I am not a fundamentalist Christian. I am not even a Christian. I was raised in a fundamentalist church, though (which, by the way, is a slightly different set of churches from the “evangelical,” ones, though the two sets often overlap), the Isbell Church of Christ, just south of Russellville, Alabama.
Please note that the Church of Christ is not to be confused with the United Churches of Christ. There are no two denominations of Protestant Christianity I can think of that are more different from one another.
So anyway. My friends who have no understanding of fundamentalist Christianity are incredulous that Newt Gingrich, serial adulterer, wannabe swinger, won the votes of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in South Carolina.
Here’s what they don’t understand. For the fundamentalist Christian, the only thing that counts is what you say you believe, not what you actually do. Now, for most people, that is the very definition of hypocrisy, so let me unpack that statement a little bit.
It all boils down to confession and redemption. Fundamentalist churches handle this process, integral to every variation of the Christian faith, very differently from mainstream churches. I’m not exactly sure how it works in other fundamentalist denominations, but I can tell you how it worked at the particular branch of the Church of Christ (so conservative that they couldn’t see any Biblical justification for orphanages, organized missions, or instrumental music) that I grew up in.
In the Church of Christ, your sins are between you and God, until they become public knowledge. If nobody else ever finds out about your sins, you still need to seek redemption, but you can do so in private, by praying to God. If your sins become public knowledge, you have to wait until the end of church services. Before the last song of the services, the preacher will stand up and invite any who have sinned, and who wish to have the prayers of the congregation added to his own to help him achieve redemption, to come forward. There’s a particular set of songs that might get sung in this last, key, spot in the rotation, all of which are about coming forward, coming home, coming clean, standing up for Jesus, and so on. The sinner steps up to the front pew, talks to the preacher a minute, then the song ends. The preacher summarizes what the sinner has told him, then he leads the congregation in prayer, asking God to forgive the sinner.
Then the matter is finished.
To bring it up again is to go against God. If the sinner has repented, then putting yourself into a position of judgement over him is seen as the height of hubris and folly — you might, yourself, have to go up to the front pew and confess that one at some point. The sinner has been forgiven, and the sin has been forgotten. Period, end of story. Ten years, or ten minutes, after the fact, you’re not to talk or even think about it anymore.
In saying that he’s sorry he did it, that he’s repented, and that he has found Christ, Newt has put himself in the position of confessed, redeemed sinner — the best position to be in, when it comes to fundamentalism, because that’s where all of us, according to their philosophy, should be standing. Anybody who criticizes a person in that position is, in fact, sinning by doing so.
This mechanism even works in the most extreme cases. For example, many years ago, the principal of the local junior high school, who was (according to scuttlebutt I heard from my family) busted trying to pick up an underage girl in the Wal-Mart parking lot, managed to hold onto his social standing, if not his actual job, by working the Church of Christ confession and redemption system. (“I thought she was a whore,” I have been told, was part of his confession, “I didn’t realize she was a good girl. I’m so sorry.”)
Yes, it is very, very convenient that you don’t have to confess until people already know about the sin. And, yes, it is kind of candy-ass and ridiculous, how easily forgiveness can be obtained (you don’t even have to play with beads or give money or anything). But that’s the way it works — at least, in my understanding, which was formed during my childhood, and which is undoubtedly missing some of the theological subtleties.
I want to emphasize that I’m talking about one church — one that even other fundamentalists think is kind of goofy sometimes, mainly because of the whole “no instrumental music” thing — but the process of confession and redemption, though different from denomination to denomination in its details, is still the key to their common understanding of the way the world works, as well as the key to understanding Newt’s position among them.
I know that you think I am making this up — unless you’re from where I’m from.
And if you’re from where I’m from, you know exactly the kind of people who are, earnestly and with full understanding of his flaws, embracing Newt Gingrich as a Christian candidate.
I want to repeat. I am not a fundamentalist Christian. I am not even a Christian. And I am certainly not a supporter of the odious Newt Gingrich. I just wanted to open your eyes to something I understand about his supporters, I think. It is good to know the enemy.