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Why Fundamentalism Often Works

Via Andrew Sullivan, here’s a blog post by a woman named [deleted at her request], 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 […]

Via Andrew Sullivan, here’s a blog post by a woman named [deleted at her request], 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 [deleted] in another post, talking about how much she hates her West Virginia home, 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 [deleted] 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. [deleted]’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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