As a child, I possessed a somewhat fearful disposition toward the world. After a few years of tearful late-night sit-ins outside my biological father and his new wife’s locked bedroom door, or screaming near-weekly announcements to the employees of my day care whenever my parents inevitably pushed the envelope of the mandatory 6 p.m. pick up time — “THEY’VE FORGOTTEN ME AND AREN’T EVER COMING!” — my folks got desperate and decided I needed, in the words of T-shirts on Etsy, Jesus and a therapist.
I remember the therapist coloring with me, playing with Legos and kindly suggesting that I required more consistency, predictability and empathy in the aftermath of my parents’ divorce (professionally, this is what we always suggest). However, much to the chagrin of my sleep-deprived mom and dad, our native Southern Baptist tradition took an alternative, let’s say, far more metal approach to taming my fears and anxieties: “Eric, if you were to die tonight, and all the mistakes and bad deeds of your life were played on a giant screen in front of us, do you know, based on the evidence of your life, where you would spend eternity?”
And with that, as a 9-year-old struggling to navigate the inherent isolation accompanying the creation of a new family where he possessed a different last name than all the other kids in the minivan, Eric was invited into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this meant I also had to hang out with Jesus’ dad a lot. Who, as a “perfect heavenly father” seemed always to be loosening his belt while shouting “YOU KEEP CRYING AND I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT” at most of his many children here on earth.
Whether it was thanks to the apocalyptic fan fiction of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins lining the bookshelves of my childhood home, or the summer camp sermons of my late adolescence and early adulthood — reminding me of just how much God’s painfully violent sacrifice of his Son required of me, my libido and my weekend plans — fear and anxiety became the bread and wine (read: grape juice, I was Baptist) of my childhood religious observance. For, without the regular maintenance of my fundamental uneasiness in the world, I often worried God had abandoned me altogether.
It’s as if my sense of alienation in my own family had been co-opted, or better still, baptized by my religious tradition as a sort of necessary angst — a Holy Spirit, if you will — keeping me in tune with the wishes of the divine and my place in “his kingdom.” You might say that learning to constantly ignore and distrust your own emotional well-being was one more fruit of this spirit.
In a recent piece on “toxic positivity” for the Washington Post, journalist Allyson Chiu cited the work of psychologist Brett Ford and her 2018 study into the positive effects of “accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them.” In her work, Ford tracks the development of what she terms a “meta emotion,” which is described as a feeling of disappointment or judgment about our own inner emotional experience whenever we find ourselves unable to muster the requisite amount of happiness or contentment in the face of more painful experiences. A meta-emotion might mean feeling depression about being depressed, anxiety about being anxious, or anger about the fact that we can’t seem to pull ourselves together, even though everyone around us seems to be doing just fine.
“Growing up, evangelical Christianity was … an internalized feeling that, on a cellular level, I wasn’t good enough and, frankly, never would be.”
Growing up, evangelical Christianity was, for me, a meta-emotion of sorts. It was an internalized feeling that, on a cellular level, I wasn’t good enough and, frankly, never would be. Ultimately, this fundamental lack of self-worth could only find itself redeemed by having my failures and inherent sinfulness bear witness to the grace of a heavenly Father who was primarily interested in using my ongoing discomfort as a medium for spreading his glory to the ends of the earth. I was “saved” not for my sake, but for his. If I ever felt uncomfortable, depressed or mostly confused about the inherent logic of a theological tradition requiring the cultivation of total selflessness in order to save one’s self from the molten fires of hell, my sinful doubt was yet one more reminder of his grace at keeping me alive, wretch that I was.
Understanding evangelical support for Trump
I recognize the selfsame pain, internalized shame and disavowed doubt accompanying the enduring evangelical Christian support of Donald Trump because these feelings are the unholy trinity of my own inherited religious tradition. Whereby I was “saved” by a God totally uninterested in anything but my ability to worship him —or else. Evangelical support of Trump isn’t an aberration, it is an incarnation of the God we were always taught to believe would save us from hell even if he had to put us through it to get to heaven.
“Evangelical support of Trump isn’t an aberration, it is an incarnation of the God we were always taught to believe would save us from hell even if he had to put us through it to get to heaven.”
So, in an election year, taking place during a global pandemic, it’s time to cut to the chase. We don’t end the pain of this presidency (and our democracy) by spilling more ink on the “abhorrent,” “toxic” or “confusing” support of Trump by evangelical Christians. It is what it is.
Nor do we get there by providing impressively vitriolic takedowns of his faulty philosophical, political or theological arguments for enduring power. They are what they are.
Instead, we get there by bravely entering into and helping to exorcize the pain of deeply complex religious men and women who have internalized a trickle-down snowball of shame and self-doubt emanating from a God who long predates the self-styled dollar store incarnation currently squatting in the Oval Office.
A better view of God
What saved me from this God wasn’t more shame, more depravity or even more pain. It was a community of people who loved me enough to help me learn to recognize the voice of a God who dies for the world rather than anxiously demanding the world die for him.
Even if I consistently failed to think, speak or believe in the right way, this God managed to come back again and again and again. Because, in my experience, that’s what a real heavenly parent does. They show up, not for their personal glory, but for ours. Not to save themselves, but to save us.
Or, as John’s Gospel reminds us following the execution and abandonment of Jesus by his disciples, they show up, “even though the door was locked for fear of the authorities.” May this God do so again; we really need her to.
Eric Minton is a writer, pastor and therapist living with his family in Knoxville, Tenn. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee, a master of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and a master of science degree in clinical mental health counseling from Carson-Newman University.