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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