When Salvation Is Used as a Culture Wars Weapon

When Salvation Is Used as a Culture Wars Weapon

Well, if you haven’t heard, another forecasted “rapture” came and went on Friday, September 22, 2023. While I didn’t grow up in a tradition that overtly used the end times as a weapon for terrorizing people within the denomination (at least not regularly that I’m aware of!), I’ve come to realize that some of those I grew up with in my right-leaning moderate denomination did—and very much still do—either wittingly or unwittingly use salvation as a weapon. In today’s blog post, I plan to unwrap some of the dynamics that led me to understand that this was happening under the surface and how I came to see that this was influenced more by religio-political culture wars issues, including those wrapped up in purity culture concerns, than anything else.

If you give me a few minutes I’ll explain more.

Where I’m Coming From on This

Anyway, so as I’ve explained many times, I grew up in a right-leaning but moderate white Evangelical denomination in the Midwest US and went on to become a communication scholar.

Ahhh, the Pretended Bothsidesism

As I’ve explained before, the peops I grew up with very much saw themselves as set apart from both “those extreme fundamentalists” on the right and “those extreme liberals” on the left (as though both were somehow equally bad—insert all the eyeroll emojis here).

Let’s be clear: as will become clear, despite this presumption that both right- and left “extremes” were somehow equally bad, the boundaries of the denomination tended—and still tend to be—stronger in the leftward direction than they are toward the right. As I’ll explain, recent religio-political shifts in the US have made this abundantly clear.

And as though the personal experiences I’ll outline below weren’t clear enough, my cradle denomination recently made it possible to excommunicate people from membership over their approach to culture wars views of human sexuality. I wrote about this here.

“Not Like Those End Times Nuts”

Anyway, back when I was growing up and in early adulthood, none of this was obviously as clear to me as it is now. One of the ways we considered ourselves very much different from the more-right-wing fundies, and I do believe we were healthier in this way, is that these whole complicated scenarios about the end times simply never were an issue in our denomination.

As a result, I was spared a lot of the fire and brimstone crap—er, unhealthy rhetoric—that a lot of my exvangelical friends grew up being terrified by.

It wasn’t until I went to an interdenominational high school and heard ALL the to-me-weird end times pre-millennial beliefs and arguments about how the events in Revelation were supposedly going to shake out that I even was aware of these other strains of Christian thought and belief.

It Really Was a Less Anxiety-Producing Approach to the End Times and Salvation…

I remember going back and asking about what our peops believed, and was told that we were amillennial—which meant we believed that Jesus was coming back once, there was going to be a new heavens and earth, etc. but no one was sure about how that would all shake out. Oh, and there was a good chance Revelation was largely filled with symbolism.

So yeah, that was that for the end times.

Interestingly, we weren’t supposed to worry about our salvation, either, at least if we were doing things right. We weren’t supposed to worry about others’ salvation either, because that was in God’s hands.

I mean, there were definite down sides to this whole “moderate Calvinism” thing I was raised in, for sure (people in my past are quick to separate us from those “Reformed Baptist theobros” out there), but yeah, despite the fact that we heard about hell occasionally and sin an awful lot, there was also a lot of “salvation security” in what I was raised to believe.

Finding that Stupid Invisible Tripwire

Or so I thought, until I started to step over the invisible line.

I had dimly perceived this line before, mind you, mostly with hushed conversations that happened about fears for others’ souls.

It just wasn’t until it happened to me (and then later the right-wing people in my denomination made it a clearly visible tripwire) that I really became aware of HOW MUCH these invisible lines had less to do with actual biblical concepts and more to do with unhealthy societal and systemic constructs, especially the religio-political culture wars.

In Which My Personal Apocalypse and the Big Picture Religio-Political Ones Coincide

So yeah, if you’ve been following my story and writings here, you may remember that I got divorced around the time of the 2016 election. I talked about my divorce and the way that it started to help me see my own socialization into unhealthy beliefs here.

At the same time, the 2016 election and support among right-leaning white Evangelicals for the former president who served from 2016-2020 fast forwarded the process for me of recognizing how deeply insidiously the religio-political messages of the culture wars had wormed their way into the peops I’d grown up with. I talked about this here, among other places.

Finding That Invisible Line Firsthand

As I dove into the world of post-divorce dating in a world where a disturbing amount of my peops were ignoring or “forgiving” the Access Hollywood tapes it became disturbingly clear to me exactly how much my people’s view of salvation had become tied to political views associated with “going progressive” rather than anything else.

In short, people in my childhood circles proclaimed not to *like* or *approve* of the former president’s crass tweets or attitudes toward women and minorities, sure, but the opponent was, well, somehow the worse of two evils (because emails???).

Anyway, it was a better choice to hold one’s nose and vote for the awful guy. Largely, it seemed, because he was willing to overturn Roe and other culture wars issues.

They Wouldn’t Have SAID Their Voting Stances Related to Views of Salvation, But….

None of this was supposed to connect to their theological views of salvation, mind you. And if I’d asked them about that, they would have roundly denied up and down that their right-leaning political views were in any way influencing their views of God and salvation at all.

Dating Across Religio-Political Lines From One’s Community…A Concern for One’s Soul????

BUT my experiences when I started dating were extremely telling. Especially because they lined up with the hushed whispers I now realized I’d heard previously about other people.

See, with my education and experience and what was going down with things like those Access Hollywood tapes, I was finally being jolted into realizing just how much my childhood community’s politics had leaned right, and just how unwilling I was to join that stance.

I also began to realize how insidiously the political beliefs of the right (and especially the social stances around “Family Values” and “baby killing” and purity culture and LGBTQ+ issues) had come to inform my people’s views of salvation.

Taking the Step Away from THAT SIDE of the Culture Wars

To the extent that it was my willingness to gradually and thoughtfully and cautiously step over the line on those specific issues that led me to know those kinds of hushed conversations were being had about me as well.

Which helped me realize how much my peops, despite an overt commitment to trusting in God for sorting everything out in the End Times and feeling confident in the security of their salvations, had been influenced by “those extreme fundies” in some areas all the same.

And in fact had been MORE influenced by the the right-wing, thanks to religio-political culture wars rhetoric, than they had been by their supposed opponents on the left.

Funny How I Started to Get Pushback…and What About

I’m not going to go into all the details, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the twin things I started getting pushback on from my peops at that time were (1) starting to date an agnostic, and (2) attending the first Women’s March.

These two things happened a few months apart, and the fact that I got pushback on both of those things (sometimes at once!) as though they were connected was absolutely striking to me. This despite that fact that the agnostic in question considered themselves progressive in politics but was nervous about me attending that rally for various reasons.

At any rate, over time, as the broader religio-political apocalypse continued to become clear to me, I knew increasingly that peops I’d grown up with, even if they didn’t always state it to me directly, were “concerned about my soul.” To translate: they were concerned about my salvation.

Becoming a Better Ally Also Got Me Pushback as Well

And as I started realizing how unfair the treatment of LGBTQ+ people by the church AND in political culture wars had been, and I became a more overt ally to folks in these populations, I knew perfectly well these hushed concerns over my “spiritual health” (you know: that means salvation) intensified.

Salvation as Connected to….the Culture Wars and Purity Culture?

What really came home to me through all these public and personal events and experiences was that the only things that really made people concerned about my salvation were related to the culture wars issues mentioned above.

And especially since my rhetorical training showed me that issues like anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ issues were based on hasty generalizations from a few out-of-context verses in the Bible (I talked about this here), I got increasingly uncomfortable with these views of things.

Especially when it became clear to me how deeply toxic masculinity and patriarchy had wormed its way into purity culture precepts.

Understanding the Cognitive Dissonance, and Yet Needing to Follow My Conscience

I began to understand over this time why so many of my peops had strong reactions when progressive Christians were calling them to heed the sheep and the goats passage in Matthew 25—a passage that talks about taking care of the “least of these” as what you may need to do in order to end up in the “right group” in the end times.

These strong reactions were particularly interesting to me because I’d grown up, as I’d mentioned before here, deeply discomforted by that kind of passage for reasons I couldn’t quite express. (I now believe that was my conscience at work!)

Same with the woes of the unhealthy religious leaders and of the rich by Jesus and other prophets.

Ah, the Felt Attacks from the Left to the Peops in My Community

In the case of the peops that were reacting so strongly to critiques of right-leaning Christians on the grounds of Matthew 25, it was fascinating because in THOSE cases they retreated strongly to the standard line of “no one can take my salvation from me.”

Of course there was always an “how dare they even suggest that my salvation may be at stake” included.

Yeah, They Definitely Weren’t Trusting God with My Soul…

And of course overtly at the same time they *claimed* to trust God with my salvation.

But I could clearly see how it was, and occasionally I’d get glimpses of that through someone saying the quiet part out loud.

“Going (religio-politically) progressive,” specifically when it came to culture wars issues, had potentially put me “outside the fold” in some of their minds. Some of them dealt with this better and more empathetically than others, and some worked harder to maintain close relationship than others as a result.

A Bigger Issue Than Just Me

As I’ve mentioned, all of this had happened pretty covertly in my personal relationships. And I know I’m far from alone in this. The strange silver lining of dealing with this at the same time millions of others were recognizing the difference between the two political sides was becoming sharper and more distinct was that I had plenty of company in dealing with all sorts of variations of the same problem, and swapping stories helped us all cope with it.

Comparing those stories along with reading important books like Jesus and John Wayne and brushing up on the rhetoric of conspiracy along with books on disinformation and post-truth and fascistic rhetoric helped me see just how big and politically driven this problem was.

So Hard to Shake Those Unhealthy Socializations!

I knew this much is true: I was taught as a child that my salvation was secure. But for awhile I had been socialized enough into the idea that culture wars stances might be somehow tied to salvation so closely that I too feared that “going progressive” might put that at risk.

But I also was taught that the greatest law for us all was to love God and neighbor as ourselves.

When You Know Better, You Do Better

I find it fascinating in a disturbing way now to look back at my pre-religio-apocalyptic life and realize how clear it perhaps always should have been to me, all of this.

But when you’re raised in right-leaning Christianity, it’s so d*mned easy to buy the subtle ways concerns about someone’s souls if they “shacked up” in a loving, consensual mutual romantic relationship outside of marriage were seen as “sources of concern” about that person’s health and wellbeing and soul even while people who were being obviously abused in marriage in ways everyone recognized but nothing did anything about were somehow “staying faithful.”

And when everyone around you buys into these distinctions, it’s disturbingly hard to avoid taking on victim-blaming attitudes for genuinely vulnerable groups disguised in being vaguely “concerned for their souls.”

So Many Apologies to Friends In Vulnerable Groups!

I can see now, and I deeply apologize, as I’ve done many times in this space, for the damaging aspect of these beliefs and attitudes I once held in this area.

The Irony: My Step Across the Invisible Line Was in Line with So Much of What I’d Been Taught

See, if my salvation is really secure as I was taught, why exactly was my salvation seen to be remotely at stake when my spiritual path was gradually leading me to take various key scriptural passages—things like Matthew 25, and trees bearing fruit, and the fruits of the Spirit, and loving my neighbor as I loved myself, and love doing no harm to its neighbor—more and more seriously as I continued my spiritual journey?

It made no logical sense, unless you started to look at how unhealthy political and cultural forces had crept their way into the church. Forces I would later learn fit with fascistic rhetoric patterns to a T.

And while we’d always tut-tutted about “those Christian nationalists over there,” it’s clear to me now that these purity culture/culture wars concerns are prime beliefs patterned after fascistic rhetoric. As someone who’d been raised to be AGAINST the Nazis in WWII, again, I was very concerned about this once I put it together properly.

Thankful the People In My Upbringing Are Not Actually God Themselves

What I know is this: the people who may or may not be “concerned about my soul” in recent years, according to what I was taught growing up, don’t actually get to be the ones judging my soul whenever and however things may end.

Whatever may happen when things end or I die, whichever may happen first, I personally hope that both now and down the road, I’d rather be judged, if that’s how things go in the end, for sticking up for the vulnerable more than believing things that have been shown to harm them intensely.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, mind you, but there’s plenty of evidence of all types of what the culture wars have done to hurt people. And I hate so much that bad actors now and in the past have been spiritually abusing people by making culture wars beliefs a litmus test for salvation in both overt and covert ways.

Any Stories? Please Comment!

That’s all I have today in this area, friends, but I hope it’s been somehow illuminating for you. What are your stories in this area of spiritual abuse of “salvation” concepts aligning with culture wars and purity culture concepts, friends? Please feel free to share in the comments.

A Final Charge

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When Salvation Is Us…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 12 min