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Understanding Fundamentalism: Being Separate from the World

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. – 1 John 2:15

Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. – 2 Corinthians 6:17

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. – James 1:27

One of the most common questions I receive when people learn about my fundamentalist past is how I was able to leave it. This was a decades-long process that began with my parents highly valuing higher education and my desire to pursue a medical career. Explaining the factors that influenced my transition out of fundamentalism will help illuminate why so many of the traits I described in last month’s article are interrelated and important to understanding Fundamentalism. Let’s start with being “in the world but not of the world” or separatism.1

Separate Education of Children
From preschool through 9th grade I attended a private Christian school that was affiliated with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church our family attended. Like many other Christian schools founded in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was, as Karen Armstrong describes in her definition of Fundamentalism, established as a pushback against modernity driven by a fear of annihilation.2 The social upheaval of these decades included the Vietnam War and the Anti-war Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, school desegregation, challenges to compulsory school prayer, the sexual revolution, lingering angst over teaching evolution and sex education in public schools, and the looming specter of “godless” Communism. These drove fundamentalist groups to establish separate religious schools as a way of insulating their children from “the world” and what they saw as extreme shifts in societal norms away from how they believed American society should be. It was during this same period—and for the same reasons–Jerry Falwell Sr. founded Liberty University and the Moral Majority, touching off what persists today as the “Culture Wars.”

As we established last month, Authoritarians tend to desire order and fear outsiders, and, when they feel threatened, tend to turn to leadership that promises to maintain control and prevent change.3 Private religious schools—whether Protestant or Catholic, Jewish or Muslim or other—allow people to feel more in control. Not just of their children’s education, but of their lives in an uncertain and ever-changing world. It is a coping mechanism to mitigate anxiety about the world and their exposure to it. Fundamentalism, like Authoritarianism, is about control and the existential angst that comes with the fear of losing it.

This fear of losing control and of the dangers of a sinful world were on display in the recent mass shooting in Atlanta. The alleged shooter–identified as a very religious man–indicated, at least in part, that his motive was driven out of a need to “remove the temptation” of massage services in which he had previously engaged, something he described as “a sex addiction.” Notice how this is framed as an external influence that adversely affects him, and the way he thought best to deal with it was to eliminate the temptation. While his deadly method is not endorsed by fundamentalism and his church was quick to denounce his actions, this is the same reasoning for endorsing separateness: eliminating exposure to things that cause one to sin. (I will revisit the subject of purity culture in a future post.)4

Separate religious education allows religious families, religious institutions, denominations, and sects to know their children are receiving an education firmly grounded in their faith, protected from exposure to subjects and world-views they find objectionable, and isolated from the influence of unbelievers who might cause them to stumble and diverge from the “narrow way.”5 A famous line from my childhood was “We don’t drink or chew or run around with those who do.” Rearing children who are “trained up in the way they should go,” according to Proverbs 22:6, is supposed to guarantee that “when they are old, they will not depart from it.”
Establishing a strong, early Christian foundation and life-long community also helps ensure the survival of Fundamentalism into the next generation.

What’s wrong with Modernity?
Fundamentalism views America as a Christian nation founded on Christian principles and as an archetype of the “new Israel.” This means God’s covenant with Israel also applies to the United States, such that if America as a nation is obedient and pleasing to God, then God will bless the United States. But if America is disobedient, we will suffer consequences for falling away from God as is seen happening to Israel in the Old Testament. The social changes of modernity create anxiety about losing God’s favor as well as losing the ability to influence society in order to thwart the proliferation of sin. Through movies and pop culture, whether it’s Elvis or Lady Gaga, Fundamentalism sees the secular world glorifying sin. This reinforces an already held binary mindset, creating a tension between those who work for “good” and those who work for “evil.” This tribalist perspective of being on God’s side while the world is against you adds to the concern of losing the ability to worship freely as scripture warns when one obeys God properly, the world will “revile and persecute you.”6 This generalized fear of outside influence causing internal corruption—be it national or
personal–aligns with the Red Scare of communism in the middle to latter part of the last century. If America moved too far away from its strong Christian values, the concern was it would open the country to communist influence. Today’s concern has shifted to the fear of socialism, which is also seen as ungodly. Ultimately, this is a soul issue. While endeavoring to preserve God’s favor on the nation, believers must also take care not to lose God’s favor because of one’s own personal struggle with sin. The fear of disappointing God cannot be underestimated nor can the fear of punishment from a Divine parent who scripture says can’t stand to even look at us if we sin.7,8 To this end, separation from the world protects the nation from destruction, protects believers from the annihilation of their souls through salvation to heaven and from eternal punishment in hell, and protects Fundamentalism from losing the next generation of Fundamentalists.

The importance of separateness extends to all elements of life. In order to protect us from sin we had many strict rules about hair, clothing, music, TV, movies, businesses we could patronize and those we should not, church attendance, bible-reading, what we were not allowed to read, tithing, social interactions, and recreational activities. In our church and school, women were not allowed to wear pants and no one was permitted to wear clothing made of jean material since blue jeans at the time were preferred by “the world.” In order to not act like the world we were forbidden to dance, listen to anything other than church music, drink alcohol or patronize establishments that served alcohol. Movie theaters were off-limits and mixed swimming was prohibited. All of this is designed to remove the temptation of sin and abstain from the appearance of evil.

Separation is not only a means of protection, but it is a religious imperative. A culture of separateness serves as an example to others of how one should live. Being recognizably different shows we were not “conformed to this world”9 and provides an opportunity for witnessing. The hope is people will take notice and say, “You seem different, what is it about you?” opening the door for a conversation about salvation. In a cosmic battle between good and evil, in which winning and losing is seen as a zero-sum game, separation from the world protects Fundamentalism from the annihilation it inherently fears of losing influence in the world to the evils of modernity. And yet, in a Manichaean belief system, the world is understood as hopelessly lost. The types of cultural changes America has experienced over the last 60 years including issues like abortion, marriage equality, transgender rights – all reinforce the belief that the world will forever continue to devolve into greater and greater sin, chaos and debauchery. The only hope for escape is through Christian conversion which offers salvation from the death and destruction of this world to a paradise with God in the next before God ultimately destroys the earth. The role of fundamentalism is to hold the line for God like Lot as the last righteous man in Sodom.

The need for maintaining autonomy and control within these separate religious schools often included refusing state oversight which meant many private schools like mine were not accredited. Being accredited required submission to the authority of the State and compliance with curriculum requirements and regulations. This was unacceptable to the leaders of our church and school. It was rejected in part because they believed the only authority they were beholden to is God. When my parents learned our Christian school was not accredited and that most colleges require an accredited diploma for admission, I moved to the public high school for the completion of my education. This was its own culture shock, but it’s what set me on an eventual path out of fundamentalism – a path my former school leaders were certain would lead to my destruction. It was, in reality, the first step on my path to freedom and a more authentic relationship with God.

Additional Reading:

  1. Bible verses on being separate from the world
  2. Billy Graham: In the World, But Not of It 


  1. Billy Graham: In the World, But Not of It 
  2. What is Religious Fundamentalism 
  3. The Rise of American Authoritarianism 
  4. Don’t Discount Evangelicalism as a factor in racist murder of Asian spa workers in Georgia 
  5. Matthew 7:13-14 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
  6. Matthew 5:11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner. of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
  7. Habakkuk 1:13a Your eyes are too pure to look on evil
  8. Isaiah 63:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
  9. Romans 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Christy Caine is the former Director of The Burkhart Center. Questions can be sent to The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of First Community or The Burkhart Center.

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Understanding Fundamentalism: Being Separate from the World