Fleeing Fundamentalism


The book Fleeing Fundamentalism by Carlene Cross is the autobiographical account of a woman's odyssey of spiritual and personal development, as she moved from being a committed and believing minister's wife in a fundamentalist church towards leading a more fully developed life as an independent, free thinking woman.

I found this book very compelling. The story does not only detail her spiritual growth from naive college-aged fundamentalist to a thinking adult woman; it is also a very personal story about her troubled marriage and her struggle to become a self-sufficient mother of three after leaving that marriage. The stories of her finagling a waitress job, dealing with a hostile welfare case worker, trying to juggle university classes while raising her children, and the angry and sometimes scary relationship with her husband, are all fascinating in their own right.

Her encounters with hypocrisy, particularly on sexual matters, within the fundamentalist church where her husband was the minister are perhaps not very surprising in this era of Ted Haggard. The interesting question is whether she would have evolved the way she did anyway without her encounters with such hypocrisy. She was clearly a very intelligent woman, one who I believe could not be permanently caged inside a fundamentalist prison. At some level, she seems never to have really bought into the misogynistic ideology of female subservience that pervaded her church, and her encounters with sexism were an important factor in her path to liberation. But even without the sexism and the bad marriage, I would like to believe that she was just too smart to stay where she was. And yet, in a way, one can see how lucky she was to have escaped; her close friend Susan, a member of the church who bought into the whole idea of female subservience even when she herself was forced to confront male sexist hypocrisy head on, seemed to remain loyal to the fundamentalist vision to the end.

Interestingly enough, her husband also underwent an odyssey away from fundamentalism. Perhaps because he was not presented as a sympathetic character in the book, his own odyssey was not really detailed much--only alluded to. At one point, after Ms. Cross caused a stir at a church event by questioning the existence of hell, her then husband chastised her for saying such a heretical notion that embarrassed him in his own position as minister; but then, almost as an afterthought, he admitted that he didn't believe in hell either. We find out later that her husband would go on to switch denominations and had become a minister in a couple of New Thought denominations--Divine Science, then later Religious Science. No explanation for the process that led to this change is given. But it would seem that both parties in that unfortunate relationship were simply too smart to remain in the fold of fundamentalism, and both had fled it, each in their own way.

In her own case, it was interesting to read her description of the freedom she felt later in life as she attended a public university, where open inquiry was de rigeur, unlike at the Bible college she had attended in her youth. At the Bible college, she was spoon fed dogma that she was not allowed to question. This once again makes me wonder what makes some people who, by circumstance, find themselves in fundamentalist circles at a certain point in their lives, yet manage to leave--while others stay comfortably within the fundamentalist cage all their lives. Was she just destined, one way or another, by dint of her personality and intellect, to leave the fundamentalist fold?

Aside from the story of her personal struggle, her book also gives interesting insights into denominational power politics in a congregationally operated church. Her husband was a popular preacher who brought in new members, which one might have considered a good thing; but the old guard of the church feared that they would lose seats in the congregational governance to newcomers, so they and the minister agreed to rig the selection process to prevent that from happening. Although some people in the church did not come across very positively--right wing ideologues, for example--she occasionally mentions, besides her friend Susan, a few people in the church who seemed genuinely good hearted (including one rather unconventional soul who was tolerated by the church leadership, perhaps mainly because he contributed a lot of money to the church).

All in all, I found the book to be a fascinating portrait of American fundamentalism, with all its attendant evils.