Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, by James M. Ault Jr.
This is the second of two posts taking off from this fascinating book. Part one is here.
James Ault has provided a fascinating account of his time among the people of Shawmut River church. Readers get an inside look at some warm and decent human beings we'll never know. But his book contains lots of hints aspects of this fundamentalist culture that contain dangers for individuals and our society. In this post I'll explore two of these. I am not chastising James Ault for failing to write the book I might have written. His book is superb on its own terms -- but there is more to these stories....
Homosexuality. Ault is a little mystified by why, among all the sins these folks find enumerated in the Bible, homosexuality carries a particular repulsive charge. He pushed pretty hard on the question.
Actually, this Christian lesbian doesn't find the question of why these folks find homosexuality so hard to stomach nearly as mysterious as Ault seems to. Some of it is "the ick factor" -- that visceral repulsion some heterosexuals, mostly men, feel at the idea of gay sex. But more importantly, the whole fundamentalist edifice is built around defending family ties to the exclusion of any other forms of human networking. In my previous post, I tried to pass on Ault's terrific exposition of how this religious practice healed and deepened otherwise dead end marriages. But the corollary is that, in the homosocial world these folks live in, where gender roles are absolutes and men and women believed to be intrinsically unlike, once the window opened a crack to let in the possibility of same sex partnerships, might people be tempted to give up on marriage altogether? Ault suspects this is the root of their concern.
Note the reference to "achieving adulthood." The fact that fundamentalists have children and that some 5 to 10 percent of those children will feel themselves to be gay is why I can't treat these nice people as if their belief system was harmless. Think of growing up in a household that so thoroughly taught you that your very (hormone-filled) being was evil. In the past, when gays were resolutely locked in the closet, the gay-inclined children of fundamentalists may have predominately "passed" as somewhat unhappy straights. But in contemporary society where the possibility of being gay is available if still difficult and dangerous, being young, gay and fundie must create a terrible conflict. No wonder gay teens are disproportionately represented among youth suicides. Children of fundamentalists live in a world where family ties are pretty much the only reality, yet they feel themselves cast into outer darkness -- and they have to fear that their parents believe they'll never meet in heaven because of their sin of homosexuality. Terrance at Republic of T explains what this can be lead to:
Go read the whole post. You won't be sorry, though you may cry. Fundamentalism is not victimless.
Science. Or rather, fundamentalists' cultivated rejection of scientific method. The Shawmut River church ran a "Christian Academy" where their children were partially insulated from contamination by the secular culture. Sharon Valenti, the pastor's wife, explained its "principle approach" to Christian education:
Ault points out that it would be unfairly judgmental to say the young people graduating from this school got a uniquely poor education. Their parents had largely graduated from the local public schools only marginally literate. Shawmut River's children probably learned as much. But they and their parents were taught to actively distrust free inquiry and the scientific method that underlies contemporary material achievements. Ault summarizes the problem posed by science within the fundamentalist worldview:
Many contemporary believers choose to put aside these potential contradictions between faith and science, somehow interweaving multiple paradigms concurrently. But fundamentalists want their absolutes. And consequently, they become downright enthusiasts for various forms of pseudo-science that might let them claim "science" without adopting its methods and values. The obvious one is "intelligent design" as a critique of evolution. But they grab on to many apparent Biblical proofs and insist they've trumped those academics who look down on them as ignorant. Ault presents this example:
Valenti is probably not much more given to magical thinking that the average U.S. adult, but "educating" young people in this sort of thinking is not harmless. If they hang on to these kinds of interpretations of how the world works, they are pretty sure to remain stuck in their parents' lower class status, barred from serious higher education and from large sectors of the technological economy.
I am reminded of the charge routinely made to a jury that they are not required "to prove doubt to scientific certainty" -- would the Shawmut River folks have any idea how to interpret that?
Fundamentalism's repudiation of scientific thinking is not victimless; it locks its adherents out of full participation in their society. Maybe they don't want to be fully inside, but their sheer numbers mean they have influence on the rest of us. Most fundamentalists, as Ault would certainly remind us, are good people simply trying to find a way to preserve the only refuge they know, their blood families. But their credulity in the face of evidence makes them all too easy marks for manipulative authoritarians who speak the right language and push the right emotional buttons. The true authoritarians among us, the Dobsons, the Robertsons, even the Cheneys, lead fundamentalists down paths that create a multitude of victims.