I’m getting way over this trend of Christians treating non-believers like we’re their toddlers and they’re our parents. Today I’m going to show you why they do it.
A while ago I called this attitude that of the Designated Adult: the person who is appointed in a relationship to be the decision-maker, the mature person, the person who takes the high road, the wise guide, the person who knows better. If anything, the situation’s only gotten worse since I wrote that post.
In some relationships, like that of an actual parent and child, yes, the parent must be the Designated Adult until the child can be his or her own guiding force. A parent who is not the Designated Adult in that relationship has abdicated responsibility for the child (or pushed way too much responsibility onto a child who is not ready for it yet) and when we see that happening we’re not often surprised by the disasters that seem to roll in that child’s wake. Children can’t guide themselves. They don’t understand a lot of stuff. We know they need a parent who gives enough guidance to bring that child to maturity.
But equally as important as providing enough guidance to one’s child is knowing when to taper off and then stop providing that guidance as the child grows in maturity and independence.
I am not speaking here of adult children who may need a little help from their parents sometimes. In this economy, it happens–and it happens distressingly often. No, I’m talking here about parents who raise children in a way that ultimately keeps those children dependent on them way past their maturity.
A parent who refuses to let a child become independent is as blameworthy in our eyes as one who doesn’t give a child any guidance at all. And increasingly it seems like we’re seeing more and more parents who simply can’t let go. College admissions officers are starting to speak out against the alarming trend of “helicopter parenting” and are trying to make parents more aware of the terrible long-term outcomes in store for children who never learn to be independent.
Phillip Hodson, a therapist who wrote an interesting opinion piece for The Guardian a few years ago, speculates that maybe the parents themselves are the ones who need that attachment–not the children they think need their care so much. I think there’s something to that. I recently read a painful writeup in The Atlantic about teen suicide clusters in Palo Alto, California. In that piece, the author made the case that parents themselves were driving their children’s grueling schedules and ultra-high expectations. Everything the parents did was justified by saying it was for the children’s own good, and I’m sure on some level they even believe it. Nonetheless, the children in these schools are increasingly choosing the permanent way out of that rat race because they literally can’t see any other way of escaping the unholy amounts of stress their parents are inadvertently creating in their lives:
What disturbs [one counselor] most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, she told me, where the teens would tell their parents, “This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.” Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice.
Let’s stress that these are high-school kids. They’ve been raised in a competitive culture where good grades and a successful Ivy League college application are the Holy Grail. These children’s aspirational values are passed on to them by their parents, who truly love their kids and have ultimately their best interests in mind. These well-meaning parents only want their kids to succeed in life and do better than the previous generation did. They think that the values they’re cultivating in their families are how to get those successes.
But how they’re living out those values is producing a generation of permanent adolescents who freeze like deer in headlights when the simplest of the real world’s demands comes a-knocking–young people who are incapable of asserting themselves or acting with any agency at all over their own fates. They are pushed around like pawns on a chessboard until they can’t take any more.
And people who have been involved in extremist flavors of Christianity are reading along with me and probably thinking the same thing I do: How is this situation different at all from what I experienced in my church?
It’s not. It’s the same paternalistic attitude producing much the same helplessness and lack of agency.
When I look at Christianity, I see a bunch of people trying to be permanent toddlers to an eternal Father, who is thought to watch over them their entire lives and take care of them like a helicopter parent takes care of a child its whole life. Christians call this figure “Holy Father,” “Father Jesus,” “Father Lord,” the ever-trendy in my day “Abba” (which was thought, probably mistakenly, to mean “Daddy” in Aramaic), and a host of other names. Prayers stress this relationship: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” and many others. Whole books exist to tell Christians how to conceptualize their relationship with “Daddy God.”
None of these attempts to stress a parent-child relationship in Christianity are making that relationship the one between a grown-up child and his or her own elderly parent. We’re not talking about that respectful civility and geniality that exists between healthy adults and their parents. Instead, the conceptualization behind every single instance I’ve noted in Christianity is that of that unique relationship between a still-utterly-dependent young child and an all-powerful parent figure who is still totally in control of that child.
And Christians glory in this infantilization. Their only real question is, “How do I get myself into this state faster and more thoroughly?” They don’t wonder if they should. That they should is completely axiomatic. I don’t know any Christians of note saying “Hey, we shouldn’t be trying to make ourselves perma-toddlers for Jesus because it’s really messed up for a bunch of grown-ups to think of themselves as little kids.”
As Above, So Below.
Worse yet, though, oh, far worse yet is that Christians distinctly take an “as above, so below” philosophy when it comes to their relationship with the rest of the world. If they saw themselves as perma-children to a loving parental god and left everyone else alone, that’d be one thing, but they don’t. They have decided that just as they are perma-children to their parental god, other people are perma-children to Christians.
“As above, so below” is a hermetic saying attributed to Hermes the Trismegistus. It means that a lot of things and situations are mirrored on a lower level of existence and in turn mirror something on a higher level.
Christians may not realize that they’re trying to live out this saying, but they most definitely are. The way they imagine Jesus interacts with them is the exact same kind of interaction they try to use to engage with non-Christians–even though they aren’t Jesus themselves. I snarkily called this “the attack of the mini-Jesuses” a while ago and I think the accusation still stands. Though Jesus told them not to judge their neighbors, they think they’re commanded to judge others because they (mistakenly) think Jesus judged the woman taken in adultery. Though Jesus told them that every single law there is leads to love rather than hate, they think that “hating sin” takes precedence over showing love because that’s how they think Jesus rolled. They think Jesus judged people and hated sin, so they must do that themselves.
Christians try to recreate this paternalistic relationship because they seriously think that the relationship of Jesus and the church is an ideal that should be mirrored in their relationships with their own spouses, in a pastor’s relationship with his parishioners, and in Christians’ relationship with non-Christians generally. They see life as a hierarchy, with their god at the top (with Jesus either right there or just a bit below), then their denomination’s bigwigs–if any–and then their pastor, then the husband of the family unit, then the wife, then the kids, and lastly non-believers somewhere near the bottom there. The hierarchy branches off in various places with non-white people, people of different nationalities, and people of different economic statuses and educational backgrounds, etc., but that’s the essence of the worldview. A fundagelical’s world is one big complicated Order of Precedence, with those above in the lineup able to override and control all of those below. The people below accept their status and don’t buck the system, though they do try to climb the ladder so that they, in turn, will be granted the power to override and control those below.
(Maybe an even better way to think of it is like a multi-level marketing person’s upline and downline, since the upline directly benefits from the downline and the downline is seen as toiling for the benefit of the upline.)
What such a Christian really wants when voicing that desperate cry for “the way things used to be!” is a return to the days when they think Christians were treated like society’s tenders and keepers. They want to be society’s controllers, its shapers, its deciders, its civilizing influences, its sensibilities, its moral center, its shepherds, its masters.
Its Designated Adults.
Christians Still Are Not Our Designated Adults.
When I listen to Christians talk about non-Christians, the thing I’m struck with most is how contemptuous they are of us.
They talk about our lack of belief and cooperation very much in the same way a parent might discuss a child’s tantrum while out shopping at Hobby Lobby–with exasperation, with a touch of embarrassment, with amazement that a child can get so upset and so incapable of reason, with gentle humor, with annoyance, maybe even with a humblebrag about how they handled the disruption.
It reminds me of an exchange in The Blue Castle between Valancy and her mother on her 29th birthday, when she asks her mother to please call her by her given name and not the childhood nickname she’s always hated. When Valancy makes her perfectly reasonable request, her mother not only drills down on her perception of her daughter’s childishness, but then shames her for not having been married yet. These insults not only keep Valancy cowed but also enforce her mother’s own sense of smug superiority.
It’s worth noting, though, that both of these perceived shortcomings are actually her mother’s direct fault.
In the book, we learn that Mrs. Frederick raised her only child, Valancy, in enforced infantilization her entire life, with strict schedules, ascetic idealism, and an extremely religious shame-based worldview. And it seems very clear that Mrs. Frederick is pursuing this strategy quite deliberately. Valancy’s helplessness and dependence benefit her mother far more than they do herself.
Christians might do well to read and take into heartfelt account this advice for parents of maturing children from that Guardian columnist I linked earlier:
you need to deal with the “tasks” of your very different stage of life. These do not include getting down on the dancefloor with the kids but facing up to the fact that, as a parent, you are becoming unemployed and are confronted by a void of bereavement that you must confront. For as long as you cling to your children like a lifebelt, you will cease to grow up.
It might feel good for Christians to imagine that there’s a Cosmic Daddy Sky God out there to rescue them, to make everything aright, to solve their problems, to tell them what to do, to comfort them when they’re sad, and to deal much-deserved punishment to their enemies eventually, but imagining this figure doesn’t help them to grow and mature spiritually. To the contrary, it keeps them childish. It keeps them from having to develop their own support networks, their own coping mechanisms, their own tolerance for frustration, and their own mature understanding of the world. Such a dependence doesn’t create growth; it in fact actively prevents growth. People don’t grow until they must–it’s a huge expenditure of emotional resources to change the way one views the world and how one deals with inevitable challenges and setbacks, and generally folks don’t do it until there’s no choice but to do it. By depending on someone else to prevent those challenges or ameliorate those setbacks, Christians don’t ever have to spend those resources themselves.
But if they’re depending on someone who doesn’t actually exist, then even those nebulous benefits are purely illusory ones. One of the hardest things an ex-Christian often struggles with is how to cope on their own and how to deal with challenges that used to be met with “I’ll pray for Jesus to help me.” Such a person was always doing the work him- or herself, but didn’t realize it. It can be scary to face the world knowing that we are our own best allies and resource, just like it’s scary to face the first day of college in our own dorm room without parents to tell us when to go to bed or to study. But young adults manage this every single day, if they’re raised to be self-sufficient. It’s the micro-managed-to-death kids who completely crash and burn when put into a situation where nobody’s telling them to do stuff.
Indeed, the same people who are convinced that “Jesus” guides their lives become feral children the second they think nobody’s looking. I live in a very religious area and even knowing what I do about Christians, I’m floored every single time when I see the drunk drivers out swerving everywhere on my town’s roads every weekend night–and the worst offenders all seem to have “Calvin praying at the cross” bootleg decals, “Pray for Our Troops,” ribbons, and “Bush for President” bumper stickers on their trucks and SUVs.*
But this time it really does go both ways.
By treating others as children, these ersatz parents never need to learn to grow beyond the role they’ve claimed for themselves. They never need to learn to interact with their “children” on a mature level or to understand their “children” as separate human beings with boundaries, needs, and aspirations of their own. In their minds they’ll always be superior and always be at the top of the Order of Precedence, always the upline, always the guru, always the one to be consulted and deferred to. Little wonder Christians don’t want to examine, much less alter, this worldview.
We don’t need to ask who is benefiting from this teaching.
You can bet your last dollar that someone is benefiting from this whole system. The Christian marketing machine doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Every single thing that fundagelical leaders teach, every single bit of obedience they demand, every right they try to reserve for themselves, is something that comes back around to benefit them and their tribe somehow. There’s a very good reason why they teach Christians to treat others the way they do, and train their flocks to tolerate being treated in the same way by their leaders.
As we’ve been seeing, though, the actual benefits are not what Christians imagine they are. Just as Valancy’s mother benefited from her daughter’s enforced dependence, Christians benefit from thinking of themselves as society’s parents and of us as toddlers they must work constantly to keep from harm’s way and instruct in morality. As long as we are kept in an inferior role, someone’s got to be in the superior role. Though they won’t gain any converts or win any friends acting like we’re toddlers they must parent, they get something far, far more valuable than converts and friends: they get a sense of smugness, certainty, and moral superiority–and the thrill of constant opposition and pushback against the overreach this attitude necessarily engenders.
Really, treating non-Christians like children is a win-win for Christians: either they’ll succeed in pushing us into the role of perma-toddlers and climb back into their onetime role as society’s parents, or they’ll fail but gain all kinds of Martyrbation Points for the attempts they make.
We’re going to come back around to establishing what claims are and how to test them next week, but next time I want to talk some more about the perceived vs. actual benefits of this habit Christians have cultivated of treating others like children–and discuss how to short-circuit that behavior. I know a lot of y’all are going to be dealing with this behavior around your loved ones soon with Christmas coming up and I want you to know you’re not alone and it’s not all in your head that you’re being mistreated. So I hope you’ll join me–see you next time!
* I sometimes tell Mr. Captain, “Be careful. There’ll be drunk Mormons on the road tonight.”