I don’t sleep through the night anymore. I suffer from near daily panic attacks and almost constant anxiety. The source of my joy, my security and my identity has vanished, leaving me with an angry grief that almost no one in my immediate circle understands. I have relationships that were once life-giving but have turned toxic. I feel manipulated, deceived and abused. And why?
The church that raised me is gaslighting me.
I am a 39-year-old, white, straight, suburban mom. And I am a Christian ― at least I think I still am. I grew up in a privileged bubble, in deep red Republican country, where identifying as a Christian didn’t set me apart from the majority of my peers. Being a Christian certainly wasn’t any risk to my life or reputation. I spent my childhood in Sunday school, church camp and youth group, learning Bible stories about heroes who battled a giant with a slingshot, survived a lions’ den due to unshakable faith, and led an entire group of people out of slavery and into a promised land.
The church also taught me the story of Jesus, the son of God, whom God sent to earth as a defenseless human infant. Jesus spent 33 completely sinless years on this planet, only to be brutally murdered as a sacrifice for me, because of me. I was born with my sinful nature and no matter how good I try to be, how many prayers I pray or Bible study gatherings I attend, I am ultimately a sinner ― and the wages of sin is death. According to the church, I deserve death, simply for existing.
But the church also claims there’s good news! Even though I deserve death, Jesus’ bloody crucifixion and subsequent bodily resurrection saves me from a fiery eternal hell ― all because I believe this supernatural story and earnestly accept the gift of his grace. And because of this sacrifice, I owe him a lifetime of gratitude, worship and a commitment to follow his commandments (even though, because of my human flesh, I will always ultimately fail him).
“I didn’t think much about politics or social issues in my 20s and the first half of my 30s because my racial and socioeconomic privilege afforded me the luxury of not paying attention.”
For decades, I bought this story and internalized and tried to live out the message. I followed the rules. I studied the Bible. I signed a “True Love Waits” purity pledge and walked down the aisle a “pure” virgin. I guarded my heart against the evils of the world: false religions, homosexuality, abortion, immodest clothing, foul language and excessive drinking. I believed that God created and loves everyone, but not everyone will go to heaven.
I didn’t think much about politics or social issues in my 20s and the first half of my 30s because my racial and socioeconomic privilege afforded me the luxury of not paying attention. The extent of my political ideology was that the Republican Party was the party of God and identifying as a Democrat was incompatible with calling oneself a Christian. So I voted Republican.
I lived in a conservative Christian bubble, a tightly knit, homogenous community where conformity was expected and rewarded. The church praised me for my good behavior and moral living, and the church took care of me. The sense of belonging is a hell of a drug, and I was loved, accepted and given community, which made me complacent and blind to systemic discrimination against people of color, LGBTQ people and people practicing religions other than Christianity, among other groups. I am ashamed to say I had no concept that large portions of the population were outright rejected by the institution loving me so well.
Prior to a few years ago, I listened to no one in the margins because my circle didn’t include anyone in the margins. We fed and donated Christmas gifts to the poor in our community, but made no effort to establish real relationships with them outside of a “mission” context. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was easy to accept as a legitimate response to homosexuality because I had no gay people in my life whom I actually had to love. Their so-called “lifestyle sin” was framed as much worse than my own greed, gluttony and pride. I didn’t consider that perhaps my greatest sin was the self-centeredness blinding me from the pain of other human beings who were made in the image of God. Their value and contributions to the body of Christ were discarded by the church based on its narrow-minded interpretation of Scripture.
“The people I followed online challenged my conservative Christian worldview and I learned that following Jesus isn’t nearly as narrow a path as I grew up believing.”
Starting in about 2014, social media, specifically Twitter, began to open my eyes and widen my world. I listened to and learned from people with different voices and experiences, and for the first time, I heard terms like “white privilege,” “systemic racism” and “progressive Christianity.” I had no idea that someone could be gay and also be a deeply committed Christian who has a high regard for Scripture. The people I followed online challenged my conservative Christian worldview and I learned that following Jesus isn’t nearly as narrow a path as I grew up believing. I started to doubt and question the integrity of the insulated Christian bubble still benefiting me. My faith was shifting, but slowly and privately.
And then came 2016. Donald Trump, a man whom until then I most closely associated with “The Apprentice,” was now the Republican nominee for president of the United States. Trump’s campaign and election was a breaking point for me and many other American evangelicals. This was when we realized that everything we had been told was non-negotiable didn’t matter when there was power on the line. The election was like a floodlight on the underbelly of the evangelical church, and this is when the church started gaslighting me.
Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that leads one to question one’s own feelings and perceptions of reality. For more than two years now, I have watched, shocked, as 81 percent of the religious leaders and peers of my youth and early adulthood have embraced a man and a political ideology contrary to the teachings of Jesus. They have thrown out the foundational values of Christianity in exchange for tax cuts, Supreme Court nominees and political power. Today, those Christians are calling me a heretic and a godless woman because now I reject their Republican rhetoric and because my personal Christian values (that they drilled into me for decades) more closely align with the Democratic Party’s platform.
The boldness of the church’s hypocrisy is causing me to question the very foundation of my spiritual beliefs. It’s disorienting. Every biblical principle I hold sacred has been disregarded by many other Christians, and I often feel like I’m losing my sanity while the entire house of cards that is my evangelical upbringing collapses around me.
“Those Christians are calling me a heretic and a godless woman because now I reject their Republican rhetoric and because my personal Christian values ... more closely align with the Democratic Party’s platform.”
Purity And Politics
The church’s obsession with sexual purity defined my adolescence. The ethics of sexual behavior limited physical intimacy to the marriage of man and woman. And at the time, the political values of Christians lined up with this teaching. Bill Clinton’s infidelity was unforgivable as well as evidence of a political party embraced by Satan.
But when the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked to a shocked nation in 2016, Christian Republicans doubled down on their support of a man who openly bragged about sexual assault.
“I don’t even wait,” Trump told the show’s co-host Billy Bush. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
I cannot read those words without having a visceral physical reaction. I am sickened by Trump’s words themselves, but more so by the memory that just weeks after the release of this tape, 81 percent of white, evangelical Christians (my people) still voted him into the highest office in the land.
God can use anyone, I was told by the church. Even Donald Trump. Oh, but God would never support the election of someone as evil as Hillary Clinton. How could you, a Christian, vote for her?
I voted for Clinton because she was the most qualified presidential candidate. She wasn’t a perfect candidate, but had she been elected, she would have upheld the Constitution and protected the rights of the marginalized and voiceless. I voted for her not in spite of my Christian faith but because of it.
The Sanctity Of Life
The evangelical church claims to value life with a capital L and considers abortion the gravest of all assaults on life. In reality, this value is largely theoretical and convenient, as the unborn have no political persuasions, questionable ethical lifestyles or expensive medical bills. Fetuses are pure and sinless, and therefore make an airtight worthy cause. But if the life of an uncomplicated fetus is worth protecting, what about the life of a medically fragile child?
In the summer of 2017, when the Republican Party began trying in earnest to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid funding, I cried out in protest. I have a medically fragile child, and insurance that covers his multiple pre-existing conditions as required by the ACA, as well as Medicaid, is one reason he is still alive today. But, for the most part, the Christians I pleaded with ignored me or made flimsy excuses for supporting the Republicans’ efforts to destroy the ACA.
The Democrats’ health care plan cannot be the will of God, the church told me. Because abortion.
I cannot have a productive conversation with an evangelical Christian Republican about values or policy because they always see abortion as the trump card. For them, all the Democratic policies that align with the Gospel ― health care for all, criminal justice reform, racial and gender equality ― don’t matter or count because Democrats support a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. Because I vote for pro-choice candidates (who stand for policies protecting the lives of all people, not just the unborn), the church makes me feel as if none of my other stances are valid.
Caring For The Poor, But With Conditions
The church taught me that God loves everyone and calls Christians to spread the Gospel to all nations. Mission trips to poor countries south of the U.S. border are celebrated. Christians take the “Good News” to the poor and assume they are also improving their lives with paintbrushes to freshen the walls of dilapidated churches and shoeboxes of toys to give the children at Christmas.
But these “white saviors” balk in protest when some of the very people they serve on mission trips need asylum in our country. Suddenly, helping the poor (whom they now refer to as illegal aliens) doesn’t have the same appeal as it did when it was confined to a weeklong trip with matching group T-shirts and Instagram photo opportunities.
“Americans are dying in mass shootings at the hands of white supremacists, while the church is celebrating the nation's return to traditional values. For Christians who reject the MAGA mindset, this is absolute crazy making.”
Since his election, Trump and the Republican Party have issued travel bans on individuals from Muslim nations, separated Central American families seeking asylum and locked their children in cages, and stoked fear in the hearts of Americans about migrant caravans from Honduras. Many of those in the caravans are fleeing extreme violence in search of safety and a better life for their families, not unlike Jesus’ family, who fled persecution from a king who wanted Jesus dead.
The Bible says, “Do not fear,” the church always told me. But these people are terrorists. They are rapists. They are gang members bringing their violence to America. So in this case, we should fear. We should fear a lot.
The church told me that God is a God of justice. He says the poor and the persecuted are blessed and will have a great reward in heaven. However, the term “social justice warrior” is a reviled label in conservative Christian circles.
When I speak out against racism, police brutality, gun violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community, many Christians sneer at the concept of justice and accuse me of being “divisive” and “too political.” Instead, they embrace nationalism, the rule of law without mercy and “Make America Great Again” as their values, even at the expense of human life.
It simply does not matter to the evangelical church that Trump is racist and that his dehumanizing rhetoric is emboldening radicals and costing Americans their lives. Americans are dying in mass shootings at the hands of white supremacists, while the church is celebrating the nation’s return to traditional values. For Christians who reject the MAGA mindset, this is absolute crazy making.
No wonder I live with crippling anxiety and spiritual trauma. The church that warned me against moral relativism now calls me a heretic when I apply the very principles they taught me to real situations, with real stakes for real people. I don’t know where to turn or whom to trust. Is any of it true? Have I wasted my life on a religion that hurts more than it helps?
I stopped attending church regularly almost two years ago, but I am more invested in my spiritual life than ever before. Although I’ve lost the majority of my local Christian community, save for a few precious friends, I still cling to the true teachings and example of Jesus to inform my politics and moral code. I now understand that Scripture pays more attention to serving the needs of the oppressed than to regulating their lifestyle. Sin is not as much about my behavior as it is about my inability to love people well.
Meanwhile, I’ve diversified my bookshelf, podcast subscriptions and Twitter feed to include voices speaking truth to power from the perspective of marginalized people ― the same voices that the Trump administration continually tries to silence. I’ve joined online communities of people also working through spiritual trauma and gaslighting by the evangelical church. This fall, I attended the Evolving Faith conference, a gathering of more than 1,500 people in different stages of the deconstructing of their faith. As I’ve worked through my grief and anger, I’ve discovered I am not as isolated as I once believed. My hope is to someday find a local church again, one that is progressive, open and affirming, but I am not actively searching.
I wish the evangelical church would wake up and realize how many of us there are out there feeling manipulated and abused. This community of wanderers is dealing with grief both privately and collectively. Together we weep, we rage and we try to rebuild what’s left of our shattered spiritual lives. Healing is slow and it’s painful. I’m working hard to separate the true, worthy parts of Christianity from the bullshit. I do hope to return to church someday, but I will never again be gaslighted by an institution that sells out Jesus for political power.
Elizabeth Baker is a writer and editor from Katy, Texas, who believes that stringing words together is an act of vulnerability, resistance and, ultimately, hope. She is a wife, mom of three and follower of Jesus who also has some major side-eye for the church. She writes about faith, politics and special-needs parenting at elizabethkbaker.com.