Belief

10 Ways to Deal With Right-Wing Christian Relatives Over the Holidays

How non-believers and liberal Christians can appeal to basic human kindness to repair strained relations with right-wing Christian family.

Holidays are stressful enough, but if you’re a non-believer—or even a liberal Christian—with right-wing Christian relatives, things can be even harder. There are so many landmines to navigate: Attempts to convert you; arguments about politics; offensive “jokes” that are really unvarnished bigotry; absurd claims and beliefs that threaten to cause you eyestrain from all the rolling.

Is there a way to protect yourself from all this without losing your relationship with your family? While there’s no way to make your conservative Christian relatives act with decency and tolerance 100% of the time, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage. Here are some suggestions.

1. Remember that you have leverage. Dan Savage is always recommending to newly out gay people to remember that they have leverage when dealing with recalcitrant or even angry parents: Their presence. Liberals and atheists can learn from this. If your family really is overbearing with attempts to convert you or incessant hollering about their right-wing beliefs, simply tell them to cut it out or you will cut out your visits. Try to avoid picking a fight or being dramatic about it. State your expectation that they keep the Christian right nonsense to a minimum around you, and if they can’t keep up their end of the bargain, refuse to see them until they realize that the price of having you around is that they learn to talk about something other than religion and politics. 

If they decide they cherish ranting about the evils of gay marriage or abortion more than they cherish you, that’s sad, but at least you can take comfort in the fact that you’re sparing yourself some major headaches. But even if they do agree to dial it down, odds are high that your relatives will try some funny business while you’re around. So be prepared with these next tips.

2. Do not argue over points of fact. Sometimes you will feel the need to push back, if only to establish your boundaries. There’s a good way and a bad way to do this. One thing to avoid is trying to correct them when they say blatantly untrue things. Yes, it’s maddening to hear your relatives spout lies about science, politics and history that they picked up on AM radio and Fox News, but ask yourself honestly, has correcting them ever resulted in anything but denials and hurt feelings? When a relative asserts that global warming is a myth or that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, remind yourself that he doesn't believe these things because he's made an honest mistake and is open to correction. He believes these things because he wants to believe these things. Unless you can make him stop wanting to believe it—and you can’t—there’s no point in arguing. Even if you can look up the facts online, he can point to some other source telling the lies. This will never get resolved, and you are wasting your breath.

3. When you do push back, make it personal. That doesn’t mean you have to just throw your hands up in the air and take it while your relatives spout provocative lies around you, however. The key is to reframe the issue as a matter of personal boundaries. “When you say those things about the President, Grandpa, it makes me agitated and angry. Can we talk about other, more pleasant things?” “Mom, our time together is so brief, and I’d hate for it to be used up talking about issues you know we don’t agree on.” “Uncle, your comments about gay people are hitting close to home. Some of my best friends are gay, and I can’t, in good conscience, hear people say negative things about them without speaking up. Could you leave it at home?”

The key is not to make it an argument about whether they’re right or wrong. (They probably already know how you feel about their utter wrongness anyway.) The argument is about how they treat you and how you would like them to treat you. That’s a much easier conversation to have.

4. If they really are unfamiliar with your beliefs, encourage them to ask questions. That said, not every Christian conservative is eager to pick a fight or has predetermined and unshakeable opinions about liberals or atheists. With atheists in particular, they may just not even know. If you sense that a relative means well and really is curious—particularly if they’re younger—feel free to let them ask questions that you answer honestly. Sometimes humanizing atheists can help change someone’s opinion about atheism. Warning: Only do this if they really are curious and are not angling to convert you. If they start to try to convert you, shut it down. That will just get ugly.

5. Pick your battles. Not everything has to be a fight.Try changing the subject if your relatives make unpleasant comments. Ignore the stray comments that go nowhere. Remember that not every expression of political or religious views is an attempt to needle you. You may not want to pray over dinner, but you can spare 60 seconds of silence to respect their desire to do so. If they’re not aiming their comments in your direction, feel free to ignore them. If they are, ask yourself seriously if it’s worth pushing back. In many cases, a glassy-eyed stare that suggests you didn’t even hear the offensive comment is enough to shut them down. 

6. Remind them relationships are a two-way street. If you don’t want to go to Christmas Mass, tell them that’s too big an ask. Point out that you’re not trying to convert them to atheism, and say you simply want the same in return. Whenever they disrespect your beliefs, remind them that you aren’t asking a lot, just for your beliefs to get equal respect with theirs. Most people haven’t considered that it’s as unfair to ask an atheist to feign religion as it is to ask a believer not to practice her faith. Reframing it as an issue of fairness will help many relatives understand.

7. Create distractions. Movies, present-wrapping, poker games, shopping trips, museum trips, and sports are fun activities in and of themselves, but they also create things to talk about that aren’t politics and religion. Try to cram some activities in, so there’s less opportunity to have unpleasant conversations.

8. Make some time for yourself. There’s a lot of downtime when you’re visiting relatives. Don’t feel bad about needing lots of naps (even if your “nap” is just shutting the door and reading a book) or needing to take some time to go jogging by yourself. Frequent breaks from family can make your time together a little easier to manage.

9. Find your allies. If you have other relatives who feel the way you do, it’s perfectly acceptable to pour yourselves a glass of wine away from everyone else and let out your opinions in amiable company. Hey, you’re still visiting family. You just like this relative a little more than the rest of them. Just remember to keep your loaded opinions to private conversations with your like-minded relations.

10. Keep your visits short and sweet. If family trips are a source of stress, don’t stay more than two or three nights. Most families will understand, since we all have work and other family obligations. If they know the amount of time they have to spend with you is limited, they will often feel pressure not to ruin everything by pushing your buttons. If they start to forget this, the short trip gives you an opportunity to remind them. Feel free to be blunt: “I’m only here for three days. Let’s not ruin it with pointless political/religious fighting.” You’re not cutting them off. You’re just acknowledging that, with some families at least, smaller doses are best for keeping your relationship intact.

With the increasing political and religious polarization, it can often seem like visiting relatives is more trouble than it’s worth. But in many cases, a little deflection and appeals to basic human kindness can help repair strained family relations. While not all families are worth preserving, with a little effort you may find that your family is one of the ones that can be saved.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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