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Date Posted:20/11/2004 10:29 PMCopy HTML


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Re:Shame and Guilt In Religious Fundamentalism

Date Posted:20/11/2004 10:31 PMCopy HTML

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Shame and Guilt In Religious Fundamentalism (continued)...

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.
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