Sunday, March 16, 2014

"My name is Emily and I'm a Fundamentalist"

Last week I learned that the founder of a fundamentalist Christian organization that my family belonged to in the 90's resigned from his position as president, following allegations of sexual misconduct. You may be wondering, "So, what else is new?" A prominent religious leader slinking out of the lime light because of scandal shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. But it surprised me.

Depending on your exposure to the religious right over the last 50 years, you may not recognize the name Bill Gothard. He created a training program for troubled youth in the early 60's which grew into an annual 6-day seminar presented around the world and attended by millions. The "Basic Life Principles" taught at these seminars were eventually incorporated into a home school curriculum that my family used from 1989 to 1994 (we also belonged to a strong sub-culture in my community of families who all adhered to the same highly prescriptive rules. "Sheltered" doesn't really do justice in describing my childhood). Gothard, now 79 years old, (famously) never married and has continued to preach the importance of moral purity for the last 30 years

When I saw online that he was put on administrative leave and resigned a week later, I was surprised that it made the news. I didn't realize his influence is still so far-reaching or that his closest followers are still so devout. I was surprised at how many former "alumni" have formed an online community focused on recovery. While the behavior itself that Gothard is accused of isn't that shocking, what struck me was the realization of his hypocrisy ("strictest" equaled "holiest" in his organization). I concluded a long time ago that the basic principles he set as standards were impossible to live up to. Turns out he believed the same. 


*****

I've been thinking a lot lately about the impact this fundamentalist organization had on me during the five years we were involved and beyond. To be fair, I can't claim to be embroiled in the culture anymore, or even directly affected by the recent revelation of scandal. I've had no contact with any members of the program in well over a decade. I still have many of the training materials I was given while attending the seminars, stored out of sight and out of mind in my garage. I kept the literature for anthropological reasons rather than sentiment - it's documentation of a significant era in my life. But I shudder when I think about those years of involvement, not because I was a victim of abuse, but because I was so self-conscious. I didn't fit in with the tiny and exclusive group of peers I was allowed to interact with, but wanted desperately to be accepted by the older girls that I admired. All of a sudden, it seems safe to admit I felt out of place.

A lot of time has passed since I associated myself with that group. I'd like to think I've completely outgrown the cult-mentality. But remembering the rules I was expected to follow during adolescence makes me realize how deeply ingrained and unsettling the teaching really is.

Here are a few of the things I was taught.

Rock music is inherently evil. Even contemporary Christian music should be shunned because of the beat, which is bound to lead listeners to "rebellion and witchcraft." Rock and roll perpetuates a message of disrespect and influences young people subliminally to be destructive. Steer clear.


In order to avoid temptation, you must be "under authority" at all times. This concept was illustrated with an umbrella that provided "protection." As a girl, this meant I was to remain under my father's authority until I got married (live at home, follow Dad's rules, apply myself to the well-being of my family, and get Dad's approval for all decisions). This would only change if I got married at which point I'd be under my husband's authority. Independence was dangerous at best, and at worst, downright sinful.


Dating is morally risky and basically just "practice for divorce." The approved method for finding a spouse was courtship. It was up to the guy to get a dad's permission to pursue a relationship with his daughter, and only with the intention of marriage. It was expected that both families would be involved in the relationship, and any time that the prospective couple spent together was closely supervised. Sex was out of the question (literally: it wasn't discussed).


As a woman, your highest calling is to submit to a husband’s leadership and have as many babies as possible. Someday, I was told, my future husband would have the final word in all areas (financial, spiritual, sexual, etc.). Birth control was unnecessary before marriage (no need to prevent pregnancy while abstinent - see previous lesson), and it was frowned upon for married women: the more offspring the better. Based on a Psalm that compares children to “arrows in the hand of a warrior” big families were believed to be more blessed because of “a full quiver.”

Personal appearance is crucial. Clothing, poise, attitude, and expression should always demonstrate respect for God. Men must keep their hair short and shave daily - no beards allowed. Women and girls should wear dresses and skirts instead of pants (the longer the skirt, the better. Bonus points for yards of unflattering denim). Avoid "eye traps," defined as anything that draws attention away from the eyes. Hair should be worn long, to frame the face. Low-cut tops, slits in skirts, anything form-fitting, big jewelry, and too much makeup were all forbidden. A smile and "bright countenance" were a girl’s best assets. I was warned that dressing provocatively, or even attractively, could cause a man to lust. The unspoken expectation was that I better stick to frumpy outfits just to be on the safe side.

Whole grain fiber is necessary for optimal healthBecause of Jesus' teaching in the Lord's Prayer ("Give us this day our daily bread"), we regularly ground whole wheat kernels into flour and made our own bread, rolls, and pizza crust with the help of a Bosch kneading machine. Even dense, dry baked goods could increase our spiritual standing.


College is unnecessary for successful adulthood. In fact, higher education was discouraged for both young men and women. No need to go into debt just to expose your impressionable children to alternate views and "worldly teaching." Home businesses and practical experience were encouraged, such as learning a trade as an apprentice. Godly character would make me more employable than any degree ever could (assuming I wasn't raising a family by my early twenties).

To avoid personal disaster and spiritual ruin, keep a clear conscience. This meant regularly confessing ALL sin to God and never offending others without seeking restitution. Numerous examples were readily available, demonstrating that an unrepentant heart was sure to experience financial, emotional, professional and moral failure. My fear of saying or doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decision stemmed from a hypersensitive conscience. There was no such thing as a neutral option; every fork in the road would either lead me toward blessing for aligning myself with God's Will or toward destruction for missing God's best and allowing a "foothold for Satan." The stakes were high no matter how trivial the sin or the available options.

To avoid irritation and anger (dangerous emotions to be sure), "yield your rights." In other words, focus your energy on what you are responsible for instead of what you expect from someone else (God owns everything anyway). Instead of expecting things to work out the way I wanted them to, or believing I deserved any particular set of circumstances, I would resign myself to the worst-case-scenario. If anything good happened, it was seen as a serendipitous and undeserved pleasure. If I got angry, I was asked to consider what "right" I hadn't yielded to God.

When praying, use the words “hedge of thorns” or “hedge of protection.” When I was fearful or anxious, I was taught to ask God to protect my loved ones (and myself) by surrounding them with an impenetrable boundary of sticker bushes, which would surely repel Satan. The exact choice of words was important.
*****

Reviewing this list of beliefs evokes two reactions in me. 1) Amusement. “Oh, how na├»ve we were. The things we got hung up on are so silly in retrospect. If only life were so formulaic." 2) Fear. “Is this too disrespectful? Is my sarcasm crossing a line?" I feel like my twelve year old self again, worried I'm missing some vague ideal due to misguided application. Good intentions were never good enough to tip the scale from sin to obedience. My hesitancy to publish this blog post illustrates to me how ingrained my self-doubt is. 

Reviewing these "absolute truths" I believed as a very young person gives me clarity about myself. No wonder I still struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and trust. I was carefully trained to be suspicious of everything outside my small bubble of approved influence. I was groomed to be dependent. The idea that I was ill-equipped to make decisions for myself was reinforced over and over again. The fear of consequences for disobeying my parents or God was paralyzing as a kid. My conclusion was that I was imperfect and incapable so I zeroed-in on ways I could out-perform my flaws or divert attention to someone else. 

I’m a people-pleaser, but I come by it honestly. Who wouldn't be, with all those rules?


*****

Questions I intend to answer in future posts:

"Your parents sound like jerks! Didn't they love you?"

"How did your family get suckered into this craziness? Were you all raving lunatics?"

"Do you hate God and all Christians?"

"How did you leave a cult?"

"What other fundie rules have you broken?"

"Did you have any friends as a kid?"

"Do you have any good whole-wheat bread recipes?"

6 comments:

  1. Oh Emily! I was just writing about this yesterday--that stupid umbrella of authority--how when I went off to college I was supposed to find an authority (i.e. man of god) to place myself under who would substitute for my father . . . I went to one of this guy's seminars right before I started at Western in 1981 and I STILL think about what he said and how I internalized it so.

    I'm so glad you wrote this. Sometimes i wonder if I was crazy, but then I read things like this and know that I wasn't the crazy one.

    xo
    Pam

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  2. Thanks, Emily. This is therapeutic for me, too.

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  3. Thank you, Emily! Well said! Our adult kids are in total agreement with you. So sorry we didn't have a brain all those years~~~

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  4. Thanks Emily. You're so brave and honest. xoxo

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  5. Emily, what a poignant post. I can relate to so much of what you've written. I found you on Cami and Susan's blog and left a comment there. I hope you're doing well. I see you're a cat person so I like you. :)

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  6. This post made me laugh with recognition. My family wasn't as strict as yours, but very similar in ways. AND they loved me and thought they were doing what was best for me! I can tell we could have very long conversations.

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