I’ve finally figured out why so many white evangelical Christians are so angry and claim they are being persecuted in America today. And it turns out we have something in common I hadn’t previously understood.
Last year, as I was working with a therapist to make sense of the spinal cord injury that had changed my life in unexpected ways, we began to discuss the meaning of the word “trauma.” He offered a definition that made a lot of sense to me and that I have repeated frequently to others: “Trauma is the gap between the way you think the world is going to be and the way it actually turns out to be.”
“The dissonance between what we expect and what we experience can be traumatic.”
The dissonance between what we expect and what we experience can be traumatic. I expected to have full use of my right arm and hand and the entire right side of my body, but suddenly I do not have that. I had grown accustomed to not living with a headache every day, but suddenly that was my new reality. Reconciling myself to the dissonance between my expectations and my reality was, indeed, traumatic.
The same is true for white evangelical Christians in America. While they no doubt have inflicted trauma on others, they also experience trauma because of the gap between how they were told the world should work and the way it actually is working. Many white evangelical Christians were raised to believe the world was ordered around their own identities. For an excellent treatment on this and other nostalgic lies, see The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz.
Also for a baseline, consider the description of the normative evangelical Christian worldview laid out by the feminist scholar and Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther: “There is one superior race: white Western Europeans. There is one exclusively true religion – Christianity – and one right kind of Christian: a born-again evangelical Protestant. There is one right family model: a heterosexual, monogamous marriage with a male breadwinner and a female housewife. There is one right economic system, free-market capitalism, and one chosen nation, the United States of America.”
This description, from her book Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family, obviously sets a standard that cannot be found in most of America today. The times have changed in every way, beginning with the economic reality of women in the workforce. Add to that increasing religious pluralism, a global economy and changing sexual mores, and you can quickly see the gap between expectation and reality. It is no wonder that older white evangelical men in particular have been driven to despair. The world is no longer spinning the way they were told it should.
Imagine a child who has been raised by doting parents who have assured her she is the most special child in the history of the world – perhaps a kindly intended effort in parenting but disconnected from reality. And then imagine that child growing up and entering the world only to discover no one else thinks she is the most special child. That’s the predicament many white evangelical Christians now experience.
“The first step to living in a new normal is to understand that our previous expectations of reality were not true.”
But who is responsible for this dissonance? Is it the fault of those who dare to live beyond the old WASPy norms? Is it the fault of government, politicians or schoolteachers? No. Instead, major responsibility must fall on the church itself for perpetuating a standard that turns out to be neither biblical nor realistic. The church – and the culture it has driven especially in the American South – spent 200 years telling the majority population that they were the most special children ever, God’s chosen ones, and everyone else should follow them.
Yet it turns out that God also loves people born with brown skin and black skin, women and men, young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor, married and single. As the New Testament declares: “God is no respecter of persons.”
Some of those newly empowered – those who have known the trauma of being disempowered their entire lives – may want to say to the newly traumatized: Get over it and get with the times. As most of us know from personal experience, it’s not that easy to adjust to change. But we also know it is possible. So expecting a rapid recalibration of expectations also is not realistic. “Get over it” is not a helpful response.
The first step to living in a new normal is to understand that our previous expectations of reality were not true. It is hard to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are more special than others, that while other people may experience trauma in life we shouldn’t. And yet the human experience carries no such guarantees of an easy life for any of us. If you don’t believe that, go read Ecclesiastes or Job.
In my case, I’ve had to make peace with the fact that the world isn’t operating the way I thought it would or should – and that the world has not stopped spinning because of that. The same should be true for white evangelical Christians who, contrary to the easy narrative, are not suffering persecution just because they can’t control society and still expect everyone else to conform to their worldview.
Getting beyond the chasm of our cultural and theological differences today will require humility on both sides. Those who were raised to believe the world was ordered to their liking will have to admit that was a lie, and those who were raised knowing the world was definitely not ordered to their liking have the opportunity to show us a better way borne out of their own life experiences.