Exile Excitement: Some Fundamentalists Seek Escape From Decadent Society

The neo-Puritans just can’t take all the secularism, false religions and general gayness that’s rippling through American culture right now.

OK, now we’ve done it. Those of us who advocate things like separation of church and state, secular government, LGBT rights and self-determination when it comes to issues of sexuality have really torqued off the Religious Right – so much so that some of them are thinking of going into exile.

Don’t get too excited. It’s not like they are going to flee en masse to some forgotten island or anything. Rather, some folks on the far, far right of the theological spectrum seem to be contemplating a type of “internal exile.” They’d hole up in a fundamentalist denomination until this current age of wickedness blows over.

David Gibson of Religion News Service described this phenomenon recently. Gibson wrote that a strain of Religious Right activists is “feeling increasingly alienated and even persecuted in the society they once claimed as their own. They’re shifting to another favorite image from Scripture – that of the Babylonian exile, preparing, as the ancient Judeans did, to preserve their faith in a hostile world.”

Gibson quoted Carl Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pa. Picking up on the Religious Right’s increasingly popular persecution theme, Trueman carped, “We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs.”  

Trueman made the comment in the journal First Things, an uber-Catholic publication that has long been the voice of those who pine for the 12th century and miss the days when no one dared question the local bishop lest they end up on a rack.

“[T]he Western public square,” Trueman bemoaned, “ is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.”

Poor guy. Seems these neo-Puritans just can’t take all the secularism, false religions and general gayness that’s rippling through American culture right now. Worse yet, the Republicans, who were supposed to save us from all of this, seem more interested in slashing taxes and attacking the Affordable Care Act than ushering in the Second Coming.

No one appointed Trueman a spokesman for Christianity or even “traditional Christianity.” I know there are many good Christians who sharply disagree with him. But those in his camp are left with the question of what’s an upright (and uptight) fundamentalist to do these days?

I have a suggestion: Face a hard truth. It seems to me that you holier-than-thou types have been preachifying at us for a long time. It also seems to me that many of us have heard your message. (Believe me, we’ve heard it.)

Did it ever occur to you that maybe we are consciously rejecting it?

Perhaps we’re doing that because it’s not a very good message. All too often, it’s a message of division, a message of hate and a message of ignorance. It’s a message anchored in an intolerant past that we’re glad to have shed. We won’t go back.    

I’d recommend that the fundamentalists preach a better message – but they don’t seem to have one. They can’t persuade us to voluntarily adopt their faith, and they’ve certainly tried to force us. But lately that hasn’t been working out too well for them, either.

What are their options? Well, the exile thing is certainly a possibility (although I find it amusing that the fundamentalists are already arguing among themselves about which right-wing religion is best to shelter them). But here’s another: Stop trying to run our lives. Mind your own business, and, for the most part, people will let you alone.

Bothered by gay sex? Don’t engage in it. Annoyed by books about evolution? Don’t read them. Discouraged because you don’t see enough evidence of your religion in public spots? Go to a place where you’re sure to find it – a church!

Gibson notes that these fundamentalists feel “alienated.” That could be, but they never seem to take the next step and ask why they’re feeling that way.

A little self-reflection is in order. The fundamentalists have no one but themselves to blame – because they peddle a crummy product. There’s a reason the period during which rigid religion ruled supreme is known as the “Dark Ages.” In more recent times in America and elsewhere, fundamentalist dominance spawned things like subjugation of women, censorship, anti-science views, coerced religious worship and suppression of other faiths.

The fundamentalists had their day, and they made a hash of it. So some people – I’m talking to you, Roger Williams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and John Leland – came up with a better option: religious and philosophical freedom for all backed by an officially secular government resting on a wall of separation between church and state.

Without apology, we can say that this way of doing things is demonstrably better. But there’s no reason for anyone to go into exile. Fundamentalists will always be free to go to church, proselytize (on their own time and with their own dime) and worship with like-minded believers as they see fit.

What they won’t be free to do is use the government to enforce a theology that most Americans have chosen not to adopt.

It’s a fair deal. But if it absolutely doesn’t please the Religious Right, I’m sure there’s still a forgotten island out there somewhere that can be fashioned into a theocratic utopia. Because those always work out so well, right?