How to Talk to a Fundamentalist (If You Must)

Jul 06 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

“The exchange of ideas, delving into the meaning and purpose of life … all of this is excellent and I look forward to the particulars of whatever we may unfold. But … you must know that for my part, the bottom line will always be Jesus. And not some ambiguous Jesus-as-I-perceive-him – but the Word become Flesh as He has revealed Himself in history through the Holy Scriptures.”

That’s how I began a year-long email correspondence between my uncle, Ron – a self-professed skeptic, secular humanist, and iconoclast – and me; a fully-convinced fundamentalist “Quiverfull” Christian.

I met Uncle Ron in 2006 on a family vacation to Arkansas. I had been warned beforehand that though my uncle is a good man and very intelligent, he is an unbeliever and highly persuasive. It’d be best, I was told, to keep my distance.

But when we met, there was an instant connection – we hit it off immediately and when I returned home there was a note from Ron in my inbox saying he’d been very impressed by my family and he wondered if I’d be interested in the two of us getting to know each other better.

I was elated and we immediately dived into what for Ron must have been an incredibly frustrating year of attempting to communicate with one of the most narrow-minded know-it-alls on the planet – his newfound “radically pro-life, pro-family” activist niece.

For 16 years, I had published a civic-oriented Christian family newspaper which, in retrospect, was an extreme far-right “biblical family values” publication. The editorial perspective of the paper was anti-birth control, anti-choice, anti-social welfare, patriarchal, and Dominionist. I honestly believed that the Bible provided all the answers to the world’s problems and ought to be America’s law book for government and society.

Ann Coulter’s book, “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)” caught my eye – perhaps she had some ideas that would help in my correspondence with Uncle Ron. But, no – I told myself that I had nothing to worry about. I had studied Christian apologetics, I had a sure testimony – plus, I had Jesus in my heart and the Holy Spirit to guide me. The Lord was on my side, and He would be the One to convince my atheist uncle of the Truth with which I was already intimately familiar.

Fast-forward a year and I was reeling from the total upset of everything I had believed about God, the universe and the purpose & meaning of life. Impossible as it seems for a dogmatic fundamentalist to change their mind about everything, it does happen. Often those who are steadfastly convinced and seemingly immovable are the very ones who experience the most spectacular collapse of their entire “biblical worldview” almost in an instant.

It happened to me and at least two dozen ex-Quiverfull friends I’ve met through No Longer Quivering … not to mention a few more notorious fundamentalists who changed: Frank Schaeffer (author of “Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back”), Nate Phelps (son of WBC “God Hates Fags” fanatic, Fred Phelps), Bishop John Shelby Spong, Sue Kidd Monk (Dance of the Dissident Daughter) … One of my favorite blogs is written by a former Independent Fundamental Baptist pastor-turned-skeptic.

It is true that when challenged on their narrow-minded views, fundamentalists will interpret such “persecution” as evidence that they truly know the mind of God and are righteously doing His work. But it is also true that some will listen and a few will change.

For those who have an opportunity to engage with a fundamentalist and want to make an honest attempt to break through the dogma and prejudice which channel their every thought to the narrow confines of “biblical literalism” – try these strategies:

1) Ask lots of questions.

Don’t assume that you know what fundamentalists believe and why.

There are two categories of fundy believers: those who’ve jumped on the “bible-believing” bandwagon as part of their salvation experience without really thinking through the whole fundamentalist paradigm, and those who have carefully thought through every minute detail of their belief system.

By asking questions such as, “Please explain to me what you mean when you say that the bible is the Word of God?” or “Can you tell me the process by which you understand God’s will?” – you give the fundamentalists in the first category a chance to start thinking about what they believe, and those in the second category will (as an automatic response of their thoughtful nature) quickly anticipate what objections you might have to their reasoning – and in the process, find the holes in their logic themselves. They may not admit it right away, but they’ll keep thinking about the problems until they either figure a way to justify and rationalize it, or (and this does happen!) they have to admit to themselves that their argument does not hold up under careful scrutiny.

2) Translate their thought-stopping language.

It’s not necessary to be judgmental, snarky or condescending here. When a fundamentalist speaks in “Christianese” – simply ask them what that means and then restate their response using ordinary language.

For example: When a fundy says, “We love the sinner but hate the sin” – ask for specific examples: What does loving the sinner but hating his sin look like in a real-life situation? After listening to the fundamentalist’s response, restate it this way: You are talking about making a distinction between what a person does and who/what that person is.

Similarly, when a fundamentalist says, “It’s a child, not a choice” – give him a puzzled look and ask, “What do you mean by that?” Listen carefully to his reply and you’ll find it easy to restate in this manner: What I hear you saying is that the government should make these life and death decisions rather than the pregnant woman herself.

No need to be malicious or argumentative in your translation – this is just another simple way to get a fundamentalist’s thought processes going again.

3) Use real-life examples to demonstrate that people and situations are often complicated and cannot always be addressed in black & white terms.

It is only necessary to make a single connection to the humanity of those outside the fundamentalists’ extremely limited point of reference to plant major doubts as to their absolutist idealism.

For me, it was a sweet, elderly nun who came to my bedside after the delivery of my third child. While she read a simple prayer from her prayer book for my health and safety, I was praying silently to God, “Lord, are you really going to send this gentle, kind old woman to Hell because she believes what the Catholic church taught her about who You are and what You require?” From that point on, even though I remained a fundamentalist Christian for many more years, deep down in my heart, I was a Universalist.

4) Make it personal.

Fundamentalists are human – and as Brian McClaren states, we are all people in a predicament – only fundies can’t admit their personal predicaments because it’s a bad witness. So they smile and they tell you they’re okay and everything’s good.

But we know better.

Be the sort of compassionate, non-judgmental person that the fundamentalist can relax and be real with. If a fundamentalist were to admit her struggles to her “like-minded” circle of friends, the whole company would be obligated to engage in a the-Lord-works-all-things-together-for-good dialogue of faith, trust and obedience. Most likely, she’ll stick with the smile and skip the guilt-inducing ritual.

If you are honest – without the need to justify or rationalize or pretend – it will be a huge relief and a nearly-impossible-to-resist opportunity for a fundy to open up and be real too. If she can admit to you that sometimes she feels like sassing her husband – and you don’t make her feel like she ought to be ashamed for even thinking such subversive thoughts, it won’t be long before she’ll tell you things you would never believe would enter a fundamentalist’s head!!

Don’t beat her up with her imperfections – her own heart and mind are already doing plenty of that – not to mention her fundamentalist friends who are her only “support system.”

5) Look for opportunities to disprove her idea that you (an unbeliever or at best, “not a true Christian” according to her definition) are not truly happy or fulfilled.

Don’t feel like you have to “witness” to your friend the way she does to you, but do point out when you take pleasure in the good things in your life.

Small luxuries which you probably take for granted – if your friend were to experience the same thing – she might think she’d died and gone to heaven.

Have you engaged in an intelligent conversation with someone of the opposite sex? Fundamentalist women rarely talk to adult males other than their husbands. (I can’t resist adding here that it is questionable as to whether talking to patriarchal husbands qualifies as adult conversation.)

Do you regularly take time for yourself – doing something you enjoy that makes you feel good about yourself? Most fundamentalists almost never get a moment to themselves, and when they do, they guiltily spend that “quiet time” in prayer and meditation.

Do you have a good relationship with your own children? Tell your friend about it – not in a boasting sort of way – just to let her know that public school children do not hate their parents as she has been told.

When your husband respects your personhood, be sure to let your friend know. Often, patriarch wives have been in one-sided relationships for so long that they really can’t fathom that a man and a woman can relate to each other without power being an issue at all.

Relationships trump dogma

Uncle Ron and I wrote back and forth about philosophy, politics, history, education, science, popular culture, morality – no topic was off limits, and we were able to write about some very personal stuff too. He challenged me to seriously reconsider the validity of my thought processes – while I challenged his patience and tortured his sense of incredulity with the sheer magnitude of the “WTF? factor” of my fundamentalist belief system which he rightly called, “ignorant, atavistic, and irresponsible.”

But the thing that most confused me and totally threw a wrench in my whole fundamentalist paradigm is this: he’s a genuinely nice guy. I fried my brain trying to figure out how that could be possible. I’d been convinced that no man can be good without God (my “Big Guy in the Sky” god, to be precise) – and yet, Ron is a good man. That fact totally did not fit with everything I believed about “Truth” and Faith and the nature of God and humanity. In the end, it was our friendship that won out over my ideology.

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