The Strategies of Christian Fundamentalism
By Joseph R. Kiefer II
“History is far too replete with the consequences of supposing that all mysteries have a final solution” (Galle, 1994, p. 31).
Humanity searches for meaning to the mystery of existence. Sentient awareness drives inquiries into our purpose, origins, and our eventual destination after this life. Religions attempt to answer these questions. Some religions hold absolute sway over those who accede to their dogma by establishing a frame of reality for them, a matrix of belief within which they define themselves and their affinity with the world. Such is the case with fundamental Christianity—a religion that controls its devotees through diminishing their human potential and promoting powerlessness in their lives. From its early days to the present, this particular strand of religion has employed the strategy of inducing fear and guilt into its followers and would-be-converts to generate a powerful belief system wherein the follower is forbidden by conscience to examine truth as presented by any other source. This incarceration of the human spirit crushes self-acceptance and incites intolerance of those who aren’t captive to the same beliefs.
The power of belief is central to religious adherence and to a world-view based upon its teachings. The 1985 edition of Dictionary of Psychology defines belief as: “Generally used in the standard dictionary sense for an emotional acceptance of some proposition, statement or doctrine” (p. 88). With this definition it can be adduced that the more firm the emotional acceptance of a religion’s teachings, the more firm the belief. When the belief is fixed through strong emotion, there is more of a need to conform to religious doctrine. If the doctrine of the religion is inflexible, then so is the accepted reality and the subsequent evaluation of what is right and wrong for the individual within the religious group. When a religion teaches that the individual is inherently depraved and in need of salvation or redemption from eternal doom, it necessarily evokes a negative self-perception within the individual as it forcefully rouses the instrumental emotions of fear and guilt necessary to justify its rigid conclusions.
The rigidity of fundamental Christianity has its roots in orthodox Christianity. The foundation of this religion was forged in a dismal pool of blood and misery. Early Christian authorities sanctioned the use of sword, fire, and torture to spread the belief in their doctrine of one god, one truth, blind obedience, and humanity’s sinful nature. In the name of Christ, they coerced belief and compliance through brutal, physical means, while evoking fear and guilt to maintain that belief. A particularly hideous example discussed in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (as cited in Ellerby, 1995), tells of a French judge who ordered the young children of condemned witches to be flogged while forcing them to watch the horror of their parents being consumed by flame at the stake. Ellerby (1995) discusses another example of Christian-endorsed terror and brutality: the various crusades, religious wars painted to be glorious campaigns of defending the faith and ridding the world of heretics and infidels. In order to wipe out Catharism, a religion thriving in the south ofFrance, the predominant Christian power of the time ordered a crusade. The crusade, named the Albigensian Crusade, lasted thirty-years. The death toll from this butchery is estimated at one-million lives, many of whom were Catholics, indistinguishable from Cathars by the marauders. Even children were slaughtered. One commander told his men: “Kill them all, for God knows his own!” (p. 74).
Human effort to advance civilization has bound the fundamentalist Christians of today from wreaking such heinous acts of cruelty to validate, protect, and disseminate their religion. However, the volatile fuel of fear and guilt still fire their belief system; and the adherents, as well as those around them, continue to encounter the negative effects of this unwholesome inferno. As Cookson (1997) points out, examples of fundamentalists persecuting others who hold divergent beliefs persist in modern times. Christian clergy have advocated the stripping of constitutional rights and securities from those who do not accept and venerate the god of the Christians. The religion of Wicca is one example of a religion scorned by intolerant fundamentalists. Christian leaders teach that Wicca is an evil religion (Cookson, 1997). Susan Drake, a Wiccan living inWichita,Kansas, opposes this thought. She describes Wicca as a pre-Christian religion, wherein the practitioner deifies and worships principles of nature in a gentle fashion. Drake further relates that Christianity has historically maligned this ancient religion through associating it with Satanic worship. One example of such propaganda is the Wiccan ‘god’ Pan, the horned and goat-hoofed god that represents masculine fertility and mirth; this figure has been caricatured by Christianity to represent the Devil and to influence Christians to believe Wicca is demonic. Another example cited by Drake is the Christian defamation of the pentagram, a Wiccan symbol of humanity’s place in the Universe. Drake declares that Wicca is a peaceful religion and is evidenced as such by one of its main tenets: Harm none (personal communication, July 3, 1998). Cookson (1997) drives home the point of religious intolerance and its effects by reporting instances of children being removed from parents’ custody because of affiliation with the Wiccan religion. In one case, the judge went as far as to order that no one be allowed to discuss the subject of Wicca around the child, and that the child no longer be allowed to play with the children of other Wiccan parents. The judge deemed the child’s attendance of pagan celebrations to be abusive. One Wiccan woman stated she had knowledge of a covert fundamentalist organization that kidnapped children whose pagan parents were awarded custody (Cookson, 1997).
Paradoxically, many Christian fundamentalists themselves raise the cry of persecution while sparring in defense of their perceived right to proselytize around the globe. In the Statement of Conscience issued by The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is found: “Religious liberty is not a privilege to be granted or denied by an all-powerful State, but a God-given human right” (as cited in Lawton, 1996, p. 54). Apparently, many fundamentalists do not realize this argument is a double-edged sword, and that this statement applies these liberties to others as well as to themselves. Given the long-standing history of the harrowing tactics employed by Christians to compel their notions onto others, it should be no wonder to them that they are not always welcomed; yet, they continue to argue their right to assert their religion, while at the same time condemning those who do not share their views.
A pamphlet, entitled “Hi There” (no date), distributed by fundamentalists, depicts the depth of this censure of non-believers. In the illustrated pamphlet, perspiring, overweight, and foul-mouthed men colorfully discuss the discrepancies found in Christianity. The pamphlet portrays these men as uncouth slobs. It is almost comical until one takes into account the unveiled threat that emerges when the image of Death (scythe and all) appears and pushes one of the men from a tall building. The man spirals to a bloody death, and is promptly escorted to Hell by the robed, faceless figure. In Hell, the man is judged and doomed to eternal punishment in theLakeofFireas a consequence for his lack of accepting Christ as his savior and lord. The theme in this pamphlet is common to the beliefs of fundamentalists. It serves to evoke guilt in the individual who questions doctrine and it generates fear to prevent it. Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, the well-known televangelist and Moral Majority leader, stated in a televised sermon that we are all sinners not worthy of God’s grace. This statement is a strategy to induce guilt and to create a problem which requires a solution. Falwell then offers the solution of accepting Christ as savior and joining the church as a way to avoid the awful consequences of eternal misery (1998). Here, again, is the follow-up message of the fundamentalist, the inspired fear to take action to avoid the consequences of doom.
In the life of many diehard fundamentalists, the real consequences of convictions such as these are far more tangible. Father Leo Booth, an Episcopal vicar who specializes in recovery programs discusses in his book, When God Becomes a Drug, the outcome for some who incorporate negative messages about themselves into their religious beliefs:
They all share a common experience: In the name of God, they have been made to feel fear, guilt, shame and anger. In the name of God, they have emotionally, physically, or sexually abused themselves or others. In the name of God, they have brought themselves or others to the edge of financial ruin. In the name of God, they have judged and condemned themselves or others as worthless and inherently bad. (1991, p. 16)
This passage is significant when considering Christian fundamentalism and the powerlessness and lack of responsibility covertly promoted by its doctrine. The fundamentalist notion that the anguishes of life are caused by the devil or sin (which is a product of the devil) creates a scenario of powerlessness. Ellerby (1995) contends this doctrine teaches that the individuals are not responsible for the negative aspects of life, and that there is an eternal adversary always waiting to pounce at any given moment to produce misery and enslavement. What this teaching does is bind adherents to the negative pole of responsibility, depriving them of its more positive aspects—namely that they have the ability to correct a problem if they realize they assisted in its creation rather than helplessly attributing it to a devil from whom they must cringe.
Not only are fundamental Christians taught they are powerless over their conditions, but they receive the message from their leaders that it is a sin to look elsewhere for assistance or understanding to life’s problems—that the church and the Holy Bible contains all the answers they will ever need. Philosophy professor Jean Mercier states:
Fundamentalists read their own books and none other; they consider knowledge from other sources useless and dangerous since it creates only doubt and confusion. It is enough to surrender unconditionally to the letter of ‘The word of God’ and propagate it tirelessly. (1995, p. 68)
The most insidious harm done to those who subscribe to these convictions is that they do not make the connection between cause and effect in their plight—they do not realize they are powerless. They are caught in a prison of unawareness, sealed by their unwitting acceptance of ignorance. “More often than not, adherence to an orthodoxy stops all questions and closes the mind, ending the rightful exercise of human freedom” (Mercier, 1995, p. 68).
An example of this thought, that the answers to all concerns rest in a church or infallible scripture, is a personal one. In 1993, I was working as a licensed mental health technician atSt. JosephMedicalCenter. I was caring for a patient diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. For reasons of confidentiality, his name is withheld. He exhibited symptoms of exacerbated illness, including auditory hallucinations telling him he was evil and to commit suicide. This patient had been hospitalized a few months beforehand. Later, he had been dismissed in stable condition; the hallucinations had abated and his paranoia had lessened. His recent history related he had attended his family church, a fundamentalist Pentecostal church, which his parents highly encouraged him to visit (they viewed his illness as a spiritual disease). When he attended church, religious leaders there instructed him to stop taking his medications because evil spirits, not his mental illness, caused his hallucinations. They told him to pray to God and to attend church, and, if his faith proved strong enough, God would heal him. Of course, without his medication, his illness worsened; the previous symptoms had returned and he was again hospitalized. He related to me that he felt “worthless,” because he did not have the faith to be healed. This example allegorizes the fallibility of the professed infallible fundamentalist beliefs and how vulnerabilities are exploited in some of its adherents.
The belief dynamics of the fundamentalists depend upon vulnerabilities in adherents for propagation of the unhealthy ideology. In his book, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer discusses mass movements and how they achieve success. Hoffer has suggested that movements such as fundamental Christianity use a stratagem of:
Self-surrender, which is…the source of a mass movement’s unity and vigor, is a sacrifice, an act of atonement, and clearly no atonement is called for unless there is a poignant sense of sin. Here as elsewhere, the technique of a mass movement aims to infect people with a malady and then offer the movement as a cure. (1951, p. 42)
Children are especially vulnerable. From the cradle, fundamentalist parents condition their children into belief. Young children do not question adults when it comes to matters of belief versus fact; they simply, more often than not, accept statements of belief as fact, especially when that is how the information is presented. Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science atOxfordUniversity, contends that evolutionary rationales ensure children believe what they are told as a method of survival (as cited in Krasny, 1997). He further compares religion to a communicable virus and expounds upon it thusly:
There’s an additional factor in the virus theory, which is that those viruses that are good at surviving will be the ones that are more likely to survive. So, if the virus says, ‘If you don’t believe in this you will go to hell when you die,’ that’s a pretty potent threat, especially to a child. Or, if it says, ‘When you become a little bit older you will meet people who will tell you the opposite of this, and they will have remarkably plausible arguments and they’ll have lots of what they’ll call evidence on their side and you’ll be really tempted to believe it, but the more tempted you are, the more that’s just Satan getting at you.’ (Krasny, 1997, p. 61)
In the scenario painted by Dawkins, the fundamentalist beliefs that foster self-esteem deficits begin and are cemented in childhood. The effects of a negative self-identity manifest in the follower later in adulthood, when the symptoms of powerlessness are amply felt; however, the core religious belief that they are innately flawed is not recognized as the cause for the affliction.
In the adult or adolescent convert, the self-esteem deficit already exists, and the individual gravitates toward a group that fits and reinforces their world-view—that they are inadequate and in need of a god to fix them and relieve them of the liability for their unhappiness. This faulty syllogism—I am bad; God can fix me; God says I am bad; ad infinitum—traps the believer in a loop of circular reasoning from which escape requires a thorough self-analysis and an almost Herculean effort to negate the unhealthy tenets and their unpleasant side-effects. The results of all-out dependency upon faith and scripture as taught by the fundamentalist interpretation of the New Testament can include: “…indecision, procrastination, doubting, perfectionism, and obsessiveness—that is, repetitive, inflexible, personally tormenting ways of thinking…diverse forms of hostility, hatred, and violence” (Franklin & Hetherly, 1997, p. 25).
Fundamental Christianity with its defilement of self-image, unwavering demand for obedience to authority, and sole reliance on faith diminishes the individual by eating away at the heart of human dignity. It entraps its followers by obliquely instilling in them a sense of powerlessness under the guise of salvation, and it holds them fast to the fold through intimidation of the soul. It teaches that misery and sin constitute the bedrock of personality and that the only way to liberation is to accept this thought as truth and to cry out for forgiveness for having been born. It entreats its followers to abandon logic and to stop thinking altogether—the ultimate form of control. These distorted messages are delivered and accepted by those who frame their reality and their character with the tools of fear and guilt, and in each generation these messages spread like a virus, infecting the vulnerable. We can only hope for the apparent solution that one day their tools will crumble. Maybe then they will look for other tools with which to build a more positive reality—to inoculate themselves from the plague of self-abasement and intolerance of those not like them. Perhaps there is no final solution to the mysteries of our existence; the fundamentalist would learn much, if only they were free to understand this.
Booth, L. (1991). When God becomes an addiction.New York: Penguin.
Cookson, C. (1997, Autumn). Reports from the trenches: a case study of religious freedom issues faced by Wiccans practicing in the United States. Journal of Church and State, 39, 723-748.
Ellerbe, H. (1995). The dark side of Christian history.San Rafael: Morning Star Books.
Falwell, J. (1998). Faith partners.Lynchburg: INSP.
Franklin, M., & Hetherly, M. (1997, September/October). How fundamentalism affects society. The Humanist, 57, 25-28.
Galle, K. (1994, January/February). The context of our (textual) characters or who’s afraid of postmodern ethics? The Humanist, 54, 29-31.
Hi there. (no date). Chick Publications.Chino,California.
Hoffer, E. (1951). The true believer.New York: Perennial Library.
Krasny, M. (1997, November/December). Religion is a virus. Mother Jones, 22, 60-61.
Lawton, K. (1996, July 15). The suffering church. Christianity Today, [Database], v. 40,54+. Available: Wilson Select. http://jake.prod.oclc.org [1998, July 1].
Mercier, J. (1995, Spring). Truth of orthodoxy. Cross Currents, 45, 68-79.
Reber, A. (1985). The Penguin dictionary of psychology. New York: Penguin.