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Shame and Guilt In Religious Fundamentalism

by Timothy L. Boschen, Charlottesville, Va

There have been various fundamentalist movements in American Protestantism in the 20th century. Baptists north and south, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have all been stung by fundamentalist controversies. In some cases, the conflict appeared to begin with the issue of biblical infallibility or inerrancy. It then became apparent to the leaders of the fundamentalist parties that seminaries would have to be brought in line with a more conservative fundamentalist orthodoxy. While the purging of academic institutions and denominational agencies happened with varying intensity, it was apparent to the leadership that a rigid purification of perceived liberalism was necessary. What drives the need for rule-bound rigidity, purification, and the all-sufficiency of a perceived source of orthodox authority (in these cases an inerrant application of the Holy Bible)? Is it possible that at least a part of the answer lay in the shame-bound behavior of fundamentalist believers and leaders?

Religious fundamentalists bear a burden of unhealthy guilt that we can call shame and the ways they conduct themselves in their religious world is directly related to their shame. That is, there is a direct link between the ethical behavior of religious fundamentalists and the shame they carry.

For our purposes, fundamentalism may be defined as a religious movement that seeks to militantly defend orthodoxy against the incursions of modernity. These intrusions may be about shifting interpretations of holy writings, changing ethical values in the native culture, or the complicated anxiety that accompanies intense and rapid social change. Those defining both orthodoxy and what is considered modern threats are almost always males. Fundamentalist leaders work to be in positions of leadership in large influential churches, denominational agencies, and publishing arms. In effect, these leaders position themselves so that they can determine orthodoxy by governing information flow. These same leaders then defend these accepted beliefs by attacking those outside the doctrinal box they construct. This is contemporary patriarchal fundamentalism.

In terms of shame, it is imperative for this article that the reader understand that guilt and shame are not the same thing though they may be said to have the same emotional origin. That is, shame is an unhealthy form of guilt that is toxic to the selfhood of its victim.

Gershin notes,”Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not valid as a human being.”[1]

Guilt is not synonymous with shame. “Guilt is the developmentally more mature, though painful feeling of regret one has about behavior that has violated a personal value.”[2] Kaufman observed, “Guilt is immorality shame.”[3] That is, it is a violation of the internal moral code a person has developed.

Guilt is a self-generated feeling of disgust with one’s actions. Shame is an other-generated sense of disgust with one’s self as a person of worth. It is more often assigned to the victim by parents and the victim’s family of origin. If you ever heard a parent say something like, “why can’t you be like your brother,” or “I can’t believe you are so stupid,” then you have known shame. Let these kinds of statements be made over the maturing years of a child, and the adult-child becomes what we can call shame-based. That is, shame becomes the central organizing principle around which the victim’s life spins. His of her life is taken up in proving self-worth, that is, disproving the notion that he or she is inherently flawed and diminished, a self-concept learned first at home.

In addition to the home, what are some of the sources of shame? The culture can be a source of shame for persons. If one asked African-Americans if they ever felt a sense of shame at the hands of whites, the answer might be “Yes.” Part of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaign among black teens in the 1980s, for example, was to get them to affirm that they were “somebody.” He knew that racial oppression produced shame, a powerful source of diminished self-esteem among the young.

The church also has been a source of shame for Christians. When you hear sermons repeatedly calling you an evil sinner, when you hear often that you are dirty and unworthy, you can feel spiritually unclean.

In the Baptist tradition, the use of the invitation as a time of public rededication may encourage shame-based Christians to make repeated public penance. As Lewis Smedes suggests, these are persons burdened by a Divine Voice that pronounces them flawed because they have not executed their duty to be perfect. That same Voice then declares them failures.[4]

Guilt is not their issue. It is shame. These people need deliverance from self-loathing, not forgiveness for sins. The very institution that was founded on the grace of God in Christ, the church, can enhance and empower this inner critic of shame.

Persons disagreeing with a stated doctrine of the church can be made to feel shameful. This shaming is designed to prevent the threat that the questioner represents. Bringing the wayward parishioner back into line doctrinally becomes a most important task of the church.

One writer suggests that a shame-bound family is a group of people who feel alone together.[5] It may also be said that a shame-bound church is one in which the members feel alone together. Church members judge each other on a “goodness vs. badness scale.” In this system, the preservation of one’s personal “goodness” is foundational to one’s acceptance by other church members and guarantee of membership in the inner circle.

However, to be a member of the inner circle requires a member to stick to goodness as defined by the group; members become preoccupied with maintaining the goodness factor. They have little time for fellowship and authentic expressions of affection.

Grace, the unconditional love of others as God loves us, is not the operative ethic. Preserving one’s personal goodness is. Close relationships with fellow Christians is subordinated to preserving the appearance of goodness, even when there may be personal feelings of little goodness or none.

Shame-bound systems follow certain rules.[6]. These are also true of shame-based persons, marriages, families, churches, synagogues and temples.

1. Always give the impression of being in control of one’s life at all times. This is the cardinal rule of all shame-bound relational groups. All other rules flow from this one and help it remain in place.

Since shame-bound persons come from families-of-origin in which their worth is always questioned and diminished, one way an adult-child learns to cope with these subsequent feelings of inferiority is to always appear to be powerful and in control of his life, proving his worth in his world. A fundamentalist pastor may feel a compelling need to be powerful and controlling, in order to feel adequate.

2. The second rule of shame-bound fundamentalism is that one must always be right and do the right thing according to the laws of the group, especially the leadership. This means that the individual strives for a kind of spiritual perfection to maintain this sense of personal power and control from within the group.

Apart from the parent organization, there is no awareness of increased self-worth, but only deep questioning. These persons become strong competitors because they have to prove their inherent value to others. They must look better than others.

They become the hard-working church members who can be used up and burnt out by controlling leaders. Their personal worth depends on their winning and being perceived by others as high-achieving winners. “The family that overtly emphasizes this rule is the family that embodies all of the stereotyped values held up by popular culture. They are intelligent, high achievers, dressed in accordance with the latest trends, probably athletic, socially gracious, and winners in all externally definable ways.”[7]

Mistakes in shame-bound fundamentalist circles cannot be tolerated because a single mistake, a single violation of the religious rules, calls the entire system into question. The rules are rigid and intensely enforced by the group. Violators may not be formerly excommunicated but they may be shunned by other members until their discomfort forces them to leave. The personal, family, or church image-what the rest of the world sees-is what is paramount.

The religious fundamentalist has an image of power and control that must be maintained and enhanced because his sense of shame is driving him. He believes that something is wrong with him, perhaps on a deep spiritual level no one else sees, and he must protect his public image of self-control and power in order to protect his fragile private view of self.

3. The third rule of shame-bound fundamentalist religious groups is blaming others. If something does not happen the way you planned, blame someone else. Blame helps one maintain the illusion of control and helps the system remain pure. Blame transfers your personal sins to another thereby helping the blamer feel free from his own anxieties.

Blame also keeps the rules rigidly in place. By blaming, one declares that she did not break the rules, another did. In this way, the rules become more important than relationships. Rules are thereby elevated to the level of love and mercy in terms of importance in a person’s life of faith. Blame and trust are mutually exclusive because responsibility and forgiveness are not part of the blame equation.

Religious fundamentalists exhibit blaming behavior when they label others “liberals,” when they keep the focus of the group on what they oppose, and when they make new rules to which all must agree.

Keeping the blame as generic as possible removes the necessity for explanation. Therefore, blame “all those liberal seminary professors” for what is wrong in the world and in our churches. If they had done their job, none of this would be happening.

In American Protestant circles, whether the target is women, blacks, the Masons, the Disney Corporation or other sub-groups within a person’s own denomination, the tactic is to get and keep power by having your followers focused on some target to blame for the ills of society.

4. The fourth directive of shame-bound religion is denial. The person controlled by shame must deny certain feelings, especially the negative and vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, rejection, neediness, and caring. Power can never be exercised by those who manifest these weaker emotions, so the thinking goes. In the shame-controlled family, group, or church, remaining task-focused can keep dangerous inner realities hidden.

Shame-driven persons may be the hard workers of the community or church. Leaders will use persons like this until they become so fatigued that they withdraw from the group. The fundamentalist pastor himself can hide what he believes are the weaker emotions by appearing powerful, in control, and hard working.

Blaming and denial go together to form a tight net of dishonesty and deception. The quest for perfection is spiritually and physically fatiguing. Perfection is a terrible burden to carry when there is no grace to lighten the load; it is a complete waste of energy and an impossible task.

5. The fifth rule is unreliability. Do not expect the shame-filled fundamentalist to be consistent or reliable, even in his or her own family. It may have been an emotionally abusive mother or an alcoholic father that taught him early in life that no one can be trusted. The only person you can completely trust is yourself.

This is why the rules become so significant in shame-bound fundamentalist circles. Living up to the letter of the law provides you with further proof that your trust is best placed in self rather than others.

6. The rule of unreliability leads to the sixth rule, incompleteness. Resolving personal, emotional, or church conflicts is not important. Disagreements can continue without resolution. Shame bound families and churches chronically fight, never resolve conflicts, and are never whole. Even God is reliable only if you follow the rules and work your way into His good mercies.

7. The seventh rule is “Do not talk.” Never discuss the disrespect, shame, abuse, and compulsive behavior you feel. This directive is designed to foster the image of self-control and power. However, since it is only a pseudo-image that covers the sense of unworthiness the fundamentalist feels, this rule is sometimes accompanied by feelings of hopelessness. You cannot talk about what is really felt because it would bring past shame into the open. You cannot discuss church conflicts and the divisions they caused because you might discover you were wrong and that would add to your shame. The rule of “no talk” reinforces this pseudo-control.

Religious fundamentalists regard the rule of “no talk” as very important because it involves the transfer of information, and therefore, power. Whatever was done, was acted on because it “preserved the integrity of the scriptures” or “defended orthodoxy from liberalism.” In this way everything from slander to misuse of funds is justified as honorable. Should these behaviors be made public, they would have to be discounted or rationalized.

8. The eighth rule then becomes to disguise the shame. In order to cover the secrets one must hide the shame. Shame-bound behavior can be minimized in different ways. Abuse, over eating, and other addictive behaviors are convenient cover-ups. Murdering an abortion physician is defended as “preserving the lives of the unborn.” Destroying the professional lives of seminary teachers is justified as the “guarding of orthodoxy.” The appearance of control and power is maintained, therefore, at the expense of victims.

Religious fundamentalists are shame-bound persons in shame-based systems. They are guided by a set of rules generally designed by those in positions of power, who require conformity in order to be acceptable.

Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” A person from a shame-based system will have trouble following this basic command.

Frequently in fundamentalist circles, the inner emotional needs of shame-filled persons displace love. The fundamentalist needs to appear good in order to feel worthy. When a person is trying to work out his worthiness by following the dictates of another, he can hardly be expected to love others as himself.

For the shame-bound believer, the biblical statement, “We are saved by grace through faith,” becomes, “I am saved by earned worthiness through my works. Let me prove to you how good I am and thereby show you how much Jesus lives in me.”


[1] Kaufman, Gershen, Shame: the Power of Caring (Rochester: Schenkman Books, 1992), 9. [2] Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame (New York: Springer Publishing Co., 1996), 26. [3] Fossum Merle A. and Marilyn J. Mason, Facing Shame: Families in Recovery (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 19. [4] Smedes, Lewis B., Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 78. [5] Fossum and Mason, 19. [6] These rules were developed by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason to describe shame-bound family systems. They also apply to other social systems including marriages and religious congregations. [7] Fossum and Mason, 93.

from http://www.christianethicstoday.com/Issue/037/Shame%20and%20Guilt%20In%20Religious%20Fundamentalism%20by%20Timothy%20L%20Boschen_037_21_.htm


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