When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People: Navigating Religious Disagreements in the Family


The holiday season is now fully upon us, and with it comes time spent with family. Seeing the relatives. Some combination of grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nephews, nieces, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. Traveling over there to see them, or them traveling over here.

Consider some quotes about family:

“The family: that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to” (Dodie Smith).

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together” (Erma Bombeck).

Those are the quotes, and let’s pause for a moment to notice some of the central images: family as “that dear octopus”; family as “a strange little band of characters trudging through life; family “trying to figure out the common thread binding us together.” All such images speak directly to our topic this morning: navigating religious disagreements with our relatives, especially those involving our born-again fundamentalist relatives. How difficult this can be. The stories abound:

An aunt whose born-again niece and nephew specifically pray for the welfare of her soul during the dinnertime grace while she is visiting-although the aunt’s soul feels just fine….

A brother who, out of the blue, asks, “Are you an evolutionist?” and then goes on a huge diatribe about how evolution is not good science but superstition….

A mother who insists on the entire family attending her fundamentalist church’s Christmas Eve service, even though her son and daughter-in-law clearly squirm at what her church teaches….

Any of these remind you of your own stories? It’s the “strange little band of characters trudging through life, trying to figure out the common thread binding us together.” It’s “the dear octopus.”

Let’s take a look at the varieties of religious disagreements in families, and then explore options for dealing with them effectively.

Starting with this insight: that religious disagreements are sometimes not on-the-level; they mask something deeper. The argument may sound like it is all and only about religion: whether or not the Christian scriptures are the literal word of God; whether or not there is such a thing as eternal hell; whether or not all religions possess some truth. That’s what the argument sounds like, and we can get so focused on that, we miss out on the deeper factors that, in truth, energize and intensify what’s going on: historical factors, social factors, interpersonal factors, psychological factors, and so on. Invisibly fueling the fire-so if we ignore them, solutions at the surface level can only be temporary. The spite will never end. Religion is a multi-layered venture; as we experience religious conflict in our families, we need to be listening for the deeper layers as well.

One of these layers we have already heard about, in our reading from earlier. The author, Unitarian Universalist Doug Muder, talked about the anxiety towards social change that underlies the Religious Right’s loyalty to “absolute values,” or the non-negotiable system of roles and obligations they aspire to live within. When we religious liberals call this a valid spiritual choice, just one among others, we relativize what is for them absolute. They feel disrespected and misunderstood. We remind them exactly of what they are fighting against. “Religious conservatives are not being busybodies,” says Doug Muder, “when they worry about moral breakdown: Fundamentalists worry about moral breakdown because they see their own lives, families, and communities breaking down.” That’s what Doug Muder says, and he follows up with a quote from a study of conservative Christian families which says, “Whether the issue is divorce, materialism, sexual promiscuity, racism, physical abuse in marriage, or neglect of a biblical worldview, the polling data point to widespread, blatant disobedience of clear biblical moral demands on the part of people who allegedly are evangelical, born-again Christians. The statistics are devastating.”

This is one of the deeper layers that we need to listen for, beneath the surface arguments. Basic compassion requires it. Anxiety about what the world is coming to; fear and confusion about how it is that traditional families are fraying apart. As for a second deeper layer to listen for: it’s something more basic. I’m talking about communication skills. Or, rather, the lack of them. Consider, for example, the bad habit of focusing on intentions and ignoring the impact of words. As when a well-meaning relative insists, “I’m not disrespecting you; I’m trying to save your soul. Can’t you see that?” The words have explicitly religious content, but the real problem is the underlying communication pattern, which we see occurring in non-religious contexts all the time. As in, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings; I was only trying to say that you’ve gained twenty pounds and your favorite dress no longer fits.” The assumption is that because the intentions were all innocent and good, you should not feel hurt. In fact, now that the intentions have been clarified, all your hurt feelings should instantly disappear. But this is ridiculous. People have a right to feel their feelings, whether one’s religion or one’s body image has just been insulted. You just can’t focus on intentions and dismiss the impact of one’s words. You just can’t have one without the other. HOW one says something is just as important as WHAT one says.

Beneath the surface disagreements: layers and layers. Anxiety about social change, poor communication skills; and also this: family dynamics. For example, the sibling rivalry that simmers beneath the relationship between two sisters, which gives their religious disagreement particular intensity since one of the sisters has “fallen away” from the family faith while the other has stayed with it. On the surface, the argument sounds like it’s about religion between two mature adults; but at a deeper level the sisters are just like pre-teens competing for attention from Mom and Dad. A variant of this is the spouse of the sister who has stayed close to home, who champions his wife against his errant sister-in-law even as his wife pretends ignorance and says not a word.

It’s family dynamics. And there are so many varieties. The son who uses religion as a means of winning independence from his family; the more obnoxiously he asserts his differences and, as a result, calls the family wrath down upon himself, the more independent he feels. Or this pattern: parents trying to preserve family identity and continuity through time, which they see as inextricably connected to a particular denomination or system of beliefs; and this is what inspires their unceasing and seemingly endless efforts to convert you back into the fold. Or this: the aunt who follows the beat of a different spiritual drummer and takes severe heat from everyone else-but it’s really not so much about her spiritual choices as it is the fact that the family needs a collective punching bag, and the person who stands out too much gets to be the scapegoat.

All is not necessarily as it seems. Appearance can hide reality. Arguments about religion can serve to express deeper tensions even as they conceal what’s really going on. For this reason, in the face of family disagreements, it can be so helpful to take a curiosity stance towards what is going on. Not to allow yourself to get caught up in all the sturm und drang, but to step back and wonder: what’s really going on here?

On the other hand, sometimes appearance IS reality. Religion IS what the arguments are about. Here’s at least two examples of this.

One has to do with what it means to have a public religious identity. To what degree is this a matter of sharing specific beliefs? Maybe this Thanksgiving you found yourself with a relative, talking about your Unitarian Universalism, and this is a person for whom being a Christian is all about accepting official church doctrines about God, salvation, Jesus, and so on. For them, without right beliefs, you can’t be a part of a church. This is what they know. So you go ahead and share your Unitarian Universalism, saying that there are no official church doctrines about any of those things. There ARE shared beliefs-for example, that there are many ways to religious truth and not just one, or that human nature has an inherent positivity and value to it-but these are all general, not specific. About specific things, Unitarian Universalism allows you to believe what reason, conscience, and intuition declare as truth. Beyond this, you talk about the spiritual practices and disciplines that unite Unitarian Universalists, such as communal worship; leadership and service; lifespan religious education; good stewardship of time, talent, and money; and commitment to healthy relationships. Disciplines like these. This is what you say: and your relative looks at you like you are a Martian. That’s not religion! Religion, for them, starts and ends with believing the right things.

This is a genuine disagreement, a genuine argument. In fact, it might lead you directly into a second disagreement, over what it takes to be religiously sincere. Sincerity, for religious conservatives, is tied to their absolute value paradigm. You are sincere only if you give up your right to choose your social roles, your obligations, your beliefs. You are sincere only if you submit. Thus their rejection of the religiously liberal way, as Doug Muder points out: “[Religious conservatives],” he says, “understand us to be advocating a superficial and nihilistic way of life. They think we want to choose our own moral codes so that we can pick easy ones that rationalize our every whim. They believe that we want the freedom to define our relationships so that we can walk away from anything that looks difficult.” That’s what Doug Muder says. The argument is about sincerity, and whereas we will object that the conservative has misunderstood us completely, they will reply that they understand us better than we understand ourselves. And it goes from there. Back and forth, objection and reply….

And there you have it. The variety of religious disagreements in families. Sometimes perfectly straightforward and on the level, and sometimes not. It’s all part and parcel of the family as “dear octopus,” the family as that “strange little band of characters trudging through life.” But now the question is, Where to go from here? How to stand up for ourselves even as we do our best to stay in healthy relationship with the other?

I think it begins with the basics. Don’t allow yourself to be treated like a doormat. You have the right to say no to anything when you feel you are not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates your values. You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. You have the right to be in a non-abusive environment. You have all these rights, and more, and so to stand up for them, you set compassionate limits. You can be compassionate but firm as you say, “I care about you and I know you care about me. But do you remember my last visit, when, at dinnertime, your children openly prayed for the sake of my soul? That made me feel very uncomfortable and unwelcome. I know that the intentions were all good, but I still felt like my spirituality was being disrespected. Can we talk about this? What can we each do to make the next visit more satisfying for both of us?” This is setting compassionate limits. It’s a strategy that comes from Leonard Felder, Ph. D., author of the fantastic book When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People, and he goes on to say, “Instead of your reacting like a frustrated child, I’ve found with hundreds of counseling clients that when you take charge and offer these ‘compassionate limits’ you will sound and feel like a competent manager and a worthwhile adult. You will be preventing the usual power-struggle with this negative relative and instead turning your conversation with this person into a creative brainstorming session that uncovers positive alternatives.” That’s what Dr. Felder says.

“I care about you, and you care about me. How our next time together be more satisfying for both of us?” Such directness, very often, can make all the difference. But what about that extra-grace-required relative whose communication skills are null and void? What if the dysfunctional family dynamics are seemingly set in stone? (This brings to mind the old Yiddish saying that goes, “If you’re waiting for your relatives to change … you should live so long.”) Again, Dr. Felder’s advice is solid: “Don’t set up an unrealistic expectation that the situation is going to be easy. Instead, set for yourself a realistic small goal that will allow you to feel successful. For example, if a ten minute phone call or a two hour visit is the most you can handle with a particularly unpleasant relative, don’t volunteer for a sixty minute phone call or a seven day visit that is bound to turn out badly. Or if your relative has a habit of giving you too much advice, set a new realistic goal for your interactions, such as: ‘I’ll listen to one piece of advice and say, ‘That’s interesting. I’ll consider it,’ without getting into a big debate or war this time.’ When it comes to difficult family members, it’s good enough to just keep your interactions brief and civil, while remembering to say to yourself, ‘I don’t need to change this person’s basic personality-I just need to stay healthy, calm and relaxed no matter what he or she does.'” That’s what Dr. Felder recommends.

There is, finally, a third strategy to keep in mind, and this one is especially relevant when the religious disagreement is more on-the-level and less rooted in subterranean factors and forces. It’s this: Figuring out the common thread that binds us all together. Perhaps you and your relative disagree vehemently on the nature of religious identity. For you, the word that sums up the religious life is “commitment;” for them, “commandment.” For you, freedom is at the core; for them, obedience. For you, religion is mostly about right behavior; for them, religion is mostly about right belief. All these differences; but in the midst of them, is there truly no common ground?

This is where it becomes critical for religious liberals like ourselves to articulate why freedom and choice are spiritually central to us, and not some cop out. After all, we don’t want to be guilty of bad communication habits ourselves, as in requiring our relatives to read our minds. We need to say who we are. Say, along with Doug Muder, that “We give our members the freedom to doubt and encourage them to question their beliefs not so they will see all beliefs as whimsical and contingent, but quite the opposite: We find that hard-tested and hard-won beliefs are more likely to withstand the challenges of modern life. A marriage whose every assumption and duty has been freely negotiated is not a house of straw, but rather a house whose every brick has been carefully laid. The freedom of liberal religion is an invitation to engage with the most significant issues of human life and society, not an excuse to fall into a shiftless and vacant hedonism.” In other words, what we share with our fundamentalist relatives is exactly this sense of the religious life as rigorous and not easy. We share with them “loyalties that go beyond self and the convenience of the moment. [We share with them a rejection of] the materialism of popular culture. [We both] seek something more substantial than the momentary satisfaction of desire or the endless striving after status” (Muder).

All these things represent common ground upon which to build, at the very least, a respectful agreement to disagree. In the end, your relative may never budge, and neither may you, but at least you will sense in each other an overriding seriousness about the quest for meaning and truth in life. And that can represent a start to dialogue that’s mutually civil. A very good start.

* * *

Our reading today is an excerpt from an article by Unitarian Universalist Doug Muder called “Who’s Afraid of Freedom and Tolerance?

Like most religious liberals, we Unitarian Universalists imagine ourselves to be nice people. It is those in the Christian Right, we believe, who want to force their moral code on everyone else and use public resources to proselytize for their faith. We, on the other hand, believe in tolerance, free choice, and letting people be what they have to be. What’s so scary about that? If the rank-and-file of organizations like Focus on the Family or the Christian Coalition feel threatened by us, we think, it can only be because they have been duped by their unscrupulous leaders.

Not necessarily.

True, preachers of the Christian Right have said a lot of unfair things about liberals, both religious and political. But conservative Christian fears have not been created ex nihilo. As overstated as those fears may at times become, they have a basis, and we would do well to understand it.

Many books have been written recently about the Christian Right. One that does a particularly good job of getting inside the movement’s worldview, particularly that of its working-class members, is Spirit and Flesh: Life Inside a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James M. Ault Jr…. Ault, like George Lakoff and several other authors, locates the heart of the Christian Right worldview in its overall vision of family life-not just in the positions it takes on a handful of specific “family values” issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.

[According to this overall vision of family life,] a child … is born into a network of mutual obligations and depends for its survival on the fulfillment of those obligations. As it grows, the child takes an ever more active role in upholding that network. At no point in the process is the individual in a position to stand outside the network and choose whether or not its obligations apply to him or her. The only choice the individual has is whether to fulfill his/her obligations or to renege on them. This is what fundamentalists mean when they say that moral values are “absolute” rather than “relative.”

We may think that we’re being tolerant when we grant that the Christian Right lifestyle is a valid choice. But merely by describing it as a choice, we move the discussion onto our turf. Ault explains: “Liberally minded people often do not realize . . . that rather than respecting fundamentalists’ views, they are denying them by insisting that religious beliefs or ethical standards be seen as personal, private [commitments] we must all tolerate in one another…. ”

In one sense, fundamentalists have every right to fear and resent religious liberals. […] Every person who defects from the regime of timeless roles and obligations makes life more difficult for those who try to keep it going. From their point of view, freedom is a kind of plague we carry….

But (as the Billy Joel song puts it) we didn’t start this fire. The medieval extended family-rooted in a particular place with inherited, inflexible roles-has been slowly coming apart since the advent of modern capitalism…. It is a trying time, and the anger of the Christian Right is understandable. “Whenever an old order dies,” writes the liberal Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, “anger is always loosed upon the whole society.”

Here ends the reading for today…