it’s no wonder that Christian communities that insist on “biblical inerrancy,” a hallmark of evangelicalism, exhibit abusive dynamics. If you want to understand the Christian extremism that represents the single greatest threat to democracy and human rights in America today, it’s important to understand how authoritarian Christians read the Bible.
True believers become so emotionally invested in their need to be feel justified that they often cannot face the ego threat of admitting that in fact they have not been radically transformed. Adults who join cults or cult-like religious groups such as conservative evangelical churches usually do so in an attempt to address some serious source of trauma in their lives. The children raised in these toxic faith communities then experience generational trauma. Indeed, psychologically, fundamentalism may be described as a misdirected response to trauma perpetuated communally and generationally. All of this is highly conducive to the proliferation of hypocrisy and abuse.
Evangelicals espouse a very dark view of human nature associated with their approach original sin, and sometimes with the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. The belief that, without being “saved” by God, we are entirely corrupt, teaches us to doubt our own doubts. Ultimately, authoritarian Christianity leads to us learning to gaslight ourselves, and that is difficult to unlearn.
If you were raised in Jesus Land, even if you were not physically or sexually abused, you were spiritually abused, gaslighted, manipulated, and controlled, though you may find it hard to own this truth. When abuse was your “normal,” it can be difficult to start seeing it. It can also be emotionally fraught to start recognizing your friends’ and family’s behaviors as abusive. Learning to do so is painful but ultimately empowering. Another reason it is never easy to extricate oneself from Jesus Land is that the social and psychological costs of leaving an authoritarian faith community are high. Still. once you begin to see that the abusive ethos of Jesus Land itself is the problem, the source of your inner turmoil, you can begin to relieve the cognitive dissonance and to counter the negative self-talk and harmful old thought patterns with new patterns.
Remember this: you are your own person, you are morally autonomous, and you own your story. The more we talk back about why we reject the fear-based faith of our fathers, finding the voices in which to tell our stories and refusing to allow authoritarian Christians to frame them, the easier it will become not only for us to realize ourselves authentically, but also for others to escape from Jesus Land. If you are struggling with this, be gentle and patient with yourself. Authentic transformation, after all, does not happen overnight. Eventually you will find your way forward, whether in affirming and progressive faith or outside of organized religion and/or spirituality altogether.
A philosopher named Owen Flanagan quoted someone as saying that “A good human life is lived at the intersection of the true, the good, and the beautiful.” It seems that we all come equipped to determine what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful as part of our basic makeup, so if the aphorism is true, we all have the capability of living a good life. But if you ask a Christian apologist what is the true, what is the good, and what is the beautiful, they will respond that God/Jesus is the truth, only He is truly good, and He and His love are the beautiful. Humans, on the other hand, are depraved, sinful, and unworthy, and that none of those three (truth, good, beauty) come from anywhere but their god. Humans can be saved from their sinfulness, but only through faith in their god or at least obey the gods directives as interpreted by their gods servants.
The religions in this country favor depicting potential believers as being unworthy, sinful, even abominable, before offering the “cure.” They describe the world around us as being filled with temptations and dangers, for which they have, of course, solutions. They refer to their followers as docile animals, as their “flock,” as “lambs and sheep,” and as children, with priests referring to their parishioners as their children (My Son, My Daughter, My Child) and accept the title of “Father,” all of which disempowers the parishioners and puts them into the pliable state of a child, ready for indoctrination.
As a teacher I was taught that my primary goal was to provide a “safe learning environment” for my students, so they could learn free of coercion, bullying, sarcasm, and humiliation. I taught college kids, adults, so was that requirement because all of my students had already been safely religiously indoctrinated as children and it was now not okay to coerce them? Why does this “safe, learning environment” requirement not apply to religions, which terrorize young children with images of their loved ones burning in Hell. (Please don’t tell me this doesn’t happen, I have spoken to too many people who have confessed their nightmares regarding their grandparents or other loved ones roasting in fire.)
Why do not we use, as a theme for educating our children the simple phrase “a good human life is lived at the intersection of the true, the good, and the beautiful” and operate as if we believed that?