Essay: Is Fundamentalist Christianity to Blame?

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*Note: First appeared on Quail Bell Magazine August 5th, 2015. 

I recently read an article by writer Amanda Marcotte that addresses a platter of controversial issues. “Rachel Dolezal Was Raised by Christian Fundamentalists. No Wonder She Wanted a New Identity”  was published by Slate on June 17th. The article covers the recent Rachel Dolezal scandal and addresses the possibility that Dolezal’s upbringing in a radical fundamentalist Christian environment had influenced Dolezal’s behavior.

Marcotte cites Homeschoolers Anonymous, a blog that collects stories of those that fled radical, religious households. The website, as noted by Marcotte, claims to have evidence of the Dolezal family’s bizarre and abusive behavior through first-hand accounts of those that knew the Dolezal family.

“These sources paint a picture of the Dolezals as adherents to a fundamentalist theory of child-rearing that puts an emphasis on adoption—the Dolezals adopted four children—and basically advises beating children into submission, following the rules established by the infamous Christian child-rearing manual To Train Up a Child.”

Growing up in a community that is primarily conservative with churches lined up for miles, I’ve had a lot of first-hand experience with Fundamentalist Christians. I attend a non-denominational church and have friends that were homeschooled and raised Christian. Many are very happy with their lives and love their parents. Like me, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you what “blanket training” was, and would be horrified after a Google search. In short, the title of the article already makes a claim that I don’t find fair. It appeared to make an assumption about all Christian fundamentalists. If Marcotte had inserted “radical Christian Fundamentalists” in the title, it would better reflect the message of the article and narrow down the actual problem of radicals using religion as a tool of torture and abuse, as opposed to a message of love and redemption. I won’t deny the scandals that have come with the Fundamentalist Christian territory. But it is crucial to remember the reasoning behind these scandals and disgusting events are for selfish reasons: power and greed. But as I’ve learned, it only takes one piece of hair in a sandwich to close down a restaurant. Just as radical Islamists do not speak for the entire Islamic population, one subculture of Christianity does not speak for the entire Christian population.

To further my point, I asked a couple of people that either grew up or teaches in a Christian homeschooling environment to respond to the article. First I interviewed “Leia,” a 20 year-old recently married woman that grew up in a Christian home.

“I don’t regret growing up in a conservative Christian household at all. I’m actually very thankful that I did.” she told me. “My parents instilled a lot of values in me, but they were not super strict. I actually felt like I had more freedom as a homeschooler than in public school.”

Leia also addressed stereotypes associated with all homeschoolers. “People label homeschoolers as being sheltered and anti-social, but that is typically far from the truth.  I still had plenty of socialization and bad influences.  It is pretty much just like public school, just much smaller. You will have some kids that are very ‘sheltered’ and seem like they’ve been living under a rock and others are [very social].”

In regards to the claims of Marcotte’s article, Leia said “[It’s] all about bad parenting, and it can come out of [a] religious [or secular] household.”

Horrific parenting styles come from all backgrounds. As someone that has also taught children and teens, some of which come from broken and dysfunctional homes. I’ve seen everything from apathetic parents to parents in complete denial of a child’s mental and physical conditions, all from different religious and secular beliefs.

Let’s take a moment to focus on the homeschooling parent. Carrie is a mother and a teacher. She homeschools her children and her family attends church regularly:

I’d like to share why we are a homeschooling family. But first, why is it that so many point the finger at others about judgment or stereotyping, yet here I am explaining myself because of the assumptions that since I homeschool [and Christian], I am a radical Christian?  I am a certified teacher with Virginia Department of Education in German and ESL, with a Master’s in Arts and in Education in Reading, as well as training in Dyslexia.   Our middle child (out of 3) is moderately dyslexic with auditory processing issues.  If I didn’t homeschool, I doubt that our daughter would have been identified as dyslexic so early in her life.  While we are relieved to know what her struggles are and how she best learns, we simply cannot afford to send her to a school that would best meet her learning needs; so, I teach her and her brother providing high-quality Orton-Gillingham-based sequential phonics instruction.  This is one reason we homeschool.  Another reason is so we can spend more time together as a family. We are a faithful family who is actively involved in our community and our church, and though religious education is important to us, it was not the reason we chose to homeschool.  Marcotte paints homeschoolers as [radical] Fundamentalists, but this is so limiting.

The author of the article begins with the truth 1) the bizarre flashpoint of Rachel Dolezal has been the flashpoint for heated debate.  Yes, no one would dispute that. However, the author’s article is rife with assumptions 1) homeschoolers are abused 2) homeschoolers are radical Christians 3) Dolezal’s behavior is attributed to her upbringing.  

While we are in the business of psychoanalyzing Dolezal’s consistent misrepresentation of herself, perhaps we could speculate other reasons for her persistent questionable claims?  Let’s suppose that Dolezal is a pathological liar. Would her “supposed” upbringing be a contributor to her condition?  Yes, but so could many other factors.   A personality disorder, drug abuse, sexual abuse (as mentioned) could be causes…. perhaps the timing of the Dolezal story was published too closely following the Duggar’s troubles.  Maybe the sensationalism stems from the farther the fall the larger the audience, which results in more fingers pointing back and forth across partisan lines?  Speculation or not, a better story with reputable reporting would dig deeper to uncover a more clinical reason to Dolezal’s deceptions.

If the upbringing that Dolezal experienced is true, with faith-healing in lieu of proper medical attention or physical abuse into submission, then that is disturbing and distressing, and, as Marcotte expresses throughout, is extremist and should be looked into with more seriousness.  In the meantime, Marcotte, let’s not be so quick to paint all [Christian] homeschoolers as a brand.  We have too much autonomy for that!

Truthfully, we may never know what factor(s) caused Dolezal to fake her identity for years. It could be a combination of many factors. But I can tell you the issue is not as simple as growing up in a Fundamentalist home, and never will be. For everyone, it is a time to become educated on the signs of child abuse and neglect. If you are concerned about a child’s living conditions, do not hesitate to contact CPS or express concern to a child’s school counselor.

But it is also a moment for churchgoers to remember that just because a person or family identifies as Christian, it is not an excuse for heinous behavior, and not to turn away from those that aren’t. Everyone struggles and falls, no one is any better than everyone else in this world. But if you care about another person, you will intervene and help them get the help they need, not cover it up or ignore it. Even if you do not know someone and suspect harm, don’t be a bystander. Treat anyone, everyone, with compassion.

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