“Being a slave to your own truth,” might be one reasonable way to define extreme fundamentalism.
On September 22nd two years ago, CNN ran an investigative report titled “Ungodly Discipline.” It takes a look at a history of biblically “justified” abuse in one specific school. It would be easy to walk away from the report and think it’s nothing more than a he-said/she-said piece on spanking in schools. It is so much more than that.
It points to the dangers of fundamentalism. These children were not just spanked, they were abused. People who presumably loved them, hurt them. They justified it using the Bible. Fundamentalism frequently requires a devotion which is so blind that its adherents find they are nothing more than pawns in a game whose only purpose is to keep the game going. They are slaves to their own truths.
My heart goes out to each child who has grown up in this church and school. I have little doubt that some of them have escaped it relatively unscathed, but I know without any doubt that many have been wounded deeply.
The school is Fairhaven Baptist Academy which is associated with Fairhaven Independent Baptist Church and Fairhaven Baptist College in Indiana. Their founder is Pastor Roger Voegtlin. His two adpoted children are among those who were abused and they are speaking out about it.
Pastor Voegtlin’s adopted son, Frank Voegtlin, contributed the following introduction to the CNN video for this article. In part, it explains why I believe it is still important to continue to tell their story.
This CNN video was a liberating moment for my sister Catherine and me. Having been adopted at a young age into the home of Roger Voegtlin, the minister of Fairhaven Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church, we were quickly taught that he was the definitive authority of God’s word. After living in his home and being abused by him for many years, we eventually left.
After leaving, we contacted several newspapers, etc. As hard as we tried very few, if anyone, would publicaly agree that our stance against our father was true or right.
This video started a public outcry 20+ years after our initial accusations and has allowed other victims to verify what we have been saying.
Trista Lee Hendren Løberg; POV: Spiritual Womanist: The last thing in the world I ever want my children to be is fearful or obedient. One of the most important components missing from American society today is creativity. Many say we do not know how we will someday fill those gaps. Although my family was never abusive and my father is a kind-hearted man, the ideals of authority that I grew up with in a fundamentalist Christian church took me a long time to grow out of.
It is hard to imagine Jesus feeling pleased with what has become of some churches, including this one. I see this stemming from extreme patriarchy: resorting to male-only leadership through violence, which instills prescribed values of conformity and winning at all costs.
Fear and abuse do not bring out the best in people. Blame, shame and humiliation don’t either. Love does. When you equate punishment with love, there is no way for that not to be confusing for a child. You are teaching contradiction, not faith. Faith is about believing in God as you understand Her. Faith is believing in the innate goodness of children, knowing that you have an opportunity to bring out the absolute best in them.
Children are not born depraved: they are born whole and complete. Happenstance is what taints our lives. Our job as parents, teachers and spiritual leaders is to guide kids to their higher selves. While we all will have tragedies in our life that we have to overcome, any adult who purposely causes a child pain, whether it be through neglect or abuse, is not worthy of being in the company of children.
Timothy W. Hooker; POV: Buddhist: My response to the video is in two stages.
First, having been raised in a fundamentalist environment, I completely believe and sympathize with the survivors who have come forward. My smart-aleck response to the fundamentalist world-view is that “fundies have the best ids.” But, even that points toward a paradigm within fundamentalism that sees everyone as ultimately depraved worthless pond scum that is deserving of the worst that life can throw at them. Ironically, once fundamentalists have convinced themselves that they are on God’s True Path, they assume a self-righteousness that is unassailable. I know plenty of fundamentalists who would be unable to name a single sin they’ve committed in the last forty years. As such, their piety becomes a poor man’s riches. They may have nothing of material value in this world, but their self-righteousness gives them the license to look down their noses at the rest of the world, just like the rich have always looked down on them.
For a more thorough discussion of fundamentalism, I would recommend the book entitled The Fundamentalist Mindset by Charles B. Strozier, David M. Terman, and James W. Jones (Oxford University Press). It is a group of psychologists looking at fundamentalism as mental illness.
From a Buddhist perspective, fundamentalism completely misses the role of humans in the world. Buddhism stresses the social equality of all humans; there are no Big I’s and Little You’s in Buddhism. We’re all on equal footing. The other Buddhist principle that immediately comes to mind is that I am as deserving of love and compassion as anyone in the universe. Not only is it a good thing for me to practice compassion with my neighbor, I need to practice it with myself. See, Buddhism shies away from duality in the universe, instead seeing everything as a continuum of The One. Thus, if I am mean to my neighbor, I am also being mean to myself.
This became clearer to me in graduate school; my roommate was from China. Everything he owned in the world could fit into a small cardboard box, and he laughed all the time. When I asked him who he believed in, he answered, “I believe in me.”
I couldn’t improve on that.
Jill Jacobs; POV: Spiritual But Not Religious: As a person who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian setting, Spiritual Abuses in the Church are of great concern to me because many of my peers who grew up in the same setting were abused as children and teens. Many of them became suicidal or began a life of self-harm. What troubles me even more is this spiritual abuse is still happening at an alarming rate, as evidenced by this video and by other stories surfacing on nearly a weekly basis, including the Independent Fundamental Baptist scandal which has gained national attention in the past year.
More and more, churches and pastors are being exposed as abusers and often times children and teens are the victims. Our society questions why good Christians are leaving the church in droves — well, this is one very evident reason for it. Scriptures are frequently taken out of context, as the Fairhaven pastor has done with the “he who spareth the rod spoileth his child” verse, which is clearly meant as a directive for parents, not a verse endorsing public humiliation and church community corporal punishment. This activity is not of God and these people are deceived. Using scripture to verbally abuse and humiliate is a form of spiritual and emotional abuse. Indeed, it is a form of bullying which destroys instead of heals. If you are in a situation where you suspect that you or your child are being bullied in a church environment, please seek counsel outside of the church to verify your suspicions. God is not an abusive bully nor should His representatives be. There are plenty of pastors and churches that do not practice this style of abusive, fundamentalist “churchianity”.
As the evolution of the Body of Christ continues, we will see more and more of the desperate and dysfunctional branches dying off, in the process people will be exposed for their abuses against the flock. There are still good and loving bodies of believers where healing and wholeness are possible and God’s love is practiced. May we all be vigilant to speak up against this insidious spiritual abuse of God’s children.
Randy Walker; POV: Agnostic: This video represents what can happen when doubt and freedom of thought are squelched. When children are discouraged or punished for speaking out, sick predators and over-zealous guardians and leaders are more likely to take advantage of them or abuse them. This is not to say that fundamentalism is the only environment that breeds such abuse, but when opposing viewpoints are not vilified, there is more freedom and transparency.
Another potential factor is that when normal human desires, such as sensuality and sex, are repressed by rigid dogma, these desires may be acted-out in illegal or inappropriate ways toward children and unwilling adults. Again, while scandals like these are not exclusive to fundamentalist environments, they do often come to light after the fact.
Finally, when the emphasis is on control and inhibition at the expense of love and acceptance, sick and angry people are often the results. I have firsthand experience with this.
Peggy Beatty; POV: Mindful Mystic: Parents, family and teachers are a child’s first example of “God” (God being all that is loving and compassionate in the world — all that is safe). Parents teach children what LOVE looks like. If a parent, who is Love to a child, says or does something unloving, the child’s reality of what constitutes love and how love behaves is discordant. On one hand, love is the affection and kindness for which I long. On the other hand, it is the thing I most fear. A conflicted notion of Love, left unconfronted and unresolved, is carried into all adult relationships and perpetuated in the conflicted child’s parenting paradigm. “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.” – Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
“I don’t know what love is. I don’t know how to love someone,” said a young man in video. Not only does he not know how to love, he does not know himself as Love. This is the real tragedy of abuse. Children learn such unconscious and powerful defense mechanisms to protect their vulnerability, that they doubt their self worth, their divine identity as Images of God.
The imperative is to discipline the behavior, not the child. The behavior is simply an outward expression, the mis-action or poor choice of a child whose worth as a human (or in God’s eyes) is never less than precious innocence and love. To discipline means to teach. Corporeal discipline does not teach love. It teaches abuse and conflicted emotion. When a child must resort to emotional defensiveness, she refuses to be emotionally available because that requires vulnerability, and to fully operate in love, one must be vulnerable and emotionally available. Only in the safety of unconditional love, is the soul honored, and thereby encouraged to grow in trust, respect, compassion for self and for others.
Mark Sandlin; POV: Progressive Christian Minister: I appreciate CNN’s efforts to remain neutral in presenting this story, but I see the evidence as overwhelmingly on the side of the former students and Pastor Voeglin’s adopted kids. Once you understand the kind of “theology” that is being taught at Fairhaven (an astoundingly ironic name for a place that is neither fair nor a haven for the kids who attend), it is sadly not surprising that this kind of abuse happens.
It creates a culture which frequently extends to the children’s homes making the abuse inescapable. Catherine Voegtlin, Pastor Voeglin’s adopted daughter, told us about a very revealing question asked by CNN’s Gary Tuchman which did not make it to the final piece. “He asked me if I hate Roger Voegtlin. I told him NO. I love him so very much. He taught me how to be a great parent. Gary looked at me kind of weird and said, ‘What?’
“I said, ‘easy I simply do the opposite. [He] taught me to be a great mom. I am thankful for that.’”
While the most damning witnesses must surely be his own children, I find the most convincing witness to be a former student who received his undergraduate and Master’s degree from Fairhaven Baptist College. His name is Bob Hayton and he blogs at “Fundamentally Reformed.”
While he is thankful for “many things from [his] time at Fairhaven,” he offers up what is ultimately a fairly damning assessment of the “ethos” which exists at Fairhaven. From an “excessive emphasis on manliness” (including not wearing pink shirts and intimidating any boy who wouldn’t agree to be on the wrestling team) to encouraging parents in the “shunning [of] their way-ward children,” he tells a tale of a school that is about as far away from living out the teachings of Jesus as I can imagine.
It’s the danger of fundamentalism. You narrow down “the truth” to a specific set of things. They become so important that you are willing to turn off your mind for the sake of what you believe to be a higher “truth.” You become a slave to your own truth.
As I opened this article saying, your version of the “truth” becomes so important, you are willing to hurt people you love. Just imagine what it might allow you to do to someone you might not care for as much as you care for, say, a family member.
Agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Spiritual, Mystic — whatever faith tradition or lack thereof with which you might identify, it is important to stand up against this severe kind of fundamentalism regardless of the traditions to which it attaches itself. We believe that Fairhaven and other fundamental churches like it are dangerous. They are hurting children, hurting families and by extension hurting society. We are asking you to keep sharing this story, write your own stories about it, help keep people aware of this atrocity and maybe collectively we can begin limiting the number of people who are hurt by this kind of fundamentalism. It’s just fundamentally wrong.