I started my series on Christian fundamentalism (definitions and a history lesson) for a variety of reasons. First, one of my very good friends was worried that my definition of fundamentalism might be different from the definition of my readers. Handsome likes making sure everyone is on the same page, just on principle, so he agreed.
Then, I began an interesting interaction with a reader who goes by the handle “fundamentalist pastor.” My conversation with him, which has been polite and illuminating, combined with the advice of people I care about, prompted me to start explaining what I thought Christian fundamentalism was. One of the questions that this pastor asked me had to do with the abusive and cult-like nature of the fundamentalist church I was raised in:
“Based upon what you know of me & my ministry from our brief dialogue, if you had grown up in my Fundamental church – as opposed to the other Fundamental churches that you experienced – would you have left my church? Would you have entirely abandoned Fundamentalism in that case?”
My answer is yes– I would have left fundamentalism, even if the church I’d been raised in hadn’t been an abusive cult. The primary reason is that, as I matured into adulthood, I realized that fundamentalism, at least in my opinion, is unnecessary. There’s conservative evangelical culture, there’s Protestant orthodoxy, there’s rigorous theological debate among scholars and thinkers and critics and church-goers. Fundamentalism doesn’t bring anything to this table except a sword– a sword of biblical literalism, isolationism, and absolute certainty.
However, these types of questions also led me to asking what fundamentalism means to you, my readers. I wanted a discussion, I wanted stories. And I got both of those in abundance. So, to wrap up this series, I wanted to solidify many of the ideas that were brought up– to identify the common themes, the common narratives. I still highly encourage you to read the entire discussion, as that will be more nuanced and complicated than this summary.
For those who identified, to varying degrees, with fundamentalism, one of the common elements in their response was to distance themselves from what they saw as more extreme fundamentalists. They emphasized that they disliked the legalism and the lack of tolerance to different ideas that frequently crops up in fundamentalist circles. What they valued about fundamentalism also shared some common elements: they liked that their experiences with fundamentalism encouraged them to a deeper study of the Bible, theology, or apologetics.
I can personally attest to this. If anything about my experience in fundamentalism could be considered at all valuable, is that I was given an overwhelming amount of information. From my observations, this is motivated by a few problematic ideas. Fundamentalists encourage this heavy absorption in order to create “soldiers of God,” who can put on the “full armor.” The full armor metaphor is pulled from Ephesians 6, where knowledge of the Bible and how to defend the faith are seen as crucial elements to being a Christian. So, I disagree with the reason— as well as the method. I was taught to be familiar with words like sanctification and justification and substitutionary atonement and transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration and unlimited inspiration– sure. I could hold my own in a conversation with most seminary students, absolutely. But I was taught these things from a very narrow, very limited perspective. A perspective where we had all the right answers.
I believe, with all my heart, that most fundamentalists aren’t anything like the leader of my church-cult. I believe that most fundamentalists, including fundamentalist pastors, are only doing what they think is the best thing– the right thing. I consider fundamentalists to be my brothers and sisters in Christ, because I believe in finding common ground among the essentials, and we have that.
For those who felt attracted to fundamentalism, the most common response was they were drawn to the sureness and the certainty. This “certainty” looked different, depending on the person. For Vyckie at No Longer Quivering, what she saw was a “lovely vision of godly families.” She wanted to have the ability to make sure her life, and her family, followed biblical principles. This led her to absorbing more and more fundamentalist teachings and practices– because they guaranteed her a godly family. Reta, in the comments there, pointed out the black and white nature of fundamentalism– and that this approach is “simple.” I’ve been there, personally– fundamentalism is easy. You can have sureness and confidence, without any doubt. This is an incredibly comfortable place to be. Lana Hobbs (who commented here) echoed these ideas, saying that fundamentalism meant “safety” and “security.” Nearly everyone who’d been a fundamentalist at some point resonated with this: there was God’s side, and then there was the wrong side, and being a fundamentalist was being positive you were on God’s side.
For those who had been burned by fundamentalism, there were still common patterns, although the experiences could have huge differences. But, almost unanimously, if we were burned by fundamentalism, it all had to do with questions. Asking a question was seen as “doubting” and doubting was vilified. They were ostracized, they were reprimanded, they were disciplined, they were excommunicated. Not toeing the line resulted in some kind of harm for them– and it didn’t have to be an important line. Or, if we left, it was because of sentiments like revulsion, disgust, shock, horror . . . and none of those words are exaggerations. At some point, it all just got to be too much– and what was “too much” was different for every person. For some, it was that they couldn’t find a fundamentalist church truly willing to engage with social concerns or help the needy– which is not universal in fundamentalism, but this attitude is common.
But, for those of us who grew up and left our fundamentalist nests, it was caused by our engagement with reality– for most of us, for the very first time. We befriended people in the LGBTQ community, and realized that everything we’d been taught about homosexuality (the BTQ part was completely dismissed) was either deeply misguided or just plain wrong. We encountered science for the first time, and for many of us who were taught that Genesis 1-11 was the bedrock of the entire Bible, finding out that AiG and ICR had misrepresented evolutionary theory when we were younger was the first nail in our theological coffins. For many of us, it was simply meeting people. We made friends with Christians who weren’t fundamentalists– we made friends with people who weren’t Christians, and it shook us profoundly. We met atheists and agnostics for the very first time, and suddenly, all our “right answers” couldn’t make sense. For many of us, the psychological dissonance was so bad we abandoned Christianity completely.
Sometimes, we abandoned Christianity for a time, but then we came back– and our Christianity looked utterly different. Some of us are Unitarian now. Some of us are Progressive. Some are Universalist. Some of us are Catholic, or just liturgical. Some of us hold the basic truth that God loves us, and we are trying to see the world through that love and nothing else.
Which gives us another core problem to face in fundamentalism: the absolute certainty, the absolute necessity of possessing “all the right answers” is coupled with another concept known as foundationalism. It’s the notion that there are “bedrock” ideas (like inerrancy and young earth creationism) and that, if those fall, everything else falls with it. And this has held true in many of our lives– our faith, when we took it out into the real world, was nothing more than a house of cards. And it wasn’t because we didn’t believe enough, or weren’t taught correctly enough, or hadn’t been instructed enough, or that we were secretly never believers and just couldn’t wait to “get out.” It was because of what were taught, it was because of what we believed– that Christ was not really enough.