A short treatise on religious rhetoric

Because I am nobody sitting here in a deserted corner of the intarwebs, my post on the subject is not in this list, but bloggers all over the place are still talking about the racism inherent in blaming California African Americans for passing Proposition 8 on Tuesday. Alas, a blog has posted a list of a number of them and it all makes for instructive reading. I still think that homophobia is by and large a white institution and that the Religious Right bears the blame for keeping it alive in America. The Religious Right is overwhelmingly white but certainly not completely so; however the fact is that race does not matter particularly when talking about Mormon and conservative Christian efforts to amend the California State Constitution to enshrine discrimination against anyone who has relationships that cannot be defined as involving one man and one woman. Religion is the culprit here, and has been since day one, whenever that was: when Christian missionaries whipped the natives of this continent for daring to commit “unnatural acts”? Probably one could pin the blame on conservative Christianity starting a good 500 years ago, yes. And interestingly enough in this context, it appears as the handmaiden of white colonial power.

I am not actually going to write a whole lot more about the topic of Proposition 8 and racism, but I am going to write about conservative Christianity–or more accurately, fundamentalist Christianity. What got me to thinking this evening was an especially revealing look at the Phelps family, provided by this short feature on Nate Phelps, one of that family’s “prodigals” who left both the abusive family and the abusive religion that was the family’s alibi for egregious physical and psychological torture–or Fred Phelps’ alibi, more likely, given that he also beat his wife into submission. My LiveJournal friend altamira16 posted this link for me, knowing that I share a little of Nate’s personal history; although I was never physically beaten, I did fear burning in Hell from the time that I could understand it as a concept, probably around age 7 or so. It was startling news, and it took some time for me to get it straight, because up until then we had sung songs like “God is Love” in Sunday School. But the older you got, the more Hell you were threatened with.

After reading Nate’s story, short as it is, I found myself wishing that he would write a book. And then it occurred to me that I am trying to write a book, but not one that exists solely to expose fundamentalism for the child abuse that it is when taught to young children in the way it was taught to me–I am writing an autobiography that attempts to say a little about Everything, which is probably why I am not yet finished with it. Be that as it may, whether or not I ever get a book published, and whether or not Nate ever gets a book published, one of the things that I am committed to as a writer is to shining some worldly light into the sanctuaries and family devotionals of fundamentalist Christianity.

In fact, the passing of Proposition 8 and the simple incredulity of many of my friends at the failure of the campaign to defeat it has made even more clear to me that many who have not been personally acquainted with it do not understand the power of fundamentalism itself, nor the power of its fear-based rhetoric. California is not an overwhelmingly religious state, but there are plenty of “conventional” families and individuals who are not particularly well-acquainted with queer culture or who believe that they do not know anyone who is not straight (but of course they do). The Religious Right persuaded many of them that this amendment needed to pass in order to “protect” their relationships–which makes no rational sense. But very little of what passes for “reasoning” in fundamentalism would stand up to any rational inquiry.

But that is precisely its charm. Here’s an example. One of the most popular rhetorical moves within conservative Christian doctrine, and one of the most abusive when wielded against young children, is the double-bind, which can be explained briefly by the following construction: if you agree with what I say, that means I must be right; if you disagree with what I say, that is also a sign that I am right. Anyone employing the double-bind places themselves in a win-win position over their mark, who will lose no matter what argument they make or what reaction they have, and no matter how absurd the proposition to which they object.

A concrete–and ubiquitous–double-bind employed by fundamentalist preachers, parents, and proselytizers everywhere runs something like this: “You know, if what I am saying makes you so angry, then I must have hit a nerve,” or “If you have any doubts at all about your position, that is a sign from god that you are wrong.” A short version of this is “The truth hurts,” and thus it follows that anyone speaking out against injury is implicitly agreeing that the injury was deserved and/or that they understand the righteousness of the blow. This is a particularly ugly power play when a child is involved, because the younger you are, the fewer rational strategies you have to defend yourself against this sort of “argument.” All that children put in this position know is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: the result can often be an inability to act or a persistent feeling that those around you are going to demand something of you that you cannot deliver and then tell you that your inability to deliver is a sign of your own shame and guilt.

It has taken me most of my life to free myself of the influence of double-bind thinking. Or, that is, it has taken this much of my life to be however free of it I am so far; I did internalize a huge library of this and similar persuasive strategies and they can be reactivated at the drop of the most innocent discourse. I have spent days and weeks and even months under fire of the most ludicrous arguments from the voices in my head, concerning everything from whether I should continue to see someone to why it is I have lost so many games of computer solitaire in a row. It sounds funny now–or maybe it does not–but it is during those times that I would most like to find a gun and discharge it into my skull, where those voices reside and thus are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is not the sort of move I would be likely to survive. So I work at various cognitive strategies and I take certain chemical enhancers for my neurochemistry and I hope, as the days pass and I have fewer run-ins with the preachers that live in my head, that they are dwindling for good or at least running out of whatever life force it was that got attached to them.

So then this is part of what consumes my energy now: keeping the voices under control. It takes less effort than it used to. The main thing I want to say is not so much that I Hate Fundamentalism, but that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were, and not the positive force for change that religion is so often characterized as. I did not suffer the physical beatings that Nate Phelps did, but the mind-control so evident in his sister’s comment, the first one following the article, is a very real and very dangerous institution in fundamentalist organizations and families. Many do not even realize they are using it; my parents thought they were giving me a gift by giving me the “secret” to not burning in Hell. But first they had to create within me a fear of Hell sufficient to get me to stand up in front of the entire church and say that I had accepted Jesus into my heart.

Given that I was more introverted as a child than I am now, and given that I never score a single “extrovert” point on any test ever devised to measure sociability, I think perhaps you can imagine to what lengths that had to go.

It was hell, I think I can say fairly accurately.

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