Walking in the Steps of an Evangelical Parenting Prophet

Reverend Jamar Haynes Lee guarantees that he can get your kids into heaven. He's not a crackpot.

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The email hit my inbox like a bolt from above. It stood out among all the other press releases and PR come-ons. It offered something else entirely: eternal happiness for my children. Reverend Jamar Haynes Lee’s new parenting book How to Guarantee Your CHILDREN Go to Heaven, the email helpfully explained, was not just another parenting book. It was a parenting book featuring divine revelation.

“God led me to write this book to reveal that he is requiring parents to train their children this way for the first time in history,” Haynes Lee was quoted as saying. “With a book like mine, families no longer have to suffer from a lack of this new knowledge.”

I’m not going to lie, this made me chuckle. I read a lot of books about parenting and write about parenting strategies daily. It’s an exhausting gig precisely because there is no higher power to appeal to in the case of disagreement. Best practices change all the time and experts often don’t have enough information to offer truly prescriptive advice. The whole thing would be, I thought, so much easier if God would just tell folks what to do. That would really help cut through the bullshit.

I was also interested because religion can be a hard thing for guys like me to talk about with kids. I’m a somewhat religious Catholic dad, but I’m uncomfortable with ostentatious displays of faith and culturally liberal. I’d never really read a religious parenting book so — thinking that I’d learn something, at minimum, about the evangelical faith — I requested the book, starting pouring through it, and acquiesced to God’s divine parenting plan as communicated to the good reverend.

I knew from the outset that the reverend’s book was probably not penned with me — a bisexual, 70-percentish Catholic bleeding heart — in mind. It was clearly intended for very religious parents who view their children as sinners in the hands of an angry god. This is not a small population and it’s worth saying up front that Reverend Lee is not a pseudo-religious scammer. He seems to be genuinely faithful and his advice is not bad at all. Promoting the book as a sort of modern scripture still strikes me as questionable, but there was some really interesting stuff between the covers.

In fact, the bulk of his parenting advice consisted of motes I’d already received from pediatricians and secular child psychologists. The reverend stressed that parents were the ultimate model for their children who looked to them for an understanding of how to live in the world. He encouraged fathers to show a deep respect and love for their wives. He encouraged parents to give children tons of outdoor exercise. It was all good stuff. He was describing the type of father I hope to be.

Haynes Lee was even surprisingly “woke,” warning parents to look out for children’s bibles that depicted villains as people of color. “This is a systemic problem that we all need to change,” he writes. “We can start by not feeding our children racist and biased images that can even be found in our bibles.”

In truth, Reverend Lee’s book actually seemed to simplify parenting. I was doing most of the stuff he recommended (to one degree or another) and he laid it out well. I was, broadly speaking, reassured as I flipped forward. That said, I did discover that I was failing on a few fronts. For instance, I was not reading my kids bible verses daily. My kids were getting that goodness exclusively on Sundays and Tuesdays courtesy of the Catholic Churches Parish School of Religion. I also wasn’t praying enough. I had to build on our dinner tradition.

Both of these things weren’t that big a deal. My kids like the Bible; they like reading pretty much anything. And listening to Poppa talk to God isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for them. So aside from some added intensity, little changed in their life. It was going really well.

The reverend was even reminding me of some excellent non-religious parenting practices, like taking more time to listen to my boys. “If you have enough patience, they will let you in their world,” Haynes Lee writes. That is very true and every parent, myself included, needs that reminder from time to time.

The first snag I hit was in the last of the reverend’s eight principles that make up the acronym C.H.I.L.D.R.E.N. I had committed each child to God and instructed them (which is why they found their Tuesday nights so boring), lived in holiness in front of them (except for the occasional beer), loved my spouse, declared their futures as good Christian people, received parenting resources (essentially my job), and esteemed my children. The only thing left was the big “N”: “Never Let Them Stay Under Ungodly Influence.” This is where stuff got complicated.

Did you know Beyonce harbors a spirit? Apparently, she even admits it, the reverend warns: “When people go to her concerts, they are being entertained by a spirit named Sasha Fierce who tries to tempt them into sexual sin.” He’s not totally wrong about this but he’s also absolutely wrong about this. Sasha Fierce is Beyonce’s invented alter ego, a persona she adopts on stage during her wildly entertaining and totally sexy shows. Sasha is, in short, more of a coping mechanism than a demon. Sasha is also really, really good at dancing and singing. Sasha slays and, well, I respect that in a spirit. I want my kids to respect that as well.

I find it interesting that the Reverend finds so much to worry about in Beyonce’s music for a few reasons. First of all, she strikes me as a pretty good example for young people. She’s a self-made woman. She’s clearly an engaged mother. She and her husband, Jay-Z, are honest about their failings and flailings and create real dialogue on issues around race and even infidelity. The notion that Beyonce is a bad influence strikes me as either misguided or overtly racist. The notion that I could protect my kids from a ubiquitous pop star strikes me as implausible.

But, in a sense, the Reverend’s take on Queen Bey is reassuring. I think it’s ridiculous and misguided, but, at the same time, I don’t think most of his parenting advice is ridiculous or misguided. I think it’s largely reasonable. If I were to focus on the fire and brimstone stuff (“We may need to cast an evil spirit out of our children,” explains the reverend. “If you are not sure if your child has one, pray and let the Holy Spirit reveal it to you”) than it would be easy to make the case that the Reverend and I have totally different perspectives on everything. But we don’t. When it comes to parenting, we basically agree. We just don’t listen to the same music.

This is all to say that the Reverend’s book is instructive. If you’re not evangelic, I wouldn’t recommend it over plenty of other parenting tomes, but I do think it has a unique takeaway: American parents are culturally divided but largely united in their approach to raising children and their desire to raise kind, responsible adults. I think the Reverend’s arguments for religion in public school are ahistorical and unconstitutional. I think his anti-evolution stance is disingenuous. I think his theory that boys who don’t connect with their fathers develop same-sex attraction is laughable. I think his embrace of spanking as a reasonable punishment is foolish. I do not, however, feel bad for his children. It seems like the Reverend is probably a pretty good dad.

Also, I agree that there is something vaguely demonic about Pokemon. I think it’s hard to argue to the contrary.

And, for what it’s worth, I tried the spirit-revelation trick Reverend Lee describes in the book. I laid my hand on my 6-year- old son’s head and asked that the holy spirit reveal the demon in my child. I will admit I half expected his eyes to roll back in his head and hear him exclaim in guttural tones, “I am the demon Charizard, and you shall never have your child back! Bwhahaha!” Instead, he just looked at me, giggled, then kept pretending to attack me with his stuffed goldfish. He’s a good kid.

There was a time when evangelical parents took a more Calvinist approach to parenting, eschewing many of the modern niceties and focussing on punishment. Many like still do (as do many people who lack any faith at all). But Haynes Lee calls for tenderness and love. He calls for parents to listen. And it’s clear that he is offering advice in the spirit of raising good kids. I respect that. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable suggesting that my parenting advice could guarantee passage into heaven, but I do think that smart decision making creates adults who are more comfortable on Earth. To the degree to which the Reverend agrees, he is my brother and we’re on the same team.

Yes, I cringe at his bigotry and believe, frankly, that his view of society is badly antiquated. Still, there’s something deeply comforting knowing that the folks he’s speaking to, the ones he actually wrote the book for, are probably going to raise their kids in largely the same way I raise mine. Our politics are a mess and our culture has some major fault lines. But we’re all doing the best we can for our kids — including Beyonce.

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