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You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

From the musical South Pacific

Explain to me if you will why I wrote this post, then tabled it for ten days, then paused over the delete key before finally posting.

Our three summer family reunions were terrific, especially for the kids, who have discovered or re-discovered no fewer than 50 cousins of various degrees of remove. Better yet, these cousins are good kids, enjoyable kids, funny and friendly and loving kids.

And ohhh so very religious. Which is fine, of course.

Becca and I are the dolphins in the tuna nets of our respective families. Most all of the relations on all three sides are not only churchgoing but fish-wearingly, abstinence-swearingly, cross-bearingly so. The fact that most of them are also genuinely delightful to be around — funny and friendly and loving — serves as a nice slap on my wrist any time I find myself lumping together all things and people religious.

How can I not love it when my twelve-year-old second cousin, working on a leather bracelet, asks, “Mister Dale, how do you spell ‘Colossians’?” (I nailed it.) Or when Becca, watching another young cousin making a wooden picture frame with the letters JIMS across the top, innocently asked, “Is that for sombody named Jim?” only to be told patiently that “it stands for ‘Jesus Is My Savior’.” It’s sweet. It’s lovely. Creepy-lovely, perhaps…but that’s a kind of lovely, isn’t it?

When it comes to assessing the many conservative religious folks in my life, though, there’s a complication, one that still makes me dizzy after all these years. It was captured by (of all people) Larry Flynt, who wrote in the LA Times about his unlikely friendship with Jerry Falwell after the televangelist’s death last year:

My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like. The more I got to know Falwell, the more I began to see that his public portrayals were caricatures of himself. There was a dichotomy between the real Falwell and the one he showed the public.

The same weird dichotomy is present in many of the deeply religious folks I know. Many are just plain good in word and deed, and I love having their influence in my kids’ lives. But many others, including some I like so much I could burst, will be in the midst of a perfectly normal conversation, then suddenly spew bile or rank ignorance — often without changing expression — before turning back to the weather or the casserole.

It’s not a case of some believers being lovely and others being nasty. That I could sort out. It’s much more confusing. Like Larry said of Jerry, they’re often the same people. But in the case of folks I know, it reveals itself in the opposite order of Flynt’s description. I liked them from the beginning, then was blindsided by the nastiness.


The conversation at one reunion found its way to gays and lesbians, and a cousin — one of my favorites, a deeply religious college graduate and the pick of the litter — suddenly said, “What kills me is when they say [homosexuality] shouldn’t be treated. Well if that’s the case, why treat schizophrenia? Why treat cancer?”

All heads nodded but mine. I was searching for the perfect line. Finally it came. “And what about the lefthanders?” I said. “And those got-dam redheads, roaming the streets untreated!”

They laughed, not quite getting it, and the topic quickly moved on to (if I remember correctly) boat motors.

I find myself related by blood or marriage to several ministers, including a couple who are among my favorite people on Earth, open and honest and deeply humane, without a shred of pretense. There’s another of whom I’m very fond as well, but in him we encounter The Mix. A quickish wit, he spends most of his time trying to make other people laugh. But when the conversation turned to the war and someone had the gall to mention the deaths of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, he erupted:

“Oh innocent civilians, innocent bystanders, boo hoo! First of all, they’re not so innocent. Second of all, this is war! If you are my enemy, I’m not gonna shoot you in the leg, I’m not gonna shoot you in the arm…I’m going to put one right between your eyes. I’m going to annihilate you. And the sooner I do it, the sooner the world will be safe for God’s people.”

Several kids were sitting in earshot, getting themselves carefully taught. I was livid. “Now there’s a man of God!’ I said. “Hallelujah!”

Beloved Relation looked me in the eye, momentarily wordless, then decided to play it for comedy. “Just like the old days!” he bellowed. “Kill a Gook for Jesus! Kill a Commie for Christ!”


Anybody wish to guess the denomination that would have a minister playing so fast and loose with the Sixth Commandment, not to mention the Beatitudes? Yes, you in the back, Reverend Falwell — what’s your guess?

I listened to two high school teachers bemoaning their “lazy Mexican” students. “It’s like an entire culture of unaccountability,” one said. “And if I say a word about it, I’m a racist!” The other couldn’t agree more. “Joo can’t say dat to me, joo ees raceest,” she mocked, and they laughed. I also heard them both bemoaning the posture, attitude, and irresponsibility of their non-Mexican students, but in those cases, it’s because they’re teenagers. For the Mexican kids, the same behaviors are attributed to Mexicanness. One group of sinners, in other words, is unforgiven.

On the ride home from one of the reunions, Erin told of a cousin she idolizes saying “I hate Democrats!” then informing the rest of the group in a whisper that Obama is “a Muslim.”

My kids are plenty old enough to pick up on these things. Connor was nine when he asked, “Why does [Beloved Relation X] hate A-rabs so much?” with the requisite long ‘A’. In answering such questions, I find myself struggling more than anything with The Mix, trying hard to emphasize the positive qualities of religion, to keep them away from the broad brush, to remember that we are all a Mix, to not to create my own category of unforgiven sinners. Again — many of the religious folks in their lives are wonderful, kind, and ethical. But I can also say, with honest regret, that the greatest poison my kids hear comes from fervently religious people they know and love.

Why is that? (he asked rhetorically). And why am I so damned hesitant to point it out?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.