew it wasn’t fair and couldn’t possibly have been the will of any sort of just or loving deity.
So when I began wanting to do things that were different from the lockstep and ran contrary to what Biff thought his wife should want, you can imagine things went to hell in a hurry. I had to take a crash course in what was, and what was not, reasonable of Biff to expect or demand–and for that matter what was and wasn’t reasonable for me to expect or demand in turn.
I’ve already talked about how Biff threw my makeup away at one point, and he made clear he hated that I wore it. I’m not talking about painting myself up like a clown–I’m talking about tasteful, minor bits of makeup that made me happy. But even if I’d wanted to make myself up like a clown, that was my right, and it was not reasonable of Biff to demand that I groom myself only the way he liked best or else he’d throw a pouty little fit.
By the same token, I put my foot down about listening to music that only he liked while riding in our shared car together or hanging out at the house at the same time. Either we listened to music we both liked, or else we listened to some music he liked and some music I liked, but I would no longer tolerate our stereo only playing music that grated on my nerves and annoyed me. You can bet that was another argument, but I didn’t back down. It was my house too, and I sensed even then that I had a right to a home where I wasn’t a visitor and a stranger. I paid most of our bills at that point–he was in the military by then, and it didn’t pay very well compared to what I made–so I absolutely refused to let him dictate our home life that way when I was the one making that home life possible. Slowly I worked toward an equilibrium that Biff neither desired nor even agreed was necessary.
It is true, I think, that a dominant faction does not willingly give up its power or peel back its own privilege. It is the marginalized and the downtrodden who rise up and say “No more,” and make no mistake: these marginalized and downtrodden people have to force progress to happen. If we wait until the dominant faction is damned well good and ready to give up its power and peel back its own privilege, we will be waiting a very, very long time. It takes being uppity and being absolutely positive of one thing and one thing only: that we are worthy of these same considerations. Moreover, we are sure that those who achieve ease and luxury and privilege at the expense of others do not deserve those things at all. That everybody deserves a home where they can feel safe and welcome.
Biff’s desire for a Christian wife and Christian-centric home did not outweigh my own needs for safety, peace, and comfort. He couldn’t separate his desires from my needs; he couldn’t understand that I had the rights I did to a home that was homelike. He couldn’t separate private life from shared life–he never did understand that I didn’t care if he prayed or went to church; I just expected him not to intrude upon my peace and quiet with showboating his moaned and shouted prayers or to try yet again to strong-arm me into going to church with him. He couldn’t understand that of the small amount of money we’d long ago agreed was his walking-around money he could do whatever he wanted, but of the money I contributed, none of my hard-earned paycheck was going to church or religious outreach anymore. Also, I’d be wearing whatever I pleased on my body and face from now on, thankyewverymuch, and sometimes yes, I’d be drinking my favorite beer (Shiner Bock) and going out with my friends sometimes, and if that bothered him, he was welcome to go live in the on-base barracks.
Notice that none of this stuff is really bad. I wasn’t talking about going out every night or sleeping with football teams’ worth of men (or women). I wasn’t talking about committing crimes or forcing him to be complicit in the commission of crimes. I didn’t think it was unreasonable to go out with my friends once or twice a week or to wear clothes that didn’t make me feel like a baby-doll or an Amish butter-churner. Since his only objection whatsoever to beer in the house was that he didn’t think it was very Jesus-y, I didn’t feel compelled to abide by his attempted dictate that it not be in the house, and the same went for makeup.
I began to think of our relationship not as one totally enmeshed and entangled, that “one flesh” Christians talk about, because that left me no room whatsoever to be myself and to have my own needs, but rather as being a creation of two adults who shared many things, but not all things, and I stopped seeing myself as a mere extension of my husband–an appendage, a pet, a child. Like Conan the Barbarian, I began to understand my worth, my value, and what I brought to the table–and I began to realize that I’d settled way too low, had set my expectations way too conservatively, and was putting up with way more than I should have been.
In the same way, I see many mixed-religion marriages where there is drama that feature similar overreaches. I see couples who have a lot of trouble separating out what is and isn’t acceptable to ask of a mate–and then, when those overreaches are refused or rejected, get angry or feel persecuted when all that’s happened is that an overreach got refused or rejected.
May I respectfully submit the following?
A need that can only be fulfilled if one’s mate sacrifices some integral dignity and sense of self-respect is not a need that is legitimate or one that deserves fulfilling. There is simply nothing in a marriage that is worth sacrificing one’s dignity and self-respect. There is nothing anybody could ever want that should ever be achieved only on someone else’s reluctant back. There is nothing that could be asked legitimately that would require someone to live a lie or to deny some essential feature of his or her life or personality. If someone needs something like that, chances are that person needs to step back and really look at what is being demanded here.
I refuse to believe that love–true love, real honest-to-goodness Buttercup-and-Westley love–would ever want to hurt its target. I refuse to believe that real love would ever be content making someone else live a lie or sacrifice so much of themselves just to make someone else happy. But you see it all the time in Christian marriages–men who are proud that they’re “loving sacrificially” by doing way more than their share of housework or putting up with really infrequent sex; women who are defiant that no really, they’re really happy letting their husbands run roughshod over them and treat them like children or slaves or putting up with really bad sex; and yes: couples who really, truly think that they’re doing a “give-and-take” thing when really, they’re not; they’re just each being totally unreasonable in different ways, like a pair of children who deliberately tease or hurt each other out of spite or malice because each knows the other will be doing something nasty back to them later so there’s no reason to stay their little hands. And that both partners are being unreasonable doesn’t make the unreasonable-ness okay.
Sooner or later, human dignity will OUT. That’s what it does. That’s why it’s such a powerful force. That’s why toxic Christians hate and fear it like they do. They’re doing their level best to destroy dignity in so many ways, but slowly humanity is inching toward an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable to demand someone else do, sacrifice, say, or act like. Zealotry can’t extinguish the human spirit, not forever, especially not in a country where zealotry is not the law of the land.
Slowly, just as successful mixed-religion marriages are discovering, our government is realizing that the only real way to handle religion fairly is not to force it on people at all in any capacity. Let private people do it instead on their own time (though they generally don’t; for all my own church’s fuss about prayer and zealotry, most people didn’t live by its tenets or act particularly “godly” or “separate” on their own time). That part of the public sphere we all share should be comfortable for us all.
The house is for everybody, be that house our society or our personal homes. It shouldn’t just be one person’s personal playground at the exclusion and at the expense of the other people in the house. They get to have a house to relax in too. They get to have a house that feels like home to them too. They get a place where they can feel safe and welcome too. We all deserve that.
And ex-Christians deserve that as well in their own personal homes.
Christians in the UYC, if I could advise you, I’d say this: Learn to separate out the public sphere of your home from the private sphere. Be really, really careful about demands that require your mate to deny something important to him- or herself, especially demands that your mate give you the illusion that everything is just like it used to be. Because it’s not going to be like it used to be ever again, and until you realize that maybe that’s for the best, that maybe the way it used to be was really bad for your mate in some significant way, that it was comfortable for you at the expense of your mate’s sanity and happiness, then you’re both going to have a really tough time here.
If it helps, imagine you absolutely hate some food (I’m betting most of us do, so that’s not too hard). We’re talking about really hate here, like just the thought of this food makes you want to hurl. Just the sight of it sickens you. You’d sooner eat bugs or just go hungry than even see that food. You’ve tried it many times, prepared by all sorts of competent cooks and chefs, but for whatever reason, you’re just not ever going to be a fan of this food and you know it. For me, that’s shellfish, but for you, it can be anything that fits the bill. Imagine your mate was perfectly aware of your dislike of this food and just how much you hated it, yet constantly tried to feed you that food, argued with you about eating that food, tried to rationalize how wonderful the food was in front of you, kept talking about how wonderful that food was, or even tried to sneak it into your meals. Imagine your mate kept trying to drag you to a restaurant that more or less exists to serve this one food (like Red Lobster, for me), where you know you’ll be seeing it all over the place and smelling it and–ugh, excuse me a second, brb.
How would you feel? Invalidated? Manipulated? Condescended at? Would you feel loved by the constant entreaties to just try it this one time? No, you’d feel hugely disrespected, and you would be right to feel so. Now imagine your mate feeling like that with religion, and you’re in the right ballpark.
If your mate really hates going to church, it’s asinine to demand your mate go to church and suffer for hours on end and pretend to be there of his or her own volition just to give you a few illusory hours of the Happy Christian Marriage facade. If your mate says he or she has already read the book or seen the video you are convinced will Explain Everything Perfectly, be content with that and accept that whatever its explanation was, it sure wasn’t really very compelling to your mate. If your mate asks you to please not listen to crappy Christian music when he or she is around, be considerate. If your mate asks you to please not brainwash the kids, I know this is a real minefield, but try, try to find some workaround that honors you both, with professional help if need be–if your religion’s true, after all, surely the kids will come to it no matter what you say. You could, after all, pray for them instead of trying to control everybody in the household.
Be respectful. Be loving. Be kind. Your mate could have been you–and it may well be one day, no matter how much you may think you’re totally bulletproof here. Most ex-Christians I’ve met thought they were totally immune to deconversion, after all. Treat your ex-Christian mate the way you would want to be treated if it’d been you who deconverted. Don’t bring drama by overreaching. You’re both going to be tender for a little while until you figure out the new normal. It’s okay to be hurt and to process grief for the way things used to be and for the illusion that got destroyed, because believe me your mate probably is doing the same thing on a different level, but please don’t make things harder than you must, and don’t throw away a good marriage over dogma. It’s not necessary. Dogma is a very cold bedfellow. It’ll never love you the way your mate does.
So it’s not World War III if your mate says he or she doesn’t believe what you believe or doesn’t want to do something you want done. It’s okay. Learn to concentrate on the big picture and stop worrying about the window-dressing–because your true love is still there, and hasn’t changed at all despite the alteration in window-dressing.
What we do matters far more than what we believe.
And love is a doing word–and really, it’s the best thing you can possibly have in your house.