Evangelicals and Closet Fundamentalism

Evangelicals and Closet Fundamentalism July 16, 2013

BurningYou will often hear me say that the main difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical is that a fundamentalist wears his beliefs on his sleeve while the evangelical keeps them under his hat. I have not been able to identify any substantive doctrinal differences between the two—they believe the same things. Their differences are a matter of style, not of substance. The fundamentalist doesn’t discuss ideas, he preaches them. He doesn’t converse, he recites. But the evangelical usually feels driven to maintain an ongoing conversation about what he believes, perhaps citing university studies instead of Bible verses. What you’ll find, however, is that their conclusions always end up identical. No one’s mind really changes after the conversation is done. No intellectual compromises have been made. In fact, for both fundamentalists and evangelicals, compromise is a bad word. It’s not something you want to get caught doing. Wouldn’t be prudent.

The further you delve into each ideology, the more you realize that the linchpin for both systems of thought (if they can be considered separate at all) is the belief that whatever the Bible says is above questioning. As I’ve indicated, evangelicals will sometimes make a good show of “questioning” the text, but you will find that somehow the answer is always that the Bible is still right, even if it appears to be wrong at any point. This single belief has spawned dozens of other intellectual transgressions, and while the particulars vary, the deleterious effects on modern American culture are undeniable. I myself have gotten caught in the crossfire of the ensuing culture wars, and have suffered losses that are real and painful. So this is personal to me. I have seen first hand what happens when reason takes a back seat to trust in a book (or rather to trust in how one’s own tradition reads and interprets that book).

The doctrine of Hell handily illustrates what I am saying. Both fundamentalists and evangelicals believe in it, but the former are far more likely than the latter to admit it out loud. As with many fundamentalist doctrines, evangelicals believe in it but would rather not talk about it. Growing up in an evangelical church myself, I almost never heard about Hell. It just rarely came up (except for when a visiting evangelist came to town). In the culture in which I grew up, it was always implied, occasionally referenced, and then quickly the subject would change in order to talk about how wonderful salvation was and aren’t we glad we don’t have to worry about all that stuff? Besides being afraid of scaring people off, I think evangelicals have just enough sense to know that there is something horrific and indefensible about the notion of eternal torment. I submit that sometimes evangelicals are intellectually insulted by their own beliefs, and therefore they choose to avoid those subjects whenever possible, especially in public.

One time I overheard a well-respected minister tell a friend of mine that I was acting under the influence of the devil. Why else would a devoted believer like me leave the Christian faith and “pursue atheism” (whatever that means)? Neither of them knew I was privy to that conversation and I didn’t immediately respond. But the next time I was around the two of them, without providing context I explained to them that it’s insulting to be told that you are a pawn of the devil, as if your decisions are not your own. I told them that it’s dehumanizing to have your own thoughts, words, and actions be ascribed to the prince of darkness. The minister’s immediate reply was that he would never do such a thing. He acted positively shocked and mortified that I would suggest it. I did not tell either of them that I had already heard those very words from him before, so there was no use in lying. But what would motivate a man of widely-reputed integrity to be so dishonest in front of both of us? I can’t say for sure, but my guess is: Embarrassment. When outsiders are listening, they’d really rather not have to talk about many of the things they believe.

Much to their chagrin, however, circumstances sometimes dictate that they speak on these things whether they want to or not. A couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a book entitled Love Wins, and in that book he questioned the notion of eternal torment. Many felt he raised some good questions, and some began to question the inviolability of the doctrine of Hell. But the sentinels of orthodoxy were not to be challenged, and one influential preacher famously tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell.” He hadn’t even read the book yet because it hadn’t yet been released. All he had heard was that Bell questioned the notion of Hell and that was that. Game Over. Over the next couple of years, Bell’s church hemorrhaged 3,000 members and eventually he resigned and moved to California to surf and hold small conferences for interested pastors who could afford the risk of being associated with him. Any evangelical pastor who wants to jeopardize his own tenure need only publicly recommend Bell’s books now, and for most of them that should do it. This kind of merciless polarization highlights just how essential to evangelical theology Hell is, whether they care to openly discuss it or not.

I don’t blame them, though, for not wanting to talk about it. Hell is a hideous, repulsive concept and most psychologically normal people today would rather not discuss it. But adherence to the doctrine of inerrancy demands that you talk about it at some point, whether you wear your belief on your sleeve or keep it under your hat. For starters, Jesus talks about it quite a bit. You can’t read the gospels without being introduced to this horrific idea (some say he was only referencing a concept already popular in his day, but either way the notion only survives today because of his words). Furthermore, without Hell to save people from, the torturing and killing of Jesus makes no sense at all. Sure, many have tried to reframe the crucifixion as only a demonstration of self-sacrificing love without reference to salvation from eternal punishment, but in order to do so one must break with the language of the Bible itself. If you’re not going to call him “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” then you are putting yourself at odds with the unimpeachable New Testament, and therefore with the foundation of contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist faith.

People have perpetrated some truly terrible things on whole populations under the rubric of (quite literally) scaring the hell out of them. Wars have been justified by referencing this doctrine. People have been tortured in order to elicit confessions because, hey, it’s better for them to suffer now and be spared an eternity of the same, right? You won’t see much overt torture in America today (unless you’re in Gitmo), thanks to an intentionally secular legal system put in place by men with far more sense than most of our contemporary political leaders. But in the Bible Belt, you may very well see families torn apart, children emotionally abused, and systemic social ostracism over differences of religious belief. I myself have been sternly lectured to by friends and family members warning that I will burn in Hell for eternity if I don’t “choose to believe” again (like it’s a switch you just flip). I’ll spare you the harsher consequences beyond that because it’s nunya business :-p Suffice it to say, it’s been rough.

But nobody spoke this way toward me before they found out I’ve become an atheist. While I was still an insider, the notion of Hell stayed tucked away in the recesses of my cultural context like a brown recluse avoiding direct sunlight. It took my “coming out” to summon this monster and now I see it for what it is: It is a scare tactic developed by people long ago in order to keep people in line. Just as my parents told me that Santa Claus watches over all the little children and rewards those who play nice but brings coals and switches to the kids who don’t, so Hell is a made-up thing to scare you into submission. It’s far uglier than coals and switches, though, so most self-respecting people won’t bring it up unless they feel they have to. Evangelicals are secretly embarrassed themselves by their own adherence to this doctrine (I know because I was one), but they have little choice. As long as they feel compelled to cling to the idea that a book can be above reproach, they will never be free to jettison this terrible and manipulative trick.*

It’s all about loyalty to a book.

Of course, there is a way beyond this. You could just begin to question the book. And I don’t mean merely entertaining questions in order to appear more open and academic about it than you really are. Evangelicals I know have been playing that game for many years (I did it, too). That goes back to what I said about the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists being primarily stylistic. No, I mean you could truly begin to ask the hard questions about why we are supposed to surrender our thought processes to the ideas and biases of people who lived so long ago, during such a superstitious time. You could begin to listen to your gut when it tells you that it would be better to keep some of your beliefs to yourself because, frankly, they’re embarrassing to anyone with a certain level of education and enculturation. I dare say some of your beliefs may be beneath you, and you should question whether it’s truly a virtue to forfeit your own logical instincts simply because you were taught to believe something when you were too young to adequately challenge the things that bothered you even then. Go ahead and question it, because if I’m right, you only get this one life to live. It would be a shame to waste it following a system of thought that kept you living in fear of something that people made up centuries ago.


* I am told from time to time that it resolves something to picture Hell as a privation instead of active torture in unquenchable flame. But there are two big problems with this. First, the language of torture in flame is biblical, coming from the mouth of Jesus himself (if the New Testament can be trusted). Those who want to distance their message from this language need to realize they are distancing themselves from at least part of the message of Jesus himself. And second, if our existence is supposed to be derivative in such a way that we only exist as God keeps us in existence, then existing in a state of eternal privation would require an active work of God to keep us in existence in such a state. So it won’t do to fancy that somehow this makes God less active in the process of damnation. I’m afraid the Hell-as-privation doesn’t really neutralize its horror, nor does it absolve God from responsible sovereignty (a burden unknown to the biblical writers themselves).

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  • “You could just begin to question the book. And I don’t mean merely entertaining questions in order to appear more open and academic about it than you really are.”

    Unfortunately, this isn’t likely to come about by a simple choice. Our beliefs are emotional entities, so it usually takes a stout emotional blow to loosen the affective bonds enough so that we can step outside the bubble, look back, and evaluate those beliefs with something approximating objectivity. In short, if we’re ever to be able to think outside the box, we’ll probably have to be knocked outside the box.

  • I was brought up in the religion of hellfire and brimstone preaching. I fought becoming a Christian all through my teens. I was definitely not a hypocrite, everyone at my Assembly of God church knew where I stood. ( I want to add that I wasn’t a bad kid. I was a good student and a responsible young woman, I was just a normal teenager. I have teenagers, and I would be happy to have my former self to deal with.) However, I was forced to attend church and I was regularly told by everyone I knew, including my parents, that I would burn in hell if I didn’t repent. I have always questioned the Bible and fundamental Christianity, but finally the fear of spending an eternity in hell won and I got “saved”. So being the type of person I am, when I got saved I took all of the Bible literally. I can’t even tell you the damage this did to me, I am just so thankful that my innate nature to question everything finally surfaced again. It was the question of hell that was the catalyst. What is so frustrating now is my mom acts like she doesn’t remember screaming at me that I would burn in hell if I didn’t repent. She can’t understand why I think Christianity is such a cruel religion. The really sad thing is, my mother is a kind, loving and all around wonderful woman. The only time I have ever witnessed cruelty from her is in the name of Christianity.

  • Well written. I find that theists tend to avoid this conversation as you can bring the whole free will and omniscience argument up i.e. how can god be omniscient and at the same can we have free will. Either way the conclusion to this question is not pretty for a theist.

  • Wendell Neal

    I am continually impressed at your ability to cast your experiences and circumstances in ways helpful to those of us who have similar, if not the same histories, and who continue to deal with the judgmental and insecure nature of evangelical/fundamentalists. Antagonistic attitudes among those who believe differently has a long and bloody history. Good luck. And please continue to relate your experiences.

  • Preston Jackson Jr.

    Another fact that evangelicals and fundamentalists alike fail to acknowledge is that if “God” created a hell to punish evildoers and unbelievers, then he can’t be all-merciful and all-loving. It also throws a monkey wrench in the concept of free will and God’s so called omniscience (unless one wants to believe that he created certain people for the sole purpose of sending them to hell as “God” had the option of creating those “hell bound” individuals differently in order to avoid being sent to hell if he had so chosen.) When I point these obvious contradictions out to a believer, I usually get the tired old “our finite minds can’t understand the infinite ways of God” speech. Reason just doesn’t work with these people.

  • This is I think the main reason that they do not bring it up. Well said.

  • Isn’t there a saying: “You cannot reason your way out of a belief you never reasoned your way into to begin with.”

  • On the other side, my mother is genuinely afraid that my children will go to hell because they have never been baptized. She has tried a version of Pascal’s wager to try to get me to allow her to have the pastor flick water in their faces. It is entirely a matter of her version of love for her grandchildren that makes her want to help them. There is no question in her mind that my kids are bound for hell, no matter how they behave or what kinds of people they are, because they are unbaptized.

    If there are any virtues in religion, those virtues are exactly like Dumbo’s magic feather: No one really needs them. We already have the power within ourselves to be good, honest and caring people.

  • mikespeir

    I’m trying to remember who said that, and can’t. But I think it’s generally true. Now, I’d like to point out, though, that overwhelmingly incontrovertible, contrary evidence itself might be enough to provide the emotional blow necessary to loosen a belief’s grip on us.

  • Donald Butts

    That saying is obviously incorrect. Most atheists I know reasoned their way out of the religion they were born into, not reasoned their way into.

  • Same thing to me both comments :)

  • mikespeir

    And I think you’re kidding yourself, Donald. Emotion is what moves us. In reality, a Mr. Spock would be inert as a rock. Even our drive to be rational stems from an emotional impulse. The emotion always comes first. So if there’s to be any movement at all–say from theism to atheism–you can bet there was some emotion that prompted that movement, even if the person who moved doesn’t recognize it.