This is Your Brain on Evangelicalism
or, God Wants You to be Ashamed of Yourself
The phrase “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” isn’t actually in the Bible. The sentiment goes back to the early days of Christianity, however, and the attitude this aphorism conveys is common in stricter forms of the faith—not least among English Puritans and their cultural descendants, American evangelical Protestants. In this connection, the notion that Christians must always busy themselves with “godly” and “edifying” productive activities is part and parcel of what Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, had in mind when, in the early twentieth century, he famously argued that “the spirit of capitalism” descends from “the Protestant ethic.”
Our culture stereotypes Catholics as particularly guilt-ridden, but—not to start an argument about which is “worse” or anything—evangelicals are often highly adept at using shame as a method of social control. The shame you internalize when you hear a sermon or a parent or authority figure’s comment that shames you, and the guilt you feel when you violate a related norm, stick with you, so that a scrupulous evangelical kid learns to police themselves, and even to be their own thought police.
When you’re socialized this way, you can find yourself obsessing over external actions, like whether you are obeying your parents “cheerfully” enough or whether you’re spending too much time or money on “frivolous” things like video games or TV. But you can also become unhealthily fixated on the state of your inner life.
In fact, your thought life takes on particular urgency given that “sinful” thoughts and feelings, and doubts in the literal truth of Jesus’s resurrection, the virgin birth, etc., are understood as potentially coming from literal demons. If you entertain these thoughts and feelings too much, the thinking goes, you will allow yourself to come more and more under demonic influence, perhaps even to be “indwelt” and “oppressed” if not outright “possessed” by demons. (These distinctions mean something in the 1970s “deliverance literature” and later evangelical books about demons and “spiritual warfare” that I discussed briefly in a previous post, but I’m not going to get into those weeds here.)
In this way, evangelicalism teaches you to gaslight yourself instead of tuning in to your often valid intuitions, setting you up for abuse, manipulation, cognitive dissonance, and a generally unhealthy relationship with your emotions.
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