Recently one of our regular commenters asked the following about my last post:
Frankly I’m more interested in what made you enter conservative protestantism, mainly because teens are my job. You were 16, your mother was still responsible for you, what about your teachers … there are several issues left.
I think that’s a really good question. There really doesn’t seem like much about fundamentalism that would appeal to a bright, outgoing young woman, does there? So we’re going to make a quick detour.
Here are the outlines of the painting we’re about to fill in: I converted to the Southern Baptist Convention when I was 16. After a few unsatisfying months in a megachurch, I ended up at a Pentecostal church revival during the first “88 Reasons” Rapture panic and joined them. But when the Rapture didn’t happen, I drifted out of it and was a normal teenager for a while–until I began dating a college guy, Biff, who converted into the exact same church I’d most recently left and then dragged me right back into it again when I was seventeen. So all of this conversion/drifting-out/returning stuff was happening while I was in high school and living with my parents.
I can’t speak for all teenagers. Just like adults are a wonderfully diverse bunch, so are teenagers! But I can definitely speak about what happened to me and why I, as a teenager, found myself drawn into fundamentalism.
So without further ado:
Where the heck were my parents?
Working their asses off, mostly. They were relatively hands-off. I was taught to be self-sufficient from a young age, so I was quite capable of amusing myself. My parents would likely have been arrested for letting me run as loose as they did back then, but the 1980s were a really different time; they weren’t doing much differently there than the other parents I saw. Their philosophy extended to religion.
When I was young, I was a very fervent Catholic, but it didn’t take long for my less-fervent Catholic parents to decide that it wasn’t much fun to burn half their precious weekends taking the family to church. No matter–I’d walk there on foot if need be, and did for a while, till we moved somewhere that was just too far away for that. My parents slept in on Sundays while I dragged my little sister kicking and screaming out of bed, then got us both dressed and fed and out the door to hoof it the couple miles to our local church, then walked home–all of this on our own while our parents slept.
I don’t know what my parents thought of the little zealot in their household going to all that trouble. Did they feel guilty about it? Or did they just welcome the peace and quiet of both kids being gone for a few hours? If they had a problem with it, they never said. Neither did they get in my way. Thus I established a precedent in their eyes of taking religion seriously.
When I got my introduction to evangelical culture, it knocked me for a total loop! When I inevitably got invited to my first Southern Baptist church function, my folks gave the required permission to attend without any show of reluctance or concern because they thought it’d be like any other church–in other words, like any other Catholic church. And so did I!
I don’t think it occurred to them that there were radically different practices in different churches until it was too late. By that time, they both felt uncomfortable trying to draw me away from what seemed like very sincere beliefs; at least I believed still. Nor did they know enough about Christian theology or doctrines to be able to show me how these new beliefs were based on a faulty understanding of the Bible, and by the time I was in over my head enough that they might have wanted a priest’s assistance, I had already independently decided that Catholicism was Satanic (I don’t think that now, obviously). And because we didn’t value reality as a basis for making decisions, they couldn’t help me examine fundamentalist claims from a rational angle.
Despite their growing concern about how I was expressing my spirituality in particular, religion was seen by the both of my parents as a very favorable thing in general, and because they didn’t actually know exactly what I was hearing and experiencing at the churches I visited, they didn’t rein me in. That said, I’m not sure they’d have been able. I can be really stubborn, and I was totally positive that this was the absolute correct way to worship out of all the many thousands of ways in the world. I didn’t want to lose my relationship with my parents, but it distressed us all that there was this huge gulf between us that opened as a result of religion. I’m thankful that they managed to at least create a sort of detente about the topic; after some efforts to convert them failed, I got the hint and backed off, but it was always there in the background, my distress over their Hell-bound status, and their discomfort and unwillingness to discuss religion.
Detente was as far as they were able to get with me. Just as they had hated Biff on sight (I don’t think my dad ever saw the guy without wanting to turn him into a goo smear on the pavement, and that goes double for my wedding day), they never felt comfortable with Pentecostalism, but they were afraid that if they protested too much about either the man or the religion that I’d totally rebel and do something especially idiotic (I can’t say they didn’t have a point there, either). After I deconverted, they told me that they had felt like they were walking on eggshells, like a lot of parents in similar situations with their kids.
I cannot imagine the pain they went through or the concern they must have felt as they watched me slowly destroy my life and future. They nixed my worst requests, but overall they stayed out of it, waiting watchfully and hoping I’d come to my senses–which I did, only to plunge back into fundamentalism again! I hadn’t learned a thing from the first time around, and the apologetics tricks used to excuse the lack of a Rapture convinced me. I threw myself into church again with even more abandon than I had the first time around.
My family was the perfect storm for this kind of conversion: lacking structure and consistency, by turns too lax and too authoritarian, ignorant of the mindgames that fundamentalism can bring to bear, and unable to communicate openly and honestly.
Where the heck were my teachers?
Everywhere. I went to a super-duper Christian high school. Well, let me clarify. It was a huge public high school, but its upper leadership and management were dominated by Southern Baptists. Every single student was Christian except for one weird kid who pretended to be Satanist. A bunch of the kids there were Catholics; most of the rest were Southern Baptists, with about 30 kids who were Pentecostal. The year before I enrolled, the teachers were very proud of having gotten fired a fellow teacher who’d been outed as gay; I still remember the grimly-satisfied look on the face of one of those teachers as he mentioned it in passing one day.
So no, none of my teachers saw anything amiss with my newfound fervor or said anything about the rapid changes in my dress and personality that followed. Even if any adults around me had had the authority and desire to intervene, I wasn’t doing anything illegal or seriously self-injurious, so nobody could really stop me except my parents maybe, and they had already consciously chosen not to do so–a calculated risk, but theirs to take.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that the various churches that had recruited me and my friends as teenagers had obtained permission from our parents to do so, as poorly-informed as that permission was, and the people doing the recruiting itself were students. I don’t know if these organizations’ exact methods were totally aboveboard–those memories are lost to time, alas–but I can’t remember any obvious problems.
What about this ideology appealed to me as a teenager?
I had a pretty chaotic upbringing–quite a bit of my early life was spent in abject, crushing, you-wouldn’t-even-believe-me-if-I-told-you poverty. My parents had no business being married; my dad had serious problems. There’s a damned good reason why I tried my best to immerse myself in activities and kept busy reading and playing video games and whatnot. My mother tried to shield us from my dad’s excesses as best she could; she felt trapped financially, so she didn’t grab us and leave. Like a lot of kids in those circumstances, I both grew up too quickly and thought I was wiser and more mature than I really was.
My dad got the help he needed eventually and joined the military, so a lot of my major stresses lifted by the time I came into my teens–but not the old hurts and fears.
Fundamentalism promised me protection, care, love, and–most of all–consistency. It promised me that if I followed its rules, I’d be safe from harm and I’d feel loved. It promised I’d be given the perfect husband, hand-picked for me from the beginning of time, and that this husband would treat me like solid gold. I’d be happy. I’d be surrounded by a loving church family that would look out for me and help me if I needed it, not to mention by a god who was passionately interested in me every second of the day. The culture had a very black-and-white, this-or-that way of looking at everything–which also appealed to me, because I didn’t have to worry about making any mistakes or wonder what to do. And yes, this religion would save me from Hell–a manufactured need to be sure; I was too young to realize how manipulative that threat is. I didn’t know at the time, either, that these promises were pie in the sky. It didn’t even occur to me that the people telling me all this stuff might be mistaken. (And you can bet that nobody was telling me about all the bad parts of fundamentalism: the misogyny, the unfairness, the wonky science, and oh the carousel of revolving weird conspiracy theories. When you’re selling someone a product, you don’t tell ’em about its flaws, now do you?)
Above all, fundamentalism made me feel correct. Like a lot of conservative Christians, I didn’t function well with uncertainty. But by buying into fundamentalism, I felt at last like I was finally on the road to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. I’d been taught my entire life that the Christian myths were totally for real, but I’d never seen anything that meshed with that teaching–or Christians who behaved like they really thought so. The Southern Baptists introduced me to a passionate, orgiastic style of Christianity, and the Pentecostals added to this potent brew claims of miracles and divine intervention. I was too young and naive to realize that nothing going on around me was supernatural in nature or unique to Christianity.
This brew was also why I never really got into the milder forms of Christianity; they reminded me too much of Catholicism, which clearly hadn’t satisfied me, so I didn’t think any of them would either. Nor did they fit in with what I (mistakenly) thought was TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, that original first-century form of the religion I thought must have existed in the ancient past.
All in all, my teenaged years were a particularly vulnerable time, as they are for many people. Though I don’t blame anybody for my conversion into fundamentalism, I just wasn’t outfitted mentally or emotionally for my encounter with it, and nobody was around me at all who was both capable of intervening and desired to do so. I don’t know if I could write a recipe for making someone more vulnerable to extremist religion than the life I’d led up till my conversion into it.
So there you go: hopefully a more fleshed-out painting. These are the factors that I look back at and see as instrumental as leading me into fundamentalism as a teenager. I’ve never been asked this particular question, so I apologize if I left something out. If I did, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Thanks for making this journey with me tonight, friends. Next time I’ll talk about that first step out of religion, and definitely I invite you to join me.
Bee tee dubs, I’d like to caution Christians against opportunistically trying to use what I’ve written here as a springboard for a conversion attempt. Not only will I not welcome such manipulation, but it will backfire by reminding me anew of why I was right to leave the religion. And I can spot that tactic from a country mile away. So don’t do it! Like the good Sheriff Buford T. Justice said long, long ago: You can think about it…. but don’t do it.