Religious Indoctrination 2/20

I had no doubts that my religion was true. I loved my mom and dad with the innocent intensity of childhood and I knew they loved me, too. They were smart, good, caring people. They wouldn’t lie to me. I had no concept of sincerely wrong belief. You see, people that believed wrong things about religion, and practiced behaviors that weren’t godly, generally did so out of rebellion and hate. They didn’t want to obey God. They hated God. They spread lies to undermine God. We were Abel, they were Cain.

I was so convinced of my parents’ innate and unerring goodness that around age 13 I got angry with a friend when they said my dad had shared a story with the youth group in which he said he’d done things as a teenager that were sexual sin. My dad was a good person, he would not have done those things. She was either lying or mistaken. It wasn’t that much later when my mom took me aside one day and told me an explosive revelation – my dad had been caught picking up men in a park in order to have sex with them.

My beloved, loving dad wasn’t the person I’d believed him to be. Not only did he struggle with sexual sin, I was to find out he struggled with the worst sexual sin of all – gay sexual sin. My mom insisted he get counseling from an ex-gay man. My dad tried for a little, but he’d reached the end of his rope. He’d spent 19 years of marriage and had five children in his effort to be a good, straight Christian man and he couldn’t keep doing it. He was gay.

I knew cheating was a terrible thing for someone to do to their spouse, but I was to learn that being gay was even worse than cheating. My dad’s assistant manager (we attended the same church) went to the owner of the business (who was good friends with the pastor of our church) and my dad was fired. The assistant manager became the manager. People had loved my dad and thought he was the bees’ knees and now he was ostracized. My mom told me about a dream she had that she believed was prophetic – if my dad did not stop being gay and return to the marriage, God would let him die (the implication being that he would get AIDS – this was mid 90s and becoming HIV positive was still a death sentence.) Being gay was apparently the worst thing a person could be. God hated gay.

Of course, it wasn’t really our church anymore. What had precipitated my dad giving up on his marriage was an incident in which my mom had confronted our church’s leadership and called them out for ungodly behavior. My mom was called a Jezebel for daring to speak out against church leadership and my dad, an elder at the time, was told he needed to get his wife under control. If I was ever told the specifics of what happened I forgot them, I just knew that it put so much stress on my parents’ marriage that it spelled the beginning of the end.

All of this was so confusing and traumatic for me that for the first time, I questioned whether or not God actually existed. The fact that I doubted was its own fresh source of torment. I doubted that God existed and hated Him for letting all of this happen, while at the same time I prayed to Him, desperately. I became terrified of dying while I doubted and ending up in Hell because of my doubt. I can still remember riding in the car with my mom during a storm and being panicked by the idea that a tornado would form, hit our car, kill me and send me to Hell. I didn’t want to be alive but I didn’t want to commit suicide only to end up in Hell, so I settled on wishing I had never been born.

My mom became even more zealous in her pursuit of God. She started going to Pentecostal revivals and Pentecostal churches and bringing me along. Here was new torment – demonstrations of being overcome by God’s spirit, called being ‘slain in the spirit,’ and manifesting His power. The preacher would place their hand on a person’s head and that person would fall to the floor or begin speaking in tongues. I desperately wanted this to happen to me. It would be proof of my salvation. I never experienced whatever it was that the other people, including my mom, were experiencing. If I fell to the floor, it was because it was too embarrassing to keep standing. All of this added to my fear that I was not, in fact, saved.

I was praised for volunteering in the nurseries so that adults could attend the services. I hated childcare but every time I attended church services I felt panicked and sick to my stomach so volunteering in the nursery was the preferable torment.

At age sixteen I finally had my moment of clarity and became secure in my salvation. I was singing hymns to my little brother, trying to help him go to sleep for his nap, and sang the lyrics ‘just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,’ and for the first time felt assurance on the level of an epiphany that this was all that was needed. I finally felt at peace with God and believed I was saved.

I stopped attending church altogether. I decided the reason that I felt sick was because of the other people that attended church, not that the religion itself was toxic to me. God and Christianity were the truth, but human beings were jerks that didn’t really want to be good people and good Christians. There were pretenders.

I entered a new era in which I questioned the rules I’d grown up with and concluded that much of it was bunk, born from fear. I believed in grace now, not rigid adherence to Mosaic law. As a child I’d been denied cabbage patch dolls thanks to a Satanic Panic, and I’d been told Dungeons & Dragons could lead to demonic possession. I came to scoff at these attitudes. If you truly believed in the power of Jesus’ blood than demons had no power over you, so how would a doll or a game give them access to your life? Christians that believed these things out-paganed the Pagans, as far as I was concerned.

The basic gist of what I’d grown up with remained firmly cemented in my mind, though. Young earth creationism, a literal, inerrant Bible, salvation through belief in Jesus, his death and resurrection. Love and obedience to God’s will were still important, but I had started to question whether all the things I’d been told were God’s will were actually God’s will. I started to see discrepancies between what I’d been taught and what was actually in the texts. Jesus wasn’t mad at Thomas for doubting. Jesus showed him the proof he asked for and then said ‘blessed are those that believe without seeing’ in the way we say someone is lucky to be naturally thin.

I came to the conclusion that God’s will for Christians was not for everyone to become a missionary or spend their time evangelizing. God’s will for most people was simply for them to live their ordinary life and make Him the central part of that life. My mom had wanted to be a missionary and I had always hated that idea, and felt guilty for it. I’d been told I needed to be a witness and spread the Gospel to everyone, and I hated that idea because I was pretty sure people would be mad if I spent my time trying to witness to them and I didn’t want to drive everyone away through behavior they felt was rude. I felt guilty about that, too. Now I gave myself permission just to exist in my life and make sure God was ultimately the most important thing in it.

I enjoyed flaunting the rigid adherence to rules I’d grown up with, even as I adhered to those rules in spirit. Premarital sex with my eventual husband and living with him unmarried were fine because a government license didn’t make a committed lifetime partnership, people did. Obviously a government certificate was no guarantee a marriage would last a lifetime. I intended to be with my boyfriend for the rest of my life so being unmarried and having sex with him simply gave me the extra fun of appearing to live in sin to those stodgy Christians that wanted i’s dotted and t’s crossed. I knew I was committed and that God didn’t require a marriage license for our relationship to be considered holy.

Authoritarian existence in which ordinary, innocent aspects of life are deemed sinful and avoided can create hilariously benign forms of rebellion. I didn’t need to be promiscuous and do drugs and go to concerts. I could rebel by watching R rated movies, wearing short shorts, listening to non-Christian music, playing Dungeons & Dragons, being alone with male friends, using swear words, and not bothering to get legally married. I reveled in my “rebellious” lifestyle that was sticking it to the ghost of those rigid, authoritarian, fearful Christians whose beliefs and teachings had so controlled my childhood and early teen years.

My dad had betrayed me and left me feeling abandoned (in spite of the fact that he remained an active part of our life and continued to try to be a good dad). My mom had gone crazy for a little while, but I felt that was understandable after what had happened and I still saw her as the smartest and wisest and most spiritual person I knew. We had our disagreements – she still thought D&D was bad, for instance – but we agreed more than we disagreed and I still trusted her and looked up to her and listened to what she had to say, even if sometimes I disagreed. My mom loved me, sincerely, and she wanted the best for me, sincerely, and I relied on that knowledge.

Part 3

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