A while back, Mike Pence publicly referenced that he abides by the Billy Graham Rule, which is to never eat a meal alone with any woman who is not his wife. I wrote about the fiasco and said this about fundamentalists,
“…what frustrates me most about the BG rule used by grown ups is that living by rules is still the framework that dictates ethical living. I often feel as if evangelical adults do not move past the developmental phase of differentiating.”
Scaffolding is an educational term that can be used to apply to parenting. It basically means providing a structure to help children function as they are developing their capabilities. But the purpose of scaffolding is to be dismantled once the child reaches maturity and no longer needs the prop. I think of rules functioning as scaffolding. When our children are developing cognitive and intuitive skills to make wise discernment choices for their own lives, we can provide some rules to help them—to keep them safe from devastating consequences and give guidance for their own maturity. But the rules should fall away and autonomy extended so our children learn to independently forge their own paths. In this and other ways, I find that fundamentalists never grow up. They never acquire the skills necessary for mature, adult-appropriate behaviors. These immaturities result in dysfunctional relationship patterns which they then pass on to their children, causing harm to themselves, the children, and to the world.
I do think the author paints with a rather broad brush, supporting points with anecdotes and some argumentation rather than research and supporting facts. But my experience growing up in Fundyland doesn’t contradict the author’s applications. And that opening section (above) nails it.
Fundamentalism (and legalism in general) stunts the growth of people’s faculties to reason and to discern. That’s not horrific when somebody is 6 or 14, but it gets uglier and more dysfunctional as the person grows into adulthood without the coping skills needed to function in the world as it is.
It’s also worth noting that the downsides of Fundamentalist legalism are alive and well within Evangelicalism too. Reading Cindy’s post, I found myself nodding along as the PCA provided many examples of her points. Despite the irony of offering the same broad-brush statements supported by anecdotal evidence, here I go….
- Dependence on authority – this is the very backbone of the PCA’s leadership structures. Rule by a group of elders is far, far better than the one man dictatorship of the IFB churches I grew up around, but that doesn’t mean the leadership team exhibits much diversity in the PCA – it’s white, male, solidly middle class (or higher), and WASPy. Many subgroups within the PCA celebrate a view of masculinity that’s very one-sided: husband, gun-toting hunter, manly-man drinking and pipe-smoking, virile father of many children. I certainly heard plenty of PCA parents teaching their kids that obedience means “obey me right away without delay.” If you start listening to the subtexts of the PCA conversations about parenting and Christian living, you hear a lot of the same legalism that I left Fundamentalism to escape. Squashing questions, dissent, or challenge delays those problems till later, when they’re much bigger in a kid’s mind.
- Lack of emotional boundaries – a lot of nouthetic counseling and weird crap has crept into conservative Evangelicalism. Many PCA folks are just as resistant to the idea of eschewing spanking as the average Southern Baptist. Telling people they can pray away their depression or follow a 10-step Scripture program to restore their marriage is unhealthy and unrealistic. I saw a lot of bad boundaries in my sojourn through the PCA.
- Naivete about the world – while Reformed teaching is a better basis for living than crackpot dispensational pre-millennialism, it can easily fall prey to a creeping fear that generates just as many rules as Bob Jones had in its rule book when I was there. Fear of sex. Fear of “weird” music. Fear of pop culture. Fear of losing power within the American political system. Fear of non-white cultures when they’re expressed outside of White boundaries. And (most damning of all, IMO) a simplistic, knee-jerk-Republican view of economic systems, injustice, and systemic oppression. The denomination would rather bicker over whether it should pass a code of conduct to prevent sexual abuse in its churches or acknowledge its racist founding in the civil-rights-era South. Even better is the theological pin-dancing over minutiae while blindly wondering why more Black people never bother to visit. Or why almost no one who’s poor and not-college-educated bothers to attend a second time.
- Incomplete sexual education – ever try to convince a Christian school community that someone besides the parents might should teach some sex ed to kids of any age? It’s a blast of a discussion, let me tell ya. Purity culture is dangerous, no matter how you package it. If you worship virginity, you’re going to break the faith of a lot of kids once they go off to a party in high school or college, get shitfaced drunk, and wake up in bed with a guy they barely remember. That’s a hell of an introduction to sexuality, but it’s not uncommon for kids whose primary sex education has been simply “don’t do it” and a video on the basics of their anatomy. And girls bear the brunt of the shame once it happens.
- Anti-intellectualism – the PCA prides itself on its high standards of education for ministers, demanding post-graduate education that’s expensive and exclusive. So we could talk about the inherent racism expressed in the way most conservative Presbyterians choose to fight anti-intellectualism. But I think it’s important to note how few adults in any church are willing to confront their own doubts or assumptions. I think that’s why doubting people struggle so much in the PCA, where intellectual argumentation forms the core of faith. James KA Smith has done a good job pushing back against this, asserting that our loves run deeper than our beliefs or worldview. I’m surprised an angry mob of Presbyterians haven’t burned down his house yet.
- Lack of healthy conflict resolution – This may have as much to do with upbringing as denomination, honestly. But there is a lot of weirdness in relationships within conservative religion. If you’re a woman working for a man, you’re always trying to suss out the boundaries of authority and appropriate behavior. The politeness codes and morality codes are also unwritten yet brutal in their consequences if you break them. The few times I’ve worked for non-religious organizations (as I am now), I’ve seen far less organizational dysfunction. People “out in the world” seem to have a better grasp on how to interact with their fellow humans.
I fully admit that my examples hold no more weight than curiosity or fodder for discussion or disagreement. But my central thesis is this: conservative Presbyterianism suffers from a deep-set legalism that’s just as insidious and damaging as what they decry among Fundamentalists. Our hearts crave the surety and simplicity of a rulebook rather than a relationship with the Creator.
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