Sunday, July 12, 2020

When I was a conservative Evangelical Christian, I went along with the party line (on any number of issues) because I was constantly given a very warped picture of the world. It was inculcated in me that the "other"--be they liberals or Democrats or academic intellectuals or people from other cultures or people who practiced different religions or people who were in other ways different--were hopelessly (and Satanically) misguided at best, and intentionally nefarious at worst. Thus, there was a constant undercurrent of fear and paranoia and defensiveness about living in the world surrounded by those misguided and/or wicked liberals and Democrats and gays and professors and abortionists and Muslims and Buddhists and Mormons and Wiccans and foreigners and feminists and scientists and secular humanists, etc., etc. I recall being in a Christian rock band and we sang a song with a chorus that went "Foolish hearts, blackened foolish hearts, are destined to die." Yikes. 
In our fundamentalist culture, the wagons were always circled, the walls up, the basic orientation always exclusionary (while we simultaneously spoke and sang about how Jesus loves everyone--except, I guess, for those foolish blackened hearts destined to die, which meant pretty much everyone who didn't believe as we did). The solution was to get everyone to believe the way we believed or, failing that, to at least get them to behave the way we thought they should behave. That was the criteria of any outreach (I recall, a few years ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to go hear a Muslim Imam give a speech at a church on the topic of Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue, and an old friend from my fundamentalist days responded by asking if I was going in order to try to convert the Imam, and if I wasn't going to attempt to convert him then I had no business going). 
The thing we were conditioned to fear most was openness and inclusivity. Acceptance of "the other" (without an agenda to convert them) and learning to listen to and understand and appreciate the viewpoints and experiences of "the other" was considered a dangerous proposition because doing so would weaken the walls of our fundamentalist ghetto and dilute our scrupulous doctrinal purity. We had to be vigilant about not allowing "sin in the camp." The senior pastor of a megachurch I attended for several years referred to seminary (in other words, rigorous theological education) as "cemetery" because he believed that learning too much would kill our fundamentalist faith. That is a pretty typical viewpoint in the fundamentalist Christian world, and it chillingly echoes Orwell's totalitarian slogan in his book 1984, "Ignorance is Strength."
The prioritization of purity and separateness eclipsed empathy and compassion. But we couldn't see that (which, I now suspect, is why Jesus called the Pharisees "blind").
I've been out of that conservative, fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian bubble for a number of years now, but current events cause me to reflect: If I were still ensconced in that environment, I imagine would probably be a Fox News and conservative talk radio devotee. I would, quite possibly, support Donald Trump (in part out of hope that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who could impose the lifestyle choices I believed to be correct upon the general populace). I would more readily imbibe conspiracy theories and the sketchy claims of prosperity preachers and self-proclaimed prophets. I would tend toward insular protectionist/isolationist ideologies and policies. I would see the larger world as filled with scary ideas and scary people intent on destroying my godly and "right" little world--a world in which the lines were clear and the explanations were simple.
A couple of years ago my wife and I were back in Arvada, Colorado--the place where we both had once belonged to that fundamentalist Christian megachurch. We were doing a little shopping in the neat little "old town" area, and we came upon a store selling Buddhist, Hindu and "metaphysical" goods. We went inside and had an enjoyable browse. The proprietor behind the cash register, it turned out, was a recent immigrant from Tibet, and thus a Buddhist. We had a lovely chat, including some talk about spiritual things. But the thought never crossed our minds to try to convert him, nor--apparently--he to convert us. It was genuinely interesting to hear his perspective and he appeared equally interested to hear ours. As we left the store, my wife remarked to me, "You know, for so many years, I would have been afraid to go into a store like that or to have an agenda-free conversation with a person like that. It's nice to be free."