I grew up in a very Baptist family in South Carolina, they’re still Baptist. They voted for Donald Trump despite the fact that his actions go against basically every teaching of Jesus. They’re still standing behind him no matter how grotesque his behavior gets, and I can’t stop thinking about how supportive they are of this man when they did everything but send me to conversion therapy when I came out to them. I am their child and grandchild and they’ve chastised me for homosexuality for eight years now, but what they feel for a man who assaults women and is blatantly and unabashedly racist is practically worship. I do not stand in opposition to the teachings of Christ. Trump does. Yet I’m the one who’s ostracized. Why are they like this? I’m serious. I think it would help me if I could understand why they’re like this. And, maybe it’s not possible, but do you know how can I ever move past it?
Ah, friend. This is a tough one. I’m going to try to answer both of your questions, but the first thing I want to say is: I’m sorry. And also: I understand. My roots are deep and my experiences are wide in the evangelical Christian world; and I continue to struggle with these questions in my own life.
I’ll try to answer the why first because I think it makes the how a little more manageable.
The thing you have to know about the Southern Baptist Convention — the toxic garden from which all these evangelical leaders and politicians grow — is that it was founded when white southern Baptists split from white northern abolitionist Baptists prior to the Civil War, and they did so to continue to use the Bible to defend slavery. When they lost that fight, they championed Jim Crow laws. And when they lost that fight, they championed banning interracial marriage. It’s a religious movement literally founded on and sustained for a century by pure racism, and when Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater came to the south in the late ’60s to court those white voters by appealing to and validating that racism, by telling them they were right to fear and resent the cultural change caused by the Civil Rights movement, that the liberal elite in the north didn’t understand what it meant to be true patriots, Southern Baptists and the Republican Party became inextricably linked together.
By the mid-90s, the GOP was finding it harder to be as overt in their racism as they had been 30 years earlier. Yes, their policies were still racist, but they had to be more palatably so. In a now infamous interview in 1981, Lee Atwater, a Republican consultant and adviser to Ronald Reagan, explained that the party had to keep finding newer, more subtle ways to appeal to racists: “You start out in 1954 [using racial slurs]. By 1968, you can’t say [racial slurs] — that hurts you, it backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” So the racism remained, but the party needed a new scapegoat they could go after loudly. The Southern Baptist Convention made a deliberate and calculated decision to make that new scapegoat gay people.
It’s a very simple strategy: Baptist pastors convince church members their way of life is under threat by an other, GOP leaders promise to create laws to protect the faithful from the threat, Baptist leaders deliver votes to GOP politicians, GOP politicians craft the laws that validate the threat-rhetoric, the other pushes back and protests, Baptist leaders point to those protests and say, “See? Our way of life is under threat!” The GOP steps in and says, “We’ll save you!” Black people, gay people, immigrants, Muslims, trans people. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The tactic hasn’t changed in 150 years, only the scapegoats and the Bible verses used to justify persecuting them.
Which is why, when Fox News arrived on the scene, it became easy as pie for them to step into the swamp of that propaganda and exploit it. The structure was there; they turned it into a machine. For eight years, a black president occupied the Oval Office, and 24 hours a day, every day, Fox News and the conservative punditry herd doubled down and down, again and again, on the bigotry that’s coded into the very DNA of white evangelical Christianity and therefore the Republican Party.
Donald Trump is the through line, the inevitability of a political party and major religion whose lifeblood is creating imaginary monsters out of smoke and mirrors.
So that’s the world you were born into, friend, and the world your family still lives inside. Do you know cognitive dissonance? It’s the intense psychological stress experienced by a person who tries to hold two contradictory beliefs in their head at the same time. Now, everyone’s number one favorite belief is, “I’m a good person.” And every religious person’s favorite belief adds to that, “And I’m right with God.” For your family’s entire lives, they’ve believed they’re good people and they’re right with God in large part because they’ve “protected” themselves and their community and their faith by voting for Republicans, who are defending them from the others.
You are saying: Look at these facts. Can you not see that Donald Trump is a corrupt, depraved con-man?
They are hearing: Look at these facts. Can you not see that this man you’re defending is racist and xenophobic and transphobic and sexist, and therefore your actions are wrong, and therefore your faith leaders are lost at best or corrupt at worst, and therefore the church and political party you’ve spent a lifetime supporting is not good?
Rather than confronting your facts — which would shake the foundations of their very identities — they turn instinctively back to Fox News where James Dobson is saying it’s okay that Trump is embroiled in perpetual sexual scandal because he’s a “baby Christian.” Where Jerry Falwell Jr. is saying it’s okay that Trump calls POC-populated countries “shitholes” because what that really means is he’s not a “phony.” Where Billy Graham Jr. is saying the proof Trump’s a Christian is in his conservative judicial appointments. Never mind that those transparently dishonest and self-serving sentiments would have Jesus spitting “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” at them. Those words soothe the consciences of your family. Their core belief that they are good people remains in tact.
The hard truth is, humans are narcissists above all else. When you came out to your family, they didn’t ask themselves, “Is she bad?” They asked themselves, “If she’s gay and I’ve been taught gay people are sinners, am I bad? Is my religion bad? Have I devoted my life to a lie?” And rather than wrestling with that, rather than self-interrogating and trying to find grace in nuance and compassion for a person they loved, they settled on, “No, I’m good; she must be bad.”
The next question is much harder: How can you move past it?
I’m sorry to tell you: You can’t. You won’t. You will never forget that your family voted for Donald Trump and you will never forget that they have stood by him through every ugly, outlandish, monstrous thing he’s done. You will never stop mentally juxtaposing the way they treated you when you came out as a lesbian with the way they treated him when he said he grabs women by their pussies. Even if, one day, they realize the way they treated you was wrong, you won’t be able to stop yourself from feeling incandescent rage and despair that they can’t extend that same compassion and logic to the other minorities getting scapegoated and pummeled by this presidency. And honestly, I don’t think you should get over it.
I think the best thing you can do for yourself is to move forward with a clear-eyed understanding of the reasons your family believes what they believe and votes how they vote and defends what they defend. Because if you get that, you can understand that it was never about their love for you (though it should have been) but about the terror of confronting their own wrong and bigoted beliefs, and the way that confrontation would have unraveled their worlds.
And then, with that clear-eyed understanding, you can decide where to go. You can start working from the outside-in to try to help them change. The best thing you can do for them is cut off their access to the propaganda. As long as they’re seeking daily (or hourly!) confirmation bias from the conservative punditry herd, they’re never going to change. If you can pull or push them away from that, you’re on the right track. Or you can keep them at arm’s length and refuse to engage with them if they’re not arguing with you with real facts based in reality in the real world, if they’re just parroting whatever bullshit they heard Rush Limbaugh say the day before. Or you can take some time away from them and heal as you grapple with the myriad ways and reasons they’ve hurt you. Or you can stay close to them and continue to appeal to them on an emotional level by explaining the ways their hypocrisy hurts you; you can even bring Jesus into it. Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about gay people, but he has PLENTY to say about the kinds of religious leaders who support a man like Donald Trump.
I looked a man I’ve loved my entire life in the eyes a few months ago and said, “You’re racist.” That tactic is not supposed to work, but something about the fact that it was me — a little girl he’d spoon-fed and taught to read — shook him in his deepest heart. He turned off Fox News.
Here are three facts:
1) Our families are pawns in a zero-sum propaganda war that’s been funded and fueled by the white evangelical Christian Church and the Republican Party for decades.
2) We can’t side-step our responsibilities as activists.
3) There’s always hope.
And now you get to choose how to engage with those three truths with your eyes wide open!