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Questions: How do You Deal with Evangelical Family and Friends?

i have a question

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me. All questions will be answered in the order in which they are received.

Jen asks:

How do you deal with Fundamentalist/Evangelical family and friends? I’m surrounded by them. Now that I’m an evil Liberal, I’m not taken seriously. When I do speak up, they use silencing techniques. I haven’t been outside the fold for very long, so I have a knee-jerk reaction to their control tactics (I hate them). I’m hoping we can find a way to have a peaceful relationship, but everything is so one-sided. It’s their way or else. I think part of the issue is that I was always the silent submissive one. Now that I can think for myself and speak up, they don’t know how to handle it.

Jen, a self-described “evil liberal,” is having trouble getting along with Evangelical family and friends. I am sure scores of readers understand Jen’s predicament. She wants to get along with her Evangelical friends and family, but she’s having difficulty doing so due to their incessant need to dominate and control things. She suspects that her outspokenness after being silent and submissive in the past is perhaps part of the problem. Her family and friends don’t know what to do with the “new” Jen.

jumping man

Evangelicals are inherently Fundamentalist. If you have not read the post, Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? I encourage you to do so. Many “enlightened” Evangelicals hate being called Fundamentalists. They will stomp and scream, objecting to being lumped together with the Steven Andersons, Fred Phelps, and Franklin Grahams of the world. Imagine a toddler jumping up and down, screaming, I’M NOT A CHILD. That’s many “offended” Evangelicals. As my previously mentioned post makes clear, true Evangelicals are theological and social Fundamentalists. If it walks, talks, and acts like a Fundamentalist, it is a Fundamentalist. Part of the problem is the far left of the Evangelical tent is inhabited by Christians who are not theologically or socially Evangelicals, yet they claim the Evangelical label. These Evangelicals are actually liberal or progressive Christians, but, for some reason, perhaps familiarity or family connections, they refuse to abandon Evangelicalism.

Jen’s family and friends sound like they are typical Evangelicals, so I am going to assume that their beliefs are Fundamentalist. What do we know about Fundamentalists? First, Fundamentalists believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Second, Fundamentalists tend to interpret the Bible literally. Third, Fundamentalists have a black and white view of the world. And fourth, Fundamentalists crave certainty. These four things breed arrogance and often lead to the boorish behavior Jen describes in her comment. Fundamentalists aren’t interested in seeking truth. In their minds, they have already found it. Fundamentalists think their beliefs are one and the same with the mind of God. How can they not think this way? God, the Holy Spirit, lives inside of them and is their teacher and guide. Armed with an authoritative, infallible book, Fundamentalists are certain they know the answers to every question. Doubt this premise? Ask yourself when is the last time you have heard a Fundamentalist say, “I don’t know,” or “that’s an interesting question, let me think on it and get back with you.” Never, right?

Certainty stunts or retards intellectual growth. That’s why many Evangelical preachers haven’t changed their beliefs in years, if ever. One of my favorite U2 songs is “I Still Haven’t Found What I am Looking For.

Video Link

Evangelicals typically don’t say they haven’t found what they are looking for. Instead, they believe they hit the knowledge jackpot when Jesus reached into their wicked, sinful lives and saved them, imparting to them new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.  At that moment, all things became new, including their knowledge and understanding of, well, e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Imagine, if you will, a room of Evangelicals having a discussion about any of current social hot button issues. They are in agreement, say on abortion or same-sex marriage. God has spoken, end of discussion. Thus saith the Lord, right? Into the room walks liberal Jen, the Jen everyone has been praying for; praying that she will see the “light.” Jen thinks that her Evangelical family and friends might appreciate her view on the subject being discussed. So, she shares her progressive viewpoint, and just like that, the oxygen is sucked out of the room. The looks on the faces of her family and friends tell her all she needs to know: “I have spoken out of turn. How dare I share a different opinion. How dare I suggest that there are other ways to look at issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.” “What’s next,” they think. “Is unsaved Jen going to tell us that LGBTQ people are fine just as they are?” God forbid, right?

And therein lies the problem when it comes to trying to get along with Evangelical family and friends — especially when there is a herd of them. Dissenting opinions or “unbiblical” speech is NEVER welcome. Everyone is expected to kowtow and conform to Evangelical truth. So what are the Jens of the world to do?

First, Jen can shut up and refrain from entering discussions. She can continue to be a quiet, submissive wallflower. No one should have to do so, but countless non-Evangelicals, not wanting to have conflict, choose this path.

Second, Jen can say, “dammit, I have just as much right to speak my mind as anyone else! I am NOT going to be silent!” While I admire such resolve, such an approach is not without danger. I have corresponded with numerous ex-Evangelicals who were ostracized or banished the moment they dared to pet the proverbial cat the wrong way. Readers might find, Count the Cost Before You Say I am an Atheist helpful. In this post, I detail the dangers of speaking your mind. Just remember, once you open your mouth and say _________________, you no longer control what happens next. I know former Christians who spend the holidays at home alone because they have been excommunicated over their heretical, liberal beliefs.

Let me share a personal story:

With my parents being dead, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Polly’s parents. This abruptly changed in 2010. I left the ministry in 2003 and abandoned Christianity in November 2008. In early 2009, I sent out my family-shattering letter, Dear Family Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter radically changed our relationship with Polly’s Fundamentalist family.

Christmas of 2009 was best remembered by a huge elephant in the middle of the room, that elephant being Polly and me and the letter I sent the family. No one said anything, but the tension was quite noticeable.

2010 found us, just like every year since 1978, at Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. This would be the last Christmas we would spend with Polly’s parents and her extended family. We decided to blend into the background, and besides short pleasantries, no one talked to us. Not that they didn’t want to. We found out later from one of our children that Polly’s uncle wanted to confront me about our defection from Christianity. Polly Mom’s put a kibosh on that, telling her brother-in-law that she had already lost one daughter and she was not going to lose another. (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005.)

I appreciate Polly’s Mom being willing to stand up to the man who is generally viewed as the spiritual head of the family. I am glad she put family first. If Polly’s uncle had confronted me there surely would have been an ugly fight. Whatever our differences may be, I deeply respect Polly’s parents. They are kind, loving people and I couldn’t ask for better in-laws.

Christmas of 2010 was two years after President Obama was elected to his first term. Polly’s family didn’t vote for him, and through the night they made known their hatred for the man, Democrats, and liberals in general. Polly and I, along with many of our children, voted for Obama, so the anti-Obama talk and the subtle racism made for an uncomfortable evening.

Most years, a gag gift is given to someone. This particular year, the gag gift, given to Polly’s uncle, was an Obama commemorative plate one of our nephew’s had bought on the cheap at Big Lots. One of Polly’s uncle’s grandchildren asked him what the plate was for. He replied, to go poo-poo on, poo-poo being the Fundamentalist word for shit.  This was the last straw for us.

On our way home the next day, I told Polly that I couldn’t do it anymore and she said neither could she. So, we decided to stop going to Polly’s parents’ home for Christmas Eve. We do try to see Polly’s parents during the holiday, but we no longer attend the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Making this decision saddened us, but we knew we had to make it. (BTW, our children still attend the Christmas Eve gathering.)

After Polly and I deconverted in 2008, we decided to take the “seen, but not heard” approach when around her family. Everyone knew we had left Christianity, yet that fact did not get in the way of their assaults on our beliefs and politics. Ever been around people who were making a “point” without addressing you directly? That was family holidays for us. After a while, we got tired of being pummeled; tired of being treated as problems that needed fixed. We loved being around Polly’s family — food, fun, and fellowship, right? Well, that ended the moment we dared to step outside of the confines of approved family beliefs.

You see, that’s what Fundamentalist certainty does. Polly and I were forced to forge a new path and start new family traditions. Sure, we miss the “good old days,” but life moves on. Polly’s family — those who are still among the living, anyway — remain staunch Fundamentalists. It is unlikely that they will change their minds any time soon. Yes, Polly and I changed our minds, and many of you did too, but we are the exceptions to the rule. Once Fundamentalism takes root, it is almost impossible to change your ways. When you are totally invested in being “right,” admitting you might be wrong is damn near impossible.

Jen is in a difficult spot, and I can’t and won’t tell her what to do. She has to survey the land, so to speak, and determine what she can live with. It is unlikely her Evangelical family will change, so she has to weigh what comprises, if any, she is willing to make. Is she willing to be silent, submissive Jen? If not, can she live with the conflict that is sure to follow? Is she willing to risk losing the relationships she has with family and friends? Choosing the latter will most certainly cost her — painfully so.

Are you an ex-Evangelical? How to handle your relationships with Evangelical family and friends? Please share your sage advice in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar

    I have a couple of suggestions for Jen. First, try to find a local or online atheist community. I’d start with the Atheist Community of Austin. Just Google them or search Facebook.
    Second, consider becoming a non-combatant in the religious-cultural wars. Don’t rise to the provocations. Don’t engage. Practice saying “Excuse me I have to go to the washroom” and when you come back (if you come back) talk to someone else. Divert the conversation to non-religious topics like sports, the weather or what the kids are up to.
    Neither of these are fail-safes but they may help to ease the pain of transitioning to the freedom of uncertainty.

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    Understanding that fundamentalists view the world in binary terms, such as good/evil, saved/lost, make/female, us/them whereas I view everything on a spectrum has helped me to interact with fundamentalists differently and more compassionately. If a topic that I think is worthwhile comes up, I engage by asking why they think that, or why is that important to them. Then I offer an article book that can help educate them on the topic. Sometimes they read it and tell me it was interesting and they have a batter understanding of the subject. Sometimes they read it and say they disagree because Bible or Jesus. Even when that happens, I am glad they took the opportunity to read a different viewpoint or but of knowledge. Some just shut it all down and refuse to hear a different idea. Each fundamentalist is at a different point, and I can choose to engage or not. There’s no set of rules, and I try to read the situation before jumping in. Jen, good luck in how you choose to deal with fundamentalists. Setting ground rules to avoid abusiveness is important when you’re engaging with fundamentalists, so bear that in mind. Keep your psychological wellbeing safe.

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      Like you, ObstacleChick, I see *so* much binary thinking in my Christian family. Often when they’re having a conversation about an issue (and I am remaining silent), they will “violently agree” with each other, I think in large part because for them so many issues are clear-cut, black-and-white. And how can other people not get it?

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    For very, very, different reasons I avoid my family at Xmas. My solution? I visit at Thanksgiving. It is a less stressful holiday in general, and since it is the first of the Big 3 winter holidays, nobody has full-on holiday fatigue yet. It helps that they live in Ohio and I live in New York. However, we’re all happy to see each other without Xmas-induced stress. When Xmas comes, they can have the Xmas holiday they love and I can stay home and don’t have to pretend I’m having a great time on a day that I’ve disliked (to be kind) since childhood.

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    Brunetto Latini

    My sister was never religious until she married and had her first child. (I was the religious kid growing up.)

    But she married into the Church of Christ, and now I’m sure that my being gay is only one of the reasons she thinks I’m going to hell. They think Billy Graham is in hell because he was Baptist.

    Nevertheless, we have a cordial relationship. We just don’t discuss religion or politics or my love life. It works well enough.

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    I’m one of those lucky people who has siblings and their spouses who agree politically and culturally on everything. Our mother raised us to be open-minded and interested in all ways of living. My in-laws are another story, but fortunately we see them rarely and never discuss politics. It’s obvious how they feel from some things they say (they are not fundamentalist Christians, just conservative Republicans). Religion brings family relationship to a whole different level. I have no words of advice because this is not a family dynamic I am used to. I have a few fundamentalist Christian friends and acquaintances, but they’ve (with the exception of one) given up trying to save me. They probably worry about my eternal salvation, but at least they don’t annoy me about it in this life. Good luck over the holidays, Jen. I wish you didn’t have to deal with this problem. Family should be the one place where none of this matters because they just love you for existing.

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    I really resonate with the personal story you shared, Bruce. I was a committed Christian for over 40 years until I deconverted (beginning 10 years or so ago). With one exception, a relative I don’t see very often, my entire extended family are still Christians.

    My personality type is non-confrontational. And when I deconverted, I made clear to my family that I am not “anti-Christian”; I am not on a mission to change their beliefs to become mine. So my general approach has been to remain silent when they talk about Christianity, or political issues that touch on Christian beliefs (like same-sex marriage and LGTBQ rights). And that’s really hard, because their opinions come from inside the bubble, and are really one-sided. They don’t know any gay or transgender people, or people with other life backgrounds, and it really shows in how quickly they can dismiss them with “obvious” answers on how they should live. I’m not sure it’s right for me to stay silent in the face of what amounts to advocating civil rights injustices.

    The thing that’s most disheartening to me personally is *not being understood*. I meant it when I said I wasn’t going to try to work to *convince* them, to actively erode their beliefs… but it would mean a lot to me if they would at least try to understand where I’m coming from. But they show no interest, they don’t ask my opinion, and I sit there as the elephant in the room. I’m an alien to them now; they can see that I didn’t suddenly start drinking, cussing, cheating on my wife, being a hedonist, etc.; but they don’t understand what I believe now, and seem content to leave me as a black box. So I am the only one who pays the price for keeping the surface level of peace, having to sit and grit my teeth.

    I’ve started to wonder lately if I’m doing the right thing. My family members are not cruel, or domineering, or personally threatened by beliefs that don’t agree with theirs. They really do love me. But the few times I’ve put my toe into the conversational water, it hasn’t gone very well… it tends to kill the conversation, with everyone awkward and no one knowing what to say.

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Bruce Gerencser