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.
Thank you for laying this out so clearly and concisely. Thank you for breaking the silence that allows this behavior to thrive. Hopefully we see folks freed
Thank you so much for sharing this. It was written very well. I grew up in an evangelical household as well and the part about sitting on the couch listening to your many failings was sadly familiar to me.
I was also part of Youth With A Mission when I was 18 and 19 so it was good to see a reminder of loaded language. I work with a lot of Christians and that’s fine but sometimes they use phrases I remember hearing in my youth and it immediately sets my teeth to grinding. Sometimes I don’t even realize why my teeth are grinding, so it’s always good to see a reminder that the things they are saying ARE messed up, it just takes someone (like me and like you) who has been inside to know WHY the things they say are messed up.
Anyway, this is turning in to a long comment. I just wanted to say thanks.
This article hit everything that made me uncomfortable or alienated at my parent’s Baptist church. I’ve never seen such a clearly worded definition of terms that their specific church used.
Thankfully my parents were sometimes more moderate than their peers, but their congregation often were not. I know many of them genuinely cared about us, but they sometimes had a very painful way of expressing it.
Thank you so much for an excellent read. This was deeply relatable for me.
I couldn’t even read more than halfway because it immediately took me back to it all. It takes such strength to do this. Thank you.
saaaaame here <3
If I had a penny for every time I was called rebellious and ungodly, I’d be seriously rich! I was about as well-behaved as humanly possible and all the other parents thought I was perfect. Mine just saw Satan and defiance of God.
^thisssssss. Omg this!
I’m sorry we understand one another. XD
I just wanted to say, I 100% believe you. As an atheist (not a passionate one by any means) who grew up with friends who were members of conservative Christian churches, this use of loaded language and practice of false logic and bounded choice in church environments was very obvious to me.
I remember feeling so frustrated with some very smart people who didn’t seem to be able to understand how what they were saying made absolutely no sense – couldn’t they see they were not making logical arguments on social issues? Couldn’t they see the church’s position was incredibly controlling and uncaring? (No, they couldn’t, because their language didn’t allow them to.)
Language is an incredibly powerful tool for social control. Anyone breaking free from this kind of environment literally has to learn a new language and that offers a serious challenge to one’s sense of self and identity. I’m in serious awe of queer friends who grow up in these environments and still manage to find their true selves. So much courage and strength. Thank you for writing this.
“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?”
I believe you. Not only do I believe you, but a lot of your experiences either mirror my own or those of my childhood friends.
In truth, I am still trying to break free of the damage done to me by various denominations within evangelicalism. I think breaking free would be a lot easier if I could walk away from my faith altogether. But I can’t. Luckily, as I forgive, I am reclaiming a lot of this “loaded language”. I may not use it personally, but it also no longer has power over me.
I feel caught between two worlds. Within the Christian LGBT community I frequent, they are falling into the same traps. Working towards inclusivity and equality of church membership without truly deconstructing if evangelical Christianity is worth fighting for, to begin with.
On the other hand, I find myself hiding the part of me that deeply loves Jesus and is committed to following Him, for fear of being rejected, or worse, inflicting more pain on others just by the mention of my faith.
“Modesty” was the one that always got me. I remember being told at summer camp that it was up to us girls to “help our brothers in Christ” by dressing more “modestly” (i.e. No two piece swimsuits, tank tops, shorts, etc etc etc), so as not to tempt them.
It still makes my stomach ache to remember that feeling of shame, hurt, confusion and, what I can now identify as simmering rage.
I legit had a t-shirt freshman year of highschool that said MODEST IS HOTTEST and it was skin tight and no one at my youth group got that it was ironic…
It’s odd, my parents did the same “sit you down and tell you that you’re a menace to society for not cleaning the house” thing when I was in my early teens, except they weren’t remotely religious.
So the whole “you should be ashamed, you stain on society” thing didn’t really work too well, given that I had been raised with a clear view of society and knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I mean, it was still horrid, but I never thought I’d feel grateful that I wasn’t also betraying god.
The Protestant work ethic is pervasive, even permeating secular society.
I grew up in a strikingly similar environment (woooo fundamentalist homeschooling!) and it’s been interesting to me to see the slow build of the intensity of the language. It starts out quiet and passive, with “You’re not honoring Jesus” or whatever, and Bible verses, when you’re little, and then boom! You’re 24 and your dad is telling you that you getting engaged to your girlfriend is a “tragedy” brought on because you’re “sex-crazed.” That loaded passive aggression always always leads to much more obvious vitriol if you don’t fall in line as perfectly as possible. Ugh.
Fundamentalist homeschooling is the worst. My science education was damaged so badly I’m still learning basics in my thirties.
Spot on description of the language of fundamentalist Christianity. My family was part of ATI (Bill Gothard’s homeschool cult) circa the mid 90s- early 00s, and it’s the language that still triggers me the most, even from well-meaning progressive Christians. To this day I don’t know if my parents were just completely brainwashed, “trying to do god’s best for their kids,” or too simple to think critically about the stuff they were teaching us and the way they were raising us. They eventually “grew out” of their fundamentalism after we went off to college but they’ve never apologized for the harm it caused and they halfheartedly defend themselves if we bring it up.
I feel you so hard on this <3
There is not a single group of people anywhere that has done more to make me believe that Jesus himself was a fraud than today’s Christians.
I used to put Christian in quotes for these people. But now I believe that no this is what they are-they ARE what Christians are.
Any “prophet” who creates these kind of people is only a prophet of hate.
It is kind of incredible to see someone else understand this language like I do. I feel freer knowing that other folks out there have lived this thing and GET it. What you said about the act of translating being exhausting is on point. Good on you and thanks for making me feel seen!
This is such a fantastic analysis. As someone who can relate to many of these examples of fundamentalist speech, I can really appreciate how difficult it must have been for you to get to where you are today, and to revisit your past in this way. Thank you for this!
Just wanted to say that, however it might sometimes feel, there ARE people who believe you, and people who care. And to thank you for putting yourself thru the pain to write this.
Hi, Kierstyn. Amazing–thanks for writing this and letting us know about it. I mean, some of us have a vague idea that this is going on, but…yeow. Just know that millions of us are out there and really do care about what happens, to you, and to others who are going through this.
You mentioned in your recent article (but for some reason it isn’t allowing me to post!) that you were trained in critical thinking, but within a limited scope–forget now how you say it, but that what you could argue for was circumscribed. I teach critical thinking and am interested in how critical thinking is used for social justice causes, and how we can best use these tools. But this is the flip side (not to imply a false equivalence!), one that I do not get to see. Do you have any such materials that might have been used, or could I interview you about it? Do you know where I could obtain materials for this? You do what you do, well, and spread the news about it. (thank you!) I have the relevant skills and experience do something else that is valuable. Would you help me, even if that is just directing me to resources? Thanks!
Brad Kelley (email@example.com)