Fundamentalist Parents Can’t Relax

Rich parents can relax.  At least according to an article in this week’s Economist.  But fundamentalist parents never can.  They have to worry about more than their kids’ careers.  They have to fret about eternal damnation.  And they have to worry that Satan lurks in every textbook, every TV show, and every mainstream school.

The Economist article is worth reading in its entirety.  As it explains,

Well-to-do parents fear two things: that their children will die in a freak accident, and that they will not get into Harvard.

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven...

Getting into Harvard might be harder than getting into heaven…

Both fears lead to exaggerated and ultimately counterproductive lifestyles.  In terms of safety, the article notes, an American child under five years of age in 1950 was five times as likely to die of disease or accident as that same kid would be today.  And though it is difficult to get into Harvard, most kids of affluent families will have fine careers without an Ivy-League transcript.

But fundamentalist parents have more to worry about.  Since the birth of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative evangelicals have fretted about the influence of mainstream culture on their offspring.  Even if their kids don’t get polio, and even if their kids do get into Harvard, fundamentalist parents have to worry that success in life will lead to terrible punishment after death.  For fundamentalists, even Harvard itself can be more of a threat than an achievement.

As historian Randall Balmer put it in his blockbuster book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,

the greatest fear that haunts evangelical parents is that their children will not follow in their footsteps, that they will not sustain the same level of piety as their parents—stated baldly, that they are headed for hell rather than heaven.

As I argued in my 1920s book, historically this fear for the children has fueled fundamentalism’s public campaigns.  Fundamentalist leaders and parents worried that no level of affluence and economic privilege could protect their children from a culture sliding nonchalantly straight to hell.

As conservative leader William Jennings Bryan explained in 1922, even the rich and powerful had lost the ability to protect the faith of their children.  As a former Secretary of State, Bryan knew many of these families personally.  He wrote about one acquaintance, a US Congressman, whose daughter came home from college only to tell the family that “nobody believed in the Bible stories now.”

It was not only conservative Congressmen who worried.  Fundamentalist evangelist Bob Jones Sr. liked to tell the story of a less powerful family who had a similar experience.  This family, Jones explained in one of his most popular 1920s sermons, scrimped and saved to send their precious daughter to

a certain college.  At the end of nine months she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her mother and father.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her. It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.

Even when fundamentalist families did not experience that sort of cataclysm, we must keep their anxiety in mind when we try to understand fundamentalism from the outside.  Why do conservative evangelicals fight against evolution?  Why do they insist on school prayer?  Why do they worry about rights for homosexuals?

In all these cases, conservative evangelicals’ public activism is made more desperate by their intense worry about their children.  In this, there is no difference between conservative evangelicals and mainstream Americans of any background.  As the Economist article points out, almost all parents love their children and make sacrifices for them.  In the case of mainstream affluent parents, it might even help if they relaxed a little bit.  As Bryan Caplan of George Mason University argues,

Middle-class parents should relax a bit, cancel a violin class or two and let their kids play outside.

Easy enough.  But fundamentalists face a very different situation.  If we want to understand the mind of fundamentalists, we can try a mental experiment.  Non-fundamentalist parents have a hard enough time relaxing about their kids, even though they feel at home in mainstream culture.  Non-fundamentalist parents fret too much about their kids’ futures, even if they don’t feel alienated by their local public schools and elite universities.

Let’s try to translate the anxiety experienced by fundamentalist parents into mainstream terms.  Imagine, for example, the sorts of public outcry there would be if public schools began promoting ideas or practices that affluent secular parents found dangerous.  For instance, what do you think would happen if a public school somewhere began promoting smoking as a fun and healthy activity?


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  1. Agellius

     /  July 31, 2014

    Exactly. Parents of both camps try very hard to include what they consider to be good influences and exclude bad ones. They just disagree on what is good and bad.

    They also disagree on which side is getting more of what they want. It seems to me that a good barometer of this, is which side more often pulls its kids from the public schools in order to put them in private schools which better reflect their values?

    • I think your suggested barometer would also be measuring which side is more comfortable exposing their children to viewpoints with which they disagree.and which side more often feels the need to shelter their children from outside influence.

      • Agellius

         /  August 1, 2014


        But my premise is that “Parents of both camps try very hard to include what they consider to be good influences and exclude bad ones” in school.

        If your conclusion is true, that must mean that liberal parents don’t really care about good or bad influences in school. But I think that’s obviously false.

      • Oh I see. I would disagree to what extent different parents feel the need to shelter the kids from bad influences as opposed to teach the kids how to navigate bad influences, if that makes sense. A difference in parenting strategy on that front could manifest in different schooling choices.

  2. I agree that the stakes are much higher for evangelical parents who MUST ensure that their children go to heaven and not hell, even though there really is no perfect method by which to ensure this. I think such parents are usually well-meaning, but can be horribly destructive. The quote about the woman who committed suicide is tragic and feels rather personal as, for a time, I was very close to doing the same. It’s funny, “weeping over, praying over, and chiding” your child might sound nice to a Fundamentalist in theory, but in practice it usually takes the form of extreme emotional abuse and coercion which can have devastating effects on a child or adult… especially one that was raised in a very tight-knit and restrictive environment who thus feels they have a lot less options and a lot more to lose. My parents still claim that all of their abuse which nearly drove me to take my life and which drove me away from them forever in order to protect myself was “the most loving thing they could possibly have done.”

    This is why I do not think I can ever view evangelical or fundamentalist beliefs in a positive light (especially the idea that most people are going to hell). I understand that there can certainly be parts of religious belief that are very healthy for the individual and I would never presume that a person would be better of with or without spirituality, because for some, it truly is a positive force in their lives. However, I can NOT say the same of the sort of evangelical fundamentalism that I was raised around. While there may be benefits in some of the spiritual beliefs (feelings of connectedness, hope, motivation, vision, community), I feel that the extreme pressures that evangelicalism places on its followers regarding their own souls and the souls of others (like their children) is patently unhealthy and is unlikely to have any net benefit. If anyone can make an argument that would convince me otherwise, I’d be interested to hear it. In my anecdotal experience, I have seen both religion and lack of religion bring about positive things in a person’s life. However, I have only seen shame, misery, anger, rage, bitterness, hopelessness, depression, prejudice fear, heartbreak, and broken relationships birthed by the idea of hell and the fear that it brings with it.

  3. Agellius

     /  August 1, 2014


    I would suggest that it’s not necessarily the beliefs themselves, but the way people present them or react to them. The same beliefs can be taught by different people in an appealing and rational manner, or in a repulsive and frightening manner.

    I have taught my kids the reality of hell, but have not used “extreme emotional abuse and coercion” to drum it into their heads, and neither of them has come anywhere near attempting suicide, as far as I know.

    I don’t deny that certain circles of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have adopted a culture in which the gospel is presented in quite a pushy and offensive manner, apparently believing that it’s necessary to shock and frighten people into faith. It must have been awful to grow up in that kind of a household.

    • Thank you for being respectful with your reply, Agellius. I can’t actually agree that the doctrine is not harmful, regardless of how it is taught. I think there are ways in which it can be taught that are much less harmful than others. However, I think the idea that there is a place where people who have not believed the correct religion will go to eternal torture is an innately fear-inducing and very manipulative doctrine and I do not see how it can be anything else. If you believe unbelievers suffer eternal torment, how can you ever feel safe questioning your belief? How can you ever not feel pressured and afraid?

      Now, of course, if you believe hell to be real, then it makes sense to teach it. I do not believe it to be real and I wish that the doctrine did not exist because I think it can never do one good in comparison to NOT believing in hell. I do not blame you for believing it, I simply wish this horrible doctrine which I find to be patently harmful had never come to be.

      • Agellius

         /  August 1, 2014


        You write, “I think the idea that there is a place where people who have not believed the correct religion will go to eternal torture is an innately fear-inducing and very manipulative doctrine and I do not see how it can be anything else.”

        I agree with you, and while I believe hell exists, I don’t believe it is correctly described as “a place for people who have not believed the correct religion”. I know that some Christians do describe it that way but I think it’s a mistake.

        You write, “If you believe unbelievers suffer eternal torment, how can you ever feel safe questioning your belief?”

        Well, if I doubt my beliefs, that means I simultaneously doubt the existence of hell. So it seems to me that the less certain I am of my faith, the less reason I would have to fear hell. No?

      • I am aware that there are other ideas of hell among Christians, so if what you hold is not the typical Fundamentalist Evangelical belief, then I cannot comment on whether it is good or bad. My intent was only to point out that the typical Fundamentalist understanding of hell was toxic, so I apologize that my wording was vague. There are likely other harmful versions of hell as well, but I would not feel qualified to make that judgment call and I expect that they would, at least, be much much less harmful if they are at all.

        On the other hand, your second question I’d have to answer with an “absolutely no, not even close.” “Doubt” is not the same thing as “utterly reject” which is also not the same as “having no lasting fears.” When things about your religion seem to not make sense to you, you have two options. You can either ignore the question and get hard-headed, or you can indulge the question and see “does this hold up? Does it make sense?” But if you believe in fundie-hell (I’m going to call it that for clarity and brevity) that second option is not available to you… or is at least fraught with terror. How can you dare to go in that direction if everything you have ever been taught tells you that you’ll be tortured for eternity if you fail in your faith? How can you take that risk? And even if you do question, if you do leave, and if you do stop believing in hell/demons/whatever else, that doesn’t mean that the fear that those doctrines instilled in you doesn’t linger. I have found many people now who have religious night terrors that still plague them, and are only made stronger by the fact that they’ve left the faith. Sure, your head doesn’t believe that crap anymore, but your mind is so scarred and so conditioned to be afraid, that many of us never truly are free from the fear.

        So no, questioning your belief does not necessarily make you less afraid of hell, and I feel that the idea of fundie-hell is often used to keep people from questioning, because the fear of being wrong is too great. Eternal torture for asking questions? It’s not worth that risk. I think that’s tragic.

  4. Agellius

     /  August 1, 2014


    You write, “I would disagree to what extent different parents feel the need to shelter the kids from bad influences as opposed to teach the kids how to navigate bad influences, if that makes sense.”

    They may believe in teaching their kids to “navigate bad influences”, or they may just not perceive as many bad influences there in the first place.

    I wonder, if liberal parents think it’s important to teach their kids to navigate bad influences, by exposing them to points of view with which they disagree, why do so few liberal parents send their kids to Christian schools? And why do so many of them object to Christian influences in the public schools?

    • PR

       /  August 3, 2014

      Agellius, I think there’s a difference between children being exposed to other points of view because they’re held by their peers, and being exposed to those views because they’re presented by authority figures as the truth. Christian schools, and prayer etc in public schools, are very much the latter, in my opinion.

      • Agellius

         /  August 4, 2014


        “I think there’s a difference between children being exposed to other points of view because they’re held by their peers, and being exposed to those views because they’re presented by authority figures as the truth.”

        I agree. And there are a lot of things that are “presented by authority figures as the truth” in public schools, which Christian parents think are false, and that’s why a lot of Christians place their kids in private schools.

  5. Agellius

     /  August 4, 2014


    We certainly have different ideas of what it takes to go to hell, and I think it has to do with the way you were raised, versus my adult conversion. I agree that it’s wrong to teach kids that merely asking questions about your faith can send you to eternal damnation.

    • I also think it is wrong to teach people that anyone who does not follow your faith will go to hell. The reason that questioning your faith is frightening to many Fundamentalists is that they fear if they lose their faith, they will go to hell. That is a horrible emotional manipulation in order to keep people from venturing from the doctrine. If you do not believe that all non-Christians go to hell, then there is not so much fear.

      I do not actually have any opinion whatsoever on who goes to hell or not, because I do not believe hell exists. I simply think hell is a horrible and toxic doctrine when it is claimed that all non-Christians are destined for it (and in some circles, all people who are not the right type of Christian or Christians that sin without repenting, etc etc).

  6. The Bob Jones scare story has been told in many, usually softer, forms to this day; it frequently appears in the marketing for Christian colleges that cater to parents’ desire for a K-21 educational prophylactic against postmodernism, porn, booze, and all the other sins and errors that go with “secular liberals.”

    While reading this I related it to your other Balmer piece where I think you misread him as saying that the deep and original motive of the religious right is racial separatism or some other racist-ish reaction to the end of legal segregation. I think you got Balmer wrong on that; the interesting and challenging part of the history that he and others have discussed is that reaction to Bob Jones University v. United States doesn’t mean the architects and foot soldiers of the religious right had racist or neo-segregationist motives and goals. (Today they will cite that case as the setup for gay marriage.) I think Weyrich et al. knew the time for institutional apartheid was past, but they wanted some sort of autonomy and control that could still in theory lead to a kind of self-segregation but what they really wanted was a distinct, particularistic, sectarian Christian exclusivism for a form of Protestant Christianity (Evangelicalism) that is supradenominational and even supranational — and therefore capable of ethnic and racial pluralism — but also something far short of ecumenical and universal in nature.

    There has always been an element within but hardly exclusive to the religious right that uses private schools to avoid racial minority and/or lower class populations, but this probably has been a very localized affair and probably more common in the past, related to specific cities and their problems. (See for example White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of the Modern Conservatism.) Today this pattern is probably more common outside the US today, particularly if you look at “Christian schools” in SE Asia and even China. (They exist in China through a variety of code words short of saying “this school is Christian.”) Today in the US the “Christian school” movement is actually focused on the problem of closing schools and declining enrollment, but it can also claim major urban successes where minority students are the majority and the schools’ whole reason for being. (I am sure you are familiar with this in Milwaukee, where the German Lutherans and Catholics who did not follow the “white flight” now operate growing majority African American schools.) And therein perhaps lies the answer to how racial politics works on the religious right — it is OK when it is the assimilator (i.e., the group controlling the schools) and not the assimilated.

    If the deepest fear for religious conservatives is losing children to “secularization,” this can be a proxy for racial anxieties and maybe even outright racism for some people, but it really seems more about an inchoate manifold of fears having to do with loss of political control and beyond that a sense of deracination and cultural assimilation. This is the mentality of alienated whites whose religious identity has supplanted (or perhaps sublimated) older racial fears that in any case can no longer be articulated in public discourse. Most are not racist per se, but they are eminently open to reaction when treated to dog whistle politics, Willie Horton type scare stories, the specter of inner city crime, drugs, etc. For some there is a real ethnic heritage still in the process of melting away, but for many the Christian conservative countercultural identity may be largely atavistic, filling a void when secularization has already happened to a substantial degree and must be denied or repressed.

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