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Why Fundamentalism Often Works

Via Andrew Sullivan [1], here’s a blog post by a woman named Lana Hope [2], who was raised in a homeschooling Christian fundamentalist family, and who has left all that behind. She writes to say that people who assume that only crazy people are drawn to fundamentalism are flat-out wrong. She lists good reasons why fundamentalism appeals to folks, and then says:

A few years ago one of my friends had a birthday party, and he invited all the homeschool families he knew to his party. It may seem odd to an outsider to have young children at his 20th birthday party, but it was not the least bit weird to me (parties with my family are the same way; there were as many kids under 13 at my 18th birthday party as there were teens). But after an entire evening of playing board games with people of all ages, washing dishes together, and praying for each other, one of my public school friends (the only person who had attended public school at the party) said to me, “That was so much fun. I never experienced this in my life.” She explained that she never had an evening playing board games with children of all ages. In fact, she never went to someone’s house and had them pray for her either. It was foreign to her, but she liked it.

Fundamentalism offers that kind of community. Yes, the community creates pain and breaks sometimes, but it’s still community that often attracts people to fundamentalism.  I was looking through photos of my teen years earlier this week, and every photo of me has a child in the picture. Our community valued children.

I received an e-mail last week from a reader of this blog who explained how he had come through an abusive childhood and ended up converting to fundamentalist Islam because it explained the world to him, and met his emotional needs. He is no longer a Muslim fundamentalist, but I found his letter helpful in explaining the psychology of fundamentalism, with which I have very little experience.

People find that surprising, given that I grew up in the deep South, and live here now. Here’s Lana Hope in another post, talking about how much she hates her West Virginia home [3], feeling like an alien there (emphasis below in the original):

I left fundamentalism and evangelicalism behind, and the Southern culture in our region is totally anti-people who have liberal ideas. Just the other day I was trying to explain to someone that “no, people who are so not dispensationalists-the-world-is-about-to-end kind of folks are not stupid.” Those kind of conversations are, quite frankly, exhausting, and they can result in hurtful replies back, “what? You don’t believe in the substitutionary atonement. Have you said the sinners prayer?” FROM THE CASHIER.

I can’t be myself in my home state. I can’t explain myself. Not my personality (the hiking, the traveling, the experience), not my goals, not my beliefs.

I swear, when God made me, he put me on the wrong place on earth. People talk about being transgendered. I’m transcountried.

I get that. Honestly, I do. I guess I was simply blessed to grow up in south Louisiana, which is Christian and conservative but so much more laid back than other parts of the South. It’s the Catholic influence, I think. I grew up in a mostly Protestant area, but living in Dallas, the only time I’ve ever been in a city where Evangelicalism set the tone for Christianity, taught me how cultural Catholicism moderated a lot of the public Christianity in south Louisiana. I don’t know about north Louisiana. People around here referred to those folks as “hard-shell Baptists,” which meant “not like the Baptists around here, who are normal people, but fundamentalists.” Honestly, we didn’t know. North Louisiana was like another country. It wasn’t until I went to boarding school there in 1983, aged 16, that I actually met some north Louisiana people. None of them seemed hardshell to me. Anyway, I digress.

I think Lana Hope is right. I’ve known people whose Christianity has been a lot more culturally conservative than my own, including people who would claim the label fundamentalist. That’s not how I see the world, but you know what? They have seemed a lot saner and healthier than many of my unbelieving acquaintances. It’s hard to generalize. The atheist reader who comments under the name Another Matt has told stories about his fundamentalist childhood that astonish me, and, honestly, grieve me. Again, though, I’ve known people who grew up fundamentalist who turned out fine, even though they may not practice fundamentalist Christianity any longer. Their parents may have been strict, but I just don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say all fundamentalists are the same. That has not been my experience, though again, my experience is limited. Lana Hope’s list of what good things fundamentalism gives people is well worth reading and taking seriously. It reminds me, in a way, of the things Whitaker Chambers said about the sense of mission and community that the Communist movement gave to people, especially in the social chaos and economic suffering of the 1930s. Chambers had left Communism, famously, but warned in Witness that people who thought only crazy people became Communists were deluding themselves, and discounting the power of that belief system.

Once, when we lived in Brooklyn, a kindly woman in late middle age stopped us on the sidewalk to admire our little boy in the stroller. We talked about kids, and she lamented that her son, who went to a very expensive private high school in the neighborhood, had fallen in with a drinking, druggy crowd — and her husband didn’t really care. She was really worried about the boy. Then she asked us if we had thought about schooling yet. We told her we planned to homeschool. She was shocked, and said that would be very, very difficult in New York, “unless you were right-wing Christians.”

“That’s us!” I told her, in a chipper way. Julie and I were just ordinary conservative Catholics, but after that revelation, this lady looked at us like we had bones in our noses. When we parted, Julie and I talked about how strange it was that all these New York liberals hate “right-wing Christians,” but it’s the so-called right-wing Christians (and, we might have remarked, strictly observant Jews) who have the confidence to raise children with a sense of purpose, self-discipline, and character.

“These yuppies want to have good kids,” I told my wife. “But they are terrified of being like people who actually do what it takes to raise good kids.”

Fundamentalists don’t compromise. That is their strength. But it’s also their weakness. I went over a book the other day written by a theologically stout Evangelical (which is not the same thing as a fundamentalist). The book was about approaching culture. I found it hard to take, even though I found myself agreeing with the author on most general points. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that irritated me so much about the book. What finally became clear to me was that it wasn’t so much the opinions the author held as it was the iron grip with which the author held them. It was as if nuance, irony, and complexity were the enemies of clear thought and pure faith. The worldview expressed in this book was pretty conservative, and as I said, I agree with much of it. But it was airless and highly ideological.

I have been critical of the fact that I didn’t have any doctrinal rigor in my religious education as a young person, and I am allergic to Andrew’s idea that just about any attempt to draw or hold to doctrinal lines makes one into a quasi-fundamentalist (“Christianist”). But I tell you, if I had been raised as a fundamentalist or an Evangelical who was taught to see the world through a narrow and severe idea of truth, I wonder if I would be a Christian today. It’s impossible to say. These things always are. Raise a kid with tap-watery religion, and don’t be surprised if he leaves it. Raise a kid with a religion as hard and cold as ice, and don’t be surprised if he leaves it. This is hard!

What is the difference between a religious fundamentalist and a religious conservative? Is it what they believe, or is it more about the fierceness and rigidity with which they hold those beliefs?

One thing I like about Pope Francis: whatever the flaws of his approach, he really does come across as someone who sees the concrete person before the abstract idea. Or rather, he sees the person as more than the sum total of their beliefs. Would that our political ideologues of the Left and the Right have such a humane approach.

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107 Comments To "Why Fundamentalism Often Works"

#1 Comment By Christian Schmemann On October 9, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

Mr Dreher, I must come clean and admit that I respectfully disagree with your criticisms about Pope Francis I. And I appreciate that you recognize this central virtue that Francis has mastered, that he can see past the sins and vices of a person in front of him. The central concern I have about Francis I is his commitment to the extraneous liturgical “reforms” that came after Vatican II.

I have no sympathies for SSPX, to say nothing of radical traditionalists, and I think that the Novus Ordo rite would be a legitimate Rite of Mass if celebrated according to the precise dictates of Vatican II. I am concerned from the perspective that this might well hamper attempts to reconcile both Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as the ad populum position that the clergy take during the Anaphoria is rather offensive to the Orthodox Church.

What concerns me even more though is that the Novus Ordo rite in its current practice, devoid as it is of tradition and beauty may not be able to spiritually feed Catholics for the upcoming struggles that we will face, be it confronting the economic imbalances and grinding inequalities of globalization, the struggles against human trafficking, the challenges of global climate disruption, the rampant individualism, pornography and abortion and euthanasia associated with the Culture of Death, or rebuilding our family life after decades of rampant serial divorce and remarriage.

#2 Comment By anon On October 9, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

That fundamentalism should breed atheism should be no surprise – they are similar paradigms, at least in the present culture and its assumptions. I was raised in a fundamentalist context and was an atheist by the time I graduated college. Why? Because most of what I was told about Christianity wasn’t true. I learned a few decades later that it wasn’t even Christianity…

Fundamentalist cultures can provide a form of community that is sometimes quite sick and sometimes quite safe. It is a poor substitute for Christianity, however.

#3 Comment By Daniel On October 11, 2013 @ 8:33 am

I enjoyed the article–couldn’t wade through all the comments, though so forgive me if I say something that’s already been said.

First, “Fundamentalism” is one of those words, like “Terrorism” or “Cult”, that sheds more heat than light. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exact definition, except that it’s, well, “bad”. It serves as a pejorative catch-all for religious conservatism of any stripe, but not necessarily all religious conservatives. (“Nice” ones are “conservatives” or “traditionalists”; “Mean” ones are “Fundamentalists”.

FWIW, the term “Fundamentalism” arose in the early 20th century out of a series of books written in response to modernism in the church. The five “fundamentals” were:
(1) The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture;
(2) The Virgin Birth of Jesus;
(3) Christ’s death being a substitutionary atonement (in contrast to a mere example of God’s love);
(4) Christ’s literal, bodily resurrection;
(5) The historical reality of miracles.

Honestly, none of these points of doctrine were controversial among nearly all Christians (Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox) until modern times. Those that rejected these things pretty much rejected the Church. What happened in the late 19th-20th centuries was that those claiming membership–or even leadership–in the church were espousing the denial of those tenants.

At any rate, like all words, “Fundamentalism” has acquired another meaning by popular usage, usually synonymous with “narrow minded bigot” (thank you, H.L. Mencken.) Rarely will someone call THEMSELVES a “fundamentalist”, any more than anyone calls themselves a “terrorist” or describes their beliefs as “cultic”.

I guess most thoughtful conservatives would reject the “fundamentalist” label, even while believing in the same thing as their “mouth-breathing” brethren in the faith. The cardinal sin of “fundamentalists” is not what they believe, but how they embarrass us with the intensity with which they express those beliefs, or the inartful phraseology that they use. Kind of like how the biblical prophets would embarrass those in power with their black-and-white condemnations of their evil.

Not that I necessarily think that saying beautiful things in a crude manner is something for which we should strive; but I think putting the “fundamentalist” label and distancing ourselves from those “crazies” is often more about PR than it is about principled differences.

#4 Comment By SisyphusNotSyphilis On November 2, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

I’m gonna start to calling myself a fundamentalist.

By which I mean: I believe in (albeit with moments of doubt and confusion), and practice (imperfectly) all the stuff that Jesus told His apostles they were supposed to teach to disciples of all nations. So far as I am able to figure out what that is.

But it includes the “fundamentals” which the early 20th-century Protestant conservative guys listed as non-negotiables, along with a bunch of other things which are, so far as I can tell, part and parcel of what Jesus “delivered once for all to the apostles.”

I don’t mess with pop culture much, but I’ve eavesdropped on it often enough to know that what I’ve just described is not what pop culture means by “fundamentalism.”

But it IS what the original authors of the term meant.

And it IS a pretty good description of the real motives of the people I know, who pop culture (with a sneer) calls “fundamentalists.”

See, I know them. Most of them happen, in my experience, to be the most loving and sincere and generous people I’ve ever met.

But I think their social skills are a bit stunted, and a lot of them don’t get the timing of telling jokes. I think THAT’S what allows other people — mostly for political reasons — to get away with these implausible caricatures. The fundamentalists haven’t got the panache to respond effectively. Ask them to be KIND and they’ve got it covered. Ask them to be WITTY and HIP, and they kind of flounder around like a goldfish on the carpet.

I’ve partied with the flamboyantly gay — hella party, BTW; I’ve been put to work by campaigning politicians, I’ve gotten fragged by gamer-geeks in office-party deathmatches, hung around with arts curators, cleaned up vomit (mine and others) with happy drunks and sad drunks and one mean drunk, and camped and rappelled with crystal-scrying hippies. What can I say? I’m an introvert who for whatever reason other people don’t mind having around when they’re busy being extroverted. I type ten times the words I ever talk.

The fundamentalists gave me a car — a damn car, people — when I would have been kinda screwed without it. The fundamentalists pinched like 15%-25% of their paycheck — pre-tax, I’m telling you, though it was pulling teeth to get them to tell ME — and gave it to everyone from skinny African kids to nearby crackheads to pregnant abused women to, well, me. And it’s not like they didn’t live in a crappy ranch house with more kids than bedrooms while doing it. And their kids loved them and they loved their kids, and they made sure they said “Yes ma’am” and “Yes sir,” too.

They were square. They spent so much money and energy on church and charity and children that they had little money and energy left to be stylish or smooth or sexy.

Y’ask me, that’s why the glittering elite folks hate their guts so much. It almost smacks of some kind of insecurity, all this sneering. But I don’t have any idea what the glittering elites would have to be insecure about — aren’t they the stylish, smooth, sexy ones?

Anyhow I just don’t know who it is that feels so wronged Fundamentalists. (Unless you count the Westboro Gay-Bashers as “fundamentalists” …but no fundamentalist I ever met does anything but shake his head and act exasperated about those bozos.) I never was, before I believed like them. The hookers and the druggies never were; how you going to sneer at the people who bring you food and give you a lift whenever you need it? They looked like narcs, but they acted like humans.

So, “fundamentalists?” Sign me up. My African-American friends seem like they “own” the “N-word” among themselves. I used to think that was weird. But maybe I need to “own” the “F-word.”

#5 Comment By John On November 3, 2013 @ 10:01 am

I raised my three sons with my divorced wife, sent them to a public high school and avoided all religious influences. Today they are agnostic or atheist. They are also SOMEHOW happy, all making good money and good citizens too. They are these things because they are GOOD PEOPLE. The idea that you some how need God to be a good person is a myth.

#6 Comment By Abby R. On November 23, 2015 @ 3:20 am

I identify with much of what was said in the article. I was raised in the deep South Bible Belt, and our family was Southern Baptist and some were even Penecostal (Assembly of God) and spoke in tongues. College was the first time I had met others who did not believe in the substitution sacrifice. I left to become Methodist, then Catholic, then made attempt at trying to believe some of the “new age” things, then tried Episcopal, and now am agnostic. What a relief. I do love Pope Francis and believe he is trying to steer the church in the right direction, but a big ship turns very slowly. Also, I moved across the country and live in a liberal area. I had been very conservative before. I have found that liberal states actually can have a great economy and no state taxes – go figure. I will never be a liberal, because I feel they run off in the “left ditch” while tea partiers run off in the “right ditch.” I am a proud Independent who can use common sense and consider each issue individually. So, the ex-fundamentalists here could also benefit from giving moderate politics a chance.. Same thing.

#7 Comment By Abby R. On November 23, 2015 @ 3:26 am

Sisyphus – Yes,as the article points out – that is the attraction of fundamentalism – a sense of belonging and being a part of something. But, despite that, does it make it true? No it doesn’t. It does not make it true. So, it just depends on whether you value truth.