For parents who grew up evangelical, it can be quite the ethical conundrum to justify the moral values espoused by the current president of the United States, whom 81% of white evangelicals put into power, to our children—a president who publicly boasts of demeaning women, inciting violence against vulnerable people, is arrogant, dishonest, lacks empathy, and embodies everything we don’t want to raise our children to be.
How do you uphold a belief system and at the same time utterly reject the outcome of that system?
The short answer: you don’t.
I grew up as an evangelical and as I began to think about the kinds of values I wanted to pass on to my children, I realized the core elements of my own faith upbringing were in direct opposition to what we are learning to be developmentally optimal for children’s flourishing.
Evangelicalism establishes a hierarchy of humanity’s place in the world that leads to authoritarianism which we’re seeing play out in the strongman politics of the Trump administration. A recent, prominent demonstration of this can be seen in Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, defense of Trump in which he stated there is nothing the president can do that evangelical leaders would not support.
This unbridled support for authority is established in the home. Conservative Christian literature teaches that there is a clear authority structure divinely sanctioned by God, in which fathers are placed as head of the households, wives are to submit, and children are expected to commit to “first time obedience,” which means obedience without challenge, complaint, or delay. It basically reduces children to automatons and strips them of agency.
What evangelicals champion as “Good News” for children is actually very bad news. Physically, children don’t have rights and freedom from violence. Conservative Christian conventional wisdom uses biblical justification of “the rod,” to suggest spanking as a godly form of discipline.
Emotionally, children are taught to suppress their emotions, specifically they are not allowed to be bitter, resentful, angry, or even sad, as that is seen as spiritual weakness and not trusting in God. Positive emotions like joy, happiness, and pride are also kept in check, ensuring they are giving glory to God instead of their own sense of accomplishment.
Spiritually, evangelical Christian parents are taught their top priority is to ensure their children’s eternal salvation by conversion, so that children are not given the time and opportunity to make their religious allegiances out of their own agency.
Because of the power and reach of evangelicals, many of these parenting practices have fused with popular cultural beliefs, so that these kinds of fundamentalist parenting takes root and permeates in many families regardless of church attendance or religious affiliation.
For parents who want to take seriously modern sociological, psychological, and neurological research on children’s development and well-being—the data is telling us that spanking is harmful and ineffective, children’s emotions should be validated, and that a thriving spirituality is directly correlated with a child’s sense of agency. Dr. Lisa Miller, in her book, The Spiritual Child, iterates based on research in the field of psychiatry, that spirituality is meaningful when there is personal choice and ownership.
When I survey the evidence on what will help me give my children their best chance at a healthy childhood, as well as parenting for the good of larger society to raise functioning adults who will resist authoritarianism and champion values like truth, morality, healthy spirituality, and equality, it becomes clear that I have to reject the evangelicalism of my childhood.
Rejecting the values of your own upbringing is not as scary as you might think. We used to not wear seat belts, and then we learned to do it, and now it’s just normal.
Sometimes the roadmap forward is simply x-ing out all the paths that didn’t lead us where we want to go. I’m not saying it’s easy to disentangle ourselves from the values that shaped our formation, it’s a complicated process. But as counterintuitive as it might be, breaking toxic cycles brings healing to ourselves and breathes hope as our children grows up with less to unlearn.
I was raised evangelical, but I hope my children find a better path forward.