I don’t understand fundamentalists.
I wish I did. It would make things a whole lot easier. If I understood them, I’d know how to talk to them, how to convince them that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of faith have deeply explored both their faith and their sexuality and have arrived at a place where they know God blesses both of them. There would be no need to argue – there would only be an understanding that the God that they love and obey is the same God we love and obey – even if our obedience looks different from theirs.
But, I don’t understand fundamentalists. I don’t understand what makes someone print signs that tell other human beings that they are going to hell for simply embracing who they are and then take to the streets to make sure their message is seen, like those fundamentalists that protest pride and other GLBT events. I don’t understand what makes someone shout through a bullhorn at a group of other human beings and call it sending a message of love.
If I understood fundamentalists I would know what to say to them, instead of finding myself being lured into futile conversations about the Bible – quoting verses at one another and failing to find any common ground. If I understood fundamentalists perhaps I could get past their armored walls, erected to keep out any truths that do not match their own. Perhaps, if I understood fundamentalists I wouldn’t feel so suspicious and keep my own walls so closely guarded as we talked. If I understood fundamentalists, perhaps we could understand each other.
But, I don’t understand fundamentalists, so round and round I go when I meet one. Endlessly debating Bible passages and then being accused of not taking the Bible seriously because I can’t take it literally – or, should I say I can’t take it literally in the parts they wish to take literally. Fundamentalists are fond of allegorical or metaphorical interpretation when it suits them, especially around passages dealing with divorce and adultery.
On my way to Greenville, South Carolina to witness the Soulforce Equality Ride visit to Bob Jones University on April 4, 2007, I had a flat tire. Thankfully, I noticed the tire going flat as I stopped at a gas station about 35 miles from Greenville. I pumped some air into the tire and asked the lady behind the counter for directions to a nearby service station. She gave me directions, but stopped midway and told me about a Goodyear that was closer.
“It’s more expensive,” she warned.
“Not a problem,” I answered. I was desperate and now behind schedule.
I found the service station and was greeted warmly and taken care of promptly. The owner of the establishment joked and talked with me the whole time I was there, as did the customers in the waiting room.
“Why are you going to Greenville?” the owner asked.
“Um,” I stammered for a moment. “I’m going to visit friends.”
Already, the internalized homophobia had kicked in, but perhaps it’s a natural defense. I was, after all, in a small South Carolina town completely dependent upon the kindness of these particular strangers. I certainly didn’t want to be denied service because of my sexual orientation. I imagined these were good God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians who attended church regularly and wouldn’t take too kindly to a dyke in their midst.
I thought of the lady at the gas station who had hesitated when she mentioned this place. The clerk was African-American. Perhaps she knew that while a white girl could get fast, friendly service there, someone like herself could not. The only black people I saw at the service station worked there – they weren’t customers.
But, it’s all conjecture. If my own walls hadn’t been so high and guarded, perhaps I could have shared my destination with the friendly service station gang. Perhaps one of them would have said, “I heard about that and I know someone who went to Bob Jones who is gay. I’m glad they’re doing it.”
I never gave them the chance to surprise me. Instead, I simply assumed they would hate me because I am a lesbian. My own internalized homophobia and my need for car repair kept me from being vulnerable with these people. Maybe my instincts were right – but I grieve at a lost chance to connect – to foster understanding – even if it meant taking a risk.
Steven Pressfield writes in his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles that “fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride.”
It doesn’t seem true that Christian fundamentalists could still see themselves as powerless, conquered and dispossessed. They wield much political and social power, but just ask a fundamentalist who the powerless, conquered and dispossessed are and they’ll gladly take the title for themselves. Gays and lesbians are powerful in their mind because society is coming around to accepting us – despite their loud protests. They are still smarting from losses over slavery and equal rights for African-Americans and women and remain bitter that interpretations of the Bible that once backed these prejudices are now rejected. They see the same thing happening to their beliefs about gays and lesbians, and yes, they feel powerless, conquered and dispossessed.
Pressfield writes that fundamentalists “can’t find (their) way into the future, so (they) retreat to the past. (They) return in imagination to the glory days of (their) race and seek to reconstruct both them and (themselves) in their purer, more virtuous light. (They) get back to basics. To fundamentals.”
While I still don’t understand fundamentalists and what makes them take to the streets against fellow human beings with such venom, I find that the more I encounter them, the more my heart breaks for them – and for myself. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
If I had been born heterosexual, I probably would be like my two sisters, conservative Christians, married to conservative Christian men, raising a family and going to conservative Christian churches. I would have had little reason to be otherwise. We are all a product of our circumstances. If James Dobson or any of those bullhorn carrying preachers on the street in Greenville had encountered different factors in life’s journey, they could be completely different too – standing up for the rights of the oppressed and marginalized instead of working to further oppression and marginalization.
I don’t understand fundamentalists, but perhaps I don’t really need to. Perhaps all I need to understand is that they are human beings like me who are seeking happiness and a sense of freedom in this world. Like St. Francis, I suppose my prayer should be that I seek more to understand than to be understood. I don’t understand their search and I often find it encroaches on my own search for happiness and freedom, but maybe by extending a little understanding, it will be returned to me tenfold.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.