Perhaps one of the most painful experiences recounted by those who leave religion is being shunned by their family, friends and community. Shunning, a social control mechanism that is used to punish those who violate a group’s rules, practices and norms, may include exile and banishment, as well as cutting off communication and relationships. Many religious groups practice shunning, and people who have been shunned by their family describe the silence as deafening and the rejection as devastating.
This retaliatory measure took the national stage on Feb. 15 when Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a six-term Illinois member of Congress, received a letter from his family disowning him for his refusal to support Donald Trump after the deadly Capitol insurrection. In fact, Kinzinger was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote for impeaching Trump. For this, he has been censured by the Republican Party and even much of his own family, who espouse a Christian nationalist worldview. In a letter sent via certified mail and copied to Republicans across Illinois, relatives of Kinzinger told him that he embarrassed the family name and repeatedly invoked religion, God and the devil.
The letter, which can be read in its entirety here, is palpable in its anger and vitriol:
“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and God! We were once so proud of your accomplishments! Instead, you go against your Christian principals [sic] and join the ‘devil’s army’ (Democrats and fake news media). How do you call yourself a Christian when you join the ‘devil’s army’ believing in abortion! . . . President Trump is not perfect … But he is a Christian! . . . Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, to name just a few, of many pastors who mentor Trump, know that he is a believer! . . . When was the last time you proclaimed your faith, Adam? (Oh, we forget you now belong to the ‘devil’s army.’) You won’t convince us otherwise with your horrible, rude accusations of President Trump! (To embrace a party that believes in abortion and socialism is the ultimate sin) . . . . It is most embarassing to us that we are related to you. You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name! We are not judging you. This letter is our opinion of you!”
In the postscript of the letter, his family claims: “I have received numerous calls concerning your actions and egregious behavior toward our President of the United States, Donald J. Trump! President Trump has done more for the American people in four years than you, the Rino’s, and Democrats have done in years!!”
Kinzinger responded to news outlets stating that his family has been “brainwashed” by conservative churches. Indeed, the pastors referenced in the letter are known for their unwavering support of evangelism, Trump and a theocratic government. In fact, after the insurrection, Franklin Graham, who is the son of evangelist Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, doubled down on Religious Right rhetoric: “Our country is in trouble. We need God’s healing and we need God’s help.” Robert Jeffress, a senior pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, has said that Trump is “the most pro-life and most pro-religious president in history” who “has every right to hold the view that the election was fraudulent and to invite those who share that belief to peacefully protest.”
And as troubling as Kinzinger’s letter is to read, it is an important reminder that countless people have received similar familial letters in the name of religion. However, Christian nationalism isn’t just about religion. As evidenced in the letter, it’s about imposing a particular worldview on a secular nation. And when theology becomes enmeshed with politics, people ignore the facts and favor the fiction. Indeed, Christian nationalism operates in cult-like behavior with unrelenting idolatry to Religious Right figures — at the expense of family, friends, and decency. That’s exactly what has happened with Kinzinger’s family and numerous GOP legislators who have turned their backs on democracy.
So while our country attempts to repair the damage that has been done by such divisive and religiously rooted rhetoric and policy, we need to embrace secularism and uphold the separation between church and state more than ever.