Polite Morality and Why I Left Church

Why I stopped going to church… What I’m about to write to you is tough medicine. I’m not saying that as a figure of speech. I got physically ill when the full realization of its truth hit me. For nearly a month, I was sicker than I ever remember being before. That was almost two and a half years ago, and I’ve spent the intervening time trying to comprehend that realization well enough to articulate it. It has been a massive, massive shift in how I see the world. It’s a cure that burned when I swallowed it. It has been a shift for the better. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but it has been very hard.

I also want to be very clear that this is a pill I’ve had to swallow myself. I’m not writing this as a victim of the problem. Yes, I’ve been hurt by some teachings, but for the most part, my personal interactions at church have been positive. Many of my good friends are still church people. I’m explaining this as much to Amy a half dozen or so years ago as I am to anyone still going to church today. 

Some say that people are leaving the church because we are no longer convinced that Christians believe what they preach. For me, that is not the case. I left because the church believes in a Polite morality that fails to address the real needs of hurting people. Polite morality panders to the small problems of well-meaning but privileged people. The church has set herself up as an increasingly vocal and staunch defender of a polite morality. This stance heaps heavy moral loads onto the people Jesus said we are meant to help. It empowers abusers and other wolves to the point that they seek the church as a safe haven to cover their sins and find an ample supply of victims.

Yeah. All of that. Let me give you a moment to read back through that again.

If you’re still with me, let’s look at an example. Marriage is the topic I know best, and a topic that’s a Big Deal at church. Thinking back on the messages I’ve gotten about marriage and how it should work, the general focus has been on:

  • Sex and all the ways to avoid doing it wrong
  • Healthy conflict resolution between well-meaning spouses 
  • How important marriage is in the face of all the cultural forces trying to tear it apart.

This is what I mean about staunchly defending Polite morality. These problems don’t actually present much immediate danger to the people hearing the sermons. Yet all of them are presented with high consequences for failure: for our souls, our families, our culture. 

On the other hand, here are some things that do not come up in sermons or books or Christian media often:

  • How to recognize a toxic partner
  • You deserve a happy, healthy relationship
  • All the ways a relationship can be unsafe that aren’t adultery

For people in actual danger in relationships, these untouched topics could be lifesaving messages. Now, if you take the Polite path and assume that people in the fold are generally good people and those out of the fold are not, maybe it’s fine to focus on the sins with few earthly consequences but supposedly dire spiritual consequences. Unfortunately for the Polite path, that’s just not true. Fun fact: roughly 40% of relationships are abusive. If you’d told me that 10 years ago, I would have thought, “Yeah… that seems really high. And that must be about other people. I don’t know of anyone in my community in abusive relationships.” My personal journey has since put me in the path of people who have endured abuse, and I now think that number may be artificially LOW. But the real point I’m getting to is that it is extremely dangerous to assume “not my church” and “not my community,” to behave and teach as if no one you know could be perpetrating the REALLY BAD things. Why? Here are a few reasons:

It fosters a culture of silence

This happens in two ways. First, what we talk about sets the tone for community conversations. I was in a Bible study for several years with a lovely group of women. My marriage was collapsing, but it simply wasn’t what we talked about. I eventually found a place where I could be more open, and a few years later, I encountered another lady from the group whose marriage had been collapsing in similar ways to mine at the same time. I had no idea. We just never talked about it, because that’s not the polite thing to do.

Secondly, when you only talk about polite problems, you don’t have a vocabulary to talk about the harder problems. If you don’t know the vocabulary and ways and means of abuse, you may not even recognize it. You’ll talk about and work on your communication problems with your spouse when what’s really going on is manipulation and verbal abuse.

It puts a heavy moral burden on people who are already suffering

If you don’t have a mental and moral framework that includes the sins of less polite people, the burden of fixing things inevitably falls on the victim. This happens three ways:

1. Victims, looking for a way out of the situation, blame themselves because blaming their abuser gets them nowhere (or worse). They find easy self-incrimination in the “high” moral standards they learn at church. “I’m in this group that has this set of problems with this toolkit for resolving them. If they’re not working, I must be doing them wrong. I need to… communicate better/be more open to sex with my spouse/stop drinking that extra glass of wine I indulge in every so often.” You get the idea. There’s always something you could do better in the church’s polite moral economy, and so that something must be the reason you’re unhappy at home.

2. Abusers see that and use it. “She doesn’t respect me the way women are supposed to.” “If only you were more forgiving, we wouldn’t have so many fights.”

3. Polite people make the problem worse. I’m in some forums for women recovering from abusive relationships, and hardly a day goes by without a woman complaining about a pastor, counselor, or church friend hurting them by applying the polite moral framework to their problem and giving advice that ranges from wildly inappropriate to life-threatening. Condemning a woman who has been physically and financially isolated because adultery or physical abuse are the only grounds for divorce is an example. I can’t help but think of the pharisees chastising the healed lame man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath.

It gives abusers a place to hide, both socially and morally

Abusers are great at being Politely moral. I think we often assume that people who do the Really Bad Things are easy to recognize on the street. Like, how could someone who socially and financially isolates his wife and children and screams insults at them constantly even plausibly pretend to be like you and me? We assume they’ll have horns on their head and smoke trailing behind them at every step. I kid, but think about it this way: maybe, when we have so much invested in our own Polite morality, we are reluctant to admit that someone could check all of the boxes that are so vitally important to us and still be an absolutely terrible person.

Abusers are not obvious most of the time. They thrive in places where they can check a lot of boxes to look like a good person. This gives them power. They benefit from that cognitive dissonance we experience when someone who seems nice does something awful. We question our own perception and we question anyone who accuses them.

I hope you see that this is not just a problem of a few “bad apples”. It is systemic and rooted into the fundamental beliefs of a polite church. It’s baked into our leadership and membership models.

I’ve just told you a little bit about how the church makes fertile ground for abuse in marriage, but it’s not much of a stretch to see how the same approach might empower race-based abuse or workplace abuse. This is why, while I love Jesus, I can’t participate in the system any more with integrity. 

“But Amy! Politeness is the glue that holds us together as a community! As a culture! I can’t go around looking at everyone I know as a potential abuser!” No, but you can:

1. Learn. There are great resources specifically about the wrongheaded things we’ve been teaching about marriage. See Sheila Wray Gregoire, Helena Knowlton, Lundy Bancroft, or Jeff Crippen.

2. Believe people when they say they’ve been wronged. Listen. Engage. Learn some more.

3. Stop pretending Polite sins are the only thing or even the main thing. Reset the vocabulary and the conversation. Replace the culture of silence. I’m not just talking about a few teary-eyed admissions that, while I have my shit together most of the time, I did yell at my kids last week, and then we go back to discussing whether it’s better to read the Bible in print or in an app or whether the wine at the wedding at Cana was watered down. I’m talking about deep, sustained engagement with people we thought belonged “outside.” I’m talking about replacing the dominant conversation about Polite morality with radical understanding that right and wrong aren’t always clean cut. This is not charity work. This is learning from the people who do not have the luxury of honing their Polite morality because they are fighting for their lives.

I may go back. Church has always been my culture, my family. I miss it. If I do go back, I hope that I’m a really impolite person to have in your Bible study. If I’m not, please remind me of this post.

2 thoughts on “Polite Morality and Why I Left Church”

  1. You have verbalized something here that I’ve been increasingly aware of in myself. I am a perfect example of a polite moralist! And I think you know this about me, but you still love me. Polite morality is something I struggle with because morality is something that has been somewhat easy for me. But the issue of it becoming the main characteristic and virtue in churches is a problem. Life is messy. And hard and imperfect and it’s a journey. My view of this life as a life in Christ has sharpened in some ways and blurred in other ways as understand more of my faith in an Orthodox way. I can’t claim to understand where you stand completely, but I recognize your frustration. I’m going to keep processing this with Aaron. I’d love to talk about this more with you. Love you, Amy.

  2. Thanks, friend. Love you, too. It’s harder to see, but Polite morality hurts polite moralists, too. We miss out on so much joy and just LIFE when we try to stand on that razor-thin edge of morality. I suspect you’re working at it harder than you realize. I’d LOVE to have you guys in my book clubs at Home for the Wayward. Either way, let’s catch up soon.

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