The Shiny Happy People docuseries has taken Arkansas by storm, with details of abuse, oppression, and cult tactics having happened right in our backyard.
The series focuses on the Duggar family’s 19 Kids and Counting show on TLC. It details the family’s involvement with the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a fundamentalist ideology that spread through Southern Baptist churches. IBLP was founded by Bill Gothard in the early 1960s, and participants were encouraged to homeschool their children and administer strict authoritarian discipline.
Watching this show has sparked conversations among my college friends about the way we found ourselves in fundamentalist circles in our teens and early twenties. Many of my friends were born and raised IBLP-adjacent, with the same principles of male headship and authority, female submission, and harsh discipline that includes corporal punishment. Figureheads like Dr. James Dobson, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell were revered for their willingness to “stand for [their version of] biblical truth.” Often the homes that follow the teachings of these men are indistinguishable from those following Gothard in Shiny Happy People, but for (sometimes) the lack of long skirts and Wisdom Booklets.
As for my friends and I, after leaving our Southern Baptist university, having hard conversations with family and mentors, and sometimes starting families of our own, many have realized that we want a faith that is different from what fundamentalism gave us.
Finding faith after fundamentalism is not easy. Those who were raised from birth in authoritarian religiosity often have complex trauma to untangle, abusive family members to confront or avoid, and many life lessons to unlearn for the sake of their own children.
I, personally, was not raised in a fundamentalist home, but my childhood was traumatic. I was raised by a mom who worked 60+ hour weeks to keep me from knowing her own childhood reality of poverty and dependence on a deeply flawed man of the house. In my search for safety, certainty, and belonging, I found fundamentalism in my teenage years. I remember sitting in the pew alone, but near the families of my friends. We would hear sermons geared toward raising godly sons and daughters, and it was apparent to me that I was an outcast among my friends who were lucky enough to be given a faith script from birth. (At least that’s how I felt at the time.)
Fundamentalism gave me all the answers I needed to the questions my childhood trauma left me with. Fundamentalism always had an answer, and when the answers didn’t make sense or the questions were out of the agreed-upon social boundaries, they could be conveniently shut down, dismissed, or used to question the salvation of the person asking.
The result of this was a feeling of safety that I had never experienced. In order to keep that feeling of safety, I had to squash my questions, pain, and genuine curiosity, and return to the predetermined conclusions I had been given. I learned quickly that my new safe place was only safe if I learned those social boundaries and complied with them quickly.
When questions came up, I would repeat some version of the refrain (that I now know came from the Heritage Singers), “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” I would assume my unwillingness to take my pastors at their word was a symptom of my own sinfulness, that there was something I had not yet repented of. My upbringing had not occurred under the headship of a Godly male leader, so it was incumbent upon me to train myself in the ways of the Lord now that I was saved. I had to make up for what my upbringing lacked.
Today, even typing these sentences leaves me with a knot in my stomach.
A lot has changed since my framework of belief revolved around fundamentalism. It took time, healing, and lots of grace. I had to come to a place where I want to rebuild my faith without the parts that hurt me and my loved ones. The “how?” of that rebuilding is what I’m trying to figure out now.
Like many of my peers, I’m sorting through the faith I was given and decided what should be kept and what I need to leave behind. To be sure, I’m keeping a lot of good things I was given in the context of faith.
- I’m keeping friends becoming family.
- I’m keeping casserole deliveries to families who are grieving, just had a baby, or are under a lot of stress.
- I’m keeping intergenerational community, and the feeling of privilege when I gain wisdom from someone who was in my season of life four decades ago.
- I’m keeping gathering, breaking bread, and talking about things that matter most in life.
- I’m keeping prayer, because when I am truly at the end of myself, I need connection to God— not certainty of what will happen or a reason for everything, just connection.
- I’m keeping my training in New Testament Greek.
- I’m keeping the seeking of social justice, because before it became an “enemy of the Gospel” to fundamentalists, it was a core value of my faith.
- I’m keeping Sabbath—or at least I’m trying to.
As I type this, I am hearing the voices of male pastors telling me “you can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe and follow.”
I have many answers to that admonition, many of them biblical retorts. But I left squabbling about the bible in the past a long time ago. It’s not worth it—I have nothing to prove to them anymore. I am free.
Faith after fundamentalism is not easy, but it is worth it. Many of us left high-control religiosity with nothing to anchor us any longer. We were unlearning fundamentalism while grieving former relationships and family, and it was the hardest thing we have ever done.
We don’t have to be Shiny Happy People. We can be authentic, kind humans, living out a faith we are proud of.
There is life after fundamentalism. There is faith after fundamentalism, if you want it.
And life after fundamentalism is abundant and sweet.