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How My Political and Social Beliefs Evolved Over the Years

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A letter writer asked:

Were you always socially liberal and progressive “on the inside” or did that develop after deconverting? For example, were you always pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, and pro-transgender, and every time you read a bible verse got triggered, or did your social and political beliefs genuinely differ between being a Christian and being an atheist?

These are great questions. I believe the letter writer is asking if I always had liberal/progressive political and social beliefs or did these beliefs develop over time? I believe he is also asking if my political and social beliefs were different as a Christian from the beliefs I now have as an atheist? The best way to answer these questions is to share a condensed version of my life story.

In the early 1960s, my Dad packed up his family and moved from Bryan, Ohio to San Diego, California in search of riches and prosperity. While in California, my parents were saved at Scott Memorial Baptist Church, a Fundamentalist Baptist congregation pastored by Tim LaHaye. As members of Scott Memorial, Mom and Dad joined the right-wing, uber-nationalist John Birch Society. Mom, in particular, immersed herself in right-wing political ideology. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater, and would later actively support the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon and George Wallace.

As was common for people of their generation, my parents were racists. They believed Martin Luther King, Jr. was a despicable man, a Communist. Mom was an avid writer of letters to the editors of the newspapers wherever we happened to be living at the time. She considered Lieutenant William Calley — the man responsible for the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War — to be a war hero. She also thought that the unarmed Kent State students gunned down by Ohio National Guard soldiers got exactly what they deserved.

It should come as no surprise then, that their oldest son — yours truly — embraced their religious and political views. From the time I was in kindergarten until I entered college at age nineteen, I lived in a right-wing, Fundamentalist monoculture. The churches I attended growing up only reinforced the political and social beliefs taught to me by my parents.

In the fall of 1976, I enrolled in classes at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institution founded in the 1950s by Tom Malone. While I don’t remember any “political” preaching, Biblical moral beliefs were frequently mentioned in classes and during chapel. I heard nothing that would challenge the political and social beliefs taught to me by my parents and pastors. While at Midwestern, I met a beautiful dark-haired woman who would later become my wife. She had similar political and social beliefs, so from that perspective we were a perfect match.

All told, I spent twenty-five years pastoring Evangelical churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. For many of these years, I was a flag-waving, homophobic, theocratic pro-lifer who believed Democrats, liberals, progressives, Catholics, mainline Christians, and a cast of thousands were tools used by Satan to attack and destroy Christian America. Over time, I theologically moved away from the IFB church movement and embraced Fundamentalist Calvinism. While my theology was evolving, my political and social beliefs remained the same — that is, until 1990.

In late 1990, American tanks, aircraft, and soldiers invaded Iraq, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths. I was appalled by the universal support Evangelicals gave to the Gulf War. I remember asking congregants if it bothered them that thousands of men, women, and children were slaughtered in their name. Not one of my colleagues in the ministry opposed the Gulf War. None of them seemed troubled by the bloodshed and carnage. Try as I might to see the Gulf War through the eyes of the Just War Theory, I couldn’t do so. It was at this point in life that I became a pacifist. I didn’t preach pacifism from the pulpit, but I did challenge church members to think “Biblically” about war and violence — “Biblically” meaning viewing the Gulf War and other wars through the eyes of Jesus and his teachings.

From this point forward, my political beliefs began to evolve. By the time of the Y2K scare, I had distanced myself from groups such as Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority, and the American Family Association. I thought, at the time, that these groups had become political hacks, shills for the Republican Party. In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush. He would be the last Republican I voted for. In 2004, I voted for John Kerry; 2008 and 2012 I voted for Barack Obama; 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton, though I was a big Bernie Sanders supporter. in 2020, I voted for Joe Biden, but only because he wasn’t Trump.

In 2005, I left the ministry, and in 2008 I left Christianity. At that time, my political and social beliefs were far removed from when I entered the ministry decades before. I began as a right-wing Republican and I left the ministry as a progressive. Embracing atheism, humanism, rationalism, and science has allowed me to challenge and rethink my beliefs about homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, same-sex-marriage, LGBTQ people, sex, marriage, birth control, capital punishment, labor unions, environmentalism, and a host of other hot-button issues. As long as I was in the Evangelical bubble, these things remained unchallenged. Once the Bible lost its authority and control over me, I was then free to change my beliefs.

The Bruce Gerencser of 1983 would not recognize the Bruce Gerencser of today. A man who was a member of one of the churches I pastored in the 1980s and remained a friend of mine until 2009, told me that I had changed teams. And he’s right. My change of beliefs has been so radical that this man told me he could no longer be friends with me. Why? He found my atheism and political beliefs to be too unsettling.

I understand how the trajectory of my life, with its changing religious, political, and social beliefs, troubles people. I try to put myself in their shoes as they attempt to reconcile the Pastor Bruce they once knew with the atheist blogger I am today. How can these things be? former congregants, friends, and colleagues in the ministry want to know. How is it possible that Bruce Gerencser, one of the truest Christians they ever knew, is now an atheist? Some people think there’s some secret I am sitting on, some untold reason for my deconversion. No matter how much time I invest in explaining myself, many people still can’t wrap their minds around my current godlessness and liberal political beliefs. I’ve concluded that there is nothing I can do for them as long as they remain firmly ensconced in the Evangelical bubble.

My political and social beliefs are driven by the humanist ideal; that we humans should work together for the common good; that every person deserves peace, health, happiness, and economic security. I support political and social beliefs that promote these things and oppose those that don’t. I certainly haven’t arrived. My beliefs continue to evolve.

For readers not familiar with humanism, let me conclude this post with the Humanist Manifesto. Atheism doesn’t provide me with a moral foundation. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in gods. It is humanism that provides me the foundation upon which to build my life:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar

    Thanks for writing that and answering my questions Bruce. Would it be fair to say you didn’t really hold any beliefs of your own until 1990, and that you merely had ‘adopted’ the ones from your parents and churches instead?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      No, that would not be a fair conclusion.

      Every pastor enters the ministry with a borrowed theology; that of their parents, pastors, and college professors. That said, I have always been a voracious reader. I also took seriously my preaching and teaching responsibilities. Thus, I spent a lot of time in the study reading theology books and studying the Bible (often 20 hours a week). It was here I began to develop my own theology. By 1990, I had distanced myself from the parts of the IFB church movement, rejected dispensationalism premillennialism, and embraced Calvinism. By 1990, these beliefs of mine led to some colleagues in the ministry labeling me a heretic. 1988-1989, I began associating with Reformed Baptists and Sovereign Grace Baptists.

      Now, as far as social and political beliefs were concerned, these changed very little until 1991, not due to ignorance, but because I thought my beliefs were supported by the Bible. The Gulf War forced me to take a hard look at my beliefs concerning violence and war.

  2. Avatar

    I really hope the letter writer was being genuine. The fact that they asked if you “got triggered” every time you read a Bible verse raises huge red flags.

    In my experience, when someone asks if you were “triggered” in any context other then discussing PTSD or some other type of anxiety disorder, it’s almost always sign they don’t actually take your views seriously. As they will often spell out should the conversation continue, that choice of words implies that your views are purely emotional in nature, rather then the result of logical thought and/or careful consideration.

    Maybe the rest of the letter is fine, an it never hurts to answer with honesty even if someone is being disingenuous, but that word choice sets me on edge.

  3. Avatar

    Ok thanks. Would it be fair-er to say that the beliefs you genuinely held in the past that changed were simply more irrational then, and now with a sharper intellect your views have evolved?

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      New knowledge leads to new conclusions and change. This has been the case for me for forty-five years. Unfortunately, Evangelicalism boxes people in. Sure people learn “new” things, but only those things that are approved by the box keepers. True intellectual inquiry demands following the path wherever it leads. Evangelicals are the modern day equivalent of the Jews wandering in the wilderness.

  4. Avatar

    I wasn’t implying that his views were anything. I just wasn’t sure if his views were his own. I’ve reevaluated a lot of views inherited from previous generations and I can honestly say I never really believed them, I just didn’t ever question if I believed them. So I was wondering if Bruce was on that page with Christianity, but it sounds like it’s not the case. Hope that makes it clear.

    • Avatar

      I understand. If that’s the case, triggered is probably not the word you should have used. There is a whole lot of cultural baggage behind the term when used in non-clinical psychology settings, so unless you’re talking with someone about their PTSD experiences or their battle against a severe phobia, don’t refer to “becoming upset” as “being triggered”.

  5. Avatar

    As I watch political elections, I see how staunchly people did in their heels behind the line that is drawn in the sand. There is no discussiin, there is argument and name-calling. People have taken to heart the concept that “you are either for me or against me”. It takes courage yo examine one’s views and even more courage to admit one was mistaken. Thanks for sharing your courage, Bruce. It must have been even harder as a pastor, a person of influence and authority.

  6. Avatar
    Dr. R

    I would like to pose a question for my fellow atheists on this blog: Why humanism?

    Can we OBJECTIVELY say that humanism is more correct than misanthropy, without resorting to definitions such as utilitarianism, or emotional statements such as “this is the type of society I want to live in”?

    I am an atheist, but I am not a humanist. In fact, I am the exact opposite (a misanthrope). I was SOMEWHAT of a humanist back when I was a theist, as I thought that was what God wanted. But now that I don’t feel obligated to follow any scriptures, I don’t see any reason to care much about humanity in general beyond rather narrow (and admittedly arbitrary) bounds.

    But I am also a skeptic, and that includes being skeptical of my own views. Many atheists I admire are also humanists. My father (of blessed memory) was a humanist as well. That doesn’t automatically make humanism correct or even logical, but it does make it worth investigating.

    I have asked several atheists this question, and met with different responses. (I fear that Aron Ra took me for a troll!) I have yet to be presented with a rational argument for humanism that doesn’t include “this is the type of society I want to live in”. Is there anything more than that?

    I honestly want to know. Needless to say, the question of humanism vs. misanthropy has very broad indications. For instance, I would probably vote differently if I were a humanist, rather than simply voting for what I believe is best for me/my family/my tribe.

    Please do not construe anything I’ve said here to be a criticism of humanism or humanists. I just want cold, hard, logic, beyond personal experience (which is not a pathway to objective truth).

    Bloody hell, I’d better stop now before I suffer a full-blown attack of solipsism!

  7. Avatar

    “Can we OBJECTIVELY say that humanism is more correct than misanthropy, without resorting to definitions such as utilitarianism, or emotional statements such as “this is the type of society I want to live in”?”

    I think the question is wrongly framed. I don’t think ‘objectively’ is relevant at all in describing humanism, though it’s possible to argue that, on the whole, societies benefit from humanism rather than misanthropy.

    “I just want cold, hard, logic, beyond personal experience (which is not a pathway to objective truth).”

    Again, I think this comment is ill-framed. Why obsess about objective truth? We are all of us, to a large extent, the result of our personal experiences, so trying to discuss humanism in terms of ‘cold, hard, logic’ seems, to me anyhow, to be meaningless. Trying to discuss humanism in these terms is rather like trying to define music by its notes, or its volume, or its cadence, rather than by its effect. For sure, its possible to do these things, but then it loses its purpose if carried too far.

    I think few people are misanthropic in reality. It’s something I tend to associate with socially awkward types, or dictators, or psychopaths, or cult leaders (I’d place many of the more extreme religious leaders in this bracket). Humanism is something we’ve evolved to and, in my opinion, is the societal norm. Do I dislike elements of society? Absolutely, but I have to acknowledge that I do this at a somewhat distant and non-personal level. For example, I have contempt for Trump voters, or supporters of Brexit, creationists, spiritualists, Mormons, flat earthers…..I’m sure you get my point. However, at a personal level I can interact with them, even empathise with them, because these views aren’t necessarily all that makes these people as individuals. I detest the views, and the way they’ve been deceived into holding them but, ultimately, they are all individuals, and humanism is all about respect and support of the individual.

    I rather suspect that you are really a humanist who perhaps doesn’t like to accept it.

  8. Avatar
    linus bern

    Thanks for the read.

    I have a couple of questions. Atheism doesn’t necessarily flow from progressive politics, I understand your political evolution, and the sign posts along the way that caused you to move from right to left, but what caused your religious change? Why are you not a progressive Christian?

    Also, I’m curious if your wife transformed philosophically alongside you? If she changed as well, was her transformation driving yours, or yours hers? Or is she still religious and to the right of you politically?

    I realize these may not be questions you care to answer, but I was curious about what happens to a relationship when someone makes a 180 turn philosophically.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I was a progressive Christian for a time. It was a natural stopping off point on the slippery slide to atheism. I wanted to hang on to belief in God, but I did not progressive/liberal Christianity intellectually satisfying. If there was a UU church in the area, we would probably attend.

      My wife’s beliefs are similar to mine, though she is, surprisingly, more adamant on some issues than I am. For example, I still enjoy listening to Southern gospel music, whereas Polly hates any and all religious music. Sometimes, I turn Southern gospel music on when I’m writing, but, out of deference to her, I wait until she’s at work to do so.

      As we deconverted — a messy, emotionally painful process — we spent countless hours talking about religion, the Bible, and politics. Neither of us believe in the existence of gods. I am much more vocal about the matter, than my wife. This is due, I expect, to our differing personalities. Polly’s quiet and reserved. I’m much more outgoing and opinionated.

      As far as my journey from Evangelicalism to atheism, please check out the Why Page:

      Thank’s for commenting.


  9. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Disconnected thoughts. Numbered.

    I have a vivid memory of the start of the Gulf War. I was an engineer for a military contractor (flight simulators), and I and my immediate manager were working late that night, though not together. He was probably trying to reconcile his financial books for the next report. I was a lead engineer, and found I could only get my own engineering done successfully when the rest of my team had left for the night. I went to talk to my boss about something, and discovered him glued to a little old TV set that another engineer was using for a cheap second monitor for special-purpose, low-resolution imaging. The other engineer was gone, and Dan had tuned his TV to a local broadcast station. We watched the start of the war coverage with our jaws on the floor.

    Before that, I would have described myself as a political moderate. That began my long slide into progessivism. If have to choose a political label now, it would be social democrat a la Bernie Sanders, at least on a lot of things. I have a good friend who happens to be my cousin, and lives in Norway. Lars and I talk about this stuff sometimes, and he, too, has greatly influenced my views. But the whole thing was kicked off by the Gulf War.

    I don’t believe in objective morality. We are a social species, and our social morality is generally based on treating each other well enough to achieve some goal(s). Once upon a time, the overarching goal might have been living until the next morning, or through the next winter, or finding the next meal, or satisfying the demands of our hormones. This all got more reliable as we developed larger and larger living groups, eventually founding civilizations, learning how to manage natural and progressively less natural resources, and the like. There was time to think about things beyond the next meal, even if you had to work very hard, as most people did. There was time to contemplate happiness. And there, I think, is the true secret to behaving in a humanistic way. It’s embracing the notion that doing unto others as you would have done unto you, or not doing unto them as you would not have done unto you, is more than just good advice from a Palestinian street preacher. It’s a way to true happiness. It’s accepting that we’re all in this together, we can trade not just resources but emotional support, and collectively make our lives better. It’s about opening your heart, and realizing the more people you love, the more you can love. Very expandable meta-object, the human emotional heart. ( Oh, and of course I’m not talking here about taking lots of sexual partners, though that certainly works for some people. I’m talking about less intimate but often more supportive forms of love, that ought to transcend age, race, gender, and religious boundaries.)

    Doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for a lot of people. If we can make it work for enough people, we get a better society. I have no children. I will leave no legacy, except maybe a few memories. But if others can pass it on… well heck, our species might even survive its self-destructive tendencies that are now supported by deadlier and deadlier weapons.

  10. Avatar

    Many trans folk consider ‘transgenderism’ offensive. ‘Transgender people’ is better.

    Humanism works to humans’ advantage. If we help each other, more of us live to reproduce. Psychopaths and sociopaths represent a self-interested survival strategy, and they don’t live long. If we’re all out for ourselves, we just bump each other off until one person is left.

  11. Avatar
    The Spartan Atheist

    Thank you so much for this article. I was also raised religious and right-wing, although not nearly as hard right as you were it would seem. Once I left the church, and then eventually became an atheist, my political views indeed shifted. I haven’t written about it, but maybe I should one day. Unfortunately for me, my loss of religion is one of the things that led to my divorce. But now I have a wonderful girlfriend that is also an atheist. TSA

  12. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce and I are about the same age. I was raised in a conservative Catholic milieu, where many people held the same kinds of beliefs Bruce’s mother had. Some of my Catholic school classmates, I’m sure, were sent there by parents who didn’t want their kids sharing the same rooms with black and brown kids.

    Some of those kids grew up to be Trump supporters like their parents. While I was more conservative when I was still religious (I later became an Evangelical Christian), I guess my views were more libertarian than theirs, as I did not believe that the government, military and police were always right. (I don’t think I ever had such a belief, even when I was an Army Reservist.) But I was transphobic and homophobic because I couldn’t deal with my own identity and attractions–which is one of the reasons why I threw myself into an Evangelical Church.

    I would call myself a humanist but I don’t have the sanguine vision that we’ll all cooperate and live happily ever after because humans are innately good creatures. Rather, I see it as the only choice–call me “utilitarian” if you like. W.H. Auden summed it up best, I think, in the last line of his poem, “September 1, 1939”: “We must love one another or die.”

  13. Avatar
    Merle Hertzler

    “The Bruce Gerencser of 1983 would not recognize the Bruce Gerencser of today.”

    I sometimes wonder what the IFB me would have thought if he had read my blog today. At what point in my life would points that now seem so obvious to me be considered worthwhile by the religious me?

    If we only had a way of transporting the Bruce of 1983 to today to interview the new Bruce, ah, what a conversation that would be!

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