the mask of family
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Larry Costales.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Lately, we’ve been talking about authoritarian Christians’ new marketing push: the Cult of Family. Only these Christians know how to create and maintain happy families. Didn’t you know? But as we saw last time, these same Christians despise the values that go into that wondrous and rewarding task. They follow very different values. And they accidentally reveal, constantly, how those values turn out for them. Today, let me show you how toxic Christians let slip what their family lives really look like, and why they do it.

the mask of family
(Larry Costales.) The new product lineup at the local Christian family bookstores.

Russell Moore, Accidentally Revealing the Truth.

One of the top leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Russell Moore, gave a speech last October. The audience receiving it consisted of other SBC members. In it, he presented the denomination’s new marketing push: awesome family lives.

Also in it, he accidentally revealed that his denomination does not consistently produce awesome family lives.

He began the speech/advertising spiel by advising his audience that only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can ever possibly have great family lives, all thanks to their devotion to Jesus. Then he ominously proclaimed that some people listening to him right that second “are blocked from the joy of loving your families right now because of fear.”

The speech is a marvel of doublethink. Presumably, every single member of the SBC who feels fervent enough to attend a speech by Russell Moore also believes fervently in Jesus. But he just admitted that faith alone did not lead to developing a happy family.

And he also low-key admitted that despite his audience belonging to a denomination that leads the Christian pack in promoting the Cult of Family, somehow the leaders’ instructions have not resulted in uniformly great family lives.

Appearances vs. Reality.

Creating a facade comes so naturally to TRUE CHRISTIAN™ families.

I felt downright dismayed when I saw this story, which ran in a Christian article called “Rebuilding Happy Families.” The story concerns “Bob and Barbara” and their “four attractive children.” They attend church and their churchmates regard them well. But “there was a darker side” to that perfect-looking family.

Much of what their friends thought they knew about Bob and Barbara was an illusion.

See, Bob was secretly an alcoholic.



Though eventually Bob sought treatment for his addiction, the damage done to the family was enough: Bob and Barbara separated. Unfortunately, their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church had no idea that anything was wrong. “Jesus” sure didn’t tell them! And the rules their church pushed for how to live within a family certainly didn’t work for this one. The parents’ solution to the whole mess was to pretend everything was fine.

And the person writing this post acknowledges that this story is far from “isolated.”

Where Do They All Come From?

Sometimes I feel just staggered to think of all these seas and oceans of unhappy people who are barely hanging onto things by their fingernails, all attending these thousands of churches and having to pretend to be all happy-clappy for Jesus.

That Cru site I showed you last time, the one talking about the ANGLE behind building a happy family life, offered up an idyllic and idealized vision of a perfect family life. But remember, whenever authoritarian Christians devise a sales pitch image like that to sell their religion, it’s not only fake but hides a multitude of miseries behind it. It’s sickening to imagine some Cru writer coming up with this idyllic vision–and it turning out to be Bob and Barbara’s family, for example. (By the time the rubes realize the truth, Cru seeks to have them fully-indoctrinated.)

Constantly, all the time, Christians accidentally admit that they hide their true selves behind masks and facades. In particular, watch out for glowing family testimonials from:

Basically, look out for a sales pitch involving any assurance like “if you do what I suggest, then you’ll get what I have!” Chances are good something’s fishy there. Get objective verification before selling the farm on this suggestion.

Religion: Not A Benevolent Force.

TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get supremely tetchy when we bring up their ghastly divorce rates. I can see why, but facts remain what they are. In fact, fundagelicals are such toxic presences in their communities that simply living in one they dominate increases non-fundagelicals’ chances of divorcing.

We could also mention domestic violence rates, which skyrocket in states dominated by fundagelicals. Similarly, these states also rank highly on “most dangerous” lists. Religiosity goes hand-in-hand with social dysfunction of all kinds. We don’t even need to mention how many TRUE CHRISTIAN™ parents reject their LGBT children every single day.

Without any hesitation whatsoever, I can declare that Christian relationship rules simply do not work. They strew destruction and dysfunction everywhere behind themselves. They produce children who can’t face the real world–and who cope with stress in alarmingly unhealthy ways–until they can get themselves sorted. And they produce broken marriages marked by abuse and maladaptive behavior.

For all their claims of having a perfect, divinely-designed system, Christians sure seem to catastrophically fail very often while using it.

The Hand-Waving.

Sure, Christians themselves know all of this too. They see the divorces blossoming everywhere in their groups. They know exactly how poorly-behaved the children are, and about parents’ rejection of their children. And they hear whispers about the many affairs, substance abuse problems, and more and worse happening in their peer groups.

But the #1 hand-waving I hear around all of these facts remains:

They’re just not Jesus-ing hard enough!

Their system only works for people who Jesus super-duper hard. If someone isn’t totally tanked up on Jesus Juice, then yes, of course their system will backfire dramatically!

Weirdly, though, the advice-givers rarely take that fact into account. They push their system onto all of the flock. They never issue disclaimers that only the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ among them should pay attention, or put forth information for those who are not quite as Jesus-y as themselves. At most, they’ll issue a Sinner’s Prayer somewhere in their work (as Cru did in that example) to make sure they catch anyone lagging behind.

If the family in question seeks to hide something, though, it’s not like the advice-givers would even know the difference between that and the truth.

Tricking Authoritarians.

As we saw not long ago, it’s painfully easy to trick authoritarians. Awful people trick them all the time. And so do very decent and well-meaning people. They do it for different reasons, though.

Awful people trick authoritarians to get something from them: money, attention, power, etc.

Decent and well-meaning people trick authoritarians to gain and keep good standing in the group.

I should know: I was one of that latter group once.

Let me draw your attention to a post I wrote in this blog’s first year of life: “A Cult of ‘Before’ Stories.” In that post, I wrote about hearing my then-husband Biff’s testimony for the first time–and realizing it was nothing but lies from start to finish.

I sat up front in my nicest church dress, surrounded by other earnest, eager evangelists’ wives. There, I listened to him lie for a solid hour.

I was devastated. . . Frozen in my seat on the pew, my smile frozen on my face, my mind racing, I blinked back tears. I had no idea how to react or what to say.

What could I do? I couldn’t very well speak up right there in church and say “No, that’s not how it went.” What was I going to do, interrupt a big revival meeting with all these top-tier denominational brass hats sitting up there applauding my husband? At least, that’s how it felt then: searing helplessness.

My husband had lied from a consecrated pulpit, and I couldn’t do a thing about it without bringing a great deal of “Christian love” down upon myself.

It Gets Worse.

After Biff gave his testimony and the service officially ended, all these people crowded around me afterward. They wanted a second-hand piece of Biff, who was unavailable. He was up at the front for the altar call. (He never, ever missed an altar call.) So they sought me out instead.

They complimented me on what a fine godly husband I had. And they asked lots of questions about his testimony.

Maybe, just maybe, this was a passive-aggressive bit of baiting on their part. Perhaps the Cool Kids in our church knew he’d been lying and just wanted to needle me. If so, I detected none of these ill intentions in them. They acted like tweens meeting the dog-walker of their current pop idol. Looking back, I can’t say they seemed insincere at all.

Regardless, I couldn’t really talk to them. I felt  humiliated and angry and hurt. It was all I could do to plaster a Jesus smile on my face and play along with the false front Biff had established for us as a couple.

Oh, And Yeah, Even Worse.

That night, I convinced Biff not to lie again like that. I told him that why yes, I would out him no matter where he stood, if he ever did that again in my presence.

Thankfully, I never had to go through with that threat. His own fear of embarrassment kept him from transgressing my unequivocal, clearly-laid boundary.

But he felt free to lie in other ways, ways he knew I couldn’t gainsay without damaging myself.

For example, he boasted often of his awesome sex life. (At least one of us was having fun…?) He bragged about how much better “Christian sex” was from “unsaved sex.” Yes, those are terms I heard. And not only from him. Men in my denomination talked like that. Nowadays, evangelical women bristle about men in leadership bragging about their “smokin’ hot wives.” That ain’t nothing new, though. Pentecostals went there first, and they went all the way to the marital bed to claim their bragging rights.

Considering that one of our more sordid sales pitches involved massive improvements to a couple’s sex life after conversion, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more!, I couldn’t very well say anything about what reality really looked like for us.

What, was I going to flat-out say I wasn’t Jesus-ing properly?

I’d sooner pour barbecue sauce on myself and wade stark naked into a grumpy mama bear’s den with a dubstep album playing at top volume in the background!

Why It’s So Easy.

Somehow, even though I ached to live honestly and without deception, I lived a complete lie. My dishonesty went a lot deeper than just not wanting to reveal how abysmally bad my sex life was, though. In public, we were the dream couple, paraded around our church for having met as “sinners” and then married after a properly chaste courtship–at least as far as they knew. In private, however, things looked very different.

Biff had known in his bones that these people were easy to trick. I had to learn that lesson from scratch, but learn it I did.

Act like what they teach actually works in reality. Tell them their wise instruction has worked perfectly in my life. Act like I’m reaping all the benefits of the system because I obey them.

And maybe, maybe just maybe one day, if I kept saying those lies, Jesus would reach down into my life and make them the truth.

The first part worked beautifully, but that pathetic little hope never actually materialized.

In the end, the only way for me to live authentically was to escape the entire religion.

Why It’s So Hard.

Obviously, all that inauthentic living takes a toll on most people. Sure, the inauthentic people buy themselves a place at the table. They fit in. But they think they’re the only ones living inauthentically. So they feel like imposters–like they absolutely do not belong.

Worse, they can only let down their guard and reveal their real selves sparingly and cautiously. A friend in this crowd is as fair-weather as it can possibly get. One moment they’re all “lemme hug your neck!” and “lemme jus’ LUV on yewwww!” And then the next, they don’t even acknowledge your existence and swamp you in “bless your hearts” if they must talk to you. If you’re really supremely lucky and they feel supremely generous, you’ll even find out what sparked that change.

But these are supposed to be your church home and your church family. They are as close as brothers and sisters could be, in theory at least! Theoretically, they should be your first, last, and best support network for all hardships in life. And yet they aren’t that at all. They get downright agitated if a struggle you’re facing lasts too long, or falls outside the usual talking points.

There is something supremely unsettling and disturbing about being in a big crowd of people all pretending to love you, and knowing none of them know the real you at all. Worse still is feeling quite sure that if they did know that real you, they’d reject you in an instant.

Better to have the halfway acceptance of a fake self than full rejection of the real one, to way too many people. But that truth makes for a really cringey sales pitch.

All the Lonely People.

Nowadays, I straight up don’t believe authoritarian Christians who claim they’re just thrilled with their religion, who say that they’ve got amazing porn-sex on tap, that their kids are perfectly well-behaved and ready to tackle the world once they reach adulthood, and why gosh, their wives adore them and think feminism is for those silly-billy atheist girls who don’t know to trust Jesus to find and acquire perfect husbands for them.

No, I don’t believe them or their stories, any more than I trust a testimony containing a resurrection claim. I’ve seen way too many whispered stories and anonymous comments to think that very many people enmeshed in the Cult of Family actually enjoy the harmony and happiness they describe to dazzled recruits. I consider such claims to be as extraordinary as a resurrection claim, and the evidence I’d want to see for it would be correspondingly strong!

And let’s face it. My disbelief in the claims of these cultists actually represents far more generosity to them as people than my belief would. My disbelief means that I simply don’t believe that three-dimensional people could possibly flourish, much less be happy, in such a cruelly restrictive, constrictive, rigid, compassion-less social structure. It means I give them way more credit than that.

NEXT UP: Guess what, y’all? Thom Rainer thinks churches are hitting a major tipping point in 2019–for the better! Also, he thinks these church groups have a lot of reasons to feel totally optimistic about their fortunes this year! Shall we see why he thinks that? Why yes, yes we shall! Seeya next time!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...