Seven Gifts of Fundamentalism

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years deconstructing the harmful elements of fundamentalism. Today I’d like to reflect on some of the ways I benefitted from being raised in a strict, religious environment. Because, the truth is, it wasn’t all bad. Some of the things I learned while being raised fundamentalist have helped me build a stable, successful life even after leaving fundamentalism. For example, there’s no doubt in my mind that learning how to manage my time, maintain an orderly life and meet my commitments has positively impacted my life.

So, here are seven good things I received from fundamentalism:

  1. Welcoming life. Growing up, large families were the norm. I was surrounded by children from a very young age. By age eight, I knew how to take care of a baby by myself. Even though I had only one sister (my mother had health complications which prevented her from bearing more children), as fundamentalists, we maintained a sincere openness to life. There was no such thing as having “too many children.” We encouraged and supported young mothers. It wasn’t disgraceful to bear children at a young age. Nobody told us to wait until we were ‘ready.’ Even though it was very difficult at the time, having babies in my twenties was one of the best choices I ever made. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
  2. Biblical literacy. I know my Bible backwards and forwards. I’m surprised by how often verses will come to mind that precisely fit whatever situation I’m in. The strong, fundamentalist emphasis on reading the Bible and “studying to show ourselves approved” taught me how to connect with God through Scripture. Ironically, it is the fundamentalist belief in Scripture as the literal Word of God which aided my embrace of Catholicism; particularly as it applies to the Eucharist (ie. I simply couldn’t read St. John 6 and tell myself it was all just symbolic).
  3. Personal relationship with Jesus. Although the evangelical/fundamentalist emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus was often abusively leveraged by church authorities, the idea that God desires an intimate friendship with us is profoundly important. An intimate friendship requires a heart-connection. There were a few times in my childhood when I felt and experienced the love of God so powerfully, it preserved my faith even when all else failed. This is why, perhaps, Catholicism does not seem like a “dead religion” to me. Instead it feels like a simple fulfillment of the personal relationship I have with Jesus. Before I was Catholic I could only touch Jesus spiritually–now I touch Him physically through the Eucharist.
  4. Sex is sacred. A profound, sacred respect for sex and marriage permeated all we did. In some ways, this was linked to our openness toward children. We implicitly understood that a stable, two-parent home is the ideal environment for raising children. Sex wasn’t a casual thing. It was reserved for marriage. This is why I was remained a virgin until my wedding day. This is why the “D” word was never, ever allowed. Yes, a no-divorce culture had its downsides (ie. women in abusive marriages had a tough time getting out). But a no-divorce culture also had its benefits. We really believed in the vows we made. Marriage truly was for better or worse. 
  5. Hospitality. The entire orientation of our lives was other-centered. In fact, it was a delight to serve others. We went out of our way to prepare wonderful meals and comfortable guest rooms for visitors. We invited people to dinner. We hosted all kinds of outreaches. Granted, most of these efforts were geared toward fellow church members–but the mindset of giving and hospitality has benefitted me all these years later. I still love bringing people together. A house full of people and noise feels joyous to me. I love seeking out the people who seem left out and making them feel welcome and comfortable. My life is richer and fuller because the seed of hospitality was planted deep in my heart even as a child.
  6. Hard work. We didn’t wait around for something to happen, we made things happen. We didn’t expect special favors or handouts. We believed in working hard and never shirking from our duties. Although I’ve experienced some pretty severe burnout (my problem is not knowing how to rest), I can’t deny that a strong work ethic has helped me build a fairly stable life after leaving fundamentalism.
  7. Self-control. For my personality type (ENFP), practicing self-control is a full-time job. In many ways, I’m thankful for the rigid structuring of my childhood because it taught me to take responsibility for myself and my emotions. I no longer follow a hyper-controlled schedule, but there’s no doubt in my mind that learning how to manage my time, maintain an orderly life and meet my commitments has positively impacted my life. For example, my editor recently told me how impressed he was that I was willing to rewrite my entire book. “You didn’t even flinch,” he said. Yep. Thank you, fundamentalism.

How about you?
Can you see any good results in your life that sprang from a bad situation?

  • perfectnumber628

    Really good post- I’m going to put a link to this on my blog. ^_^ It’s good to be able to find the good, even in bad situations.

  • Sandra

    rarely, if ever, is something an unmitigated evil (any more than very good things that can never be abused). It is good to identify and respect the merits of even the harshest and most abusive ideologies. Because they ARE there. And because respecting those good things allow us to respect ourselves for having belonged to the ideology and to respect others who continue to follow the ideology.

  • Summer Lynn Smith

    Romans 12:28… there is always something good to take out of everything. I believe that will all my heart

  • Tikatu

    Thanks for bringing up some of the positive things you found in fundamentalism. I’ve also linked to this post, but not at my own blog.
    Darrell Dow, benevolent dictator at Stuff Fundies Like, has offered his “Fundamental Flaws” book for free on Kindle today. I thought the timing of his offer and your blog post to be serendipitous, so I linked to this post in today’s post there. You may get a bit of traffic from his site.
    As I said at SFL, I don’t necessarily see a one-to-one correlation between Darrell’s book and this post, but the timing did make me scratch my head a bit.

  • Heidi Hess Saxton

    Being raised in an evangelical/fundamentalist environment made sharing my faith second-nature to me. Through missions, it also gave me chance to see the world in a fairly safe environment — how other people live, and how much I have to be thankful for. Finally, it gave me the ability to ask God for what I need, and fully trust He would provide. For all these reasons, I am thankful for my spiritual heritage — even though I am now Catholic (and have been for 18 years).

  • Anonymous

    I was raised Catholic in a fairly strict religious enironment, in a community that for the most part shared our values. Alot of the things you mention were similar. I’m very grateful for my upbringing. I’m glad that some things, for example going to Mass, were simply non-negotiable. : )

  • Elisa Richards

    Thank you for this positive perspective! Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the good that came from growing up the way I (and you) did. I’m sure that it has shaped me into becoming the person I am today. I hope that, even though my own children are growing up in a very different environment, my husband and I can manage to incorporate some of these gifts into their lives as well.

  • Cathfisch

    Love this! When I left a fundamentalist church almost 30 yrs ago, I remember thinking that “what some intended–or unconsciously did–for evil, God intended for good.” My list is similar to yours, especially in that I have struggled, at various times and for various reasons unrelated to my background, to find a church. God has used my previous church experience to allow me to grow without an official church body. And many of my close friends today are those who have subsequently also left the same church. I am far more accepting of diversity among Christians, as well. Thank you.

  • Lisa

    This. This. It brings balance to when it is easy to concentrate on the negative baggage of fundamentalism. Great post.

  • SpecsBear

    This made me think about my own experience, and I wrote something similar:

    Thank you Elizabeth!

  • Anonymous

    Wait, you think that having kids before you’re ready to raise them is a good thing?

    And women having a somewhat easy out of abusive marriages is a bad thing?

    But you didn’t have sex before you got an arbitrary piece of paper, so you’re good morally.

    I don’t even…

  • Handsfull

    I could say each of your points apply to me… except possibly the one about self-control. I’m still working on that one!

    I’ve been absolutely shocked at the lack of bible knowledge amongst non-fundamentalist Christians. One of the ministers at my current church acknowledges that I know far more of the Bible than she does… which is nice, but not terribly reassuring when she’s the one who’s supposed to be teaching me! She also doesn’t seem particularly motivated to read and learn more about the Bible, which I just don’t understand. She’s a minister, who is supposed to be leading this particular flock. How can she do that well if she isn’t reading and studying the Bible?!

  • A Guy

    Fair comments on fundementalism in general. What was the primary problem in your experience with fundementalism that you would call “abuse?” I haven’t been able to read all of your posts, but have found what I have read as an honest assessment.

    • A Guy

      oops, fundamentalism! I should have checked the spelling….yikes

  • Dave Sable

    If I could make a comment on what was abusive about fundamentalism since I happened to be in the same church as Elizabeth Esther. Fundamentalism was only one aspect of this group. It was kind of a Fundamentalism Plus on Steroids. Now living in North Carolina, there are many King James Only Fundamental churches that are nothing like the church in Fullerton. Along with the Fundamentalist, literal view of the Bible there were also these aspects 1) A sense that we the one true church with greater light than any other. 2) Unaccountability in finance and generally among the leader 3) Control of its members down to minutia – who could date, how a parent would raise their kids, whether it was OK or not to miss a meeting, where one could live 3) A belief that the leader had an Apostolic ministry and that the church was to serve his ministry and he had final authority 4) A difficult exit process so leaving was not an option 5) A public disciplinary and use of giving and withdrawing of power to keep its members in line. 6) Constant activity as well as communal living to weaken and break relationships with those outside the church 7) An unyielding schedule and flurry of activity with a continual focus on outward behavior to be a visible testimony causing stress and premature sickness among many members.

    The point is, while Fundamentalism may have its issues, but it is unfair to say that the abuse is all about Fundamentalism. There was much, much more.