After I heard that Jessa Duggar is now courting, I’ve struggled to find words. In a way, I’m happy for her. In a way, I’m always sad to see my peers trapped in patriarchy. But in the midst of those emotions, I don’t have anything to say to Jessa. This is her life, not a cartoon on TV. I do, however, have something to say to all her harsh critics — all the critics who mock her family, her critics who say that the Duggars are just crazy. I wish to say this:
People don’t necessarily go into Christian fundamentalism because they are crazy. (Note: I’m not denying that there are mentally crazy fundamental families. I am, however, saying that there are plenty of fundamental families who are not crazy.)
Before I write more, I want to clarify that I grew up in homeschool fundamentalism. I know what it’s like to wear dresses all the time and never go to school or have any friends outside fundamentalism. And I know what it’s like to only listen to classical music and hymns and wear awkward bathing suits no one else wears. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to stay in fundamentalism because I rebelled against it a long time ago. I also don’t know what it’s like to be on TV, or have 18 siblings. But I understand Jessa’s world a lot more than I understand the world of someone who grew up in public school. As at least a half-way insider, let me say this.
People don’t necessarily go into fundamentalism because they are crazy.
Many fundamentalists are seekers.
My parents were seekers. That’s why we attended the ATI conferences. My parents wanted freedom from their flesh patterns, they wanted to raise children who grew up to know the Lord, and they wanted to find God’s presence. Fundamentalism not only promised these things, but also, and most importantly, fundamentalism handed them the tools to do it.
Our methods may sound crazy to an outsider, but they were tools that were coherent to us, and they were tools that appealed intellectually as well.
In other ways, we were just victims of spiritual abuse. My mom started homeschooling me for purely an academic reason. Somehow through a lot of peer pressure my parents were still members of the same homeschool group nearly 20 years later and had grown to adopt a lot conservative beliefs.
But my parents did not stay in homeschooling because they were crazy. (Also, my dad is not very controlling. We did gender roles only because that was part of the formula.)
In fact, the reason that Christian fundamentalism concerns me is that it is attractive, that it has something to offer a modernist world, that it has a place for truth seekers. Fundamentalism concerns me precisely because it offers a bunch of goods that are, actually, attractive.
- Fundamentalism gives a wife and mom and reason to live.
- Fundamentalism offers relief from a world full of media (no TV and gaming) in place of good books
- Fundamentalism offers family connection via Bible studies and hospitality
- Homeschooling offers extra time with the kids
- Homeschooling offers family bonding and values
- Homeschooling offers life beyond just careers, into what even secularists value most of all: family
- Homeschooling comes with a built-in community
- Patriarchalism releases at least one gender from the corporate box
- Courtship is a network, a way to meet other family people
In a way, these were all values that I grew up around and just took for granted.
A few years ago one of my friends had a birthday party, and he invited all the homeschool families he knew to his party. It may seem odd to an outsider to have young children at his 20th birthday party, but it was not the least bit weird to me (parties with my family are the same way; there were as many kids under 13 at my 18th birthday party as there were teens). But after an entire evening of playing board games with people of all ages, washing dishes together, and praying for each other, one of my public school friends (the only person who had attended public school at the party) said to me, “That was so much fun. I never experienced this in my life.” She explained that she never had an evening playing board games with children of all ages. In fact, she never went to someone’s house and had them pray for her either. It was foreign to her, but she liked it.
Fundamentalism offers that kind of community. Yes, the community creates pain and breaks sometimes, but it’s still community that often attracts people to fundamentalism. I was looking through photos of my teen years earlier this week, and every photo of me has a child in the picture. Our community valued children.
The other end of fundamentalism has been a lot of pain: a lot of guilt over purity culture, a lot of culture shock, a lot of shame from never living up to expectations. The purity culture and anti-feminist culture let me down. It didn’t keep its promise. In the end, it didn’t make us closer together as a family, and it didn’t make us better than secular families. I’m not defending fundamentalism, except to say this.
Quit saying fundies are just crazy-no-brainers while secularists are enlightened and free thinkers.
In a way my parents were free thinkers too, forging new paths different than their families. In a way they were buffalo falling off the cliff. I see a lot of both of these characteristics in all people because we all live in the tension of trying to be our own subject (Satre) and trying to fit in. That’s a human condition. Hegel said it before we had Christian fundamentalism. Before we point too quickly and call others crazy, we need to look at the log in our own eyes.
I also recommend reading Roland Barthes’ Mythologies for the real scoop about why there is no pure social identity.