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What Happens When a Fundamentalist Quits?

Sep 1, 2008
In the holiday movie, White Christmas, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are faced with the terrible downturn in fortunes experienced by their former commanding officer from the European theater in World War II. The general, a well beloved man, has retired after the war to a small inn located in Vermont. Through an involved plot, the famous singing and dancing duo of Wallace and Davis find themselves at the inn just prior to Christmas. There has been no snow, hence no winter time visitors. After realizing that their former commander is now commanding a declining inn, Wallace and Davis (Bing and Danny) go into salvation mode.

The plan they have involves keeping the general away from his favorite television program, which has national syndication. Danny really "hams it up," and it takes some doing, but he succeeds in keeping the general away from the set long enough for Wallace (Bing) to make an appeal on a popular show for all of the men under the general's command in the war to converge at the inn for a production that he and Davis (Danny) have staged. His appeal is musical. He sings this song: "What do you do with a general when he stops being a general? What do you do with general unemployed?" Of course, all of the men bite. Hundreds show up. It snows. Bing and Danny both get the perspective girls, and all is happy. I know the story well. My wife has made me watch it every year for the past thirty-one years.

So, let me wax musical for a moment (maybe we could use Bing's tune). "What do you do with a fundamentalist when he stops being a fundamentalist? What do you do with a fundamentalist unconnected?" Or, in the vernacular, what happens to a fundamentalist when they leave the fold? Where do they go? What do they do? We might be tempted to answer those questions the way another movie classic answered a pressing question, "Frankly, my Dear, I don't give a damn." Still, I think compassion calls for a different answer. It cries out for us to understand.

Fortunately, John Brent (1994, "Leaving Protestant Fundamentalism: A Qualitative Analysis of a Major Life Transition," Counseling and Values 38 No.3) chronicles the path taken by those leaving absolutist churches. In a qualitative study of those who leave, he found several common themes:

1. Participation in the life of the fundamentalist milieu - At this stage those who would eventually leave were members in good standing. They are fully involved in the life of the church. Their thinking is like others in the group. In their community of faith, the Bible prescribes the absolutes. That is true for them as well.

2. Then, they experience their initial disillusionment - At some specific point on their fundamentalist journey, something happens. Those who would eventually leave feel disconnected and separated from the absolutist subculture. This point of disconnect could revolve around many factors. One of the most common points of disconnect is the demand for conformity.

3. Next, they move into a stage of tolerance - In this stage, our "would be" former fundamentalist is filled with doubts and fears concerning the tradition and the subculture. Still, such members remain. Yet, they must deal with unrelenting doubt. Doubting intensifies the problem, since now, in addition to disillusionment; members must deal with the experience of guilt concerning their doubts.

4. Disillusionment, doubt, and guilt intensify until members reach the point of leaving - Tensions grow. Eventually, a breaking point is reached. This is the defining moment. It is the point of no return, often related to some extreme crisis. At this point, the (newly former) absolutist leaves.

5. At first, this seems great - The one who leaves feels a sense of relief. The crisis and disillusionment seem to be resolved. He seems to be freed from the unreasoning acceptance of dogma and practice that was once his life. But, it's not over yet. Shortly, the newfound relief abates and our spiritual traveler experiences emotions of guilt and fear.

6. After this long journey reaches this point, a stage of "New Horizons" rises from the ashes of an apparently broken past - After recovering from the shock of withdrawal from the subculture, the former absolutist begins to form a new belief structure. She may embrace a new form of Christianity, or a new view apart from religion.

7. Still, problems remain for our spiritual pilgrim - Now the process may seem complete and the whole issue resolved, but it is not really over yet. From time to time, recovering fundamentalists experience psychological/emotional problems. Often it has been noted that they experience periodic fundamentalist relapses.

Those are the stages Brent proposes as I might interpret them. I would add this: A traveler along the way might get "stuck" at one of the stages on the journey. They may be in the wilderness quite a long while. Still, many former fundamentalists will eventually associate with a more liberal church. Some will seek new solace in the highly liturgical churches such as Episcopalian or even Catholic (although, due to a different type of absolutism, it is not my experience that Catholicism is a common destination). Some will no doubt give up on religion all together, often becoming bitter about the whole endeavor. Yet others will create a hybrid religion combining bits and pieces of things they have learned of and tried out on the journey.

What then does happen to former fundamentalists? As you can see, there are many destinations. Where they might end up is somewhat of a mystery. Still, one thing is certain. They will be forever changed by their history. It seems that no one just walks away from fundamentalism.
About the Author
James C. Alexander, Ph.D. is an education professor at a church related college and a bi-vocational minister who publishes regularly in the areas of education and religion. His latest book is Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalism: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism. His blog site is located at Repentant Fundie.
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