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Finding Common Ground With People Who Hold Views Different From Ours

common ground

Lifewise Academy is an Evangelical parachurch organization currently operating release-time Bible education classes in 170 Ohio school districts, including most rural northwest Ohio districts. Our grandchildren all attend local schools that offer Lifewise classes, though most of them decline to attend for various reasons.

I oppose all release-time programs — religious or not. I have been vocal about my opposition, although I am cognizant of the fact that many, if not most, of my neighbors disagree with me. This is not surprising since my neighbors are overwhelmingly Christian, and a sizeable percentage of them are Evangelicals. Seventy percent of locals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Their moral and ethical beliefs are standard fare for rural Midwestern communities. These are my people even though my political, religious, and social beliefs differ from theirs. I’m a country hick, and this is “home” for Polly and me and our children and their families. As a liberal/progressive/socialist/atheist/pacifist, I’ve diligently worked to live true to my beliefs while at the same time interacting with people whose beliefs are different from mine. I want to be known by my neighbors as a kind, thoughtful, respectful person; a conundrum for them to wrestle with as they try to understand what they see and know about me in light of what their pastors say about atheists; that we are immoral haters of God who lack purpose and meaning in their lives. The only way I know to change their opinions about atheists is to model decency, kindness, and compassion. If I have learned anything in my sixty-seven years of life it is this: we will be judged by how we live, not by what we believe.

I am a member of several private anti-Lifewise Facebook groups. Most participants are either non-believers, atheists, or liberal Christians. I find their hostility towards local people involved in the Lifewise program troubling. One woman, an atheist, asked if it would be okay to flip off the driver of the Lifewise bus while he was hauling children from the school to the program meeting place? I thought, are you fucking kidding me? What do hope to accomplish by telling the bus driver to fuck off? And what will the kids think of you as a person as they see you flip off the driver? Passive-aggressive, childish behaviors accomplish what, exactly? Oh, doing so feels good at the moment — I know, I have done it myself — but if the goal is to challenge Lifewise, what is gained by waving your middle finger outside the passenger window of your automobile? That’s a rhetorical question. Nothing is gained by such actions, and they often either fuel persecution complexes in believers or paint unbelievers in a negative light. If our goal is to make a difference, we must carefully consider how our words and behavior are viewed by those we disagree with.

Many non-Christians, especially those who read sites such as this one, think the apologists and zealots who email me and comment on my writing are normative; that their words and behavior are normal for Evangelical Christians. They are not. Such behavior is actually atypical, even when it comes to preachers. I have one Facebook friend who spends his waking hours railing against and condemning Evangelical preachers. In his uninformed mind, all preachers are evil, lazy money grubbers. He wrongly thinks televangelists and megachurch pastors are representative of all Evangelical preachers. This is patently untrue. Evangelicals can have bad beliefs, irrational beliefs, and still be good people. When my friend rails against Evangelical preachers, portraying them as evil monsters, I want to say to him: you do know I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. Do you think I am an evil monster; a bad person; an indolent person who takes advantage of others? I hope not. I may have had ignorant beliefs, but I genuinely loved and cared for others. And so do most preachers.

Earlier today, Polly and I were working in the yard. One of our neighbors pulled up in his truck to say hi. Jake is a local school teacher and the coach of the high school basketball team. He’s involved with both Lifewise Academy and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He is a committed Christian. Should I treat him as my enemy? Should I flip Jake off as he drives by? Jake and I have a lot of things in common. Yes, we differ when it comes to religion and politics, yet we have had numerous discussions about education, sports, and family. Both of us choose to focus on our common experiences instead of the things that divide us. I have never felt Jake was trying to evangelize me. He’s a decent man I genuinely enjoy talking to, even though we disagree on numerous political, religious, and social issues.

My primary care doctor is an Evangelical Christian, as both of us were when we met twenty-eight years ago. He knows my religious and political beliefs have changed over the years, yet we have been able to maintain a healthy relationship. At my last visit, my doctor told me, “I know your beliefs have changed, but I want you to know that I still consider you a friend.” His words meant the world to me.

I am at a strange place in life. I deconverted sixteen years ago. I went through the angry atheist phase, but these days I don’t have it in me to constantly fight with people about religion and politics. Certainly, I am more than willing to excoriate people such as Revival Fires, Charles, James, Dr. David Tee, and others. I have no tolerance for such people: bullies for Jesus who only want to harm others. That said, I know that these miscreants are not representative of Christianity. As much as lies within me, I want to live in peace with my neighbors. I want to enjoy their company at ballgames and local social events. I don’t want to be known as an angry, argumentative atheist. I want to take the higher ground, even when others don’t.

How do you interact with your Evangelical neighbors and fellow workmates? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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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8 Comments

  1. Avatar
    TheDutchGuy

    Bruce I agree and believe most pastors ,and for that matter Priests, are caring people which attracted them to the ministry. I thought i’d like being a Priest or preacher but my hormones and my unruly temperament took me far from any such ideas. What attracted me was thinking of ministry as a way to do good deeds and be helpful. In retrospect I see now I saw ministry as a way to earn the right to be here. I suspect many of us carry the burden of not belonging here and how we respond to it it shapes our lives for good or evil.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    The longer I live, the more I find that things are complicated, rarely “black or white”, and there’s so much nuance in the world. People are complicated creatures, and it certainly is possible to have much in common with people outside religion and politics. There are quite a few people in my family who don’t believe as I do, yet we are able to converse about a number of topics that are not inflammatory.

    Also, I try not to be a d!ckhead to people generally. It really doesn’t help religious people think better of the nonreligious if we go around flipping others off. 🤣

  3. Avatar
    Neil

    I think our experiences at the hands of
    evangelicals have taught us to be wary of them, and unfortunately to suspect/assume they’re all alike. I know I talk about them in broad strokes on my own blog. Yet, despite the many negative reactions from evangelicals when I came out – first as an atheist then as gay — one or two friends from my evangelical days have been wonderfully loving and kind. I’m so grateful to those like Helen who have restored my faith in people, if not in evangelicalism or Jesus!

  4. Avatar
    surrounded in montana

    I struggle with this constantly as my siblings become increasingly mired in christian nationalist, anti-vax, and other far-right nonsense. Since Trump came along we have been much less close and communicate far less often, but I try to model kindness and normalcy when I see them and I would never try to change their mindset. It would be a hopeless endeavor.

    It’s very difficult with one sister, whose life is centered around her evangelical church, as she has become cruel and callous toward anyone different from them, even though she has a black daughter. (They have taught her that racism no longer exists.) If Trump is elected, I don’t know that I’ll be able to stand their company, knowing they support fascism. But I don’t want to upset my liberal mother, who also struggles with my siblings’ right-wing views as well, but would certainly rather that we get along. I also live in a very red county in Montana and I go out of my way to get along with our evangelical baptist trump-loving neighbors as I don’t see any other path.

  5. Avatar
    BJW

    I’ve been friends with other Christian but haven’t happened to be close to people who technically call themselves evangelicals, but whose mindset is still close to conservative and evangelical. I also have several pastor/chaplain friends who represent different denominations. Admittedly, over the years the ones I stay closer to have become much more liberal.

    Anyway…I believe in being kind to others, like you, Bruce. And I have found that I can be close to loved ones who think completely differently about politics, as long as I can love and respect them in general.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    An old co-worker planned to spend “another year or two” in our workplace. Then, she said, she would go to a seminary and be ordained. Her goal wasn’t to be a minister per se, she explained. Rather, at the time–late in Reagan’s first administration–social services shifted from government and community-based programs to faith-based organizations. She figured that becoming a minister (I forget which denomination) would better enable her to do the kind of work she wanted: “helping people through life’s transitions.” She already had a degree, and experience, in social work.

    By that time, I had left my evangelical church and was drifting away from religion in general but hadn’t become an atheist. Now that I think of it, she and I probably were closer on the spectrum of belief, if you will, than I realized. She was still a member of the denomination in which she was raised and planned to become a minister. “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus and I take the Bible seriously, but not literally,” she explained. “But I don’t think any one church or belief system has all of the answers.” She planned to “take what was best” and put into practice.”

    I respect people like her.

  7. Avatar
    missimontana

    My husband’s best friend (and best man at our wedding) is a Christian and conservative. He doesn’t like Trump because he believes he is a phony Christian. He’s not a fan of either political party. That makes it easier, but he’s still very conservative. They get along great, and simply avoid the topics they will never agree on. Conservatives have a reputation for being selfish, but our friend has helped us many times when we were struggling. Food, transportation, clothing – he has given us so much. If we had gone on the stereotype of a Christian conservative, we would have lost a good friend.

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