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Before I could ever fully deconstruct or deconvert from white evangelicalism, I first had to spend some time thinking about why I was a Christian in the first place.
Like many (most?) people around the world, I was an evangelical Christian simply because that is the family/culture I was born into. We didn’t call ourselves evangelical back then (non-denominational Bible-believing born again folks!) but it was a religious movement hallmarked by conservative politics, fundamentalist religious beliefs, and an obsession with indoctrinating your children into the “right” way.
If you are like me and grew up in an evangelical family in the 80s and 90s, then congrats! You experienced what I would call a boon in sophisticated childhood indoctrination materials. People born in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s experienced their own unique traumas (as so many boomers have) but their parents were not buying up books on how the Smurfs were evil and how God actually wants you to hit your children in order that they grow up to be obedient to authority (and not gay!). That was a special time in history that people like myself experienced.
In the 80s and 90s, folks like Dr. Dobson were poised and ready to reach out to anxious parents who were overwhelmed by the world and wanted to make sure their kids grew up into the (Religious) right way. Focus on the Family grew popular with their parenting advice in their magazines and books (which were a reaction to the cultural shifts happening in the 1960s--you know, women’s liberation and Black people protesting police brutality) and Christian publishing in general became more lucrative during these decades. There were a lot of dollars to be made by convincing desperate white Christian parents to only listen to people just like Dr. Dobson if they wanted their kids to continue on in the faith—and that this was the only way to ensure a lasting legacy or a life of meaning.
I truly believe there was a generational shift in conservative, white religious communities that happened in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, leading to an unprecedented amount of cultural artifacts and media that were all aimed at indoctrinating children and teenagers. The white evangelical indoctrination station, we can call it. And I’ve spent the past few years/decades of my life trying to interrogate these artifacts. Do you remember any of them?
Here are just a few examples:
Adventures in Odyssey, the Strong-Willed Child, Jesus Freak, Brio Magazine, Frank Peretti, Focus on the Family magazine, Christianity Today, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the Prayer of Jabez, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Touched by an Angel, the Left Behind Series, Acquire the Fire, Passion, Billy Graham, Hell Houses, Youth Group, Dare to Discipline, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Harvest Parties, John Piper, McGee and Me, Veggie Tales, Conversion Therapy, Y2k prophecies, Francis Chan, Mission trips, Bible studies, Bible colleges, Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity, WOW CDs, Promise Keeper’s, Francine Rivers, Max Lucado Bibles, Missions week, purity rings, Elizabeth Elliot, World Vision, and more.
The weirdest thing is that every book, show, CD, sermon, and relationship was viewed through a specific lens: does it fit with our worldview? Does it support our worldview? Does it coerce impressionable people to give their all to further the cause of our worldview? This insular and cult-like framework was only intensified over the years as the evangelical publishing machine grew and expanded. You could (and I did!) go your entire childhood without being exposed to much of “secular” culture. The goal of all of this was twofold:
1). It made the people selling the indoctrination rich and powerful.
2). It aimed to keep more people into the fold, by shaping their minds at a very young age or by finding people who were vulnerable (for a variety of reasons) to indoctrination.
To give credit where credit is due . . . It worked! On me, and a lot of other people, for many, many years.
I don’t know what I was googling, exactly, last year. I was just trying to make sense of what I was unpacking about myself in therapy and also how I was experiencing being a parent. The more I actually allowed myself to think about my childhood, the more I started to realize that for me, Christianity had never truly been a choice. It was the most important thing to both of my caregivers, and to everyone I came into contact with in my very isolated life as a homeschooled pastor’s kid in semi-rural towns in the western part of the United States. Not only did I have the fear of hell and of the ever-imminent end times, I realized pretty early on that the best way to get love and attention and care was to become a mirror image of my caregivers and their values: a perfect evangelical Christian, with no real thoughts or desires of my own. Less of me, and more of Him. This was the ideal child in white evangelical land: a child supremely disconnected from themselves and determined to never, ever stray outside of the bounds of the community.
Somehow in my googling, I came across a website by Marlene Winell (author of the incredible book, Leaving the Fold, which I eventually read). And what stopped me in my tracks was this image:
In her (excellent) post that accompanies this graph, Dr. Winell shows how deliberate childhood indoctrination is. Even if the goals of the parent are seemingly good (they want their kids to experience the love of God!) what actually has to happen to keep kids in the fold is empirically harmful and ultimately abusive.
In effect, the indoctrination of a child with immature cognitive abilities in the helpless context of a family is an abuse of power. The child has no perspective and no choice but to cooperate in order to survive. The messages are received and embedded in the brain while certain areas of brain development are repressed through lack of stimulation, chief of which is critical thinking. This, combined with accepting the teaching that one is unable to trust one’s own thoughts, and the abject fear of terrifying consequences, completes the trap. Even as the child gets older, there are social forces in place to enforce these dynamics and the circular reasoning can continue on, making the child feel highly disturbed but not have any idea why.
This graph explained so much of my childhood to me. For the past few decades, I have been quite vocal and active in critiquing and asking questions about white evangelicalism. I mean, I even started a podcast 6 years ago specifically looking at evangelical pop culture artifacts of the 80s and 90s--not really knowing that I was trying to critique childhood indoctrination, because I had never really heard anyone talk about white evangelicalism in those terms before (this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, they just weren’t happening in the circles I was in).
I think it is easier to talk about deconstruction in terms of specific doctrines and theologies to identify as toxic (we see this happen with purity culture and manifest destiny and will happen more and more with apocalyptic thinking/end times trauma) but I do think the conversation needs to continue to get more specific if we want to accurately process what happened to so many of us. And I think it needs to be centered on the long-term psychological impacts of childhood indoctrination into Christian fundamentalism, and how it impacts so many areas of American culture, politics, and society.
This isn’t just about me working through my own stuff (although, of course that is there!). I think all of us need to take a good long look at what the end goal of Dr. Dobson, Focus on the Family, Christian Publishing in general, and all the books, CDs, and conferences were all about. That insular world, built up brick by brick, media companies and publishing imprints and Fox news channels and Adventures in Odyssey episodes. What was the point of all of it?
I was told it was so I would grow up knowing the truth about God and go out into the world and tell it to others. The end goal of the religious indoctrination I experienced was not for me to be a sad, terrified Christian child. The goal was for me to become a very strident and active member of a religious authoritarian movement that was desperate not just to retain power, but to actually gain it by any means necessary.
I don’t know if I am deconverting, exactly. Some of the conversation around deconstruction/deconversion/exvangelicalism reminds me a little too much of what I am currently trying to escape. Which is simply the hubris of thinking we can truly know any of this--how the world works, what role religion plays in our mental health and societies and politics and trauma passed down through the generations. Not to mention adding neurodivergence into the mix!
But one of the most devastating impacts of childhood indoctrination for me has been that I have been trained from a very early age to be ever-critical of myself. and not trust my own thoughts or feelings as good or worthy of listening to. So now it sort of feels like my full time job to learn to accept myself. I still have a longing for all my years of being a Christian to make sense, for all of my hard work to gain love and acceptance by being a hyper-religious person to have meaning. It’s a deep grief to recognize that what I gave my life to for decades did not deliver what it promised.
The tragedy of systems like white evangelicalism, or high control religious groups in general--is that when you indoctrinate a child into this framework you teach them early on that all love is conditional. It all depends on how well the child can match up to the expectations of the religion. I knew this early on, and I could see the patterns laid out before me. I chose to play the game. To deny who I was and become what was needed in order to get love. Perfect. Compliant. With no vision of a future for myself, and no real sense of who I was outside of this framework.
Looking back, I can have compassion on my childhood self and see all the factors that led to me trying to mask/mirror a dream child instead of my true self. I now can clearly see that the antidote for my particular strain of indoctrination is to practice some radical autonomy. To dismantle it all and build it piece by piece, when and how I want to. Deconversion seems to be a really necessary step for me and for probably a lot of other people who didn’t have a true choice given to them. That doesn’t mean this is where I will stay, but it is where I am now. I no longer think of myself as a Christian, which is so strange I truly cannot believe I am typing this out now. I have no clue if I will return to Christianity, or any sort of religious practices at all.
It might take me decades or it might take me weeks to figure out what is next for me spiritually, and I don’t really care about that right now. My job currently is to refuse to believe or say anything in order to receive love, care, and attention. To stop seeking unconditional love where there is none. To do the hard work of getting to know myself, what my values are, what feels good to me, and what actually gives me pleasure and sparks my curiosity, joy, anger. And hopefully end some generational cycles of trying to coerce people into high control religions/authoritarian frameworks, while also unpacking decades of supremacist thinking.
I have cried so many tears this year. Many of them are for my childhood self. And some of them are for the relationship I used to have with God. I hope those tears water some new seeds and ways of thinking and being in 2023. As much grief and pain and anger I have experienced at fully deconverting from white evangelicalism, the flip side of losing these frameworks and psychological support systems has been an increased awareness of myself. Grieving for younger me. Anger at how little autonomy I had in my life, how compelled I felt to give everything to God/white evangelicalism because of coercive tactics that had been drilled into me since I was a small child.
After a lifetime of being compliant, and not being able to envision a future for myself, of only being prepared to die for a violent white supramacist nationalistic expression of western Christianity, I have a lot of work to do. But I am finally doing it without the pressure of having to “save” white evangelicals from their own actions and making sure I stay a Christian in order to have cache with that particular group of people.
Next week we will talk a bit about what being autistic has meant for me in my life of being all-in on high control religion, especially when it comes to being more exploitable by coercive control tactics/childhood indoctrination methods. But for now, I will just leave it here.
Thanks for reading my story with care. My un-testimony, as it were. It was hard to tell, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?
What every high control group has in common is that it desperately doesn’t want people who have left to tell their stories, and that is a big reason why I am choosing to share mine.
Feel free to share yours in the comments, if you feel safe enough to do so. We aren’t in this alone. There are so many of us grappling with the long-term impacts of coercive control, especially how it showed up for those of us who were indoctrinated since childhood.
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We got all the evangelical media and constricted intellectualism none of the awareness of social media. Yay for us!
I love my parents and they certainly weren’t the only ones who went all in on the Evangelical Parenting Scheme, but I also have the right to be honest about the adverse long-term impacts of childhood religious indoctrination on my mental health. Both things can be true!
So. much. More.
We don’t have time to get into all of this today, but James Dobson is one of the most influential political figures in recent American history. Say what you will about him, but the man is SMART. He never ran for office but instead has impacted politics by lobbying, media, and indoctrination tactics that create people who are primed for religious authoritarianism. I highly recommend listening to the Behind the Bastard’s episodes on FoTF/James Dobson.
There are many, many reasons people join high control religious groups as teenagers, young adults, or older ages. If this is your story, please don’t feel shame about this! But take the time to explore why you joined, and how your community actually has helped your long-term mental health.
It continues on: “The typical pattern is for a person to keep trying harder to make the religion work because the doctrine always makes the individual at fault. Many describe a pattern of highs and extreme lows much like the mind-twisting cycle of abuse in domestic violence. The victim is always to blame and escape is extremely difficult because there is periodic emotional relief but no overall perspective. The attribution for the pain is always put on the victim’s bad behavior. For Christians, even when they are living exemplary lives and still miserable, they are charged with searching themselves for “secret sin” to explain the problem. It’s no wonder there is so much depression and “feeling crazy” when this mental abuse is happening”
Evangelicals described themselves as different from and more progressive than their fundamentalist predecessors, but despite the new title, they still fit all the hallmarks of what scholars consider fundamentalism. This feels sort of gas-lighty.
How can a six year old commit FOR LIFE to a complicated religious belief system? What a scam.
Having really weird flashbacks to being the Perfect Child at church camp and listening to all the kids who had done “bad” things be applauded for having amazing testimonies. I burned with anger, because I had done EVERYTHING right and yet had the most boring story at campfire night. Well, I’m making up for lost time I guess!
Thank you for sharing this. Writing these posts must take a lot of energy and I appreciate you taking the time and energy to articulate what so many of us experienced, too.
For the past few years since leaving my old cult, I have struggled so much with anger and shame at myself for how I fell and fought so hard to be the Good Christian Girl (i.e., zero critical thinking skills) specifically when one of my best friends saw through it and questioned so many things starting when we were teenagers. Sometimes I still feel so dumb, though I understand better how much my brain was focused on survival. I was surrounded by kids my age with wildly abusive fathers and thought my family life was 'normal and safe'. Turns out, my dad just wasn't a narcissist, but is also ND and his loads of unprocessed trauma deeply affected us. I was so disconnected from myself that I couldn't see how traumatized I was. Waking up to it in my late twenties and thirties feels like I've been cheated of so much.
I'm so tired of processing trauma. I grieve the fact that I am just now, in my mid-late thirties, understanding not just that I do have needs but how to advocate for them, while also having to meet the needs of four children. How different would my life have been, if I had understood my own neurodivergence before adulthood? Parenthood? If I had grown up confident that my needs weren't a burden and that I could actually be in touch with what I want/need, before losing myself in parenthood?
It's not that we can't find ourselves now, and we are. But it's so fucking hard.
This is one of the best things I've ever read. Thank you, friend. I'm really truly in awe of how you can write so clearly and beautifully and extensively (I mean that in the absolute best way) about this. IT IS SO FUCKING HELPFUL to see it all laid out. Especially since I'm over here "working in fragments" to quote Willie James Jennings (or is it someone else?). Collecting old James Dobson (and other nasty) books. Looking through old memorabilia. Writing 40-word poems. I can't tell you how grateful I am that you're processing it all and sharing it with us like this. SUCH A GIFT.
I just finished listening to those 2 Behind the Bastards episodes (on your recommendation) and I'm plotting a James Dobson book bonfire. I'm torn between wanting to take him down and preserving my peace.
And I loooooove what you said about your parents. I took out a few poems from my latest book that I knew would reeeeally hurt them (EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE TRUE) but left some in that will also be painful for them probably, but I also want them to know what they did/are doing.
GREAT BIG SIGH.
Love you much. Thank you for this. I'm not a Christian now either. I find the whole thing not only toxic, but also probably not that much true and also really boring. We'll see how I feel in a few months, years, whatever.
Also, today would have been my 25th anniversary if my husband hadn't cheated and left. The silver lining in the silver anniversary is that wading through all this toxic shit is much easier without him here.
Again, THANK YOU for sharing this. I hope you know how much healing you bring. xx