I grew up in a cult.
That’s what I say when I have to start explaining my life to someone. As a phrase it carries a lot of baggage, but even so, it’s the easiest and most straightforward way I have to start my story. Generally I have to walk the person back from visions of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but as loaded as the word “cult” is, it still applies to my life. According to the research of people like Michael Langone, the Independent Fundamental Baptist church I attended for a dozen years fit 13 out of 15 qualifiers. So while I didn’t live in a bunker or on a compound, there’s really no other way to explain what seems like insanity to people with “normal” lives.
For a long time, even after I started blogging, I went out of my way to make clear that it was just my church that was fucked up. Not all IFB churches are unhealthy or cultist, not every fundamentalist church is abusive.
I have since changed my mind.
That change started when I was able to connect the dots between the teachings I absorbed in the tiny little church I was brought up in and the larger movement. The cult leader isolated us from the rest of the fundamentalism, making us all extremely wary of theologians and their “false doctrines,” so I grew up with him being my only example of a fundamentalist pastor. Other churches in our area, no matter how conservative, were suspect; even when we attended revivals or camp meetings everything was filtered through a lens of what my pastor wanted me to absorb.
So I grew up reading C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, was surrounded by ICR and AiG materials, but I had never heard of people like Bill Gothard. I never went to a homeschooling convention, a NCFCA debate, or an ATI/IBLP conference. I had no idea that the words coming out of my pastor’s mouth were stolen from Rushdoony or Doug Philips or Geoffrey Botkin. I didn’t know that the “umbrella of protection”–referring to how the father is supposedly a daughter’s only protection from the evils of The World– came right out of one of Bill Gothard’s Basic Seminar textbooks.
Christian fundamentalism is absolutely and inherently abusive. It is and has always been. As a theological and ideological system it is irredeemable. As Micah Murray put it so eloquently yesterday, “it’s time to burn this motherfucker down.”
In order to argue this, I’m going to rely on the checklist compiled by Drs. Janja Lilich and Michael Langone.
- The movement has an unquestioning, uncritical commitment to the ideological system. It is upheld as “Truth,” and is treated as absolute.
This is a core element of Christian fundamentalism. Become familiar with any of the materials, the curriculum, the sermons, and one thing that instantly jumps out at you is how utterly convinced they are that they have a unique access to The Truth. This belief is supported by the argument that only true Christians are capable of actually understanding the Bible. Someone who isn’t a true Christian will be incapable of interpreting the Bible correctly and will merely see it as “foolish.” The proof text verse for this is I Corinthians 2:14.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- The movement dictates in excruciating minutiae exactly how Christians are to live their lives.
There are prescriptions for how your marriage is to function (see the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). Some fundamentalists adhere to a strange form of kosher, and almost all fundamentalists tell you what you can’t drink. Depending on the environment, people are told exactly how to groom themselves. For people who follow Bill Gothard, the women are to have long curly hair through whatever means necessary. At most fundamentalist colleges or seminaries, men have to be clean-shaven. Strictures on “modesty” vary, but each church has their specific rules that are usually laced with a heavy dose of racism and fatphobia. How you are to raise your children is dictated– whether you follow James Dobson, the Ezzos, the Pearls, or whoever. Proof text verse for this is I Peter 2:9.
- The movement has an “it’s us against the world” mentality.
See: the culture wars. The “War on Christmas.” Cries of “persecution” for ridiculous things. Fundamentalist leaders teach a concept called Dominionism, which should absolutely horrify every red-blooded American. Michael Farris called fundamentalist Millennials “Generation Joshua” because we are supposed to go to war with the Canaan of modern, “secular humanist” America. Proof text verse is Ephesians 6:12.
- The leaders of the movement have no accountability.
This is the one that makes me, personally, the most uncomfortable. Unlike ministers in the mainline Protestant denominations who are at leas theoretically held in check by a system meant to encourage, edify, instruct, and reprimand, fundamentalist pastors have nothing like that. There’s a reason why Independent Fundamental Baptists call themselves that: they are unbelievably proud of how they can’t be “controlled” by anyone or anything– my church lifted our noses at the Southern Baptist Convention, as loose an organization as that is. The leaders of fundamentalism are forces unto themselves, and they answer to no one. II Corinthians 6:14 is the proof text for this.
- The movement relies on shame to control.
A good introduction to the “lethality of shame” is Brene Brown’s TedTalk “Listening to Shame.” Fundamentalists rely almost exclusively on shame as their motivation for ethics and morality. In Christian fundamentalist theology, humans are incapable of truly responding to positive motivators like trust or love. According to them, each of us is a lowly worm that must be brutalized into compliance. This springs from the belief that we’re basically all a hair’s breadth away from being a child molester. Proof text verse: Psalm 22:6.
- Joining fundamentalism means that you must sever ties with “ungodly” family and close friends.
A huge part of what it means to be a fundamentalist is a commitment to radical “holiness.” The promise of fundamentalism is that you will be happy, that you will be fulfilled, that your family will be protected from The World and The Devil; in exchange, all you have to do is obey everything they say and believe everything they tell you to believe without question. In order to accomplish this, however, you must remove any ungodly influence from your life that could “corrupt your good manners.” Being “separated” means you have to fill your life with the fundamentalist community and nothing else. The proof text verse is Luke 14:26.
- Once you are a part of the movement, leaving becomes extraordinarily difficult.
There are multiple reasons for this– if you were brought up in it like me, fundamentalism is the only thing you’ve ever known and anything “outside” it seems terrifying. They are the only people you’ve ever associated with; not only that, but you’ve been taught that everyone who isn’t a fundamentalist is hell-bent on destroying you. It can be extremely overwhelming, trying to process all the lies and half-truths. Wrestling these things out is the reason why this blog exists, and why I spent an entire year writing out my story of coming to terms with all the ways fundamentalism had warped me (first post starts is here).
To me, all of that is conclusive. Christian fundamentalism is intended to be a high-control totalitarian religious environment. If that doesn’t make it a cult, I don’t know what would.