Thursday, April 26, 2007
The new convert is gradually drawn into a host of church activities by his or her new friends, leaving little time for outside socializing. But the warmth and embrace soon bring new rules. When you violate the rules, you sin, you flirt with rebellion, with becoming a “backslider,” someone who was converted but has fallen and is once again on the wrong side of God. And as the new converts are increasingly invested in the church community, as they cut ties with their old community, it is harder to dismiss the demands of the “discipler” and church leaders. The only proper relationship is submission to those above you, the abandonment of critical thought and the mouthing of thought-terminating clichés that are morally charged. “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior” or “the wages of sin are death” is used to end all discussion.
Rules are incorporated slowly and deliberately into the convert’s belief system. These include blind obedience to church leaders, the teaching of an exclusive, spiritual elitism that demonizes all other ways of being and believing, and a persecution complex that keeps followers mobilized and distrustful of outsiders. The rules create a system of total submission to church doctrine. They discourage independent thought and action. And the result is the destruction of old communities and old friendships. Believers are soon enclosed in the church community. They are taught to place an emphasis on personal experience rather than reasoning, and to reject the rational, reality-based world. For those who defy the system, who walk away, there is a collective banishment.
There is a gradual establishment of new standards for every aspect of life. Those who choose spouses must choose Christian spouses. Families and friends are divided into groups of “saved” and “unsaved.” The movement, while it purports to be about families, is in practice the great divider of families, friends and communities. It competes with the family for loyalty. It seeks to place itself above the family, either drawing all family members into its embrace or pushing aside those who resist conversion. There were frequent prayers during the seminar I attended for relatives who were “unsaved,” those who remained beyond the control of the movement. Many of these prayers, including one by a woman for her unsaved grandchildren, were deeply emotional. It was not unusual to see these saved Christians sobbing over the damnation of those they loved.
The new ideology gives the believers a cause, a sense of purpose, meaning, feelings of superiority and a way to justify and sanctify their hatreds. For many, the rewards of cleaning up their lives, of repairing their damaged self-esteem, of joining an elite and blessed group are worth the cost of submission. They now know how to define and identify themselves. They do not have to make moral choice. It is made for them. They submerge their individual personas into the single persona of the Christian crowd. Their hope lies not in the real world, but in this new world of magic and miracles. For most, the conformity, the flight away from themselves, the dismissal of facts and logic, the destruction of personal autonomy, even with its latent totalitarianism, cause a welcome and joyous relief. The flight into the arms of the religious right, into blind acceptance of a holy cause, compensates for the convert’s despair and lack of faith in himself or herself. And the more corrupted and soiled the converts feel—the more profound the despair—the more militant they become, shouting, organizing and agitating to create a pure and sanctified Christian nation, a purity they believe will offset their own feelings of shame and guilt. Many want to be deceived and directed. It makes life easier to bear.
Freedom from fear, especially the fear of death, is what is being sold. It is a lie, as everyone who works to write and rewrite his or her testimony in the seminar—all corrected and handed back to us by our instructors—has to know on some level. But admitting this in front of other believers is impossible. Such an admission is interpreted as a lack of faith. And this too is part of the process, for it fosters internally a dread of being found out, a morbid guilt that one is not as good or as Christian as those all around. The estrangement does not go away with conversion or blind obedience or submission. Belief systems that preach a utopian and unachievable ideal drive this angst underground, forcing the convert to measure himself or herself against an impossible end.
With All The Sauce