Monday, November 16, 2009

The unutterable secret torment of fundamentalism.

There are flaws, in fanatical religion, which have been well known for centuries. Jesus referred to it in the religious leaders of his day when he said: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

This moral hypocrisy was something that Jesus noted and condemned. Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) wrote about fundamentalisms “whited sepulchers” in his novel Elmer Gantry (1927). Gantry, an unethical, womanizing alcoholic of a preacher, acts as the road manager for the faith-healing evangelist Sharon Falconer, a thinly disguised literary examination of Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), the founder of the Foursquare Gospel Church, and Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.

McPherson, married several times, in violation of her own moral teaching, vanished one day while swimming at the beach. It was presumed she had drowned but at the same time of her disappearance a married employee of hers, Kenneth Ormiston, also vanished. Various witnesses claimed to have seen McPherson and Ormiston shacking up together at a resort. One month later McPherson showed up in Mexico, claimed she had been kidnapped. When she vanished she was wearing her bathing costume but when she was found in the desert she was wearing a dress from her ensemble along with a watch her mother had given her—items she didn’t have with her when she was allegedly kidnapped.

Long before Sinclair Lewis, the quintessential American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), tackled the whited sepulchers of fundamentalism in his novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester Prim is shunned and attacked by her fellow villagers because she has given birth out of wedlock. She is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” on her clothing, for adultery. The villagers, including the local pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, demand that Prim reveal the identity of her lover, which she refuses to do. The lover was Dimmesdale himself.

Hawthorne warned of the dangers of the conflict between the public image and the private self. He wrote of the conflict between a man’s religion and his personal inclinations. He said such men and women, “to their own unutterable torment, …go about among their fellow-creatures, looking pure as new-fallen snow, while their hearts are all speckled and spotted with iniquity of which they cannot rid themselves.”

Fundamentalists are taught that they must “claim their healing” from God. Whatever is wrong in their life they must claim, by faith, that God will “heal” them of their deficiency. To deny the “healing” is to deny God. And they must claim this healing constantly, to admit that no such “cure” is taking place is to doubt God and doubt will destroy one’s chances of healing. Self-deception, and by necessity the deception of others, is encouraged.

Then when one of them, especially a prominent member of their faith, is suddenly thrust reluctantly into full disclosure the church goes into collective mourning, lamenting the fact that they were being deceived. But it was a deceit that they actively solicited. Their outpouring of grief, anger and depression during such incidents is not really about the fact that a “lie” was detected, but that a truth was revealed.

This is precisely what we are seeing now among Religious conservatives. In the case of Carrie Prejean she voiced anti-gay sentiments and joined politically campaigns against marriage equality for gays. She presented herself to the world as a moral, Christian fundamentalist standing up for “traditional morality.” She was embraced entirely for her anti-gay views. But behind the mask that she wore was the truth. She did not live by the “traditional morality” that she publicly espoused. She was a “whited sepulcher.” She was quite willing to bed men on the first date with them. She was happy to film herself masturbating and send these sex videos out. She made at least 8 such tapes and one recipient says he got somewhere between 15 and 20 such tapes from her.

The Right immediately announced that Prejean was the “victim” of a conspiracy of liberals (which variety is left unsaid, but I assume progressive liberals, not classical liberals). But Prejean was only a victim of her own hypocrisy. The “liberal media” didn’t drug her and then force her into performing sexual activity on film. They weren’t operating the camera—Prejean was. Prejean was outed in the media for the same reason that Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter and Lewis wrote Elmer Gantry.

The public is interested in the “whited sepulchers,” those religiously inclined folk who are one thing to the world and another thing in private. There is something dramatic about full disclosure. This was the sort of drama exemplified in the 1996 British film Secrets & Lies where Brenda Blethyn plays a white, working-class woman, Cynthia Purley, who is forced to face the black daughter she gave up for adoption. The entire drama of the film is about the illusions that people create to prevent others from discovering the truth. The drama itself compels interest.

The reason that the Carrie Prejean porn story has the legs that it does is simple: it’s good drama. It is a drama that was created because Prejean, in line with her fundamentalism, preached hard-core Biblical morality at others, but hid her own inability to follow that morality. A conflict existed between the public and private self. One pulled in one direction, the other in the opposite direction. And like any tectonic plate pushing in different directions, an earthquake is bound to happen. But it is an earthquake caused by the individual involved, not by the media or any “left-wing” conspiracy.

We have seen it all before. Be it the faked kidnapping and affair of Aimee Semple McPherson; or in the stories of Lewis and Hawthorne. But there have been other such cases as well. Evangelist Billy James Hargis, founder of American Christian College, who had seduced the young women, and men!, who came to his school. A fact I learned about from a girl I knew who attended his school. She told me about the situation before it went public.

There was Jim Bakker and his affair with Jessica Hahn; Jimmy Swaggart exposed Baker and the sordid affairs of Rev. Marvin Gorman, only to be caught up in two prostitution scandals afterward. Trinity Broadcasting Network founder, Paul Crouch paid off an employee who said he was forced into sex with the minister. Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals was in a scandal with a gay prostitute. Just a few miles away another megachurch pastor, Paul Barnes, was in a similar scandal. Southern Baptist star Lonnie Latham was ousted when sexual propositions to a male police office led to his arrest.

Bishop Earl Paulk ran the megachurch, Chapel Hill Harvester Church, in Decatur, Georgia. Numerous women in the church eventually admitted that Paulk had affairs with them. Paulk’s nephew, Earl Paulk, took control of the church and then discovered through DNA tests that he was the son, not the nephew of Earl Paulk. Paulk had an affair with his own sister-in-law. Coy Privette, a Baptist preacher and Right-wing activist was felled by his dealings with prostitutes. Megachurch pastor Joe Barron was arrested for soliciting sex from underage girls. Rev Tony Alamo was arrested for sexual abuse and sexual abuse of children. Rev. Bob Gray ran one of the largest fundamentalist churches in America until he resigned and left the country amidst numerous sex abuse charges. He was spared conviction by dying. Rev. Jack Hyles once pastured the largest Baptist Church in the world. He was a man who a life-long relationship, outside his marriage, with his secretary. His son, and heir apparent, David Hyles, was dismissed from a church when it was revealed he was having simultaneous affairs with several women in the congregation. Around Hyles and his church were dozens of ministers all engaging in sexual abuse.

It is no coincidence that from Hawthorne’s novel to the scandals of today the hypocrisy of fundamentalists tends to revolve around sexual matters. For it is in the sexual realm that fundamentalism encourages dysfunctionality. The conflict between dogma and reality are so great that fundamentalism encourages the creation of sexual cripples. Just as Catholicism’s insistence on celibacy for priests has turned the priesthood into an unending source of scandal, fundamentalist theology on sex creates guilt-ridden, secretive hypocrites. Fundamentalism creates the whited sepulchers that Jesus condemned.

Photos: 1) Aimee Semple McPherson, 2) Carrie Prejean, 3) Jim Bakker after his arrest, 4) Jimmy Swaggart repenting of frequenting a prostitute, before his second scandal for the same thing.