Gaslighting: How Dare We Expect Evangelicals to Fulfill Their Promises!

Gaslighting: How Dare We Expect Evangelicals to Fulfill Their Promises! May 12, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I alluded to the mistreatment evangelicals heap upon people who express disappointment with their experiences in the religion. To be sure, it does happen. It happened to me, in fact! Yes, people join these evangelical groups on the basis of a whole bunch of marketing promises, and then they discover that the reality looks nothing like what those promises described. When they dare to complain about it, evangelicals have a small arsenal of tried-and-true gaslighting tactics that keep people in these groups despite their utter failure to fulfill their own promises. Today, I’ll show you what this gaslighting looks like. And then, I’ll show you why gaslighting works so stunningly well on evangelicals.

uh oh gaslighting begins oh wait
(Keenan Davidson.) Probably not an actual gas lamp. The flag tipped me off.

(I wrote about gaslighting some years back, in our Handbook for the Recently Deconverted. But it’s been a while!)

Back When Teen Cas Actually Believed Marketing Promises.

Long, long ago in the 1980s, I faced a serious problem.

Months earlier, I’d left the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). And I’d left because the church I’d joined seemed extremely hypocritical. I saw no difference whatsoever between the kids in my youth group at church and the people outside our church. Whatever my church taught, it was not making anybody a better person. I felt extremely uncomfortable about belonging to and supporting such a group, and so I left.

Very soon afterward, my dear friend Angela invited me to her own church. It was part of the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI). (If you remember Kim Davis, it was a lot like her group.)

When I first attended that UPCI church, it dazzled me. WOW! These Christians really seemed to take Christianity totally seriously! OMG! They all seemed to be exactly like fervent, utterly-devoted Angela. They were on fire, as evangelicals said back then! YAY! At last!

Yes, I flung myself headlong into this new flavor of the religion.

Now, looking back, I feel like I’ve set up a scene in a horror movie — like one right before the bad guy springs out at the unsuspecting heroine. I want to yell “GET OUT, CAS! GET OUT!” at my screen. Alas, I know I would not have heeded such a warning. If I didn’t heed my own mother’s stated concerns, I doubt I’d have cared about anything my future self might have to say. (My younger self would probably have just tried to proselytize me!)

It didn’t even occur to me that my new group’s own hype might be just that:

Hype. Marketing.

Self-serving lies meant to draw in people exactly like me. And it worked, grandly, on me.

When Teen Cas Discovered the Truth.

Soon enough, I realized that my new group was a lot like the old one. It contained:

  • A very small core of people who seemed extremely fervent and devoted — like Angela.
  • Lots of people who were quietly devoted. They showed up every Sunday, but they didn’t make a lot of waves.
  • And a very large number of people who were out-and-out hypocrites.

To my absolute shock, many of this last group were kids my age who’d been raised in the religion their entire lives. From what I could see, what they’d mostly learned was how to skate around the rules and sneak past their strict parents to do whatever they wanted.

Out of all the hypocrites in my church, it was the sheer hypocrisy of people my own age that bothered me the most. Out of everyone in the whole world, they should have known most about how real and true our god was, and about how our religion Jesus-ed the best and fulfilled adherents the most. However, they were the least interested of all that congregation in living like they believed. That troubled me enormously.

I’d joined this church because their marketing said their way of Jesus-ing was the ultimate form. It was real, they said, and they declared that people who joined them would know it was the real truth. They pushed hard on all that Original Christianity blahblah, too!

But it was very clear that most of the church congregation didn’t believe any of that stuff.

Y’all, hypocrisy slashes at the heart of all of the marketing promises Christians make. It reveals what adherents really believe and what’s really important to them.

Even as a teenager, I knew this truth in my bones — even if I couldn’t yet articulate that knowledge.

And When Teen Cas Faced Gaslighting.

But you already know, don’t you, what happened when I mentioned my disappointment to my pastor. Anyone who’s ever tangled with the Christian Right at all knows this answer. The tactic is so ingrained in that entire end of the religion that I doubt anybody’s ignorant of it.

My pastor was an old, genial fellow. He had a huckster’s easy smile. His warm, folksy way of engaging with people made them feel like he was friendly and amiable. Looking back, I can tell he was neither.

I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went, only how he responded. I probably started by asking why so many people in our congregation were such awful hypocrites. Whatever I asked, I’m sure he sensed that a dealbreaker was brewing here. I don’t think many evangelical pastors would ever miss a major cue like that.

First, he told me that it was not reasonable to expect everyone to be fervent and devoted enough to take our religion’s rules and recommendations seriously. Heck, it wasn’t reasonable to expect anyone to be fervent and devoted enough to do that. No, instead I was wrong for expecting our marketing about our own selves to be accurate representations of how the people in our church actually behaved.

Then, he told me that I needed to quit worrying about all the hypocrites in our church. That kind of worry would send me straight to Hell, he warned! Instead, I needed to “work out” my own salvation.

Above all, he stressed this point: no number of hypocrites and no height of hypocrisy would ever become valid grounds for doubting our tribe’s marketing — much less for rejecting our tribe entirely.

My pastor made me feel like I was the problem here for taking my church’s own marketing seriously — not that marketing for being untrue in the first place, and not the people who pushed claims about our congregation that anybody could tell wasn’t really true after just a few days among them.

The dude gaslighted me.

And it worked.

A Quick Introduction to Gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a subtle form of emotional abuse. To do it, an abusive person undermines their victim’s sense of reality, then replaces it with their own warped version of reality. If successful, gaslighting gives abusers an incredible amount of control over their victims. Years after escaping these abusive relationships, gaslighting victims may struggle hard to trust their own senses, perceptions, decisions, and evaluations of anything.

The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 British stage play called Gas Light, which was later adapted into a movie called Gaslight (first in 1940, then in 1944). The drama involves a man who marries a wealthy woman. To gain access to some treasure hidden in her house, he does subtle things to make his new bride think she’s going insane. Among other things, he dims their gas lights.

When his wife mentions that the household’s gas lights have dimmed, he claims they haven’t. He tells her that she’s imagining things.

And yes, this abuse has a profound impact on her, just as gaslighting often has on modern victims today, and just as it had on me back in the 1980s.

Recognizing Gaslighting Attempts.

Modern gaslighting attempts generally don’t involve dimmed lamps and strange noises coming from the attic. Instead, modern gaslighters use much subtler means of undermining their victims.

Examples:

  • Telling you you’re “crazy” for not believing something they said.
  • Trying to convince you that you’re overreacting to something that actually merits a big reaction.
  • Accusing you of the stuff they’re doing that’s wrong — like accusing you of cheating or lying when they’re the ones doing both.
  • Persuading you that those who really do love you actually hate you or want to hurt you, which leaves you feeling semi-safe only around the abuser.
  • Convincing you that your good qualities and accomplishments aren’t actually that good, part of making you feel inadequate and incompetent — and unloveable.
  • Mocking or trivializing your feelings and reactions.
  • Denying that something happened that you know happened, even if you have proof of it in your hand right then.

As I said, this abuse is subtle. Abusers don’t usually start off at full Mach 10 gaslighting right away. That would chase off their victims! No, they start small, testing the waters, and steadily escalating as their victims adjust to the abuse.

Gaslighting victims eventually become shells of their former selves. They are unable to trust anything at all, not even their own feelings.

Gaslighting in the Evangelical Wild.

In an old post of theirs, Focus on the Bigotry Family calls my teen self’s question “the hypocrisy objection.”

(Their gaslighting has begun already: notice how they’re undermining the validity of this very serious problem in evangelicalism? Like it’s been asked and dealt with already, when it has not ever been fixed.) It’s hard not to detect a sneering tone in how their writer describes this “objection”:

[C]ritics of Christianity who raise the hypocrisy objection usually point to some moral failure in the lives of Christians they know as examples of Christianity being false or at least highly suspect. “See!” they exclaim. “There goes another hypocrite in the church! How can I believe Christianity if the church is full of hypocrites?”

And well yes, I’d certainly consider “the hypocrisy objection” a perfectly valid concern — in fact, pressing. But Focus on the Cruelty Family desperately needs to destroy those making this objection, to make them feel like the rampant, near-universal hypocrisy in evangelical ranks is hardly any valid reason to reject evangelicals’ demands.

To resolve this objection, they tell us that the truth of Christianity’s claims don’t ultimately depend on how faithful or fervent actual Christians are. Then, they flat-out declare that hypocrisy is not “sufficient reason to dismiss Christianity.” And finally, they declare that since Jesus himself was not a hypocrite, that kneecaps the entire “hypocrisy objection.”

All in all, their essay functions as a simply astonishing sleight of hand. From start to finish, its creators intend for it to undermine their marks’ judgment.

Disentangling This Common Evangelical Gaslighting Attempt.

What’s at issue here isn’t particularly Christianity itself, but rather evangelicals’ flavor of it. (Remember, always, that their product is membership in their groups, not a package of beliefs per se.)

Generally, yes: the truth of a claim in general doesn’t depend on the behavior of those accepting it. However, evangelicals make a very distinct set of claims about how their religious claims and teachings should influence believers’ behavior. These claims can easily be tested. That’s what happened here with “the hypocrisy objection.”

It’s like a mark asking to see the 1099 tax return form of someone recruiting for their multi-level marketing scheme (MLM). If the MLM actually makes that recruiter real money, then the form will show it. Evangelicals’ behavior is like their very own Form 1099. It tells us how well their religious scheme really works.

Now, people rarely leave either Christianity or evangelicalism over hypocrisy itself. Evangelicals’ sky-high, endemic level of hypocrisy may well lead someone to think that Christianity itself is false. However, it might just make them think evangelicalism is false. In my own case, I rejected the SBC, but I remained open to other flavors of evangelicalism — and to Christianity as a whole.

Lastly and most importantly, people can reject evangelicals’ pitches for whatever reason they please. Evangelicals themselves don’t have the right to make that judgment call for anyone else. They do love to try to seize that level of control, but it does not belong to them.

Evangelicals are salespeople in the religious marketplace, not legitimate judges whose opinions we must obey. Ironically enough, evangelicals’ hypocrisy as a group disqualifies them from any such role, as much as they obviously ache to hold it.

Hypocrisy Can’t Be Gaslighted Away.

Despite the undermining of Focus on the Totalitarianism Family, hypocrisy remains a very important consideration to take into mind when anyone contemplates joining any group. The more that group’s ideology is meant to be practiced and lived, the more important hypocrisy becomes — and the bigger of a red flag that hypocrisy is.

Rampant hypocrisy means there’s no assurance of safety in such a group, since hypocrisy often centers around abusing other people. Likewise, if what evangelicals teach and preach does not reliably or consistently produce faithful, devoted, rules-following Christians, then there’s no assurance that it will do that for anyone else who joins. This group will not be one that can fulfill its own marketing promises, much less keep anybody safe from potential harm.

In the end, then, what matters even more than evangelicals’ universal hypocrisy problem is how they treat those who mention that problem. Gaslighting those who call attention to evangelicals’ hypocrisy won’t reduce hypocrisy in their ranks (rather, it’ll increase hypocrites’ numbers — and the degree of their acting-out). But gaslighting those raising the problem will let evangelicals feel like their marketing hype is still totes for realsies true, y’all.

That feeling is very obviously all these Christians want.

To keep it, evangelicals will endure any number of hypocrites in their ranks. They’ll even protect hypocrites to the hilt by gaslighting anyone who dares to mention what a devastating impact hypocrisy has on Christians’ faith.

After all, it’s way easier for evangelicals to gaslight critics and questioners than it is to meaningfully deal with one of the most serious dealbreakers in evangelicalism!

NEXT UP: A new study seems to indicate that all this political maneuvering in the Christian Right is going to bite them right in their racist, sexist bottoms. See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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