Irecently stumbled across a diary I kept when I was eleven, and was deeply embarrassed as I read through it. Not because it held secret crushes, petty sibling rivalry, or that stereotypical preteen angst (although it had those too). No, I was embarrassed because page after page was full of religious indignation at the state of the world. They all needed Jesus, it was disgusting how far from grace we’d fallen as a nation.
What did I know of “the state of the world” at the age of eleven? I was barely allowed to go outside, let alone have any kind of first-hand experience that was not carefully curated by religiously paranoid parents. How did I know who needed Jesus, and why did I assume our country was in rapid moral decline? In other words, what had made me such a judgmental, holier-than-thou little shit? One word: indoctrination.
In Defense of Our Great Nation
This morning, Facebook Memories shared a post I’d written in 2013, during a very emotionally strenuous semester in Philadelphia (more on that later):
That lengthy, professional critique was a bitchy email written to a professor who was being “too critical” of the United States, and suggesting that other countries had much to teach us. He had lived abroad, worked abroad, and had dedicated his life to helping others and advocating for the environment. I had never left the country, or lived by myself anywhere but Pennsylvania. Philadelphia was considered “abroad” to me… a whole two hours away from my alma mater. And yet I felt very comfortable — “like a force to be reckoned with” — expressing my disapproval.
And here’s the worst part: even today, fully understanding that I was in the wrong and that if I took his course today I’d probably love it, my initial gut reaction to seeing him on social media is judgment. Why? He was nothing but patient as he invited me into his office to discuss my complaint. I probably have him to thank for laying some of the initial groundwork that would eventually lead to my own more evolved worldview. But those neural pathways had been made years ago, and it’s slow work rerouting them.
Why I was so angry with my professor’s critique of the United States? I didn’t even realize the full extent of my own indoctrination until I came across this thread on my Twitter timeline just last night:
I was horrified to realize that I recognized the book in question. I’d used it, and other Abeka books, all through middle and high school as a homeschooler. Some of the things you’ll see in this thread are:
- The benefits of colonialism and benevolent conquest of the savage “Dark Continent”
- The positives of slavery and how healthy and happy slaves were
- How the Holocaust was the natural endgame of the doctrine of evolution
- Environmental totalitarianism that “insists that personal and family rights are relics of a selfish past”
- How anti-war Vietnam protestors were traitors to their country and to freedom itself
- To “beware of government leaders that are overeager to ‘help’ people”
- How Genesis is “the most reliable source we have” for how the world began
- How “government should never discourage Christianity”
This is “world history” as taught to me, and to many other Christian students across the United States, both homeschooled and private schooled. (And if this was our history, imagine what our science books were like!) You want to know where today’s white nationalists come from? It’s books like these, which educational publishers are forced to print because radically Conservative Christian states like Texas hold such a huge market share that they basically control the industry.
Judgment, moral superiority, and toxic nationalism was baked into every fucking sentence. And because I trusted my parents to only teach me the truth, and because it was printed in a heavy textbook, and because I was so removed from any possibility of contradictory views in any form, I accepted this as truth. Why wouldn’t I? This is what my innocent, malleable, eager-to-learn brain was given. I subsisted on this. I thought I was getting smarter, that I was being prepared for the real world. Instead, I was becoming a judgmental, holier-than-thou little shit. These were lies, and I really struggle not to feel angry and betrayed.
The Faults In Our Stars
My family had a soft spot for classic movies — thanks to the puritanical Hays Code enforced from 1934–1968, they were almost certain not to offend our moral sensibilities. Bette Davis was one of my favorite actors, but she was veiled in controversy. My parents would watch her movies, but they were not shy about expressing their disapproval of her as a person.
“She had four husbands. She couldn’t stay faithful to any of them. She was a sexual deviant who broke God’s sacred laws of marriage.” — A paraphrase
To this day, I find my enjoyment of her films tainted by disappointment and pity. Poor degenerate woman. How sad that she was so horrible in real life. Wait a minute, I always think. I don’t even care about that stuff anymore. I am breaking all of the sacred laws around sex and marriage. If anything, I’m worse than she is… I didn’t get married to any of the people I’ve had sex with. And yet still the judgment remains. I hate it, but it won’t quite go away.
This week I found this clipping from a 1938 news article about Bette’s divorce from her first husband, Harmon Nelson. Needless to say, I was shocked when I read it:
Wait…. what? The “blonde film star” was a bookworm who was too successful and so her husband left her? That doesn’t fit in with the narrative I’d been given. I did some more research. Apparently, Nelson was angry that he only made $100 a week to her $1,000 a week, and wouldn’t allow her to buy a house with her own money out of some weird inferiority complex. None of this was ever discussed.
And those other three husbands? Two of them died. She only initiated a divorce once. You know who also ended up getting divorced once? About half my extended family and eventually my own parents. What was that about sexual deviancy? Oh wait… that’s right: “Davis had several abortions during the marriage.” Never even discussed with the children, I have no doubt this is where my parents actually got their disapproval from. I spent my entire childhood secretly judging one of my female idols because of a reason that ended up being not her fault and wasn’t even the real reason to begin with.
Don’t even get me started on Judy Garland, another star who we all loved in The Wizard of Oz but whose later work we never watched, because “she did so many drugs she killed herself.” That was all I got as a reason for the pervasive feeling of disdain surrounding her. Only later did I realize that she had also had an abortion (again, probably the real reason my parents disliked her), one that she had been pressured into and regretted so much that it caused her to spiral into a depression that ultimately caused her unintentional suicidethanks to an incautious overdose of prescription medication. But none of that was discussed. It didn’t need to be. Our very Christian family happily consumed the content she provided us in her more innocent years and silently judged her for her pain and death. And to this day, I have no interest in watching Judy Garland’s later work — even though she was a LGBTQ+ icon and an outspoken Democrat and someone whose strength I deeply admire. Why is that?
You know who never got such disdain, whose pasts were not condemned? The male actors. I can’t think of a single actor whose life choices were so deeply judged (except maybe Humphrey Bogart, who apparently “saw demons” when he was dying, which was inexorable proof he was going to Hell for something.) You know who we idolized? Who’s poster I had in my room for year? John Wayne, who was an avowed white supremacist. In a 1971 interview with “Playboy,” he told the interviewer:
With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
Was this considered as bad as a woman divorcing her husband or terminating a pregnancy? Of course not.
The Hijacking Of Young Minds
Now, some of you may be thinking: “Okay, Vi, but clearly this wasn’t intentional or systematic brainwashing. People will inevitably impart to their children what they themselves believe, it’s just natural that you’d have picked up some of these thought patterns. It’s not your parents’ fault if they were misguided.” And that’s what I thought for a long time, too.
But then I read this article from Focus on the Family, an organization that was touted in our household as a wonderful and godly institution. It answers the question: “Is teaching my kids about God religious indoctrination?”
What makes this assignment all the more urgent is that you have a fairly narrow window of time in which to carry it out with maximum effect. There’s a brief period during childhood when kids are wide open to spiritual and moral training — when they’re full of wonder, curiosity and questions like, “Who made the stars?” and “What happens to grandma after she dies?” This explains why the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has often been quoted as saying, “Give us a child until he’s seven years old, and we’ll have him for life.” During the pre-teen and adolescent years they may develop a typical teenage resistance to any kind of input from Mom and Dad, but at this stage of the game they continue to be like sponges — ready to soak up anything and everything you can dish out to them.
There is no shame here, just the blatant endorsement of exploiting your young children’s trust and “sponge-like” brains in order to force them to think, believe, and behave the way you want. Author J.D. Brucker expressed his own frustration with what he calls “faith-based abuses,” including indoctrination:
Almost all would tell you they knew God was real, Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, rose from the dead, was resurrected and ascended into heaven on the third day; to them, all of these things were as real as you or I. Never did they entertain the idea these things might not be true and neither were they influenced to challenge those beliefs. They weren’t taught about other faiths and why other individuals find those to be true. It was a terrible environment for a child to have been brought up in and I sincerely hope I am not the only one to have escaped from the information they forced on everyone. I even refrained from challenging out of fear I’d be mocked or punished; in a way, I indoctrinated myself into thinking religious beliefs were off the table to debate.
J.D. Brucker is not the only one. But a lot of us are afraid to talk about this, for fear of hurting our parents’ and teachers’ feelings, for fear of drawing criticism or dismissal, or simply because we have been indoctrinated into believing this is just how the world is. But I can’t stay silent about this anymore, not now that I am so extremely aware of how deliberately misguided I was. Not now that the world needs real education and intellectual honesty in order to survive.
How To Clean Out The Corners
If you are like me, a survivor of childhood indoctrination struggling to approach the world in an honest and rational way, know that I see you. I understand what it’s like to be followed by the ghosts of past assumptions, to experience inexplicable and instinctive surges of dislike for innocent people you were taught to hate or fear or avoid. I know how awful it feels when that hatred is turned inward as you realize you’re no better, that you deserve judgment too.
It is a lifelong task, rewiring our brains, rebuilding new neural pathways and closing down old ones. It’s an exhausting and sometimes morally debilitating extra step in the thought process that people who were never indoctrinated will not understand. But be gentle with yourselves. You are doing the right thing, the hard thing, something that those still indoctrinated fear doing: admitting you’ve been wrong.
You’re confronting your biases, identifying their sources, scrupulously fact-checking them, and revising accordingly. It breaks you apart piece by piece, but it builds you back up stronger. It’s worth it. You owe it to yourself to live a life devoid of religious guilt and moral disdain. You owe it to everyone else to allow them to live their beautiful, flawed lives without expressing your disapproval. The world is so much better that way!
When I was still steeped in this damaging subculture, I honestly thought it was coming from a place of love and concern, but I can see now how misguided that was. My old concept of “love” was fucked up — I was emulating a god who expressed his love through judgment. Love was unconditional only in that it meant others could criticize and condemn you and still call it “love.”
I’d like to take this moment to apologize to everyone to whom I was a judgmental, holier-than-thou little shit. I’m trying to change, I’m doing the work, please be patient with me. And if you’re going through the same thing, reach out! We can walk this path together.