Fundamentalist “Christianity” is a Thief and a Liar, and We Need to Say So
I remember the first time I was robbed. I was young, naïve, and it was my first time living in a big city. It was less than a month before my wedding, and my [now] wife and I went out shopping in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston. We parked our car behind the shop we were in, and when we returned, the back window was smashed in and everything was gone. Both of our MacBooks (+ backup hard drive), our wedding invitations, and worst of all my wife’s journals and love notes to her future husband she had written in her teens— really, really special things that could never in a million years be replaced.
We were devastated. The only consolation was that they didn’t get her diamond wedding ring, which for some reason I had had the foresight to conceal under the front seat. Until that experience, I’ll be honest — I had never really understood why theft was such a horribly bad thing in religious or ethics discussions. It had always seemed to me as one of the lesser of the Ten Commandments. I’m not really sure why. I guess I’d just never really had something stolen from me before, so it didn’t compute.
Well, it computes now. It’s a weighty feeling — ponderous and heavy, that can stay with you for a long time — one that you can’t really describe to someone unless they’ve experienced it too. It’s a loss, so it’s a bit akin to grieving a death, yet different. You feel vulnerable, violated… victimized. Because it’s more than just stuff that has been purloined from you. Your trust, your innocence even — whatever positive perspective you had about the world or hope for the good in humanity… theft undermines it on such a profound level that it can take years to restore.
It Wasn’t My First Time
I tell that story because the truth is, I had been stolen from, long before that day in my early 20s, but I just didn’t recognize it as such. I was raised for most of my life in a hyper-Fundamentalist movement/cult, and for as long as I can remember, I’d been taught to play defense for my leadership, even the highly dysfunctional leaders that had hurt me deeply. I was conditioned to look for the good in what they were trying to do for us, to assume good intentions behind the poor decision-making, to appreciate the positive and toss out the negative with the precision and detachment of a surgeon, or a chef preparing a fish for dinner. “Chew the meat, spit out the bones,” my dad would always say. Much later, when one of my siblings would publicly recall unhealthy things about my family’s childhood church (which we had long since left), my mom would predictably jump to the defense of these leaders (that had also abused her!) in some strange need to justify the bang-up job that sorry fringe corner of faith did in destroying my family and our faith.
I’ve read many Christian authors that take a similar perspective on their upbringing — lamenting the asininity of the arbitrary rules and legalistic shame they were raised under — with a sort of tongue-in-cheek, roll-your-eyes-at-how-silly-we-were-back-then approach… but more or less laughing it off and saying how much there was that they appreciate about their unhealthy upbringing. Maybe those authors are trying not to offend their more conservative readers in a bridge-building effort, or maybe they are being sensitive to their parents. Or maybe that’s genuinely where they are on their journey. I can’t say, and I don’t judge them for their perspective. It’s their story to tell.
I towed the line too, well into my 20s. I always tried to put a positive spin on things, tried to believe that my pastors and youth leaders and district superintendents were doing things the best they knew how, that they were good men who were imperfect and made mistakes, but ultimately people I should be thankful for — because after all, if it wasn’t for them, how would I be able to find the book of Nahum in under 10 seconds flat during a “sword drill” at youth camp? Boy, does that skill come in handy! How else would I have been able to quote every relevant passage in the entire Bible — in grade school — that “proved” to the presumptuously “liberal” Baptists that not only could you most certainly lose your salvation, but that you must be ever-vigilant and fearful for your own soul lest you eventuate in an eternal conscious burning torment of hell for your many prepubescent crimes. I could do that, in King James English, too. What a thing to teach an 8-year-old.
No more. I’m done covering for those vipers.
I’m done pretending that what they did was okay, that they taught me anything valuable about God or faith — anything at all. I don’t care if they had good intentions — and they probably did. They were grown men, most of them in their 50s and beyond. They should have known better. They should have recognized by that point in their lives the fruit of what they were doing — that it was yielding nothing but pain, division, destruction and heartbreak.
No Digital Memories
My dad died when I was 18, in 2006, well into the digital age. We had left our church maybe a year before that. Kicked out, actually, because after 20 years our family wouldn’t sign on the dotted line to keep all their commandments, and they needed to know if we were in or out. No more of this wavering between two opinions… if Ba’al is god serve him. If the LORD is God, serve him.
I guess we chose Ba’al.
We had had a television set for some of my life, maybe roughly half of it in total, but it was always on the down low, and the content always strictly monitored. I used to sneak Boy Meets World and Growing Pains, since those weren’t on my parents’ approved list that mostly consisted of PBS Kids, TVLand, and Fox News. We were under strict instructions not to speak of our TV watching at church. We could get severely reprimanded or even kicked out for such a thing if our pastors or district leaders were ever to fine out, which is what eventually happened.
[A year before I was born, in 1987, our denomination had a massive worldwide split over whether or not to allow VHS tapes in homes. This was actually a topic of heated discussion at their big annual general conference, which numbered well over 10,000 strong by that point. The “liberals” that thought VHS viewing was acceptable were invited to the door, and were never heard from again. We were told that many of them joined the “liberal” Nazarenes and the Free Methodists, and some of them didn’t even serve God anymore. It’s a slippery slope, they said, when you start to embrace the world and reject God and the old-fashioned way of holiness].
So yeah, this TV thing was definitely a hot topic all throughout my childhood. Aside from the clandestine televiewing we did in our living room as a family, that was all the further our familial rebellion went. My mom never even bought a video camera, which to her credit I think is still one of her biggest regrets. I guess she didn’t want to be caught by the pastor taping one of her kids playing basketball or singing at his first choir concert or something. Can’t imagine how that would have gone over on Judgment Day.
Maybe you can see where I’m going with all this. When my dad passed away suddenly in 2006, before smart phones, we had lived my entire life without owning a video camera. Because of my church’s influence, I don’t have any record other than still pictures of my dad. Not his voice, not his movements, not his mannerisms. It’s all just in my head. And it’s fading for me, 12 years later. My siblings, all younger than I, have less than I do.
Those of us that were raised in groups like mine — which are far more numerous than any of us would like to imagine, when you count all the fringe groups out there (they really are all the same, no matter what they tell you), from the QF movement to IFB churches to the CHM to the UPCI — yeah, we’ve had something stolen from us. A lot of things, really.
We’ve had our childhoods stolen from us, as we were forced to grow up too quickly and bear the weight of shame and guilt and the perceived darkness of the world upon our tiny little undeveloped shoulders. We were expected to be mature little mini-adults by the time we could read, expected to read at a King James level too. And yeah, I’m sure that helped with our brain development, but Shakespeare would have worked just fine, thank you very much.
We’ve had our innocence stolen from us. Most of us didn’t get to be young and carefree and innocent. We were taught to see everyone outside of the church as suspect, sinners, evil even — even our grandparents and extended family that attended “liberal” churches or believed in evolution.
We’ve had our ability to read the Bible stolen from us. It’s difficult for me to read the Bible to this day — and I’m 30 years old — without constantly trying to “un-read,” to unlearn what I think I know about Scripture, what I’ve been taught to read into it since I was old enough to read at all.
We’ve had experiences stolen from us. I never got to ride a bus to school, have a beloved kindergarten teacher like my daughter does (we love you Ms. Holland!), learn to interact with a variety of peers on a substantive level, peers that I disagreed with or didn’t get along with or went to a different church than me, or no church at all. I didn’t have that. I had a very small, handpicked group of friends and their parents, limited contact with my (Christian) cousins, and virtually no true socialization outside of our little circle.
Yeah, they should have known better. Really, they should have.
We had development stolen from us. Most of us that were raised in any movement similar to what I’m talking about had parents who subscribed to what’s colloquially known to those in the know as the “Quiverfull” parenting philosophy: that children are always a blessing from the Lord — even if you can’t handle or afford that many, so birth control is almost always highly frowned upon; that an “unsubmissive” child needs only to be spanked enough to bring them into line, until the child stops resisting and their “will is broken”… like an unruly mule or an untrained dog. (Oddly enough, I didn’t know anyone who treated their dog or horse as badly as they did their kids). I’ve been beat for as long as I can remember. No, I don’t think all spanking is necessarily child abuse, and yeah, some of it wasn’t “that bad,” and most of it I probably “deserved,” and very little of it left marks, but… I was still beat. I was still a 3-year being beat with a belt until I couldn’t resist anymore, because that was supposed to be part of the training process. What does that kind of “training” do to a young child’s mind?
And some of us have had a lot more than that stolen from us — a lot more. I was fortunate enough to be straight and white and mentally all there, so eventually I found my way. Some of my peers didn’t even make it out of high school. Many of them, the ones who tried with all their might to serve God and be good enough and deny their feelings and change themselves and pray their own gay away, decided in the end that it was too much and either left faith entirely or, most tragically, ended their own lives before they even became adults.
One of my own siblings attempted suicide multiple times before they were even a teenager. I didn’t even know until last week.
The family that was revered as one of the holiest and godliest in the whole movement, with uncannily submissive and respectful kids, the ones that I was instructed to hang out with and emulate and pattern my life after, the ones that led the children’s ministry at our camp meeting every year — it eventually came out that the father of that family was molesting one of his own daughters.
My best friend when I was 12 was molested by her father, who was a pastor.
We were beaten into submission, told historical and scientific lies in our pathetic closed-circuit education system, robbed of videotaped memories of loved ones, indoctrinated to become theological robots, taught that the whole world was evil and out to get us, and even inoculated against trusting legitimate authority figures like police officers, social workers, CPS, schoolteachers, and our grandparents.
We had a lot stolen from us, and I think it’s okay to grieve that.
That’s all I really wanted to say. I don’t have a nice pretty wrap up for this, or a path forward for you, or for me. I just think it needs to be said. That we need to call abuse what it is and stop pretending we are “thankful for the good parts.” It’s patently obvious to me that whatever “good parts” we got could have precisely been had in many other settings, just without all the bad stuff. All my “liberal” Southern Baptist friends can testify to that. 😎
I hope this helps you in your grieving process. I hope honesty heals.
I love you. Peace like a river, love like an ocean.
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For those who are wondering:
This is not a knock on all homeschooling. It can be done well, and the motives behind choosing to homeschool are varied.
Caveat 2: The word “fundamentalist” may not be inherently accessible to everyone and could be misunderstood by some. When I use the term, I am using it in the popular sense of today’s media conversations, to be differentiated from the more moderate word “evangelical.” I use it to refer to a particular unstable and closed mindset that is generally found in hyper-conservative Christian circles who sit decisively to the right of most of evangelicalism, though some evangelicals do embrace a fundamentalist mindset.