Updated: Aug 15, 2020
A Reflection for #PrideMonth: Liberal Presbyterianism and Simple Faith in The Miseducation of Cameron Post
7th June 2020
“My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity” -Flannery O’Connor
It’s been a couple of weeks now since I read Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Penguin, 2017); and it’s living with me as vividly now as when I felt its full impact a fortnight ago. This is a wonderful coming-of-age story — perhaps even a theological manifesto — that warns against the dangers of spiritual overreaching, a courageous takedown of a form of Christianity more concerned with so-called purity than with love of self and neighbour. If you pick up no other fiction book this Pride Month, make it this one. There’s no other novel I’d rather talk about in my first article for Left Side Up.
Danforth’s debut novel follows the title character, Cameron Post, through the twilight years of her childhood in Montana during the late 80s through to her early adolescence in the 90s. We grieve with Cameron over the loss of her parents in a tragic accident early in the book, forging a bond between reader and protagonist that endures until its closing pages. Thus invested in Cameron’s inner life and development, the issues that matter to her matter to us also. One of the key influences over the trajectory of Cameron’s fate as it unravels, chapter by chapter, is the Christian faith of her family circle, a faith which takes a turn for the worst as the family distance themselves from the liberal Presbyterianism of Cameron’s childhood.
In an affectionate portrait of a youthful Cameron’s encounters with liberal Presbyterianism, Danforth portrays a healthy moderate message that it’s ‘enough to accept that Jesus had died for my sins, and to try and not break any of the Ten Commandments, to be kind to people,’ but it’s not enough for Cameron’s conservative aunt, Ruth, who uproots her niece from this middle-of-the-road congregation to attend an evangelical megachurch. Under the shadow of the fundamentalist faith they encounter there, tension builds within the family when Cameron, who is coming to terms with her identity as a gay teenager, is packed off to a conversion therapy camp after being outed to her Aunt. Danforth uses the rest of the novel to narrate the emotional manipulation that Cameron suffers at the camp in the lead-up to her eventual escape.
One of the most shameful examples of this ‘emotional abuse,’ which Cameron is eventually able to name and expose as such from her own intuition, is an exercise where she must label an iceberg with components of her ‘Same Sex Attraction Disorder.’ Among these are ‘too much emphasis placed on my abilities in sports,’ ‘never rewarded for/encouraged toward feminine dress/style,’ and so on; every major aspect of Cameron’s personal history is problematised and reinterpreted. Fully illustrated in the text, Cameron’s cluttered iceberg drawing demonstrates not only the total incoherence of conversion therapy as a practise, but the confusion that results when authority structures recast a gorgeously divergent identity as a pathology.
The trauma to which Cameron and her fellow camp inmates are exposed, characters whose experiences represent those of thousands of young people worldwide, is perfectly avoidable. Had Cameron been allowed to carry into her teenage years the simple faith of her liberal Presbyterian childhood, and not railroaded into the spiritual contortionism of trying to change herself, a lot of pain could have been averted. Spiritual growth — that evangelical buzzword — is not about squeezing into an artificial mould others tell us is more acceptable to God, but encountering new dimensions of God’s love that are available to each of us just as we are; no need to chase after moral excesses. Readers can take heart, though, that most of the young LGBTQ people in the camp manage, against all odds, to retain their individual differences and quirks that make them who they are.
As Cameron reflects on her liberal Presbyterian childhood, cheerful Bibles with ‘bright-colored pictures of pairs of animals boarding the ark, and Moses parting a very red sea’ are the stuff of her Sunday school memories. She has permission to enter the world of the Bible with no specific agenda, simply to see what she finds there. This was my own experience of Sunday school in the early 2000s, and I’m grateful for it. Quite a different culture explodes onto the scene once Cameron and Aunt Ruth move to a conservative church; rhetoric of spiritual warfare and the powers of darkness, and an ‘Extreme Teen Bible’ — stocked with ready-made answers to a panoply of issues — become the order of the day. This particular section of transition reads like a parody of the Fall account in Genesis 3; in the beginning all was well, until it was well no longer. Nowhere to be seen is the simplicity of the three abiding virtues: Faith, Hope and Love (1 Cor. 13: 13).
Danforth’s exquisite novel has reminded me of the need to hang onto a simple faith; not the kind of simple faith that stifles uniqueness in a conversion camp, nor the kind that attempts to reduce a diverse group of loveable rogues to impersonal clones, but the kind of simple faith that embraces our whole selves and upholds the love of God and neighbour as the greatest commandments (Mt. 22: 37-40). This lockdown, let’s hope the more effusive brand of morality begins to unravel in the absence of people to see us play the part and reward us with their approval.
Where to from here? A nice bit of double symbolism at the end of the book holds the answer; the candle that Cameron lights as a memorial to her late parents at the novel’s conclusion is an emblem not only of radiant hope but of beautiful simplicity. All the complex layers of shame and condemnation that have been heaped upon her decisively perish in the unadorned flames of her tender tribute. Simplicity is recovered and, with it, hope. It’s over to us; liberal Presbyterians and LGBTQ allies of all denominations, time to call your siblings in Christ — brothers, sisters, and others — back to basics: love and respect, curiosity and courage, Marilynne Robinson’s twin values of ‘large-m
indedness and openhandedness.’ Let’s recover a simple faith that makes room for all God’s children without exception.
🏳️🌈 Happy #PrideMonth 🏳️🌈
For more on conversion therapy: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/get-involved/trevor-advocacy/50-bills-50-states/about-conversion-therapy/