Siblings at Odds: He’s an Evangelical Preacher, I’m an Atheist

Sara with older brother. (Photo courtesy of Sara Gilliam)

I wrote this essay several years ago, but I’m struck by how much it still resonates. In fact, I believe our divides—even within families—are deeper and more painful now than ever. More than a handful of people I know have severed communication with their parents or siblings over political beliefs. One friend pointed out to his family, “I’m gay and I’m married to a Black man. If you voted for Trump, you are supporting a racist who is determined to strip away our civil rights.” It’s hard to argue with that logic.

Of less significance: I composed but did not send perhaps a dozen texts to my politically conservative niece, inviting her to watch Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, which I found inspiring. I hoped it might help her understand me a little better. But I never sent those texts; I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable or start an argument.

Since I wrote this article, I have relocated to Canada with my husband and sons. We are two flights or a 15-hour-drive from “home,” and I have been reminded in countless ways of the importance of family. We no longer have doting grandparents nearby who are eager to babysit. My boys miss Wrestlemania with their uncle and card games with their cousins. I long to sit by the fireplace with my beloved sister-in-law, drinking wine and talking about books. Separated by a closed border, I think of them every day. Recently, I randomly texted my brother to tell him how much I love him.

Life’s complicated.


Is he a good person?


Am I a good person?

I try to be.

Do I love him?


Do I like him?

What, like all the time? It’s complicated.

This is us, 38 years ago. Look at those smiles. They aren’t forced. There’s love there, connection. We were born six years apart, too far to be peers or really even friends. This photo may have been snapped during our happiest time as siblings. Once I started talking, I became annoying. I’d belt out the Annie Soundtrack at the top of my lungs and he’d grit his teeth, knowing complaints wouldn’t get him anywhere. I would rat him out for the tiniest indiscretions. He’d kick me in the back seat of our VW Vanagon camper then smile innocently and shrug when my dad met his eyes in the rearview mirror.

We were essentially two only children living in the same household. One handsome, athletic and wildly popular. The other chubby, musical and an abysmal social failure. I do not remember us as close. Only decades later has it occurred to me that, given our differences, it was unrealistic to expect closeness.

It still is.

There are stark differences between my older brother and myself: he’s an evangelical preacher at a rural megachurch who relaxes by bowhunting deer. I’m a tofu-consuming socialist who believes that we really have no way of knowing what’s “out there.”

However, there is plenty that unites us. We both love nature and Van Morrison. He is one of a handful of people on earth who can make me laugh so hard I pee my pants. We share the bond of time that all siblings do. He’s a great dad and a great uncle to my boys. Tired after a long workday, he’ll crawl around playing monster purely to elicit squeals from my kindergartner. His heart is as big as his pick-up truck. He married a woman who may actually be more conservative than him, and I adore her and am constantly reminded that I hit the sister-in-law jackpot. A few years ago I witnessed his frankly spectacular pastoral counseling skills when he lovingly coached me through a life crisis. About four times a year, he sends me a random text so perfectly timed and witty, it blows my mind.

But in some ways, as a duo of siblings, we are broken. A rift runs between us and it cannot be broached with good will alone. It is our continental divide: impassible, resolute, unchanging.

He and I may not be screaming at each other on 24-hour news channels, but neither are we compromising, changing our minds…

Fifteen years ago, I wrote about my relationship with my brother for Hope magazine, focusing on the positive aspects of our relationship. This essay is harder to write. It’s more challenging to confront difficult truths than to spout relentless cheer. Yet I feel compelled to be honest with myself, and I feel that some sort of writerly karma compels me to come clean with readers of that essay, to let them know that my brother and I have never stopped struggling.

Without a doubt, social media has exacerbated family and cultural strife. We no longer live in a world of abstract ideas. What we believe, who we associate with, and how we act on our values is the stuff of Tweets and Vines. In a ridiculous and unchoreographed online dance, my brother adeptly matches every Common Dreams article I share with photos of dead wildlife. My Jon Stewart video clips hover in my Facebook feed right below his passionate defenses of unborn babies. When it comes to social media, we two are a living, breathing zero sum game.

My latest bout of discomfort may have begun when I stumbled upon an album of photos of my brother’s children picketing outside a Planned Parenthood. Or perhaps it was a few months earlier, when Sarah Palin promoted his blog on her Facebook page. (Fair’s fair. I know a link my husband shared to a scathing article on the Museum of Creationism — something about humans riding dinosaurs—did serious damage to our credibility as open-minded people.)

Open-minded. What does that even mean, in a practical sense? In my heart, I’m not open-minded. I’m not going to change my stance on most key political issues. I’m solidly committed to my belief in the science of global climate change. I think our justice system is racist and we need massive restrictions on gun ownership and gays should have all the fabulous legal weddings they want. If someone disagrees with me on, say, education policy, and wants to convince me that privatization of schools is a good idea, will I listen? Am I likely to change my mind? No and no. Therefore, I cannot reasonably expect different behavior from my brother. The best we can do is grin and bear it. I tune out the noise that makes me uncomfortable, fidgety or downright furious. Without a doubt, he must do the same.

On a profound level, my brother and I are a microcosm of this country and its potentially irreparable flaws. The idea of middle ground is ephemeral; in reality we can’t find much. He and I may not be screaming at each other on 24-hour news channels, but neither are we compromising, changing our minds or, if I’m being honest, listening to each other. We are the word polarized expressed in two middle-aged bodies.

As another election season looms, candidates shout over each other espousing that we must fix our broken political system. I’m no pundit and my degree is in creative writing, not political science, but I suspect such a fix is unrealistic and unlikely. I base my assertion on my relationship with my brother. Here we are, two people who have every reason to make it work and who share an extended circle of caring. We grew up in the same state, in the same socio-economic bracket, educated by the same public schools and raised by the same parents. And we have a list of about 30 items that we simply can’t discuss with each other.

To a certain extent, families like ours have lost a sense of “us” as a collective identity. So has our country. Yard signs and profile pictures and bumper stickers no longer represent one aspect of our selves; they are the tools by which we isolate ourselves from those who disagree with us. Extrapolate this to a national level and suddenly we’re staring down future presidential debates in which the only common ground acknowledged by the candidates is support for our troops and disdain of illegals and welfare moms.

The mythical re-visioning of our country will require more than compromise; it will necessitate the changing of hearts and minds. The ability to say, “You know what? I’ve listened to you, I’ve thought it over, and I’m going to reconsider.” Or to a lesser extent, “Let’s agree to disagree, but I’m going to let you win this one. It’s important to you. I respect you. I’ll step back and let you have this.”

The card-carrying optimist in my heart wants to believe this is possible, on a political level as well as in my personal life. I want to believe that we can find commonalities that run deeper than cheap shots and talking points. I want to believe in politicians who give a shit, and as soon as I meet one, I will. Meantime, plans are in the works for our extended family Thanksgiving. The food will be superb. The children will be goofy. The conversation will be safe. When the evening ends, I’ll leave feeling at once content and sad, loved and lonely. And so will he.

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