I just had yet another interaction with an angry, bitter ex-evangelical. In this case, telling those of us who endeavor to remain followers of Christ we are stupid and wrong. And, look, I get it. You know I’ve written extensively about my doubts about this entire faith thing, my lack of faith, my annoyance at smugly certain cultures of faith. Also, I’ve studied history. And I continue to have eyes. Christianity can be…not great.
But, dude. You do realize that you…haven’t actually changed? You’re still a fundamentalist. Congrats, you are what you hate.
That goes for all the political lefties who can’t tolerate a reasonable discussion over issues, who freak out over anyone not in lock-step with their entire agenda, who lambast people expressing moral discomfort with abortion as being on par with those who would turn The Handmaid’s Tale into reality.
Fundamentalists are those who distill complexity and nuance into strident dogma. They are threatened by difference. They eschew critical thought. They aren’t curious or open to new information. They crave certainty above all else. They are obliviously self-righteous. Always, undoubtedly right, about everything. Often defensively so. If you’re right, I can’t be, at least not in the simplistic world I’ve created. So you must be wrong. I must prove that you are at any cost.
And to be honest, I can be a fundamentalist. We all can. I have been one on this blog. Those are not my better moments. But they do feel so good in the moment. The temptation is irresistible.
And to be clear, I do think there is right and wrong. While morality is often more diffuse than we make it, there are bright red lines. When people are abused, harmed, exploited, and mistreated, that is wrong, and we must never fail to call it out, and when we are in systems where people say they are harmed, we must never fail to listen and learn and to try to do better.
But, there are a couple of truths that perennial fundamentalists cannot seem to grasp, whether they are religious or secular, conservative or progressive, male or female, whoever they are.
The first is:
Just because my experience is different from yours does not make mine invalid.
And the second is:
There is a difference between systems and individuals.
My husband and I have had basically the exact same fight exactly 539,234 times. OK, maybe not that many, but on the regular for 20 years. It’s usually some variation of a gender war, but basically it involves us having two very different experiences in the world and feeling personally threatened or accused by the other person’s.
Last week’s was over whether or not Ivy League culture is snobby. He went to two Ivy League schools, and he and his friends are not snobs, therefore, those spaces are not snobby in his estimation. I went to…not Ivy League schools. Particularly when I first knew my husband, I have often felt an outsider and at times have felt directly denigrated in Ivy League spaces. To me, yes, the Ivy League can be elitist and snobby. He got angry because he felt I discounted his experience and was calling him and people like him snobs. I dug in further because I felt he discounted my experience and became even more expansive and adamant in declaring snobbery. I all but called him a snob.
So who was right?
Both of us. Also neither of us.
It is entirely possible for him to have had a predominantly warm, un-snobby experience in Ivy League culture (and he’s right, he and his friends aren’t snobs) WHILE AT THE SAME ACTUAL TIME I have had some negative experiences there. And it’s definitely possible for each of us to comprehend how it might feel differently as an insider vs. an outsider.
What if we had allowed each other our disparate experiences? What if, when I expressed my feelings of exclusion, instead of getting defensive, he had simply said, “I am sorry you felt that way, I can understand it might be hard being an outsider in those contexts,” and I could have said, “I am glad you have never felt that way. I can understand what a positive experience it was for you to go to those amazing schools.” Instead of traumatizing our nearby daughter (who actually wasn’t traumatized but rather found some ghoulish delight in the whole thing), we might have ended up in a nuanced discussion in which I eventually could admit that, yes, I’ve met a lot of really nice people through his networks, and yes, my perception is tinged with my own insecurity and jealousy. And he might have admitted that, yes, as a young hick from Arkansas, he sometimes felt excluded in the Ivy League, too, and, yes, there are a lot of hurtful assumptions people in that world make about people not in that world and a lot of privilege given to those in that world.
Separately/on other issues, we might also admit that:
His workload is oppressive AND it is hard (in a different way) being the household manager.
Doing the cooking is a lot of thankless work AND doing the dishes is a lot of thankless work.
It often feels scary and oppressive to be a woman AND it often feels like you’re always blamed as a man.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and PMS are painful and difficult AND men also have problems and feel pain and don’t all suck.
Getting beyond me and my husband:
Black Americans frequently experience discrimination AND White Americans don’t often witness it.
You have had a happy, healthy experience in white evangelical culture AND I have had a negative one.
Christianity has been a source of deep meaning for him AND Buddhism has been a source of deep meaning for her.
She has always felt she is a woman even though she was born with a male body AND you, and the majority of people, have always felt at home in the body you were born with.
I believe in God without definitive proof AND you believe there is no God without definitive proof.
I think the Oklahoma Sooners are the best football team AND you…are just wrong. Yeah, that one doesn’t work, actually. Sorry, I am a Football Fundamentalist.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. All of these example demonstrate how it’s both important and possible allow others to have a different experience from you and to believe and empathize with them in their experience without denying your own.
Some of these examples also demonstrate my second point, which is the importance of distinguishing between systems/cultures and individuals. I think we’re all familiar with how conservatives fail to do this when it comes to race. Their logic goes–I am not personally racist/I don’t know any racists/I haven’t seen racism personally, so racism doesn’t exist and no further action is needed on that front. In fact, Black Americans often experience even overt racism, there are vestiges of racism in many areas of our society and culture as a result of hundreds of years of discrimination, and White culture often excludes or minimizes Black experience without realizing it. Another example–church cultures that consider abuse within their spaces as examples of “a few bad apples” vs something much more fundamental to how women are treated and viewed and how accountability is instituted.
But people of all stripes make the fundamentalist error of conflating people and systems. While most people’s reaction to the Queen’s death has been respectful of what she meant to Britons and to her family, I’ve also seen a lot of vitriol based on the monarchy’s history of colonialism and oppression. I understand that, history doesn’t lie. But you can discuss the merits and ample sins of the monarchy, while honoring, or at least not trashing, the person of the Queen. The Queen was born into this system, a system the British people have opted to continue, an institution which by definition is intended as a conservative one. The Queen’s job was to serve her country as a symbol of stability, not to lead a revolution. By all accounts, she did that with grace and unselfishness. She also did inch things forward in her very limited capacity. She reached out to former colonies with respect (her dance with Kwame Nkrumah in 1961 was highly controversial). She led the Commonwealth’s stance against apartheid, against her own Prime Minister. Of course, the Queen wasn’t personally perfect either, but none of us are. You can criticize the monarchy and even acknowledge its impact on her own behavior while also respecting what she meant to her country and her people and the example of public service she set.
Another of my personal pet peeves as a historian is the liberal tendency to trash historical figures for not living up to current moral standards. While some figures’ behavior was awful even by their own day’s sensibilities (Robert E. Lee wasn’t just a slaveholder, he was a traitor), others require more nuance. I know people who will give Abraham Lincoln no credit, for instance, because he was slow to abolitionism and at some point supported the colonization movement. Not great, but pragmatism was a conscious strategy Lincoln pursued to hold the country together, and he eventually changed his views on both points. I suppose his 21st century critics think that they could have done so much better. I find that supremely arrogant, and yes, fundamentalist.
In sum, the failure to analyze both systems and individuals oversimplifies morality. So does the failure to believe others’ experience. Both are hallmarks of fundamentalism, of which we can all be guilty at times, but which rules some cultures and hearts. We should always strive for better.