Finding out your parents are flawed people who don’t always know what they’re doing is part of growing up. Some of us learn this younger than others, but we all learn it eventually, and usually, by the time the realization fully clicks, it doesn’t come as much of a shock.
But there’s something different about having your loved ones’ flaws exposed via national politics. There’s something different — worse — about learning courtesy of a politician or political crisis that your parents not only don’t live up to the principles they taught you, but perhaps they don’t really believe in those principles at all. Perhaps the virtues they taught you were always a matter of convenience. Perhaps they were always just … hypocrites? Perhaps you’ve been betrayed.
On Monday’s opening night of the Democratic National Convention, former first lady Michelle Obama expressed that feeling exactly. “[R]ight now, kids in this country [are] looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time,” she said, “about who we are and what we truly value.”
The answer many adults have already reached is “yes.” This experience cuts across ideological lines — when I tweeted about this sense of betrayal, a follower more conservative than his parents described mourning the same politics-linked loss — but Obama’s words seem to uniquely resonate with the children of American evangelicalism, now adults, who have watched in disbelief as their parents, pastors, and mentors became enthusiastic supporters of President Trump.
“That line from Michelle Obama — about young people wondering if the adults in their life ever truly believed what they always said they did — is something I hear from young Christians all around the country in a particularly potent and personal way,” tweeted Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. Wear received a flood of affirmative responses:
“That is exactly how I feel,” said one. “I’ve come to believe that they were always just telling lies.”
“This is my stumbling block in this moment,” added another. “I can’t get over it.”
A third: “‘Here’s how you conduct yourself as an adult. Here’s how you treat women. Here’s how you treat your enemies. Here’s how you win (the right way). Here’s how you show empathy. Here’s what leadership looks like.’ I guess that stuff matters till it’s inconvenient, or you’re scared?”
Since Trump shot to power in 2015 and 2016, I’ve observed this sense of betrayal again and again. Sometimes it’s about Trump specifically. Sometimes it’s tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has been known to tear apart families. Sometimes it’s as simple as the formative hours — maybe 15 or 20 a week — spent imbibing the poison of cable news, especially Fox, letting its distorting rot set in.
I’ve experienced a bit of this betrayal, too, in connection to Trump’s election and the COVID-19 pandemic. “All men talk that way in private,” a relative told me when the Access Hollywood tape came out. I sputtered in disbelief, not only that she believed this lie but that after enthusiastically participating in the religious right’s 1990s fixation on character in politics, she could thus dismiss Trump’s boast of sexual assault. Don’t you remember everything you said 20 years ago? Don’t you remember what you taught us?
Undergoing this personal apocalypse can raise a question big enough to upset your whole life: Is the problem the people or the principles?
“Had anyone believed in the virtues they taught me? Or had those virtue claims always been weapons wielded to preserve power for the powerful and keep everyone else in place?” asks Amy Peterson in Where Goodness Still Grows, an exploration of virtue predicated on this very betrayal. “I find myself now wondering if the ground I grew up in was radioactive all along and whether anything good can grow here,” she continues. “Does this hypocrisy mean I need to discard everything I learned growing up in the evangelical church?”
Settling that question as it pertains to faith, self-conception, and newly complicated relationships still leaves open the politics of the thing — and here we come back to Obama’s (and, presumably, Democratic strategists’) aim in re-opening this wound. The “America that is on display for the next generation” is a “nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character,” she said. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Obama continued, pitching the Democratic Party as the home of voters who care about character.
This section of her speech, devoid of policy specifics, is a precise inverse of the argument many white evangelicals have made for voting for Trump. Theirs is a consequentialist case that character doesn’t matter if the policy outcomes are what you want. Obama declared she “hates politics” and asked voters to decide on character — maybe even character alone. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is a “profoundly decent man, guided by faith,” she said, a man who will “listen” and “tell the truth.”
For many voters, the decision won’t be so neatly decided. But for voters still reeling from this betrayal, especially relative moderates who find something to like in each party’s platform, the invitation to decide on character might prove irresistible. It could feel like a chance to prove that your principles are real, your virtues sincerely practiced, and your children not heading for an ugly surprise.