My ‘Raised Evangelical’ Story
I’m using the questions from the Love, Joy, Feminism blog series “Raised Evangelical” as a guide. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/raised-evangelical-adult-children-reflect). There are more stories at that blog for any readers who are interested.
Raised Evangelical Questions
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 am currently an atheist, and an organizer and volunteer for local atheist groups under the banner of Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers. I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, homeschooled in grades 9-12, listened to Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) exclusively until age 17, did Bible quizzing, went to church 3 times a week, prayed often with the church leadership before services (I think I was the only teen that did this), listened and read Focus on the Family materials and went to their “Living on the Edge” conference in the 90’s, and when I went to college my first choice was Trevecca Nazarene University. I was pretty fully immersed in the “Christian subculture” and was proud of my difference.
**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?**
When I was a kid, we identified as Christians and more specifically as Nazarenes. I recall Dad saying that we were NOT fundamentalists, but we were definitely evangelicals though I don’t think I ever actually heard that term until I was an adult.
**Question 3: How did your parents become evangelicals or fundamentalists? Did they grow up in evangelical or fundamentalist families, or did they convert later?**
Mom was raised in a Mormon family, and though much of my childhood she considered herself called to be a missionary to convert the Mormons. Dad’s parents were Nazarene and Grandpa had been involved in various Nazarene colleges — I think as a teacher though I’m not entirely sure — in Nashville and Idaho (where he met Mom) when he was a kid. I get the strong impression that Dad was an influence in converting Mom to evangelical christianity. I’m unsure if she was ever a believer in Mormonism or if that was just what her parents believed.
**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?**
My family attended a handful of different churches when I was growing up. They were all affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene but they were quite different from one another. The earliest one I remember was pretty small, and was the one that Dad’s parents attended. I remember going to Bible School there, and “Junior Church” where the kids would sing songs and play word games while the adults were in the grown-up service. These were mostly good times. I think at this point I was only starting to grasp what Christianity was. Then there was a split in that church and the pastor my parents liked left — I really don’t remember the details. We went to church in someone’s home for a while, then traveled all the way into the next state (about an hours drive!) to go to that pastor’s next church. Then for reasons I’m not sure of — probably because my parents were tired of driving so far — we started going to the church in the same town where we lived. This was a much more old-fashioned church were the pastor was an old man who only wore long-sleeved shirts and didn’t even prepare his sermons before going to the podium. The result was usually half-hour long screaming rants that caused any babies near the front of the church start crying. My Sunday School teacher was a very sweet and friendly lady who thought the preacher should spend more time talking about hell and who thought ‘Christian rock’ was evil. It may sound like a contradiction but nothing in the last sentence is sarcastic. After a year or so we stopped attending there and went to a larger (about 300 in Sunday services) and much more friendly church about 45 minutes away from our home. No matter which church we attended, we went three times a week. Sunday mornings (including Sunday School), Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night. Most of the time in my teens I was an enthusiastic participant.
The last church we attended had regular youth group programs which I attended, and this is also where I participated in competitive Bible quizzing.
**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 think I went up to the altar to be saved — to make sure I was saved — many different times. (Our churches always had a wooden bench for praying at the front just below the podium, and this was the altar. “Altar calls” were a regular part of services.) I think I was probably around middle school age because that’s about the time I really started thinking about the claims of Christianity. I was baptised in a church baptismal service in a church member’s swimming pool when I was 12 (not exactly sure of my age but that has to be close.) I believed in having a personal relationship with Jesus, though I was consistently troubled that the communications seemed to go one way. I honestly believed that God spoke to people but struggled to know out how to distinguish an actual message from Jesus from my own thoughts. When I went to pray at the altar I would generally feel a sense of peace and euphoria thinking that whatever sin I committed was gone and that now I had a clean slate.
**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?**
We believed the Bible is the “Word of God” and to us that meant that God inspired the human writers. I was not told that the Bible was literally inerrant or that every single word was from God — especially because of different English translations and that kind of thing. We made use of a variety of translations, and the ones I saw most often were NIV or the NKJV. We believed that God created the world as stated in Genesis, but not necessarily in six literal days. I was exposed to different — sometimes contradictory — attitudes toward evolution. There was a sciency-looking book that I’d gotten from a state-wide convention of the Church of the Nazarene that claimed evolution was a totally false lie from the devil, and unfortunately this was my first exposure to the term “theory of evolution.” But there was also a member of our church who was a geologist who gave a presentation to say that at least some form of evolution was compatible with Christianity. I remember early Sunday School lessons that tried to reconcile evolution with the Bible. At any rate, opinions varied about how literal the creation story was to be taken. However, the story of Adam and Eve and the talking snake were presented as literal history, as well as Noah’s Flood, and most vitally everything in the New Testament about Jesus and his apostles.
My family didn’t have regularly scheduled Bible readings or devotionals, but we talked about the Bible a lot in casual conversation and I read it frequently on my own.
**Question 4: What role did race play in your church? Were there any black or Hispanic families? Were they treated differently?**
The churches we went to were mostly white, but there were a few black families. I remember the general impression that treating people differently because of their skin color was wrong.
**Section 3: Gender and Family**
**Question 1: What did your church teach about gender roles, the family, and marriage?**
The teachings I remember were that sex was to be saved for marriage, and heterosexuality was assumed. In fact (St.) Paul said homosexuality was a depravity so it wasn’t even considered other than that. There was a basic idea of gender roles, but that wasn’t really emphasised. I don’t think there were any actual rules against women being pastors but I never saw a women in a senior pastor role. The only visible church leadership roles were I actually saw women were music leaders, sunday school teachers, and children’s pastors.
**Question 2: Describe your parents’ marriage. Was it complementation (i.e. “soft” patriarchy), or more openly patriarchal, or in practice egalitarian? Did your family or church use any of these terms?**
I suppose you could call it “soft patriarchy.” Mom was the main breadwinner but typically deferred to Dad on major decisions. I had the idea of the patriarchal family as an ideal from Focus on the Family materials, but our family never really fit that mold.
**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?**
I don’t recall there being any explicit difference in instructions for boys and girls. There were a few subtle things, like discussions of the importance of virginity being mostly about female virginity but they said boys were expected to be virgins until marriage too.
**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?**
Both men and women working and having the same educational opportunities was viewed as perfectly normal and acceptable. The idea of a woman being a stay-at-home-mother was somewhat idealized, but not expected.
**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?**
I went to the public schools from K-8, and switched to homeshooling for grades 9-12. I got the impression from Mom that she was worried about bad things being taught in the public schools — fears that where fanned by Focus on the Family — and I was happy to get away from the mean kids at school. We used a fundamentalist homeschool curriculum from Christian Liberty Academy.
**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?**
Religion didn’t come up much during my public school years, outside of one history class where the discussion of Jesus in context of ancient Rome did blur the lines a bit between actual history and religious preaching. The homeschooling texts we used were quite fundamentalist. There was a lot that was anti-evolution and that pushed the “Christian Nation” ideology. I even remember watching a videotape made by David Barton that they sent us as a supplement to my history lessons. I had no sex education as part of my schooling.
To Mom’s credit, she did set me up with a good gyn toward the end of my teen years, and that made up for some of the lack of sex ed.
**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?**
When I was very young, my best friend who lived next door was Catholic, but that was about the extent of the religious diversity of my friends. I was teased at school a lot for going around the neighborhood inviting people to vacation Bible school. The fact that I listened to nothing but Christian music meant that I knew next to nothing about the pop culture and this made it harder to connect with other kids. I was also held back socially for fear of being contaminated by “the world” or being peer pressured into “sin.” I was not physically isolated, but I was ideologically isolated because I had internalized an idea of being separate from “the world.” And I had no peer group at school that bought into the same Christian subculture, even though I found out eventually that most of them considered themselves Christians and came from active Christian families. While I was homeschooled I had some friends my age at church but they didn’t live close. I only saw them at church functions.
**Question 4: Did you attended Sunday school, youth group, Bible club, or church camp? Please describe your experiences.**
I grew up regularly attending Sunday school, youth group, Bible quizzing, and church camp. Church camp was the only type of summer camp that I ever attended, and it was the highlight of my summers. I participated in Bible Quizzing in a couple of seasons and my team even made it to the large regional tournament.
**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 told that sex was to be saved for marriage, and outside of that I wasn’t told much. I remember listening in horror to a radio program by Focus on the Family where a woman tearfully described how she had contracted HPV, a horrible sexually transmitted disease I’d never heard of before, that caused her pain and destroyed her ability to have children — all because she had strayed from God’s plan for sex. These Focus on the Family programs also joked flippantly about how condoms didn’t work. “What do you call people who use condoms to prevent pregnancy? Parents!” This is pretty much my sexual education. I wasn’t forbidden to date or anything like that, but I basically didn’t date at all (outside once when I was 17) until I was in my 20’s. I was scared to ever be alone with a boy because I worried he might steal my virginity or that I might lose control.
**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.**
All the fear around sex and boys mostly prevented me from dating until I was in my 20’s. In fact, I didn’t start seeking guys to date until after I was an atheist in my early 20’s. I went into sexual relationships really pretty blindly outside of some information on birth control I got from the Planned Parenthood website and some information from my gynecologist. There was more than one emergency visit to the doctor’s office because I was terrified that I had contracted an STD — false alarms. I had an unrealistic terror, even when I took the essential precautions, that I would get an STD or get pregnant outside marriage and that it would destroy my life. None of those things actually happened, and I know now that if they did they wouldn’t have destroyed my life. Also, despite all the Focus on the Family propaganda about the importance of virginity, I did not feel fundamentally different at all the morning after I first had sex, much to my surprise.
**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 that abstaining from sex until adulthood — not until marriage — is a good idea. But I hate the purity ‘True Love Waits’ culture. I feel I was taught to have a regressive attitude towards sex. This caused me an unnecessary amount of fear when I did start having sexual relationships, even after I no longer believed in God.
I will give my children the best age-approprate material I can find at all stages of their childhood and teen years.
**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?**
I have slowly been able to get away from the unhealthy attitudes about sex that I was exposed to when I was young, and I currently enjoy a very healthy and communicative sexual relationship with my husband.
I think the worst part of purity teachings is that they promote a kind of helplessness by taboo. When a topic is taboo, people fear talking about and seeking out information about it. When that thing is a something as universal and powerful as their own sexuality, they are more likely to find themselves in sexual situations without taking precautions, then feel guilty about it and then think that any consequences that result are deserved punishment for sin. I think back on the woman in the Focus on the Family broadcast that thought her HPV and resulting infertility were punishment for her sins and shake my head.
**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?**
I’m not sure about the tribal identity part, but opposition to all of those things was definitely part of my religious upbringing. There were some mixed messages about evolution, with people sometimes trying to adapt knowledge of evolution with a biblical view, but the idea of a totally undirected and unplanned evolution was always opposed. I don’t remember the anti-environmentalism being explicitly part of religious teachings, but I remember the general attitude that it was arrogant to think that humans could change the planet that way and that it would be God and only God who would eventually destroy the world.
**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 church and parents emphasized voting for conservative Christian values — basically the things listed in the last question. I don’t think pastors in any of the churches I went to ever endorsed parties or politicians, but they did promote social conservatism in general. My church believed Jesus was coming back and that there would be a rapture of believers, but “end times” ideology was not heavily emphasized nor was it politicized. The main message about the “end times” was that we had to keep “right with God” because Jesus could return at any time.
**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.**
We voted. My Dad listened to Rush Limbaugh and watched Fox News right from the time it first aired. I grew up hearing a very heavy conservative stance, including the general opinion that liberals were idiots.
The pastor would address political issues from the pulpit, but that was the extent of political involvement at church. However, I grew up with a general conflation of Christian identity and American patriotism. This was most evident when our church had annual services for Fort Knox soldiers who had recently graduated from boot camp. There were also special services with Boy Scout processions that blended patriotic ideals with Christian ones. They would lead the congregation in the Pledge of Allegiance and then lead similar pledges to the Christian Flag and the Bible. It wasn’t even until I was an adult that I recognised that American patriotism is not a part of Christianity.
**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?**
Opposition to abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution is a pretty good list. Basically, socially conservative values.
**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.?**
Until I was 17, I didn’t listen to much music other than CCM (Christian Contemporary Music). I did watch normal TV, mainly cartoons like Batman, X-Men, Bugs Bunny, She-Ra, Ninja Turtles, etc. I would watch whatever happened to be on the local broadcast stations when I was at home by myself during the day. In the evenings I watched what my parents wanted to watch because I didn’t have a TV of my own with decent reception. I remember Mom telling me specifically not to watch the Simpsons, but really since it was on in the evenings I didn’t get much of a chance to watch it anyway.
I didn’t know or understand any of the music my peers at school listened to — nor did I get a chance to watch the TV shows that were popular with my peers. Combine that with the fact that I was getting most of my guidance on what music and TV was ok for Christians from Focus on the Family, and the result was a strong sense of cultural isolation. This was even isolation from the kids at church too, since even they mostly listened to the mainstream music and watched mainstream TV.
**Question 2: What first made you question evangelicalism/fundamentalism? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?**
I was raised to believe in God and Jesus, but I was also brought up with a strong respect for science and reason. Some of my earliest favorite toys included a magnet set, a telescope, and a kit for exploring light. I loved watching science programs and science was my favorite subject at school. While I believed that miracles were possible, I reasoned that since natural laws worked really well, God didn’t really need to intervene most of the time. For this reason, my Sunday School teacher in my hometown once called me a deist (though I really wasn’t).
I believed that because “truth cannot contradict truth,” the truths we found though science and other areas of study must match what I was being taught as the Truth at church. I believed the creationist ideas that were in my homeschool biology textbook that said that evolution was wrong because it was actually pseudoscience. In my college years I learned about big bang cosmology, evolution, Christian history, the history of women’s rights and psychology, and the more I learned the more the claims of Christianity seem less and less likely to be true. I was disillusioned, and honestly angry, with ‘men of god’ who had misled me about the science behind evolution in particular. And at the same time, I was struggling with how the Bible had been used to argue against woman’s equality and for injustices like slavery. How could God allow such horrible things to be in His book! When I learned the history of how the Bible came to be compiled and accepted as ‘the Word of God,’ it simply didn’t fit what I’d been taught to believe about scripture and the early spread of Christianity.
The final straw fell after a boy in our congregation died of leukemia. I didn’t lose my last bit of faith in God because the boy died, but rather because of something I learned about cancer afterwards. While he was still alive we would get regular updates on his health at church on Sundays and Wednesdays. When it was going badly we would pray, and when it was going well then “Praise the Lord!” I really thought that those good days were gifts from God in answer to our prayers. When I found out that those good days and bad days were just part of the normal track of cancer, I realized there was no reason to think there had been divine intervention at all. Everything happened exactly as one would expect if God wasn’t there at all. Maybe God wasn’t there at all…once I had that thought, whatever faith I had evaporated. It’s not that God doesn’t intervene because he has a mysterious plan or because he’s playing a cruel joke — he doesn’t intervene was because He is not real. All the things that had been causing me doubt made sense with the idea that God wasn’t real and that Christianity was a human-made religion. After I had that idea there was no going back.
The initial questioning was frightening because I feared that I was losing my salvation because I couldn’t believe what I thought I was supposed to believe. I was also afraid of what people would think and do if they found out what I was thinking. I had no one close to me that I trusted who I could speak to about my doubts would not try to gloss them over or give me the standard Christian answers that didn’t really answer my questions.
**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?**
The hardest part for me is that though much of this process I had no one I could talk to in order to process my doubts. I had no support in my search for the truth from people I loved and who loved me. I felt I had to keep it to myself and was afraid of what might happen if people at church found out. It helped that I could connect to others having the same ideas though the internet, but the Internet community is no substitute for face-to-face connection with people you know and trust.
**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?**
I’m not still connected with many people from my evangelical days, so I’m not sure. I didn’t develop the close friendships that would motivate me to stay in touch after I stopped going to church.
**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?**
My Mom confronted me angrily when she discovered I was looking up articles on a site with the URL ‘infidels.org.’ Dad also disapproved, but we didn’t really talk much about it. My siblings are older than me by several years and were no longer living at home. I’m not sure what their beliefs were exactly at the time, but they are both atheists now. As far as friends I grew up with, I’m not still in touch with any of them.
**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?**
My parents and I are still in strong disagreement about religion and politics, and we argue sometimes, but most of the time we focus on other topics and get along fine.
**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 was first outed accidentally to Mom because of browsing history on a family computer. She saw that I had been visiting infidels.org and confronted me about it. To make a long story short, there were attempts to get me to go back to church — any church — and disapproval of a package I received from “Evolvefish.com.” (After that confrontation I got myself a post office box.) Things were tense at home until I left for my own apartment.
I am out to everyone I know now. My mother does not approve but we mostly agree to disagree at this point. Dad and I don’t talk about it. My siblings mostly agree with me about religion.
**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?**
My siblings have left Christianity — due to a large age difference I don’t know to what degree they were ever really into it. With those who are still evangelicals, I try to focus our relationship and conversations on topics of mutual interest and avoid religion.
**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.**
No, because I live in a part of the country where quite a lot of the people are Christian in one way or another. I know their lingo in a way that a person not being raised in that environment wouldn’t. I’ve managed to catch up with pop culture knowledge enough that it is no longer a social barrier.
**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?**
It got me thinking at a very early age about ideas like God, salvation, religion, and other philosophical and metaphysical concepts. These were important concepts to me when I was growing up, and they remain important concepts to me now even though I think of them very differently. I would probably not be the enthusiastic atheist I am now if it were not for my evangelical upbringing.
**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?**
When I was in it, I thought my family and the way we did religion was totally mainstream and normal. Now when I look at it I see my parent’s attitude and my former attitude about religion and about how we viewed the world though religion to be strange.
**Question 4: What do you think were the most beneficial things about being raised fundamentalist or evangelical? What were the most problematic things?**
Most beneficial: I’m very familiar with the stories in the Bible and understand the cultural references and I can recognize when evangelical code-language is being used by public officials or politicians.
Most problematic: The emphasis on sin and unworthiness was harmful to the development of my self-confidence. The idea that my worth and value comes from outside myself — that God loves me but not because of any kind of merit on my part and not because I actually deserve anything — lead to me developing the habit of thinking of myself as unworthy and unable to do anything without outside support. It’s taken me a lot of time to learn to advocate for myself, even against the negative voice in my own mind.