Every once in a while I’ll get caught up in thinking about the “What if’s” of life. What if I had studied something different in grad school? What if I had taken a different set of jobs? What if I had stayed with one boyfriend or never dated another? What if I did it all wrong when I was younger, and now I can’t go back?
This is a pretty normal human behavior, I think, and it’s especially common for anxious and worrisome individuals such as myself. My “What if’s”, though, tend to be specifically connected to my Evangelical upbringing. They usually rotate around the Christian church: the decisions I made because of my allegiance to the institution, and its various other inalterable influences on my life.
Stressed-out mental meanderings of this kind could (and do) go in a million different directions, and continue on indefinitely in my head, but I have noticed that my brain does tend to focus in on two areas in particular when wondering about the past: sex, and money. Using those two issues as a basic framework, I’d like to take a moment to explore my struggle with lifelong, religion-based regret. Join me, won’t you?
The obvious thing here is that, had I not been so dedicated to my faith, I probably would have started having sex at a younger--and much closer to average--age than I actually did. Aside from a little self-consciousness about being a late-comer to the carnal life, though (no pun intended), the age at which I was no longer a virgin doesn’t really matter seeing as how it happened with my full intention and consent, and with someone I loved. It’s a fairly easily shrugged off “Oh well” in the grand scheme of things.
My sexuality in general, however--well that’s a different story. I grew up in the kind of church that believed (or seemed to believe--mostly they were too embarrassed to talk about it) that masturbation was sinful. In addition to this, I and all of my peers, Christian or not, grew up in a wider culture that propagated the myth that adolescent females had little sex drive of their own to speak of. Put the two ideas together and you found yourself with one young Christian woman who had no idea what to do with her body, who felt that she was "wrong". I was awkward for much longer than I needed to be, I was scared of the embodied life, and it became all too easy to dissociate what I perceived to be my core self from my physical being. Some unfortunate behaviors followed--and some persist until this day--but we’ll save those stories for another time.
Given the twisted set of roots from which my sexual identity sprung, I am compelled to wonder: what if I had not been raised in (and glommed on to) conservative Christianity? How would I be different as a product of a sex-positive environment? Obviously there’s no way to actually know in the end, but what comes to mind most quickly when I consider it is that there might be no (or very little) shame--about both my body and the urges that come with it. I mean, imagine if girls saw their sexuality as equally real, unsuppressable, and important as boys are told theirs is. What if I and all my fellow Evangelical females had seen our horny-ness as normal and, more significantly, good?
Of course, I wasn’t just divested of my personal sexuality; I, as a girl, was also assigned to be the gatekeeper of sexuality in general within the Evangelical imagination. Part of the reason females in the church are given this role (and part of what reaffirms it) is the aforementioned myth that they have relatively few and weak sexual urges, and that--at their best--girls and women don’t have a sexual fantasy life or engage in autoeroticism. This is clearly bullshit, but such was my brainwashing: we females were ‘the mature ones’. Men, on the contrary, were basically accepted as never-ending horndogs. They could not help themselves, see, so we ladies had to do it for them.
What did that look like? Well, no revealing clothing for starters. And when I say “no revealing clothing” I don’t mean no mini skirts or tube tops. I mean don’t wear tank tops, because even looking at your shoulders can “make” a guy “stumble”. And as ridiculous as that sounds, it’s also kind of no surprise that an un-sleeved shoulder is going to be too much for a dude to handle in public when he’s also being told that masturbating is morally wrong. Which makes me think of a “What if” beyond my own life: what if young males were taught not only that they can and should be in control of their sexual urges, but also that females are and should be equally as sexually empowered? Sounds fair, right? A girl can dream.
In the first couple of drafts of this post, I was trying to get into the way in which the churches that raised me tended to vilify being in financial debt, but for some reason I was finding it difficult to explain the logic behind the teaching (probably because there wasn’t any). I wasn’t sure how to adjust the composition, and I was waiting on clarification. Then, I ended up having a fiery conversation with some people I adore and admire--one of whom has lived through similar religious turmoil--who helped me realize what I really wanted to narrow this section down to, the experience that stresses me out most when I consider the “What if's” of church and money: college.
The thing about being a good Evangelical is that one should try as hard as one can to go to a good Evangelical undergraduate institution after high school. And the thing about good Evangelical undergraduate institutions is that they are, in general, incredibly expensive. Being both a good Evangelical and categorically middle class (relative to the U.S. economy, anyway), I was in a bit of a bind. I wanted--I craved, with all my Lord-loving heart--to go to one particularly prestigious and beach-adjacent college in California. Yet my family could not actually afford it. What was I to do? Fear not, that’s what. It turns out that it did not matter that there was no way for my parents to pay for the school on their own, that I would have to take out a massive amount of student loans. If it was God’s will, God would provide. That is what I had been taught since day one. That is what I believed.
Here’s the tricky thing about God’s provision, though: it sounds like something that will come in the form of a check for the exact amount of money you need, placed mysteriously in your mailbox one holy night (I’ve heard dozens of stories recounting just such “miracles”). It sounds like you won’t have to pay, period. But then, when you’re 35 years old and it’s looking like you’ll be paying off your tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt literally until the day you die, and you’re wondering why money hasn’t yet fallen from the sky, the church says, ‘Well, you have the money to pay the bills, don’t you? God is providing.’
Once again, I call bullshit. And I say a hearty “Fuck you" to the Evangelical Industrial Complex.* I went to that expensive school--I convinced my parents to let me go even though they should have said, “No, we can’t afford it” to that expensive school--because I believed it was God’s will and I trusted, because I was so enthusiastically taught (by a bunch of pretty rich people, it turns out), that it would consequently be alright. But what if I had felt comfortable going to a decent state school? What if holiness and piety had never been a factor? I would have SO much more money right now, for one thing. As would my parents, which is a real downer of a recognition.
The thought of it really gets to me. I calm myself down by reflecting on the rigorous education I received at my fancy Jesus college (which I definitely did) and the special friends I made (one of them even helped me work through this post). There is no guarantee that I would have had their equals at another, more financially reasonable school. In all honesty, though, it’s not enough. I was sold a capitalist, prosperity gospel dream, and I did not received the magical deliverance/reward on which I based those majorly risky decisions. But what if I had not been so trusting? What if I had not tried so hard to be “good”?
Or at least an attempt at it.
How do we make peace with all of the “What if’s” in our lives, regardless of their source or cause? What I’ve found so far is talking and writing. I look for people who are asking the same questions that I am, who are burdened by the same worries, and we talk. Community is so important for growing up, for processing, for staying strong (or having the space to be weak) and for getting closer to the person you want to be in the world in the short time that we have.
Unfortunately, one troublesome aspect of being a former/recovering Evangelical is that there aren’t actually that many of us. Or, at least, we aren’t usually gathered in one place and ready to talk about what we don’t believe anymore, and what we regret or are bitter about. Leaving the Evangelical church can be a socially-emotionally dangerous thing for a person. You might lose family connections, you might lose respect, and you’ll definitely lose your social network to one extent or another. You will certainly be judged and misunderstood. As a result, people often stay in the fold even when they've lost their faith in the tenets. And even when they've slipped quietly out the sanctuary's back door for the final time, they often won't discuss it publicly so as not to deal with the repercussions.
Because of all that, I write about it--not only to process my own experiences and emotions, but also because it was only through hearing and reading about others’ journeys away from the church that I realized I wanted that freedom too, and that I had the strength to achieve it despite the cost. I cannot change what happened to me--that’s a fact I must accept--but I can turn my focus away despair and shape my stories into something life-giving. To that end, here we are, or rather, here I am, writing for whomever wants to read. I do it with the hope that my anger helps someone else feel less alone in theirs. I do it with the hope that I myself will experience a little more healing, too. Most of all, I do it because, for a writer, silence is death, and the last thing the world needs is another person who’s so disappointed in life that they won’t even take a stand against the thing that hurt them in the first place.
*Shout out to KG and NS for giving me this term, which, upon further research, we discovered had been used by many others before us.