By Gracie Somich
I recently, within the past 2 years, learned that Hell does not exist. This information was particularly troubling to me, given I started worrying about the permanent condition of my soul right around the time I started developing a personality of my own. Something (many someone’s) told me, around the mighty age of 6 or 7, that eventually my natural mischief would run me dry of The Good Lord’s Graces. I feared taunting that miscreant spirit of Human Nature inside me with even the smallest measurement of sin, anticipating he might wake up hungry and run me off the Straight & Narrow, deep into his lair of Liberalism & Homosexuality. That’s how it happens - you start stealing cookies when your granny isn’t looking & before you know it you’ve got blue hair and pronouns. Southern Evangelicalism lets you know early on that there’s something inside you, or maybe all around you, actively working hard against you (& it just so often happens to be the same force that drives those damn leftists). Maybe being taught that my most carnal human desires actually belonged to the only angel to ever test God (the loser of the universal battle) wasn’t the best for developing healthy emotional regulation.
At some point during my elementary studies in Catholic school, daydreams of “making out” with my Wednesday-night youth-group crush started taking a heavy toll on my moral conscience. These were not even tactically functional fantasies – “Sex” was not even a word in my vocabulary at this point. “Kiss” was, though, and although I hadn’t had my first, what I could loosely imagine the experience to be was enough to keep me occupied for hours. I started feeling guilty when I realized other girls my age were repulsed by the thought of kissing boys and I had to write my teacher a paragraph about why the word sexy was inappropriate to use at school. I knew that kissing and boys were two things that I was not supposed to be into, I also knew that one day I was supposed to be really into it and it would be fine, but I, at this point, had absolutely no intrinsic motivation to stop thinking about kissing. I also knew that God was probably looking down on me with shame & that some penance was probably in order for many repeat offenses. In efforts to lessen the blow of my potential punishment, I developed a “Disclaimer Prayer” that I always ran through before I set the scene. In summation, it went, “Hey God, what you’re about to witness is all under the hypothetical condition that we be married…which, honestly, would be pretty awesome, so, if you’re feeling generous…anyways. Thank you for my mom and my dad. And my sister. And my dog. Aaand my bed and my clothes…and my food. And everything else that I have, it’s so awesome. And please keep us safe. And please don’t take anything away from me because I’m allegedly thinking about kissing boys. Because I’m thinking about it if we were married, and people in the Bible got married at my age so it is not a sin. Amen.” What disturbs me most about this is that I felt like I needed to absolve myself or altogether erase the urge to have my first kiss. To combat potentially losing God’s favor, in elementary school, before I even knew what sex was, I was already thinking of ways to justify and explain and erase my sexuality and attraction to men.
Once, my church friend’s mom caught her sending less than lady-like pictures to a boy in the group a year older than us, and she had to have a meeting with the youth pastor and the head pastor (both males). Of course, she just had to tuck her tail between her legs and go along with it - repent and do a workbook on controlling your urges and all that. And yes, the girls were vicious about it. Nothing more sinister than the tight-lipped gossip of five 12-year-old adolescent evangelicals on a Sunday - “I’m not supposed to say this but my mom said she’s… Can’t believe she sent it to a person from church. And he’s…Totally not what I expected from her. Well, you know, she’s. So. I’d never. No, you seriously think I would? Never. I don’t even want to.” We would never admit that we were at least curious and maybe even a little jealous, only that we, dutiful daughters of the King, renounce such immorality and rebuke the sin of sexual indulgence. Me and the girl worked together later on in high school and she thanked me for being so kind during that time and told me how humiliating it was for her. She reached out to me a lot more after that, on the principle that I had been kind years ago when really, I had not been so kind. And by that time, I had permanently ruined my internet footprint as well, so when her eyes got teary at the cash register of the trampoline park where we worked I couldn’t do anything but look at the floor. I think it’s watered down to suggest that Evangelicalism breeds competition between women growing up – it breeds extremely selfish tendencies that do not stop at the sign of another woman’s pain.
The high school I went to was not a religious school, but it was in upper East Tennessee, and the people there are mostly white, rich, southern, and love the Lord. If you didn’t go to YoungLife, you were just weird. My parents thought it was too liberal an approach, but after some mild persuasion, they let me start attending. The weekend retreats and summer camps were my favorite, and after two days of sleep deprivation, the adolescent rush of pseudo-freedom, and the hormones from being released in an open environment with the opposite sex, I bet it wasn’t hard for our leaders to get us to voice our darkest struggles. And they would offer their mentorship, in the most saccharine voice, “Your transformation will be beautiful. I was a slave to perfection, then I let go and let God.” And it’s really not to doubt their conviction, I remember my leaders fondly and am sure they believed everything they were saying, but looking back it was laughable how they’d always finish with a promotion for the newest daily devotions textbook and an invitation to start going to yet another small group night per week. On the night prior to our departure, the camp preacher stood in front of us all and said with conviction, “One out of every four women in this room will be pregnant before they graduate.” They sent us off into the dark night of the campgrounds and instructed us to not speak to one another, to find a spot, and listen to God. I listened for about 5 minutes, secretly bitching at God the whole time for how He’d probably give the other girls a sign but not me, and I so desperately just wanted to have something noteworthy to say at small group later. I tried to convince myself that a frog croak was my sign, and I’ve never figured out what it might have meant.
The largest challenge in leaving Evangelicalism was in coming to terms with the ways in which my upbringing reared me to function in an environment that is exclusive to Evangelical communities. These southern networks are some of the most anxiety- and fear-ridden places – a quick Google search of “anxiety and depression rates by state” and “bible belt usa” can vouch for that. Perhaps it’s because everyone there stays on high alert for any incoming threat to the sanctity of their own or their family’s souls. In a community that breeds anger out of fear, it’s no wonder the population is deeply unsatisfied. It’s hard to entirely remove yourself from a space where everyone functions like a pseudo-narcissist. When you finally learn how to navigate it, you’re already very good at existing in that realm. Although I’ve consciously done a lot to undo the tendencies, I carried from being in that environment, I’m certain there’s a lot more subconsciously I’m not even aware of yet. I am still an evangelical mean girl in recovery, and when I go back home sometimes, I am her again. It’s so easy to slip back into roles we know and adapted to for the most developmental stages of our lives – Evangelicalism creates a network of fear and ruthless judgement that severely impacts the social ability and general happiness of those who grow up in its clutches.
Artwork: "Cherub" by Hanna Dice