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How the fundamentals of Christian Fundamentalism led me out

Unsplash/Edwin Andrade
Unsplash/Edwin Andrade

I grew up mired in legalism, adjacent to Christian Fundamentalism. I was part of “Generation Joshua” spearheaded by HSLDA. I vividly recall an evening of teaching about sex (just for the girls!) that consisted mostly of telling us that if we had premarital sex, we’d be like an already-licked Tootsie Pop. The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors qualified the counselors at my church.

I don’t remember a time before I was interested in politics, and I began my political activism at 14 by attending the Tax Day TEA Party at my state’s capitol building in April 2009. I believed that candidates and public officials who shouted their values the loudest were most effective. I believed that Christian Democrats were lying to themselves or to everyone else and that “real” Christians believed in a young-earth, literal seven-day Creation. I was complementarian. I was “raised for courtship” and read every book written on the topic. I thought exclusively in black and white.

I’m now almost 30 and lead the political program for a national non-profit that promotes loving your political enemies (and I don’t mean by calling them evil) and practices perspective-sharing without the expectation of persuasion. I train public officials, candidates, and their staff members to listen to understand and we hope that people find their identities in a commitment to a kind of civic religion, where the highest calling is to love your fellow American, created equally by God with the same unalienable rights as you and me.

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I’m still Christian and politically conservative, but I’m also pragmatic and now know that pride is not correlated with actual influence. I fled the chains of fundamentalist Christianity before I was 20.

What changed? More importantly: What didn’t?

The encouragement of reason and finding personal security of identity in Christ.

Fundamentalism itself gave me the keys to walk away without losing Jesus. Even as a child, the Westminster Catechism was drilled into my head. AWANA (I received my Citation Award!) and regular Bible study further contributed to Scripture hidden deep in my heart and mind. If I believed that the “chief end of man is to glorify God,” and that God is truth (John 14:6), and we discover truth through the application of reason, then where fundamentalism or legalism conflicts with consistent reason, I figured that it must be false. If it was false, it must not be required for godliness. The combination of faith in those things I could not see and the application of reason to everything else kept me chasing Jesus even as I fled the controlling burdens of legalism and abusive parents.

When I was a child, Christianity provided me with a stable identity through every phase of adolescence — it didn’t matter what friends thought of me because I knew that God loved me. When my home life was chaotic and my parents abusive, my sense of self remained stable and secure because it was founded in Christ, not my parents. Fundamentalism taught me my identity as a Christian was found in Christ, after all, not my family, church, or friends. As I became an adult, my identity as a Christian and my purpose of glorifying God gave me the confidence and discernment to consider the difference between permissible and beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12); between the core truths described in the Nicene Creed and the many legalistic demands I’d been taught to follow.

Today, finding my identity in Christ and reasoning like Paul in Acts 17 keeps me from making politics my purpose and party, issue, or label affiliation my core identity. Even when my pleas for help were overlooked, when friends betrayed my trust, and when my future felt uncontrollably bleak, the very principles that conservative fundamentalism drilled into my head kept me committed to fleeing its abuse without running headlong into progressive fundamentalism.

Whether politically conservative or progressive, legalistic fundamentalism demands people’s souls. It insists on perfect adherence to imperfect laws and selectively enforces the law on its enemies. It offers no grace to sinners, just punishment it calls accountability.

On the other hand, the pursuit of God should lead to curiosity and openness, more devotion to knowing truth than being right, and following truth over man-made rules. The Christian belief that human dignity and natural rights are granted by God and shared with every other person on earth keeps me out of echo chambers and reminds me that dehumanizing people that God created and loves is wrong. With my identity safely hidden in Christ, pursuing Him and admitting when I’m wrong, even when it’s unpopular with legalists who share my political party, race, or sex is so much easier, and even when other Christians and denominations fall short.

Christian fundamentalism trained me in the way I should go. I never imagined that when I was old, its training would cause me to depart from it. This fundamental conflict within fundamentalist teaching handed me the keys and the courage to leave.

Elizabeth Doll is the Director of Braver Politics at Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to helping Americans disagree accurately and respectfully while finding common ground on values and concerns. She began political work as a teen, when, while interning on a Congressional campaign, she became passionate about improving her community through civic engagement. Since then, Elizabeth has consulted for and worked on many state and local campaigns. She and her husband live on Bainbridge Island and when not engaged in politics, she enjoys photography, hiking, and horseback riding.

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