When people leave Christianity, a lot of stuff tends to change for us, but even more so when we first join it. If we know why we joined a group that was bad for us, then we’re a lot less likely to make that mistake a second time. So today I want to talk about how fundamentalist Christianity’s strong sense of group identity overrode my better judgment as a teenager.
The more extreme the version of Christianity, the more stuff changes before and after being a member of it. If someone was a fairly liberal Christian and stops attending church, the worst thing that might happen is they might get occasional postcards about being missed–which is what I faced as a pre-teen when I stopped attending a mainline church’s Sunday School program–but even less will happen upon joining a new church. Even when I stopped attending a Southern Baptist church in the mid-1980s as a teenager, about all that happened was I kept receiving mass mailings from them in the form of pre-printed tithe envelopes and newsletters. Nobody yelled at me in either religion for joining or leaving, or accused me of not being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ if I went a different way. I certainly didn’t lose any friends or alienate anybody.
But then I became a Pentecostal and broke the combo.
Group identity was incredibly strong in that denomination. I’m not talking about the Christian Identity movement, which is a very specific fusion of nationalistic and religious fervor adopted by zealots to rationalize racism. I’m talking more about the tendency of people in fringe groups to cluster together and form a very tight self-identity around their beliefs and practices.
I realize now that for most of my life, I was trying to find a place where I fit in somewhere. I was not a popular child growing up; my family was military, so we moved a lot and I had a tough time making friends. We had a more urbane outlook on a variety of subjects because we’d been around so many different people and places, which didn’t go over well in the provincial-minded small towns in which we found ourselves. I read constantly, usually several grades above my peers; while they were reluctantly reading books about baby-sitters making clubs, I was devouring Isaac Asimov and Bullfinch’s Mythology. I don’t say that to diss young adult books but rather to say that I didn’t have much in common with people my age. Our worldviews were simply informed by completely different ideas and ideals.
For all of my maturity in reading material, I was a hopeless infant in terms of how people interacted. I didn’t even realize what racism was, for example, until I was ten or eleven and a black classmate mentioned being the focus of it on the playground. I think I was the only person who heard him say that who thought–much less said–that I found this whole situation completely unacceptable; this outburst earned me quite a lot of bullying and teasing later. It’s so true that kids learn their cruelty at their parents’ knees.
Back in my day, when you got interested in something, you tried to join a club that pursued it. Gardeners joined gardening clubs, and kids who were fanatical about comic books joined comic-book clubs. Video games were one of the first passions I developed that didn’t seem to have a real-life club that met to discuss and practice that passion. Tabletop gaming was a regular hobby for me in my early teens, but even so, our gaming groups were not tightly or narrowly defined but rather marked by their very looseness and permeability. Someone might drift in and out of one without arousing much comment either way; our classmates didn’t generally even know that we played at all, though I don’t remember ever keeping it a secret. It just wasn’t something we talked about around others; we knew they wouldn’t get it or be interested. When I was seventeen years old, I attended my first gaming convention and thought it revelatory to see all these cool*, fun people who liked the same stuff I did, but nothing much changed in day-to-day life for me. None of what I experienced as a teenager really rose to the level of group identity outside of church except one group: the SCA.
In the SCA (the Society for Creative Anachronism), I met the basic requirements for group identity there: I felt like I was a distinct part of the group, identified myself as belonging to it, felt a common cause with its other members, and felt attachment not only to the group itself but to those in it. We met regularly in various sub-groups similar to small groups in churches–sewing circles, dance practice, fencing practice–and also in much larger gatherings called “events” that are like Sunday services. We even had huge events that took sometimes days or weeks of our time that might have many thousands of attendees visiting from huge swathes of the country or even the world, with the big daddy of them all, Pennsic, turning into almost a pilgrimage–I knew exactly who among my friends had “done Pennsic,” and aspired to do it myself one day. We had particular practices and beliefs that set us apart from the main population and even had ways of dressing that made us different; even in “mundane life,” the SCA women I knew tended to dress kinda like 1980s-era Stevie Nicks, and the men often got into strange hats and offbeat fashion choices like kilts. A great many of those men collected swords and played roleplaying games, while women often got into costuming or domestic arts like historical cooking or weaving (though those gender barriers were quite permeable). I had a strong group identity as a member of the SCA, and chances are if I hadn’t gotten into fundamentalism I’d never have left.
Fundamentalism, though, took that group identity concept and boosted it like a steroid shot to the sack. The whole process started with how churches greeted newcomers; I don’t think I ever attended a Pentecostal church across the whole world that didn’t bend over backwards to welcome new faces. While Thom Rainer has lists of admonishments for SBC churches about how they can make newcomers feel unwelcome, almost all of which I experienced in the Southern Baptist church I briefly attended, the Pentecostals all but dive-bombed new guests “like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck, hardly to be shook off.” Well-dressed, smiling male greeters assigned to the front doors–there were always two greeters at every Sunday Morning service and one at Sunday night–immediately took newcomers in hand to point them toward literature and tracts right in the foyer and show them where the bathrooms were. Usually these guests came with friends who were members of the church–very few guests showed up alone–and the friends came along with this tour to be reassuring. Other members would come up without fanfare or encouragement to shake hands, speak glowingly of the church, and make small talk. By the time the guest had gotten ensconced on a comfortable pew, usually in a noncommittal middle part of the church because we all knew nobody liked sitting up front on their first day there, that person had met pretty much everybody in the rather sizeable church. The service itself usually featured a meet-and-greet in the early portion as well, and afterward, people would talk to the guest and see if that person seemed interested in returning. I learned later that there were volunteers in the church who wrote and mailed little cards thanking the guest for coming and inviting that person back, though I didn’t get one.
All of these efforts made Pentecostal churches extremely different from how most other groups operated. A socially diffident or reserved person might shy away from such overtures, but someone starved of affection or holding an unwarrantedly high opinion of him- or herself might find these overly-friendly gestures complimentary–even as affirming of that self-image. Though not all converts think this, even as a convert I sometimes detected strains of unhealthy narcissism in converts: Here is a group of people who finally recognize what a fine and wonderful person I am.
We also had a system for presenting ourselves to the world. We were incredibly distinctive, for a start, in our clothing choices and hairstyles, especially the women. We couldn’t have been more obvious than if we’d been dressed in medieval costumes with snoods on (but one day these surprisingly comfortable hair coverings are coming back into style, for sure). We were very aware that people looked at us as the representatives of Christianity, which meant we had to be polite, gracious, and kind in public, tip restaurant staff extremely well, and be considerate toward the neighbors. And we could not ever be caught doing something “sinful.” Our group identity had to remain inviolate and unsullied. We took pride in that identity, so most of us behaved ourselves for that reason if for nothing else.
We exerted subtle pressure on outsiders to conform if they wanted to belong, and when that didn’t work we might even overtly ask about it. I myself remember very specifically the day this started up for me. I’d been attending that church for a few weeks, and an older male member asked me when “Jesus” was going to “convict” me about wearing pants. I replied tartly that it’d happen whenever Jesus wanted it to happen, but not long afterward, I began wearing skirts to fit in better with the other women. Everyone very happily thought it was the Holy Spirit’s “conviction.” I knew it was simple social conformity. But I also knew I didn’t like being disapproved of. After a while, skirts and dresses became second nature, and behind that change, uncut hair and an end to makeup. Slowly but surely I found myself becoming a near-perfect Pentecostal miss. I say “near-perfect” because I simply didn’t have the right body type to be the idea; I was slim and willowy but nowhere near tall, thin, translucently-skinned, and ethereally-beautiful enough to pull off the dominant group fashions. Even today, I can spot a Pentecostal woman just about anywhere even if everyone around her is wearing dresses, long hair, and no obvious makeup. There’s a seriously perceptible vibe to the skin and hair. We thought it was “godliness.” We couldn’t have been more wrong. The groupthink that leads to the Pentecostal “look” is about as earthly as it gets.
Though we were weird, we knew how to tailor our weirdness so as not to freak the mundanes too badly. SCAdians used to like doing that specifically to confuse and flummox non-members, but we weren’t hinging eternal salvation on our group. Pentecostals didn’t want to alienate or frustrate newcomers at all and thus risk their immortal souls, so we tended to tone our weirdness down around them until they got to know us. Sunday morning services tended to be fairly staid and even sometimes–by our standards–educational, uplifting and somewhat “dry” (meaning nobody was going to be screaming too loudly in “tongues” or running around the aisles waving their fists in the air, and the altar call would be fairly tame). It was suitable for guests. Sunday nights was when we let our hair down and got rowdy, away from the fear of freaking visitors out.
The important thing was to get people “saved,” and to do that we had to attract guests to our group. A lot of people would see us even on those tame Sunday mornings, get hugely alienated and put off, and never return. But a small number were intrigued.
I think one thing that really attracted me to this version of Christianity was that super-tight cohesion I saw among Pentecostals. It was false, but I didn’t know that. They seemed to love each other exuberantly, selflessly, and endlessly. They were cheerful and kind; they encouraged each other to reveal secrets and struggles so that everyone could be supportive in turn. After an adolescence marked by constant betrayals and unkindnesses at the hands of most of my family and school peers, I was suddenly enveloped in what I incorrectly thought was a cloud of Christian love. I mistook their false intimacy for the real thing, and didn’t realize that there was little to no follow-through on all those generous offers of help and support.
Not long ago, one of my commenters over at Roll to Disbelieve mentioned this checklist of cult characteristics and it is absolutely amazing. I highly recommend y’all read it. It’s been changing a lot about how I view my past in Christianity. This part here, points 17-19, is relevant to our discussion now:
You get a ready-made extended family when you join the cult. . . Or you just spend all of your spare time at the temple or center or meeting hall, only associating with other members, who are your new circle of friends. A common characteristic of this instant community attitude is, “We love you because you are one of us.” The cult members will instantly love you, and consider you a beloved part of their family, because you chose to join their group. You are automatically one of the Good People because you joined the cult.
Even someone as totally socially-awkward as I was got instant friends simply by being a member of this church. We even called each other “Brother” and “Sister.” I had to get over my dislike of touchy-feely interactions pretty quickly because of how often people “hugged my neck.”
I can’t overstate what a game-changer joining Pentecostalism was for me. It was like I didn’t even need social skills, dress sense, good looks, or money, or a cool car, or anything else I thought people normally needed to attract friends. All I needed was belief. As long as I believed, or so I thought at first, I would not–and indeed could not–be rejected. We’ll talk next time about how wrong that idea was, but for now, just know that was what I thought at first.
And I got a ready-made and complete set of opinions for myself by being a member of this group. The SCA didn’t dictate political opinions, religious convictions, or social stances, though one could easily detect a lot of overlap between a SCAdian and a flaming liberal. By contrast, there was not a single subject under the sun that Pentecostalism didn’t feel certainty about–especially regarding politics, relationships, and what was best for society. This was right about the time when the Religious Right was getting into bed with Republican conservative politics, so being a Democrat–or liberal at all–was starting to be seen as completely incompatible with being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. I saw absolutely nothing wrong with this polarization.
That link I gave about group identity at the beginning of this piece talks about that tendency of right-wing religious groups to see themselves as downtrodden underdogs who don’t have nearly the political power that they deserve, called power discontent, and a serious resentment of the power structure that had unfairly denied them that power, called system blaming. People who felt that they’d been passed over for riches or power, or who saw themselves as unfairly victimized by an uncaring system, gravitated toward Pentecostalism’s propaganda-style messaging, and I was definitely one of the latter there. Pentecostals believed that with Jesus, they would right those wrongs and assume the mantle of leadership and correctness that they viewed as their due. And at the end, after our deaths, we’d be hugely rewarded with an admiralty for exactly what Kristine Kochanski described as Dave Lister’s “diligence and general devotion to duty,” while our enemies would get what was coming to them for mistreating us, disobeying us, and–worst of all, oh so much–mocking us.
There is a dark side to that love and membership, and a lot of downfalls and problems for those trapped in it. But I saw not a bit of that at the beginning. You’ve fallen into pillows with more difficulty and arduousness than I fell into Pentecostalism. Nobody would have shown this dark side to me, or described it to me–and of course not. They were selling a vision to me. You don’t tell a customer about the downside of the product you’re selling. So all they presented were the Kodak moments of membership. Even when the tendrils of inappropriate control began to creep around my ankles, I had been so successfully inculcated with the conviction that this group was the only group that knew how to do Christianity correctly that I gave in, convinced that if they thought their dress code was that essential to the plan then maybe I should just follow their directions and hope it made sense later. None of my peers seemed to have a problem with anything being presented, so why did I think I was so special? Did I really want to risk my eternal soul by disobeying or challenging these demands?
As long as I sincerely believed the group’s–and by extension the religion’s–claims and bought into its threats, then I felt that I was obligated to obey its demands. Or as a Catholic acquaintance of mine drily (and absolutely correctly, damn it) quipped not long ago, “you Protestants sure scare easy.”
We’re going to talk next week about actually being a member of a tightly-knit group, and about why leaving it can be so traumatic both for us and for those remaining in the group.
* Cool by my standards. I make no promises about your own.