The Moral Bankruptcy of Evangelical Ethics, part 2: Obedience

Content warnings: violence in religious symbolism and against children

Obedience is a core principle in the ethical code defined by evangelical Christianity. It is at the crux of the cross story itself: according to the Christ myth, god gave his son to be sacrificed, and it was crucial that Jesus obeyed the will of his father, willingly succumbing to a torturous death. It’s a ridiculous story on all accounts, even Christians take pride in this fact, because they say only a clever god would come up with something so radical. It’s actually a violent story, unfit for children, depicting violent torture and the victim of it as good for enduring it. My intent with this essay is to show evidence that obedience basically encapsulates most of the commands demanded by the evangelical interpretation of the bible. Obedience also encapsulates sexual purity and proselytization, though I’m examining those subjects with closer emphasis in this series.

Every command comes with the expectation of obedience. I don’t have to go through each rule to prove this point. The ten commandments are all telling people what to do. The parables and teachings of Jesus are full of promises or warnings about the consequences of behaviors. Beyond the bible as a source, obedience is a broadly expected behavior in every hierarchy the evangelical church respects, upholds, and even worships. God is at the top of the hierarchy, and men are above women, and adults are above children. Pastors are at the top of the hierarchy in churches, with the staff forming into a hierarchy below them.

Because children are at the bottom of the church hierarchy, it is not only acceptable to abuse them, but it is encouraged. Hitting (referred to as “spanking”) is recommended to manage behavior and establish impulse control in children. They tell a horror story to young children about an innocent, kind man who loved and welcomed children being tortured to death slowly. This is used as a motivator for the child’s conscience for the rest of their life. This alone is physical and emotional and spiritual abuse, yet it’s the bare minimum of the abuse these people do. It is done in the name of ensuring obedience, and to that end, it is effective.

Obedience is expected at every level of the hierarchy, too. Women are expected to obey men, and the congregation is expected to obey the pastor. This doesn’t always work, as anyone who’s been through a church split knows, but obedience is championed as the goal.

I wrote a post back in 2018 about the importance of intelligent disobedience, an idea Ira Chaleff talks about in his book of the same name. There, I talked about some of the training my mom did with us kids, and how we had to parrot phrases and were forced to line up by our age at a moment’s notice. Sometimes kids were spanked incessantly for not obeying fast enough. The rest of us were expected to remain in line, without reaction to our younger siblings learning as we did how to obey.

Obedience fails as an ethical standard because you can be commanded to do something wrong. Being trained to instantly obey undermines your capacity to resist or think twice about what you’re doing. It takes away your own responsibility for your actions, because you’re “just doing your job” or “following orders.”

It is also dangerous to equate obedience with goodness and disobedience with badness, but this is what the concept of sin does. It puts all evil behavior on the same level as every other possible way to sin. There is extensive hypocrisy on this, since not all laws are interpreted as having the same weight under evangelical teachings. For instance, the old testament makes it clear that mixed fabrics are a sin to wear, but a cotton-polyester blended t-shirt is fine with most evangelicals.

The only kind of wrong behavior the evangelical church knows how to address is disobedience. There is no clarity on what to do about abuse of power. That is why they can’t call out the abuse from their leaders. Obedience is a more important value to them. Obedience is the basis of evangelical ethics, but it’s a terrible basis for an ethical system, for the multitude of reasons I’ve gone through in this post. In my next post, I’ll be discussing proselytization and what is wrong with it.

The Moral Bankruptcy of Evangelical Ethics, Part 1: Sexual Purity

Content warnings: mentions of physical and sexual abuse

I was raised under strict a strict code of ethics defined by evangelicalism. I had to learn it from early childhood. It was not only something I spent many hundreds of hours memorizing details about, but the rules were reinforced with controlled violence. The violence was carefully managed in such a way that it seemed like organization and order, something with the express purpose of controlling my behavior. Most of my siblings wouldn’t even call it violence, using the words we were taught to use: “spanking,” “discipline,” and “training.”

I was a student of evangelical ethics for more than two decades. I am an expert on few things, but the ethical standards to which I was held from infancy are something I know a great deal about. If you were not raised by dedicated evangelicals, you cannot know what it is like to be held to their impossible standards from early childhood. Even now, I think of my upbringing as one that was moderate in some ways. My parents didn’t force my sisters and me to wear dresses. We weren’t Calvinists, believing that some people are predestined to damnation. They didn’t beat us randomly or relentlessly, the way some other parents were known to beat their kids. The punishments were usually measured out in small increments with clear correlations to what exactly we’d done “wrong” to “earn” this treatment. Compared to our friends and neighbors, it seemed like we were right in the middle of mainstream homeschool Christian culture. Not too extreme, not too fundamentalist – the number of kids was just, well, what god intended.

I am writing an entire book about my indoctrination, but I want to stop and talk about the ethical system itself, because I feel that nobody is willing to directly address it, so I must state this as plainly as I possibly can.

The evangelical ethical code is bankrupt. It has no footing in the ethics discussion because it has utterly discredited itself on the matter. It has been without any credit for centuries, but at long last, evangelicals seem to be losing control of the narrative. Evangelical churches and organizations have proven themselves to be completely incapable of identifying, confronting, and addressing abuse. They fail to even acknowledge, much less address, what is wrong. This is because their ethical systems have no capacity to do so at all.

The ethical code of the evangelical Christian differs from person to person. However, there are some basics that can be summarized without oversimplification or misrepresentation. While evangelicals may pride themselves in having a complex ethical code, it boils down to a few key things: sexual purity, obedience, and proselytization.

I will explain these further to clarify my definitions, but right here is where a lot of Christians will insist that it certainly can’t be boiled down to such basics. What about the golden rule, the ten commandments, the greatest commandment, and the definition of true religion? What about all the parables of Jesus, and for that matter, the importance of the story of Jesus? All of these refer to distinct biblical passages that seem to lay out clear ethical standards. I will address them all and make the case that they all fall under these three subjects as I address them.

Sex is the first thing. It is the foundation of evangelical ethics that the institution of marriage – where only cishet couples in recognized unions are allowed to have sex and families – represents the relationship between Jesus and those who follow him. The “church” is referred to as the “bride of Christ” multiple times in the bible, and this is used to back up the modern conservative definition of marriage.

Cisheteronormative standards are placed upon the children of evangelicals from a time before we are born: when our assigned gender is revealed. This structures the expectations for our lives, and whether we will be allowed to join in specific activities that define our roles. My mother prayed over each of her children’s cribs for our future husbands or wives, respectively according to the designated opposite of our own assigned genders. Even as a taboo nonexistence in the minds of evangelicalism’s sheltered children, sex is so central to the dogma that it is invisibly loud. I listened to music as a toddler about saving myself for marriage. I knew that my husband would be approved by my father before I knew anything about sex itself. This is because sexual purity is forced upon all children of evangelicalism in some form, though some of us were more completely sheltered than others.

Toys are gendered. Tasks are gendered. Expectations are gendered. The roles defined by the gendered toys, tasks, and expectations presented to children in the evangelical world are explicitly clear and defined at great length. People defined as men are the leaders. People defined as women are the followers and supporters. There are no other options, just leading and following. Evangelical institutions are organized around authoritarian hierarchy, and the strongest distinction in that hierarchy is between “men” and “women.”

Evangelical sexual purity is not expected just of those who adhere to the religion, but to everyone in society and the world. This is vitally important to understand: evangelical Christians have no problem with holding everyone to their standards of sexual purity. We’ll discuss proselytizing last, but the evangelical mindset encapsulates both the indoctrination of children and the colonization of the world outside the family and church institutions. They have no problem whatsoever with forcing their religion on other people, especially their own children, who have no say in the matter.

There is a word that Christians use to define moral wrongdoing, and that is “sin.” It is not a very clearly defined word. There are great theological debates about what it is. “Original sin” means that we humans are born with a “sin nature,” that is, we are not only predisposed to sin, but we have all sinned merely by existing. I define this word to be used sparingly because I think it is entirely unhelpful to structuring reasoned ethics. Sin can be anything from cheating on your wife, to being gay, to murdering someone. It can also be the mere thought of stealing a piece of candy as a child. The rationale behind it is that if everyone sins, everyone needs to make amends with god for their sin.

It’s important to also note here that sin, as an incredibly vague concept, is open to interpretation across denominations and sects. According to the evangelical, we are all sinners in need of the redemption of the grace of god. Beyond this, opinions scatter. Some believe all sin falls into the same category, while others treat different actions as more or less sinful. Because it is so unspecific, evangelicals struggle when faced with questions about how to handle harmful behavior. They cannot identify what actions are harmful, and which are harmless. Sin is not a measurement of harm. It is an attempt to guess what may or may not be acceptable to a deity.

Anything that falls outside of marriage is sin, according to the evangelical. Adultery is sin, of course. Divorce is still considered a sin by some within evangelicalism. To be gay, and especially to have gay sex, is no doubt a horrible sin. Extramarital and premarital sex are very frowned upon. This is the most basic way I can describe the evangelical ethic of sexual purity. It permeates every aspect of evangelical living, especially in how children are taught to think about the world and themselves.

There is no evangelical defense for a consent-based sexual ethic. None. Because of this, evangelicals get really, really uncomfortable around the implications of ignoring consent: confusion about rape, abuse, and assault. Especially when the victims are children, because the other thing that evangelicals can’t decide on is the individual human rights of children.

For these reasons, sex is the last thing an evangelical has any right to claim ethical superiority about. This is getting long, so I’m leaving it here and will continue to discuss the other aspects of evangelical ethics in a follow-up post.

Writing with C-PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often develops from a traumatic event. Complex PTSD often develops from prolonged exposure to a toxic environment. My trauma is complicated to explain. There was more emotional manipulation and gaslighting than the constant threat of domestic violence. I say this because I have exchanged stories with many other survivors, and all of our individual family dynamics were uniquely dysfunctional. I am lucky for many reasons. Not everyone can talk openly about their experiences, but I am being paid to write about mine. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and I want to make the most of it.

The memories don’t fade. They linger, ghost-like, layering scenes over the walls of my home. They haunt every dream every time I sleep. I obsess over what overwhelmed me as a child, trying to keep up with all the work that was expected of me. Cooking, cleaning, counting children, feeding and rocking and singing to babies, changing their diapers and giving them baths – all this would have been exhausting enough if I wasn’t also expected to do office work for the family business. Both parents could prioritize naps daily. If I took naps too often, it was cause for homeopathic intervention because I wasn’t performing at maximum productivity.

Every day of my life now is filled with flashbacks, and every night is filled with obsessive, urgent dreams about being rushed to pack and cook and clean. Every time I try to look directly at my traumatic memories, they have the power to overwhelm me, and I minimize them. When I try to avoid these thoughts, they intrude.

One of the things my parents used to proudly say was that if you have a lot of kids, it’s not too difficult because the older ones help with the younger ones. This was stated as if it wasn’t a problem, but it directly implies that the exploitation of child labor is acceptable. In making an older child care for younger children, the older child is being deprived of their own childhood. I was not only expected to supervise, but to handle meals and hygiene and education. I was given basic elementary schooling that I was supposed to repeat to my younger siblings during school time.

This was normalized. I have to remind myself on a regular basis that this was unacceptable. I should not have had to care for so many siblings when I was still a child, thinking that all I had to look forward to in life was having as many children as I could, too.

Being in the outside world hasn’t been easy, because there’s no real safety net for survivors of abuse. Just like everyone else, we are expected to feed and clothe and house ourselves with our work. Because of this, I’ve dealt with unstable housing on and off for a long time. This, along with listening to other survivors of various kinds of systemic abuse, has radicalized me about inequality and injustice.

My story is not about one secluded family. It’s about a political strategy. That political strategy is to convince young people that it is open-minded and logical to embrace right-wing conservative values. I am one of thousands of children who were isolated by families who didn’t want us to be exposed to other ways of thinking. Many of us haven’t made it out. I hope that as I write my memoir, it won’t be one that serves as mere shock value, but one that provides insight into the political climate of the United States after a generation of kids were abused and indoctrinated.

The more time I spend in the real world, the more clearly I see the world I escaped. I’ve officially been working on my book for six years, but until now, I haven’t been able to fully focus on writing. This is because I’ve had to find ways to get by, and “getting by” hasn’t meant ideal living situations. I finally feel that I’m living in a place where I can work on writing and painting consistently. So here I am, showing up to write about a childhood that seems more strange as each year passes.

I will be updating the blog and Patreon as much as possible, but I will be spending most of my writing time on the book draft. I’m in therapy again and I’m figuring out next steps with insurance and doctors since the move. I’m free to write regularly at last. Thank you all so much for supporting my progress.