Sometimes people ask me why I became an Unfundamentalist Christian. Well, the main reason is that I know what real fundamentalism is like. That’s because I was raised in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, home, and school.
In that environment, there was always a very intense focus on the filthy rags verse. (All of us have become like one who is unclean / and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags / we all shrivel up like a leaf / and like the wind our sins sweep us away. —Isaiah 64:4.) We were indoctrinated to believe that we were completely worthless in the eyes of God; and this is how we came to view everyone else, too—which leads to the hubris and judgmentalism so common to fundamentalism.
We were taught that we were dirt: undeserving, untrustworthy, deserving only of punishment. IFB humility is expressed as: “I don’t deserve God’s love; I don’t deserve God’s blessing; I’m so lucky that He doesn’t just strike me dead right here this very instant, because I am so evil and full of vile sin.”
We were taught that Satan will take every opportunity to creep in and trick us away from “the narrow path.” Questions, doubt, and sin were of the Devil, evidence of weak faith, or of no faith at all. If you struggled with sin of any kind, then maybe you weren’t really a Christian after all. Maybe you needed to pray the sinner’s prayer again, and really ask Jesus to come into your heart and forgive you—and this time really mean it.
They preached eternal security—except when they doubted your sincerity of heart, which they did whenever evidence of any change in your life didn’t meet their standard of “Godliness.” You can be certain of your salvation once you are saved, they taught—but they also worked relentlessly to create doubt in the minds of their followers as to whether or not they, the followers, were truly saved in the first place. So we all lived in perpetual fear and doubt of everyone and everything, including, and perhaps most especially, ourselves.
If someone from the outside questioned our beliefs, a standard response was that Satan was using them to try to trick us.
Always the focus was on absolutely unyielding convictions and certainty.
There was such a strong focus on the verse “not of works lest any man should boast” that the IFB people in my world did no works at all. There was no caring for the poor, no helping the homeless, no feeding the hungry, no clothing the naked. Getting people to church was the only “works” any of them cared about. Conversion and “right belief” were the cure for everything. Drug addict? Alcoholic? Smoker? Find Jesus. (It’s your free will to choose to do these things, after all, they taught: just stop doing them, and pray for God to take your sin away.)
Dance, drink, listen to worldly music, or go to movies? Find Jesus. Attend the wrong kind of church? Find the real Jesus. Your husband hits you? Bring him to church; he just needs to get right with Jesus.
About people who were down and out, they taught, “Well, that’s just evidence of them not having God in their life, not living the right way, and God not blessing them because they are sinful. And, anyway, they like their sin; they enjoy it; they don’t want to change; they hate God.”
It’s that attitude that causes IFB congregations to severely marginalize and fear “the other.” In the world in which I grew up, no one ever showed any compassion or grace to anyone outside our circle.
And we were definitely taught not to question authority. “How dare you ask God why that child died?” I heard—and often, “How dare you be angry with God? You just need to accept God’s will.” And most certainly we all constantly heard, “How dare you question our God-anointed pastor?” (who, in the IFB, is always male).
If you had tough questions about things that didn’t make sense, you were told that you just needed to pray and read your Bible more, that clearly you were weak-minded and failing to fight off the influence of Satan. Having questions meant that you weren’t trying hard enough. The implication was that maybe you just weren’t qualified to live the life of a true Christian: you obviously hadn’t fully surrendered your heart and mind to God.
We were also taught to never even think about questioning our parents: they knew what was best for us (even if what was “best” meant reinforcing wrongheaded thinking, destroying our self-esteem, and submitting us to the care of toxically unhealthy people). “Of course your child won’t like corporal punishment,” they taught parents. “But you need to make sure your punishment of the errant child hurts. They won’t remember to do right next time if you don’t hurt them the first time. Your job as a parent is to break the will of the disobedient child, and conform his will to your own—just like we are to conform our own will to the will of God. Punishment isn’t supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to get the child to obey.”
I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard on how the state and the government, if they had their way, would take children away from their good, God-fearing Christian parents, “just” because such parents “discipline” their children the way they are supposed to. And so we all had ingrained in us a deep fear and distrust of government.
We women were taught to never question or doubt our husbands, or men generally. The man is the head of the house, we learned from birth, the head of the church—and, of course, God himself is male. All IFB women are taught, “What right do you think you have to question authority? You need to submit, and obey, and avoid idle talk.”
And I’m sure I’m not the only fundamentalist kid to have a “Left Behind” story: of waking up from a nap, say, and for whatever reason not being able to find a single soul, which sent me running through the house and outside, looking for anyone who might possibly be born again so that I could relieve my anxiety that the Rapture hadn’t taken place.
Constant fear and doubt: we were weaned on it, and it was never far from us.
This is the patriarchal, ego-fortifying, psyche-destroying, soul-crushing, domineering, brain-washing, fear-inducing, manipulative, spiritually abusive world of the fundamentalism I know so well. They know nothing of an unconditionally loving God—the God that, since I have gotten away from that awful world, I have come to know and love.
It’s for these reasons that I am very pleased indeed to today call myself an Unfundamentalist Christian.
(For more on the IFB, I strongly recommend John Shore’s article The Fundamentally Toxic Christianity.)
(The photo is a still from Marina Abramović’s Freeing the Voice performance.)