In May 2007, my mom had preeclampsia and was almost overdue on her 9th pregnancy. I was 16, had just had my graduation ceremony and my best friend came down from Maine to visit for a week before going to TeenPact National Convention with me.
On this particular day, I woke up, got the list of chores I needed to do for the day from mom, as usual, and proceeded to do them as I was able while taking care of my siblings. I needed to do the dishes, about 10 loads of laundry and shower in addition to feeding, bathing and teaching my siblings while having a friend over. After lunch my mom decided that my friend, my brother and I should go on the field trip with the youth group at our church. This was interesting because up until recently we weren’t allowed to go to youth group or interact much with our peers at church. So we went, confused, and I hadn’t finished all of my chores. I assumed since mom had gotten us out of the house that it was okay the laundry was still undone.
I was horribly wrong.
When I got home my parents got everyone to bed quickly and sat me down to “talk.”
What followed was several hours of me sitting on the couch curled up into a ball, while my parents sat on the other couch across from me, yelling about what a terrible person I was. Loud enough that all my siblings and my friend in the basement could hear.
“What do you think God thinks of your deliberate disobedience and rebellious attitude?” “If you continue down this path, young lady, that’s the path to hell.” “God is not pleased with your attitude and how you’ve been doing your job.” “You were better at being a sister and home keeper when you were eight.” “Your job as a daughter is to learn how to be a keeper at home, to take care of your family, immediate obedience with a cheerful heart. You have been sighing and having a bad attitude and not obeying immediately. This isn’t evident of Godly character.”
They yelled at me and assaulted my character until late, because I forgot and didn’t have time to do the laundry before we were sent on the field trip. My forgetfulness was not accepted as simple forgetting; it was evidence of rebellion and malice. It was evidence that I was straying from the path ordained for me by my parents and by calling out my egregious failings, I would step back in line and resume my servitude with a smile and instant obedience like a robot.
My parents used loaded language to make me feel ashamed, inadequate and guilty. Everyone uses loaded language without even thinking about it; every clique, every club, every group has their own set of phrases and words that can shut down conversations or mean something specific within a context that only the members are aware of. Some examples of loaded language in the mainstream are words and phrases like “gentrification,” “be excellent to each other,” or “fetch.”
The term Christofascist is a loaded word that I spent time making synonymous with extreme conservative evangelical Christianity in my first article.
Cults often use loaded language on their membership to isolate, indoctrinate and control the thoughts of their congregation. For example, when Christofascists talk about Godly Character, what most people hear is something that means please and thank you, do unto others, be nice, work hard, etc. When I hear Godly Character, I think of very specific gendered behaviors and how these words are used to keep people in line.
Godly Character for women includes: being a stay at home daughter or mother, never having a contradictory opinion, never challenging a man in public, always smiling, teaching other women to live the way you do, baking bread from scratch, being sexually available to your husband at all times and denying yourself autonomy.
Godly Character for men looks like: taking charge of things and telling people what to do, think, and how to act; being the breadwinner, proselytizing, making all decisions for your family as the interpreter of God’s will for them, starting or participating in conversations about your spirituality and denying others autonomy.
Godly Character gets complicated if you’re trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming because our existence is either not recognized at all or labeled too evil to even talk about. Instead you are expected to play the part of the role assigned to you by your parents at birth and forced to repress any self-expression that doesn’t fit in the box they placed you in.
While my parents accepted some expressions of independence and masculinity from their daughters wholeheartedly, it was always with the understanding that it didn’t cross a line. It was alright to want to go shooting, have a strong opinion (if it was one that my parents agreed with) and collect bugs, but not okay to expect to be treated as an autonomous individual, have ultimate say over your own future, or learn higher math and sciences.
Other families are more strict in monitoring the social gender performance of their children which makes it harder for trans kids who are forced to repress themselves further.
How is this relevant to the Christofascist movement? Using loaded language gives them the ability to appear benign to the mainstream world while their members know the weight behind the words they’re saying and all the implications those carry. TeenPact, Generation Joshua, NCFCA, etc, all use phrases like “defend the Christian faith,” “impact the nation for Christ,” “influence today’s culture” and “biblical worldview.” At face value, they seem innocuous enough and there’s no detail in the surrounding context about what that looks like, so you could easily assume it just means handing out tracts on a corner.
When these phrases are used within the evangelical Christian context, the definitions sound more like this:
Impact the nation for Christ: Men: Run for office, climb the ladders in your career, start businesses that have very conservative Christian values (i.e. no reproductive care covered in health insurance, discriminatory hiring and service, no work on Sundays), spread Christianity every opportunity you get but especially combined with political or economic power. Women: breed and support your husband doing those things.
Defend the Christian faith: Be able to persuasively respond to everyone who has questions about your beliefs, work against legislation that promotes equality for women, queers and people of color. Men become pastors, women become unpaid church laborers.
Influence today’s culture: Don’t shy away from the media, become involved in it, change it from the inside. Make content that is heavily Christian (see the Kendrick Brothers’ movies — Fireproof, War Room, Courageous) but mainstream enough to get into the general populace. It goes without saying that men have free rein here, while women can only make content dedicated to women admonishing them to stay at home and care for their families.
Biblical Worldview: This is used in almost every community and means slightly different things depending on the particular group, but it almost always has the same core planks. First, The Trinity must always be accepted, no questions asked. Second, man is fallible and sinful and deserves pain and suffering by default. Three, the consequences of sin is death, therefore, we need to brutally rehabilitate the gays, feminists and lazy, poor or homeless people into our perfect Christian society. A Biblical worldview is very black and white: Abortion is wrong, queerness is an abomination, hell is real.
Loaded language is used to keep women and children in line by combining it with social pressure. Those of us who grew up in these environments know what these phrases mean and that the consequences can ultimately result in ostracism. People will talk, you will become an example. You’ll hear things like we should pray for the Smiths to find God’s guidance on bringing their rebellious child back to the fold.
I remember kids I knew being discussed in hushed tones and prayers for their family. The sins of these kids? Being moody, wearing black, not obeying their parents instantly and without question. Other parents wouldn’t get involved with the family’s problem but would use the children of other families as examples to their own, with their own set of consequences should we make those mistakes.
The crime of expressing any form of individuality is often met first with rebuke from parents or pastors and can escalate from there. When your immediate community is your family and your church with little to no exposure to anything else, the ultimate punishment for being out of line can look like losing whatever little bit of freedom and community you had.
What Orwell called “newspeak” isn’t limited to keeping members in line, however. Words and phrases are often used to shut down conversation and thought. This occurs in textbooks and curricula as well as verbally. All of my science books by Alpha Omega were presented from an obviously Protestant Christian point of view and didn’t leave any room for questioning. All science was presented as God made it this way, so this is how it works. The Scientific Method was touched on but never practiced. Unanswered questions weren’t meant to be explored, because God knew. No further explanation required.
Every Christian organization has its own language, with its own rules and its own meanings. It would be impossible to find every instance to document and explain them. Instead, I’ve created an incomplete glossary of terms and phrases and what they mean in the context of my sub-sect of evangelical Christianity:
The World: Anyone who is not a Christian of the same variety, generally used as a caution, ex: “ Don’t follow the worldly ways of your peers,” “the world will try to tempt you into sin,” or “we must be in the world, but not of it.” meaning we are meant to be converting people, not joining them. This mentality often fuels a massive superiority complex by implying that by not being of the world (i.e. part of it) we are better and everyone should listen to us because we are enlightened and they are not.
Darkness/Light: Often used as a metaphor for good and evil and to further perpetuate an Us vs Them mentality. Ex: We are the light, meant to pierce the darkness. The darkness is anything contrary to what we believe.
Bitterness: Being rightfully angry about something that isn’t seen as wrong or abusive in the community. Ex: If someone is excommunicated and talks about it, they are written off as being bitter and told they need to repent of their bitterness .
(The) Word: The Word (of God) is the unquestionable, ultimate authority. The Word is used to describe something that God said either in the bible, or personally to an authority (or you, if you’re male). People in my churches often had Words From The Lord for other people that had to do with detailed personal situations. What was really just unsolicited advice is now The Holy Word Of God You Dare Not Cross. The Word is often invoked manipulatively, as it shuts down questioning and leaves little room for discussion when used in interpersonal contexts.
God’s Will/ “Not Our Ways”: When national disasters or unexpected deaths occur, this phrase is often used to give tragedy a reason. It’s not uncommon to be paired with condemning queerness and writing off natural disasters as punishment on us for allowing gay people to exist. When people die, the refrain is God’s ways are not our ways , or some slightly veiled way of explaining that they died for a reason, because God wanted them to. God’s Will is invoked in interpersonal relationships in ways that “convict” people to change their behavior, or to explain the unexplainable.
Convict/tion: God-ordained emotional/verbal abuse and guilt tripping. Conviction or feeling convicted is often what happens when an authority indirectly targets you in a sermon and proceeds to shame you. The desired end result is feeling uncomfortable or guilty enough to change your behavior to be more agreeable to the authority figure.
Rebellious: You are labeled rebellious if you exhibit any kind of autonomy that is not allowed by your family. Some families allow some limited forms of autonomous expression, but those expressions are almost always bound. There is often just enough room to let people think they have freedom but know the strict punishment for stepping outside the boundaries.
Obey/Obedience: Submit to any male authority (unless you’re a child, in which case you submit to all) instantly and without question. We are told we should be obedient, even unto death when it comes to things God (in the form of our parents, husband or pastor) tells us.
Keeper At Home/Homekeeper: A woman, if unmarried: rearing her siblings, teaching, cooking, cleaning, and learning how to run a household. If married: Having children, teaching children, teaching unmarried women about being a wife (i.e. sexually available at all times with no identity of your own), cooking, baking, cleaning. If you imagine a 50’s housewife, that’s a good gist.
This isn’t an exhaustive list and several other posts have been written that describe the phenomena that I’m talking about. Lewis Wells from Commandments of Men spent a few years documenting his experience with religious fundamentalism and the loaded language that was used to control people’s behavior.
In my own family, I was afforded just enough freedom to feel like I was making choices and thinking for myself. This is a tactic in cult-like environments to make it harder for people to leave, because they don’t see the coercion infused in the language of their tribe. Quivering Daughters introduced the concept of double-bind to me as bounded choice and explained how these are used within families to keep adult children tied to them.
The use of loaded language and double-binds in evangelical conservative families and their churches as a way to maintain control is not uncommon. Later, this same language can be used as a tool against survivors of abuse who have escaped these environments as a way of gaslighting.
When the only language you know is loaded, both internal and external gaslighting sound a lot like “who’s going to believe you? none of this means anything bad?” Because people inside the cult probably won’t believe you, and translating the language to people outside takes time, speaking up about the abuse in cult-like environments comes at a huge personal cost. Loss of community, trust and support happens simultaneously with trying to find your footing in a new (to you) world.
When my parents told me I was being rebellious, that my character was ungodly and that I was going down the path to hell for not doing the laundry that day or being a good caretaker in general, what they communicated to me was: I was not fulfilling my role properly, to continue to fail would mean more punishment, more isolation, unless I followed God’s will and conformed to what they wanted: a quiet, cheerful daughter, “happy” to be a surrogate mother and teacher until (my parents determined) it was God’s will for me to marry.
Even in writing this, I’ve been combating internal gaslighting over relaying this story and some of the phrases used in my childhood. Who would believe me when I say platitudes like God’s ways are not our ways are used to inflict pain, when they’re normally used to ease it? Why would anyone care?
Loaded language in Christofascist environments limits the options that we see as available to ourselves and our futures. In these communities our world is surrounded by walls constructed with words that weigh more than they should. Breaking free of that shatters our sense of reality but also enables us to shed light on an otherwise hidden subculture as we rebuild.