the stainless steel tube of fundamentalism

The end of the siege. Waco, Texas, February 28, 1993.

As a former fundamentalist, I’d like to comment on another aspect of the recent Jim Wallace episode.

It’s probably perplexing to many that Wallace seemed unable to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his remark, indeed, that he seemed blind to all but the attack of his detractors on himself and, in his view, everything he holds dear.  This article by Bill Muehlenberg is similar in tone. But Muehlenberg ups the ante by using the truly disgusting term ‘gaystapo’ to describe what he identifies as one of ‘the usual suspects’: the ‘homosexual lobby’ and their ‘stalinist agenda’.

Because of my fundamentalist experience, this sort of language is uncomfortably familiar. Indeed both of these men are communicating precisely the way I would expect, although I imagine their pigheadedness must be incredibly frustrating for those who have never sat on that side of the fence. So let me try and cast a little light on it from an ex-fundy perspective. But be warned, what I am about to say may offend both Christians and perhaps to some atheists (thus pretty well knocking out all my friends in one fell swoop). I apologise for that in advance.

Being a fundamentalist is like living inside a stainless-steel tunnel. Truths that may seem perfectly obvious to other people just bounce right off without leaving a mark. Fundamentalists simply don’t see stuff they don’t already agree with. By and large they peer at the world through the very narrow hole at the end of their gun-barrel hidey hole and need to expend very little energy rejecting ideas that are contrary to their firmly-held views. These views are so staunchly inflexible because they are based on an unchanging document which they take to be the Word of God.

Try and see it from their perspective: The Book explains how Christians should understand the world. It tells them about God, about man, about heaven and hell, how to think and feel and act about pretty well everything. Many Christians hold an absolute belief that the words in the Book literally are directions straight from the God they love and serve. If the book says that all homosexuals will suffer hellfire, or that women are to live subordinate to men, who are they to argue? In fact, to do so would be unthinkable. It’s only logical: If God is real, and that really is his book, then the only sensible course is to obey whatever it says, to learn to think as God apparently thinks. He is God and therefore the one who gets to make the rules after all.

Although I appreciate that may sound silly to someone who has never thought that way, my purpose is not to ridicule those ideas or to suggest that people who hold ones which differ from mine are stupid – I know that is not the case. It is simply to say: Those ideas are beliefs. We all have them. And nobody is going to change our beliefs by shouting us. In fact, in the case of fundamentalists, it tends to have to opposite effect: It can make them go all Branch Davidian on you. Looking out of that stainless steel tube as people scream obscenities and throw poop at things that you know for sure are precious to God just makes you surer that moving into you and your kids into a bullet-proof metal abode was a good plan. After all, the Book says that if you are getting it right, ‘the world will hate you‘. Remember Waco? Believing they were under attack just made those poor cult members super-glad they had had the foresight to collect an arsenal, and more determined than ever to defend themselves and their children come what may. Nobody said, ‘Oops, yep, you were right. We’ve been pretty silly about all this. Coming out now. Thanks.’

I understand completely why people find men like Wallace and Muehlenberg and everything they stand for so deeply offensive. And I fully appreciate that offence provokes a deep rage that often finds form in a spluttering, obscenity-peppered response. I’ve indulged in more than one splutter myself in the past few days. As a catharsis, I admit its efficacy; and if you feel you need to do it, far be it from me to suggest you stop. But I do want to point out that screaming at men who have built such a sturdy wall around themselves will achieve virtually nothing…but make them more likely to repeat their offensive actions – and worse – at a later date.

And, I imagine, each time they find themselves the victims of twitter sprays, Wallace and friends rub their hands together with glee: It’s a PR free kick: they know they are likely to gain at least few new followers who sympathise with them in their sad persecution. This is why Wallace would focus on the attack and not his comments during his Sunrise appearance: He is ignoring us. He knows who he’s trying to reach and what they want to hear. There are a lot of disenfranchised Australians who agree with these fundamentalist commentators. Shouting abuse at Wallace will probably effectively stop most of those people from openly standing up and voicing their views for fear of becoming a target for attack – but it won’t alter their beliefs. The more Wallace is attacked, the more support I believe he is likely to gain.

I’m not suggesting that views such as Wallace voiced on Anzac Day should not be challenged. Of course they must. I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out of their way to be polite. Wallace and Muehlenberg’s views stink and that needs to be said. My object is not to chastise those who were understandably disgusted at Wallace’s tweet and vented their rage. But I believe it’s worth understanding what the likely effect of hurling abuse will be on Australia’s fundamentalists and the even more numerous moderate Christians: The leaders will hunker down, toughen up and become more hateful in their communications; the followers will quietly grow in number and resolve.

And we shouldn’t think we’ve seen any more than the tip of the iceberg of Wallace and Muehlenberg’s frothing zeal. Their views are almost indistinguishable from those of Westboro Baptist Church and many Australian Christians feel a strong connection to some other pretty scary US-based zealots as well. I suspect the ugliness has not anything like peaked.

My point is, you aren’t going to reach someone who lives in a bullet-proof cave no matter what you say. My advice is to forget about trying. If those fundamentalists are ever going to change their beliefs, it will not be because someone abused them into it. However, there are a lot of Australians who are sitting in the middle of issues such same-sex marriage who will listen and so may be influenced. Frankly, I think they find it difficult to sympathise with the more extreme communications from both camps. Those who want to influence this large, silent public might like to consider that undecided moderates are watching, and beginning to form their own beliefs.

I, at least, think that’s worth considering.



8 thoughts on “the stainless steel tube of fundamentalism

  1. You make some excellent points, Jane, and who can disagree with someone with such an intimate knowledge of the mindsets of those we oppose?

    I do agree that throwing abuse at the likes of Wallace and Muehlenberg simply gives them ammunition. We simply ‘prove’ that those who oppose them are coarse, immoral riff-raff.

    But, here is where, perhaps, we diverge in our views. My own non-abusive, but nevertheless assertive attacks on the views expressed by Wallace and Muehlenberg are never made with the intent of changing their minds. It never occurs to me that might be possible. Instead, my aim is two-fold:

    First, I live by the saying, “For evil to flourish it only requires good men to do nothing.” Prejudice, hate, bigotry and inequality must always be opposed. (And I’m not for one moment suggesting you disagree with this!).

    Second, if attacking high-profile fundamentalists just makes them mad and leads them to say even more outrageous things, this is a win for us. Why? Because while they might be picking up recruits at one end, those who are not quite so extreme will be dropping off at the other end. But, more importantly, extreme, unguarded remarks like those expressed by Wallace on ANZAC day reflect very, very badly on the government which panders to his organisation. And the more embarrassing Wallace is to the government and to more liberal churches, the better for us (and all Australians).

    In short, the aim is not to get Wallace or Muehlenberg or Nalliah, Pell or any of the other offensively, bigoted religious extremists to change their theological beliefs. The aim is to expose them to public scrutiny. Because while there certainly are many who will not find their views offensive, most Australians – even most Australian Christians – would be shocked if they knew what the ACL and the Australian Family Association *really* think and what their true aspirations are.

    And we are succeeding. Look what Wallace did in an unguarded moment on ANZAC day and look at the outrage it stirred up – not just from atheists, but from Christians and a number of Christian leaders. Even more telling were the number of churches that Wallace supposedly represents who stayed absolutely silent – leaving him isolated and hung out to dry.

    In the end, it won’t be us who destroys the likes of Wallace and Muehlenberg. They will do it themselves, because they are so out of touch they simply don’t understand how offensive their views are. We can but give them an occasional prod – much like stirring up a beehive to show how very dangerous bees can be. Then we point to that nasty, biting, dangerous swarm of hate-buzzing insects and say to the government and the liberal clergy – see? This is what you have aligned yourself with. This is the standard on which you will be judged.

    • jane douglas says:

      By all means continue, Gladly. You are right, Wallace may already have had his gun aimed at his foot, but he was provoked to pull the trigger 🙂 And it’s completely appropriate to make a big noise when there are big issues at stake. I by no means intended to discourage you having your say. I just thought it worth mentioning that hard-core fundies simply can’t hear what they don’t already believe. And that the moderates are a huge public still to be won.

      Having children enter their teen years was what first began to chip away at my armour. My beautiful oldest son challenged me to justify my political views. There more thought I gave those views, the more I realised I’d not given them much thought. And, as it happened, this coincided with the 2001 US presidential election. I got a good look at US fundamentalist conservatism and realised I didn’t fit in there *at all*. So I had to begin to think about where I did fit. It was more or less an avalanche of realisations from that point.

      While I feel really angry at the leaders of fundamentalism for participating in deluding others, I feel a tremendous compassion for those deluded. While I admit there are problems in our psyches that make us susceptible to cults, having been in I know that most fundies are not stupid, or crazy, or deliberately trying to f*ck up their kids. In fact, the opposite is generally true. (I’ll be writing on the link between cult membership and co-dependance sometime soon.)

      The reason I started All the Way Out (which seems to have spilled over here) was as a space where fundies coming out could feel they could talk about issues related to their past lives without being laughed at. I realise is really difficult for someone who hasn’t been in a cult to fathom the appeal. Even from where I stand now, the fact that it ever got a hold on me is perplexing.

      I think there’s tremendous value in what you and others are doing in challenging the madness of fundamentalism in the public realm. I’m glad there’s a place for all our voices…and that total agreement is not a requisite for friendship 🙂

      • jane douglas says:

        Actually, you know what? I’ve re-read my post and I did really sound like I was saying you are doing more harm than good by attacking Wallace et al. I can see what I meant at the time of writing, but I tend to think that the benefits of persisting in calling his shit what it is outweigh any drawbacks.

  2. Bruce Llama says:

    Nice blog – I see you are a former fundamentalist that seems to have changed. So, it is possible for people to change.

    I like a good spray, I acknowledge and understand that it’s like water off a ducks back, but I still like to do it!

    • jane douglas says:

      We can and we do.

      In fact, there is a tidal wave of women leaving fundamentalism both here and in the US. Not so many men…but they get a pretty good deal on the other side so perhaps that’s not surprising.

  3. It is true that when challenged on their narrow-minded views, fundamentalists will interpret such “persecution” as evidence that they truly know the mind of God and are righteously doing His work.

    It is also true that it’s possible for fundamentalists to change (as evidenced by Jane ~ and me too!) ~ often those who are steadfastly convinced and seemingly immovable are the very ones who experience the most spectacular collapse of their entire “biblical worldview.”

    A few more notorious fundamentalists who changed: Frank Schaeffer (son of Christian apologist, Frances Schaeffer), Nate Phelps (son of WBC fanatic, Fred Phelps), Bishop John Shelby Spong, Sue Kidd Monk (Dance of the Dissident Daughter), … I know there are others whom I am not thinking of …

    For those who have an opportunity to engage with a fundamentalist and want to make an honest attempt to break through the “stainless steel tube” which channels their every thought to the narrow confines of “biblical orthodoxy” ~ try these strategies:

    1) Ask questions. Don’t assume that you know what fundamentalists believe and why.

    There are two categories of fundy believers: those who’ve jumped on the bible-believing bandwagon as part of their salvation experience without really thinking through the whole fundamentalist paradigm at all, and those who have carefully thought through every minute detail of their belief system.

    By asking questions such as, “Please explain to me what you mean when you say that the bible is the Word of God?” or “Can you tell me the process by which you understand God’s will?” ~ you give the fundies in the first category a chance to start thinking about what they believe, and those in the second category will (as an automatic response of their thoughtful nature) quickly anticipate what objections you might have to their reasoning ~ and in the process, find the holes in their logic themselves ~ they may not admit it right away ~ but they’ll keep thinking about the problems until they either figure a way to justify and rationalize it or (and this does happen!) they have to admit to themselves that their argument does not hold up under careful scrutiny.

    2) Translate their thought-stopping language.

    It’s not necessary to be judgmental, snarky or condescending here. When a fundy uses “Christianese” ~ simply ask them what that means and then restate their response using ordinary language.

    For example: When a fundy says, We love the sinner but hate the sin ~ ask for specific examples ~ what does loving the sinner but hating his sin look like in a real-life situation? After listening to the fundamentalist’s response, restate it this way: You are talking about making a distinction between what a person does and who/what that person is.

    No need to be malicious or argumentative in your translation ~ this is just another simple way to get a fundy’s thought processes going again.

    3) Use real-life examples to demonstrate that people and situations are often complicated and cannot always be addressed in black & white terms.

    It is only necessary to make a single connection for the fundamentalist to the humanity of those outside their extremely limited point of reference to plant major doubts as to their absolutist idealism.

    For me ~ it was a nun who came to my bedside after the delivery of my 3rd child. While she read a simple prayer from her prayer book for my health and safety, I was praying silently to God, “Lord, are you really going to send this gentle, kind old woman to Hell because she believes what the Catholic church taught her about who You are and what You require?” From that point on ~ even though I remained a fundamentalist Christian ~ deep down in my heart, I was a universalist.

    4) Make it personal.

    Fundamentalists are human ~ and as Brian McClaren states, we are all people in a predicament ~ only fundies can’t admit their personal predicaments because it’s a bad witness. So they smile and they tell you they’re okay and everything’s good.

    But we know better.

    Be the sort of compassionate, nonjudgemental person that the fundy can relax and be real with. If a fundamentalist were to admit her struggles to her “like-minded” circle of friends, the whole company would have to engage in a “the Lord works all things for good” dialogue of faith, trust and obedience ~ most likely, she’ll stick with the smile and skip the tiring ritual.

    If you are honest ~ without the need to justify or rationalize or pretend ~ it will be a huge relief and a nearly-impossible-to-resist opportunity for a fundy to open up and be real too. If she can admit to you that sometimes she feels like sassing her husband ~ and you don’t make her feel like she ought to be ashamed for even thinking such thoughts ~ it won’t be long before she’ll tell you things you would never believe would enter a fundy head!!

    Don’t beat her up with her imperfections ~ her own heart and mind are already doing plenty of that ~ not to mention her fundamentalist friends who are her only “support system.”

    Didn’t mean to type so much here ~ Jane ~ 😛 Loved your post ~ and it got me thinking … What a relief to be finally out of the fundy cave ~ free to think outside the box of the “biblical worldview.”

  4. […] here a comment left on this post about fundamentalism by Vyckie D. Garrison. Thanks, […]

  5. website says:

    Have you considered adding a few social bookmarking links to these sites. At least for facebook.

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