In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, and with research indicating that the numbers of Americans who identify as religious are declining, the Religious Right seems to be losing its grip on American politics.
In some ways, that may be true: organized religion and church now trail behind the military, small business, and police for institutions in which the public has confidence. But for so many individuals, the effects of fundamentalist religion have left a deep, jagged scar on their lives as they suffer from the after-effects of spiritual abuse.
I grew up in a fairly conservative, religious household. Members of my family for generations back were proud initial members of the Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination with extremely fundamentalist views. The chances that I could have been subjected to that sort of spiritual abuse were fairly high, but the truth is that my parents were always a little bit different. If I asked theological questions, they answered them, or told me to research it for myself. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t abusive.
After my article on the Quiverfull movement was published, I received dozens of emails from people who had grown up in fundamentalist movements, sharing their tales of heartbreak, horror, and shame in their upbringing. It was a bleak reminder to those of us who did grow up with a more balanced childhood that it’s not just the Duggars who are subjected to ridiculous, sexist teachings under the guise of religion—but everyday people without the benefits of fame and fortune to help them along.
When I expressed interest to them in sharing their stories, there was one common response from all of the subjects: every single one of them wanted to remain anonymous. Despite having left their religions, they remain fearful of judgment, of being found out, and of disappointing their families. So in each case, the names used are not their real names.
Rebekah Washington became involved in the Quiverfull movement when she married a boy from her church while they were attending Harding University, a school affiliated with the Church of Christ. Her husband was set to become a pastor. That’s when she says her new husband became wildly abusive. When she contacted counselors and pastors for help, she was turned away.
“They would say to me, ‘What did you do to cause him to be so angry? Were you not submitting to his will? You need to pray more. Help him be the man that God designed him to to be. How can he lead the house if you’re not being the submissive wife? That must be why he hits you.’”
For ten years, she felt that her body was not her own. She explained that she was subjected to every type of abuse imaginable. When she gave birth to her second child, a son, she decided she never wanted her son to think it was okay to treat women the way that his father treated his mother, and she decided to escape—despite, she thought at the time, it meant the certainty of hell for all eternity. Rebekah convinced herself that it was more important to get out of her domestic situation and give her kids a shot at a good life on earth now. But even that wasn’t easy.
Washington received support from the church during a trial separation, but the church leaders were under the impression that she would ultimately work things out with her husband. When they learned that Washington was planning to make the divorce permanent, they turned their backs to her and accused her of not following Jesus’ command to forgive. But she stood firm.
Eventually, Washington went to school to become a massage therapist. With the help of a few relatives, she slowly began to unravel her life away from the church and stand on her own two feet. It’s been ten years since she left her marriage, but she recently started intensive counseling for a second time to unravel the effects the abuse of her childhood and marriage had in her life.
“Right now I’m starting my journey toward the truth. I have medical problems similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. I get seizures. But I want to go back to school to study religious archaeology or cognitive religion and find out why did things were put in or left out of the Bible, and why are certain churches teaching some things but not other things. Where does it come from?
I want to take my background and help teach women who are in the place I have been to believe they are stronger than they believe they are. If there is a God he will give you strength. Truth will always ring free.”
Physical abuse often runs rampant throughout fundamentalist Christian homes. Though the majority of mainstream and evangelical churches denounce domestic abuse, in a culture where a man is the superior authority, children and women who are viewed as disobedient are often punished, one way or another. Girls tend to get married young, immediately, to the first guy that shows interest in them. I was one of them.
I met my husband when we were both 18 years old the summer after high school. I attended a Christian college, Lee University, where freshman girls joked that they wanted to get a “ring by spring.” I always thought they were silly girls with no ambitions, but the joke was on me. After a lot of pressure from well-meaning family members, we were engaged a year later, at 19. Another year after that, barely out of my teens, I was married to the only real boyfriend I’d ever had outside of high school. We couldn’t even legally buy alcohol yet, or rent a car on our honeymoon.
This wasn’t unusual in my culture. I knew tons of other girls who got married in their early 20s to boys they barely knew, or boys they’d slept with and felt obligated to marry afterward: one of the many unintended consequences of the misogynistic purity culture. Most are divorced by now. But again, I seemed to dodge the fundamentalist curse, for the most part.
Getting married so young was hard, mostly for monetary reasons. You can’t get ahead financially no matter how hard you work. The need for work makes it more difficult for two people to be in college, so my husband had to put off his education until he could go part-time, and we amassed huge amounts of student loan debt.
Then you’re expected to have kids early, too, which I did. We were both emotionally immature when we got married and became parents. But my husband is a really, really nice guy. I knew from the get-go that he was a progressive and kind person. I thought he’d be a good dad one day, and I was right. And unlike typical conservative Christian marriages, ours is egalitarian. I’ve never had any pressure to “submit” or “obey” or view him as the head of the household. I got lucky, but not everyone is.
Blake Pippen grew up in Utah in a Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints polygamist household where multiple wives existed to serve their husband. He was the oldest son of his father’s second wife. Racism and sexism surrounded him: at one point, he was even told by a member of the church that he would go to hell if he married a black girl.
Unfortunately, racism still permeates even in the most progressive cultures. According to Lifeway Research, Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times in America, with churches by and large existing without diversity. And even though I like to think of my particular fundamentalist religion as more advanced, the truth is that when my sister started dating a boy who was black, there was some hateful push back against it from members of our church and older relatives. Now that they’re married, the same people pretend there was never an issue.
At 16-years-old, Pippen’s mother had become a second wife to a man twice her age with whom she would go on to have five children, the oldest of whom was Blake. He, along with the other children, other wives, and passive adults, witnessed their father beating his mother on a near constant basis, an experience which plagues him:
“Even though I hadn’t even reached the age of ten at the time, I am still haunted by the fact that I never came to her defense.”
When he was ten, his mother took Blake and his siblings and left, never to return. Pippen was later able to find solace in non-denominational Christianity, finding forgiveness for those in his past, including his father. He stated:
“Dogma and religious extremism are simply the product of broken, messed up, finite people trying desperately to harness and control a formless, limitless, infinite, almighty God who cannot be categorized or itemized and fit into packages and boxes and labeled on a shelf.”
For others, it’s not as easy to return to faith after a lifetime of guilt in conservative religion. Sasha Von Brandt felt plagued by fundamentalist Christianity her whole life. Initially, she was raised in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, where women weren’t allowed to speak in church and had to wear head coverings and long skirts. Her parents, musicians for the church, scandalized the congregation by bringing a drum set on stage.
She ended up relocating several times during her childhood, so she attended churches of varying denominations, like Baptist and Assemblies of God. At the age of thirteen, she was accused by her youth pastor of witchcraft for causing a sixteen year-old boy to “sin.” But she still saw herself as a Christian. In fact, she decided, along with her high school boyfriend, to attend a Christian university and become missionaries together.
However, when she was exposed to the missionary curriculum and met actual missionaries, she felt repulsed by their arrogant, colonialist attitudes. The professors, former missionaries in some cases, were rude and judgmental about the same people they claimed to serve. She switched her major to anthropology. And at age nineteen, she stopped going to church.
“I was disgusted with plasticized smiles and the sidelong glance when they gave you a handshake. I didn’t see anyone truly feeling anything.”
She felt she was already an atheist by this point, but she didn’t call herself one until two years later. By that point, she’d been through a proposal and a break up with her boyfriend, unable to tether herself to the ties of the Christian dream any longer.
Her family doesn’t discuss her religion, or lack thereof, with her. No one from her old church speaks to her any longer. But for Von Brandt, the benefits of her freedom from fundamentalism outweigh the social consequences. She found an escape from the prison of conservative Christianity in which she found herself. The thing she hated most about religion was the shame and the guilt, but now she says all of that is gone and she feels like she is a kinder, more sensitive, and more authentic person.
“I don’t need what religion gives me. I create my own little family. I don’t need to run away from a fear of death. I would rather live with those questions than accept the easiest answer I could find.”
Other people still live in the shadows of their fundamentalist faith and find it harder to escape. When David Cole reached out to me, I was shocked to find out he, too, was part of the same small Pentecostal denomination as me, the Church of God, and still living in East Tennessee near my hometown. This is the same denomination that would sing triumphantly, “The Church of God is right, hallelujah to the Lamb!” He’s not only still a member, but now a pastor.
Cole considers himself a moderate in the midst of extremism and legalism. Even in the same kind of church, our upbringings were so different. His was strictly sheltered, and the subjects of sex, alcohol, and cursing were never discussed or engaged.
“My stories include not being able to watch certain things that other kids could, literally never having the sex talk from my parents (had to come in other ways). I would possibly be disowned if it were known I had done half the things I have.”
In his part of the community, women wear skirts and men wear long pants. His sisters were threatened with eternal damnation just for having pierced ears. I grew up in the same region, and the same denomination, but I never experienced anything like that. Cole says the Church of God is changing for the better, but the statement on same-sex marriage proudly displayed on the homepage makes me think otherwise.
Despite this, Cole sees himself as a work in progress, and struggles to accept the more progressive notions that his millennial counterparts, including Christians with the same background, seem to be embracing. But he hopes that he can overcome his bias.
“Honestly, I struggle with a prejudice against homosexuality myself. I pray daily that love enters my life and I do not judge people due to their sexuality, but it is a daily struggle. I do think this is due to the legalism and the strict rules we had to follow.”
Dr. Marlene Winell, a human development consultant in San Francisco and a daughter of Pentecostal missionaries, believes that certain aspects of fundamentalism are so toxic to mental health that the resulting effects on individuals could be classified as a mental disorder, which she calls Religious Trauma Syndrome. Though not an official diagnosis by any means, the symptoms are equivalent to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, with fundamentalist religion as the cause.
That may be true for others, but I never experienced it. I watched people speak in tongues and get slain in the Spirit, but I was never forced to participate and never did. My parents didn’t let me watch MTV, but I didn’t have to listen to terrible Christian music. We couldn’t get facial piercings, but I did get to pierce my ears as much as I wanted. I was encouraged to wear purity rings and stay a virgin until marriage, but my mom also told me she would provide me with birth control pills if I needed them. When I went through periods of depression in high school, I wasn’t forced to go to church on Sunday mornings.
And most importantly, I felt free to be skeptical, ask questions, and get answers. They never dismissed my questions or told me what I believed or felt was wrong, or that I was going to hell for having a certain opinion. Yes, they still believe in literalist teachings of the Bible and vote Republican. But that didn’t change how they treated my sister and me. I would say that having a loving, open-minded family is the best defense against the side effects of any fundamentalist trauma. Ultimately, that’s what helped me retain my faith.
But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case for everyone. And sometimes, even having a supportive family can’t untangle the negative effects of conservative religion in people’s lives. The impact of a hateful pastor, dangerous dogma, abusive partner, or a cruel missionary can still be painful.
But there are options for those who have experienced spiritual abuse or worse at the hands of religion. You can find more information on faith-based recovery at The Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources or secular recovery at Recovering From Religion.