Caleb’s Story: How I Learned to Be

(Part 1)

“We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” – Christof, The Truman Show

I think the foundational doctrine of Christian parenting is what most evangelical and fundamentalist churches refer to as original sin. Parents are taught that every child is born sinful by virtue of being descended from Adam. They are taught that their child is born prone to evil and that, without strict child training and consistent doctrine from the church, their child will be stuck in their sin and bound for an eternity of torment in a burning hell (some declare that happens only after the mysterious age of accountability). And there is an entire Christian industry that profits from and gains social and political power through this fear-based belief system.  

Though there are teachers who are very reasonable in their parenting advice, it would not be difficult for you to find books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, and Christian ministries that promote ideas such as: your baby is manipulating you from birth and taking a switch to their chubby legs is completely acceptable or spanking isn’t just an appropriate action to take against normal developmental struggles and other childish explorations, it is essential. Blanket training – tempting your infant to “sin” by rolling off the blanket you put them on, punishment by limiting feedings, and extreme sleep training are also promoted strongly. One friend of mine describes how their fundamentalist pastor took a small rag doll into the pulpit on Sunday mornings to demonstrate how parents should spank their toddlers. This isn’t just promoted by churches and ministries. It is commanded in the Scriptures. It isn’t just commanded but, in many fundamentalist and evangelical circles, parents are reassured through verses like Proverbs 20:30 and 23:13-14 that even the bruises they leave on their child are an act of love that will purge the child’s soul of evil.

Many conscientious Christians know these admonitions well. And those of us who either participated in the homeschool movement or were raised in it recognize these teachings and could name the promoters. And this isn’t a denominational issue. A reformed Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Pentecostal may all be following the same parenting instruction, though they would disagree with each other on many other points of doctrine.

If parents want to surround their child exclusively with Christian art, music, books, toys, TV, and a vast array of digital material, then it is completely possible. If a parent wants to keep their child in Christian school from preschool through college, that too is possible. Want to go over the top and make sure that your child never hears anything that you don’t believe to be true? They have home school, home church, restrictive groups, online Christian college, and even “camps” where your young adult children can meet other appropriate young adults to court rather than date. Have a problem child? You can send them to a Christian training center, conversion camp, or disciplinary rehab like the ones Josh Duggar attended. Or, perhaps one like this.

Many young people who have been raised in this manner are bearing the bitter fruit.

The media industry that feeds this cultural system is extensive. In my young adulthood the standard bearer was Dr. James Dobson and his Focus on the Family radio ministry but there were many others who tried to build on that parenting brand. And through this branding the church has created a parallel culture. I was raised during the early development of this system and raised my own children at what might be considered its height.

Parents in this system feel immense pressure to have perfect marriages and compliant children who behave like good little Christian boys and girls.  My family was no different, but we had a big problem. My parents divorced in the early 80s (a big no-no) and my dad is gay (an even bigger no-no). My mother was by all appearances a godly woman and made sure that the external image that our little family projected was a godly image with her as the central victim figure.

Family photo of her dad holding the author in the summer of 1974

After my parents’ divorce was finalized, my mom moved my sister and me three hours away from where my dad lived on the pretense that the only work she could find was in a tiny, depressed Appalachian village rather than in the suburban area of the city nearest us. For the next couple of years, she regularly told me that my dad did not care about us or want to see us, and on the rare occasion that a visit was arranged, she complained endlessly about his “friend” and how awful his family was. She even complained about the presents they sent me for birthdays and Christmas – telling me that they were trying to buy my love. Eventually, my sister and I adapted ourselves to her version of things and with her encouragement, told our dad that we didn’t want to see him anymore. I saw my father’s face and heard his voice only once between age 8 and age 26.

At age 26, when I took steps to reconcile with my dad, my mother became very nervous and warned me not to believe the things he told me. It was nearly another two decades before my dad and I had enough honest communication for me to understand why mom was so scared.

My mom had outed my dad in the early eighties in our small, conservative Pennsylvania community. She outed him to his entire family. She outed him to her family. And the natural result of a bunch of *godly* church women praying was him being outed to everyone else. She and my maternal grandpa also wanted to have him institutionalized for treatment and only his loving uncle stood in the gap for him. That is what preceded the divorce and while he was recovering from the exposure and loss of everything, my mom was actively working to estrange us from him. And I am sure she had more than a few Christians supporting her.

And so, even though my dad is gay, my childhood ended up being very evangelical and, as a natural consequence, anti-gay. The church provided me with the doctrine that allowed me to view my dad as less than and my mom provided me a solid base of shame, disrespect, and assumptions.

It wasn’t until I was turning 12 that my dad’s sexuality was revealed to me. My mom made a production of the event. She orchestrated it to occur when my aunt (who suffered from serious mental illness) was visiting us. She sat us down at the dining room table in our apartment and proceeded to tell us all the dirty little secrets that had been stowed away in the deep dark family closet. She asked my aunt to tell us about her illness, out of wedlock baby, and broken engagement. When my aunt was done speaking, my mom told us of our uncle’s many sordid affairs with local women, then, as the icing on the cake, she told us about our dad. Mom neglected to reveal her own dirty secrets, though she certainly had them. She then said that she had done this because we were moving back to the area where my dad and his family lived, and she wanted us prepared to deal with it.

We moved that summer and just over a year later my mom married my stepfather and pushed very hard for him to adopt us. She pressured me repeatedly to become his daughter and erase my past because my dad didn’t care about me. But I instinctively resisted.

And so began my teen years. While many of my peers avoided extremes and feel that they had completely normal childhoods in this evangelical environment, I didn’t. Not only did my family life leave much to be desired, but cultivating spirituality, including everything the church said about family life, became my past-time. And eventually, it became my everything.

Click here for part two.

Former evangelical homeschool mom and one-time missionary and pastor’s wife, Stephanie Logan, aka Snicklefritz, writes from her life story and four decades of experience in the evangelical movement. Her views and stories are her own.

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