Have you ever been betrayed by someone?
How did you feel?
How quickly were you ready and willing to trust them again?
From a paper in the journal of Behavior Research and Therapy, betrayal “can be traumatic and cause considerable distress. The effects of betrayal include shock, loss and grief, morbid pre-occupation, damaged self-esteem, self-doubting, anger. Not infrequently they produce life-altering changes. The effects of a catastrophic betrayal are most relevant for anxiety disorders, and OCD and PTSD in particular. Betrayal can cause mental contamination, and the betrayer commonly becomes a source of contamination.“
What if your betrayal wasn’t by a person, but by a group or an organization?
What if that organization was one on which you’d founded your entire identity for decades?
I suggest the results would be measurably worse than any betrayal by any single individual, even by a spouse. At least a person who betrays us can repent and attempt to restore relationship, but typically we’re individually only a small cog in an organization, and very very rarely will the whole organization pivot to save the one.
This topic of institutional betrayal is discussed in this paper from the University of Oregon. It points out a few key details about institutional betrayal. For one thing, institutions usually act to preserve their identity at the expense of those they harm. For another, the types of typical harm are both numerous and widespread. “Institutional effects arise in a staggering array of events from unfair or exploitative workplace policies, to legalized withholding of rights from classes of people (such as the right to marriage or health care), to the systemic destruction of a culture or people through genocide.“
One of the key effects or outcomes of institutional betrayal is identified as “disengagement from previously valued institutions as a whole.“
At the core, it is a trauma response. In days past, trauma response was mostly understood only in terms of combat or life-threatening disasters or accidents or violent crimes. But recently the field has expanded to begin to understand personal response to institutional or systemic forces.
Psychologists now understand that trauma doesn’t require violence or intense fear. Betrayal is also a key source of trauma.
People who are traumatized this way have a few possible responses: flight from the situation, staying in the situation but with (often subconscious) suppression of the memories, or even unhealthy attachment behaviors to ingratiate oneself to the betrayer to avoid further wounding.
Perhaps you can already see where this going. Religion, politics, 2020…
In the last few years, a very high number of Christians have begun to realize that things are not what they had been told for decades. The sudden explosion of “deconstruction” is evidence that many people are rethinking their relationship, in particular, with their doctrines, their churches, and even their entire faith structures. 2020, in particular, seems to have catalyzed a rapid change in many people, although the deconstruction movement, such as it is, has been around a bit longer than that, probably really taking root with Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
At this point, perhaps I should stop talking about other people, and focus on my own experiences and reactions.
Until 2020, I identified as a conservative evangelical Christian and a conservative Republican. I had been deeply involved in my church for 30 years, as a worship leader, marriage ministry leader, audiovisual team leader, deacon, and trustee. I believed abortion and homosexuality were always wrong. I believed welfare and high minimum wages were bad for people. I believed the Republican Party was the bastion of righteous politics and the party of respect for law and order and good moral behavior. I believed the evangelical church was the repository of God’s Spirit on earth, and anything progressive (whether political or doctrinal) was evil and opposed to righteousness.
During 2019, I went through some deep spiritual counseling that healed my ability to be empathetic, and to finally see and hear other people’s emotions and internal response, and for the first time in my life to really understand other people’s pain and suffering. You can find more discussion of this, and the reasons why, in the first few articles on my blog.
And then, 2020 happened.
COVID hit, and I watched evangelical churches go absolutely insane in their response to quarantines. I watched evangelical Christians reject reasonable and rational science, in favor of loony conspiracy theories and proven-ineffective animal medicines. I watched three people in our own church die because people refused to take even minimal precautions during meetings. I watched my uncle die (with three other members of his congregation) when his church insisted in rejecting quarantines and his family rejected doctor’s advice for treatment.
I watched our church turn its back on my family’s immune-compromised need for extra COVID precautions, along with a number of other families in similar situations. After an initial and gratifying period of wise caution, I watched it coldly go back to operations as normal, insisting that anyone needing safety could just become homebound, instead of continuing reasonable and rational precautions against infecting others. As the person who’d been singularly responsible for creating and running our entire online COVID streaming ministry for the first year and a half of COVID, this felt like an absolute slap in the face.
Then George Floyd was murdered, and I watched evangelical churches go insane in their response to Black Lives Matter. I watched our church initially – to my great joy – preach a couple messages of heartbreak over the murder, and appealing for a rejection of racism – but watched half the congregation threaten to leave over this antiracism, insisting that there was no way there was any racism in our church… despite detailed testimony from numerous Black and brown people to the contrary. I watched our church completely reverse course in just a couple weeks and then preach several messages against BLM and anything at all related to social justice – and the other half of the church threaten to leave because of this rejection of the initial compassionate response to racism.
I found myself abruptly cancelled by my own church of 32 years for talking about my heartbreak over antiracism on my own social media pages, and was told by the pastor that maybe it wasn’t the church for me, if I insisted on not being silenced and toeing the dogmatic line.
I started studying. Hard.
I dug into the science of COVID and how to protect my family, and discovered that most evangelical Christians were completely clueless about medical matters, and wanted to listen to pundits and conspiracy theorists instead of actual medical experts.
I dug into American racial history, and discovered that what I’d been told my entire conservative political life about Black people and how we’d truly treated them was mostly lies. That contrary to the party line, Black people were still today being oppressed by far-ranging systemic policies. That despite decades of integration, non-whites are still fighting an uphill battle that leaves them behind in providing for their families and their heirs.
I dug into Biblical and theological history, and discovered that what I’d been told my entire religious life about things we Christians supposedly “always believed” was in fact extremely recent theological developments. What I’d always thought was the only way to view doctrine was in fact a minority of the global understanding of Christian thinking. I found that there was far more disagreement on doctrine than agreement. That those theologians closest in time to the events of the Bible completely disagreed with our modern interpretations. That the Bible wasn’t – and in fact couldn’t rationally be – considered to be inerrant. That the stories we’d been told about the “writing” of the Bible were flatly impossible. That political power to support the Roman empire and the authority of its emperor was the impetus behind the current canon. That most of our modern Christian thinking was in fact driven by secular modernism and enlightenment, not millennia-old unchanging doctrine. That most of our modern interpretations would have been utterly alien to the original listeners and readers of the scriptures.
I dug into gender topics, and discovered that most of the Bible verses used to clobber gays had very different interpretations to early readers. That numerous gay and transgender or intersexed people were included among the early and widely-affirmed saints and church fathers. That the great King James – of King James Version fame – was himself widely known to be bisexual, and that numerous letters to his male lovers were in the historical record. That nearly everything that I’d been told by my church upbringing about gay people was flatly false. That most of the rhetoric I had learned and even used was lies and propaganda. That numerous current cultures recognize more than two genders. That trans people had been around for thousands of years. That intersex people actually exist at substantial percentages, and that the human brain is rarely completely gender-binary in most people. That the leading gay-conversion group finally admitted that gay people simply can’t be “corrected” by conversion programs, and over 99.5% of their “conversions” failed.
I dug into abortion rights, and discovered that the most effective ways to reduce abortion had long been rejected by evangelicals because they looked too politically liberal. That abortion wasn’t actually rejected by the Bible. That many of the verses used to oppose all abortion were not really about what they were used to say, and were mostly taken out of context. That early church ideas about ensoulment and when personhood began were far closer to modern pro-choice reasoning than any antiabortion stance. That supposedly pro-life crisis pregnancy clinics were using unethical techniques to sway women’s opinions, and lying to them about abortion risks and benefits.
I dug into patriarchy and found that, instead of being a pro-patriarchy book, the Bible was chock full of stories of women breaking the bounds of toxic patriarchy. That the story in Genesis portrayed male domination as part of the curse, not as God’s original plan. That Jesus was notable for how He consistently and scandalously included and honored and elevated women. That Paul was fighting against patriarchy, not arguing for its correctness. That the stories in the New Testament consistently showed women in positions of leadership over men. That the Apostle Junia’s name had been changed to “Junias” to make her sound masculine, so that her status as an apostle would not undercut the dogma that only men could lead the church. That true feminism is not even remotely like what I’d been taught as a conservative or an evangelical Christian. That the men who wrote the books I’d used to teach our young married couples were toxic and full of dangerous advice that directly harms women.
I dug into purity culture and found that it is proven to consistently harm both women and men. That it results in the perpetuation of harmful views of women by Christian men. That it directly results in objectification of women. That it gives men license to not control their thoughts or their actions. That it leads directly to rampant sexual abuse within church contexts, worse than the world without purity culture.
And I became friends with people I formerly had avoided as utterly dangerous to me, and found that, unlike I’d been repeatedly told, they were not demon-possessed, and didn’t have any interest in killing or damning or converting me. That many of them simply wanted to enjoy the same basic human rights and sense of dignity as any average straight white Christian enjoys. That many things I’d been told about them were simply completely wrong. That they were surprisingly far more moral and decent folks than quite a few Christians I’d encountered in the last couple of years, even in my own church. That they did a much better job of turning the other cheek and loving and treating even their enemies with respect and dignity – acting like Jesus, in other words.
I could go on.
In other words, I discovered that nearly everything upon which I based my identity as a conservative evangelical Christian Republican was either based directly and extensively on falsehoods, or was outright false itself.
Do you think I felt betrayed?
Through and through, betrayed.
Was that a fair feeling?
Perhaps – or even likely – the vast majority of the PEOPLE who raised me and passed those beliefs along to me were doing so entirely honestly, in full good faith in accordance with what they themselves had been taught. That’s fine – I don’t hold these things against any individual with whom I personally interacted. They were doing the best with what they’d been given, and the Lord hadn’t changed their minds or hearts yet.
But the organizations? Those are another matter entirely.
It’s pretty clear to me, now, that the Republican Party was supremely dishonest and manipulative in striving for its own gains in power and control. This is brutally clear as I’ve watched it utterly abandon nearly everything I was taught it stood for, in its willingness to abandon all moral decency to follow after a man who would – and did – break laws after laws for his own purposes in an attempt to gain and keep power. Any sense of being the party of law and order disappeared years ago. Any sense of being the originalist Constitutionalist party is fading quickly.
It’s also clear to me, now, that the evangelical church was not the clean-as-the-driven-snow institution I had believed it to be. It may have had good roots once upon a time, but long before I came of age it had started to climb on the back of the great dragon of Babylon, whoring itself out to power and control, saying and doing anything necessary to attach itself to winning politics. Its slavish devotion to the utterly unchristian Donald Trump is merely symptomatic of what it already had become, just a bit less obviously. A careful review of evangelical history gives complete lie to any moral high ground it claimed to have. There were dozens of falsehoods very intentionally adopted and used over the decades to sway people to its point of view and give it more political power. Study the history of the Moral Majority, and it quickly becomes clear that it has a very immoral foundation.
So now what, for me?
Let’s go back to those studies for a moment. “Betrayal can cause mental contamination, and the betrayer commonly becomes a source of contamination.” A common result is “disengagement from previously valued institutions as a whole.”
And that says it all, for me. It convinces me that what I’ve been feeling, for the last few years, is a deep sense of betrayal, and that my reaction has been exactly as described: I see any connection with evangelicalism or right-wing politics as a source of contamination that I must avoid. I want nothing so much as to completely disengage from those previously-valued institutions as a whole. Even if there may be some good things there, I want literally nothing to do with them, because I simply cannot trust that even those good things are not infected or contaminated and loaded with subversive purposes and meanings.
If the root of the tree is so diseased, the fruit will not be healthy. And I refuse to eat that fruit any longer.
Earlier I noted that there are several possible responses to betrayal: flight, suppression, or attachment.
I think I’ve chosen the wisest course: flight.
I’m not willing to suppress these things, to scurry back to a place of comfort and familiarity and peace, and just write off the last couple years of deconstruction as a “wilding” phase like some Amish youth experimenting with the English world before returning home to his people. I simply know too much now, and my intellectual honesty won’t let me lie to myself or others about what I see as good and right and proper.
I’m not willing to find some way to attach myself even more tightly to my oppressor to avoid a further sense of betrayal. Again, I know too much, and frankly, I don’t want to be part of those systems and bring harm to yet more unwitting people.
So my only choice is flight.
I refuse to be associated any longer with the Republican Party. I have reservations about the Democrat party too – there are some things that I believe the Republicans and conservatives in general are right about economics and national defense and a few other topics. But I’d sooner vote (D) next year than be even slightly associated with the (R) column and its utterly shameful values and practices.
I also refuse to be associated with the evangelical church. I’ve deeply considered whether I might stay and try to nudge it back closer to sanity, but at this point, I truly think that it deserves to fade away and “lose its lampstand,” to quote Revelation 2:5. Anything I might do to support it would only perpetuate the lies and the harm I now see there, even if it does many good things too. There are other Kingdom places to spend my energy and time. There are still other churches, mainline and progressive, that have steadfastly rejected these paths of foolishness, and with those I can remain in relationship.
But I’m also inclined to simply refuse to be deeply associated with any institutional church at this point, whether conservative or progressive, as I see many ways that any assembly larger than a couple dozen people will suffer some of the same fate, because those harmful ways seem to be innately tied to the foibles of humanity. Grow a religious institution past a certain small size, and some harmful things seem completely unavoidable, even when the Lord is actively involved in leading that institution. Empire will always tend towards corruption, and large institutions are merely providing a foothold for empire to begin and grow.
I realize that this entire post/podcast is fairly negative sounding. I thought about trying to avoid that, but I think it needed to be said – not necessarily for you as my reader or listener, but in some cathartic sense for me. So why post it? Simply because I’m certain I’m not the only person with these thoughts, and I hope it can give voice to one or two others in similar circumstances.
For that reason, I won’t ask anyone to follow me in this pathway: these convictions are mine, and I am not asking you to take them too. If you are already there, I welcome you and I’ll walk with you. But if you see the world differently, I rejoice that you haven’t been betrayed and you can continue in your existing relationships with these institutions.
Thanks for letting me ramble for a while. Be blessed, and we’ll talk again soon.