Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why Do People "Drink the Koolaid"?

Over at No Longer Quivering they have been talking about why people-- and particularly why women-- get involved with repressive, spiritually abusive, authoritarian religion.  Why is it, for instance, that so many women are drawn into-- and drag their sometimes reluctant husbands into-- the anti-feminist "back to patriarchy" movement?

The No Longer Quivering blog post asks it this way:

Are they “drinking the Kool-Aid”? Brainwashed? Deceived? Have Quiverfull women been beaten into submission or bullied by fanatical, power-hungry male pastors? To outsiders, fundamentalist women often seem ignorant, ill-informed, illogical – perhaps even dim-witted or crazy.

Sure committed Christian women are choosing for themselves to live submissively and self-sacrificially – they are living martyrs willingly. But why?!

While I was never in Quiverfull, I did get into the shepherding/dominion movement back in my college years, as I have shared earlier on this blog.  No, I wasn't bullied into joining or "beaten into submission."  My initial choice was not made under duress at all, though later, the reasons I stayed certainly included fear of negative consequences (such as being disfellowshipped and having the friends I had made there become my enemies).  But my own reasons for getting into a spiritually abusive Christian movement were like this:

1. It was cool to be part of a group that welcomed me.  I had experienced a lot of rejection from my peers in the school system, and I desperately wanted to fit in somewhere.  The people in this group were so warm and friendly when I went to their meetings, that I could hardly resist the feeling of belonging they gave me.  (I later learned that this is called "love bombing", and I was taught myself to do it to newcomers that came after me, in order to get them to join the movement).

2.  I really wanted to feel I was part of something bigger than myself, a movement that could actually do some good in the world. The fact that the movement was against things in society that had hurt me in the past (such as bullying, ostracism and sexual harassment in my neighborhood and in the public schools, all of which was now labeled “the world”) was its own justification.  Whatever else it was doing, Maranatha Campus Ministries really was sincerely fighting against these damaging elements in the lives of young people, and offering a kind of Christian community that certainly seemed to be a better alternative.

3. The life of "total commitment" was set forth as God’s perfect plan, and if you embraced it, your life would be much better.  God's blessings in the form of health and prosperity were supposed to rain down on those who did His perfect will as described by the group leaders.  God's perfect choice for your marriage partner was supposed to be the result of following the "dating revelation" and having your pastors pray over who you should marry-- and your marriage would be guaranteed to be happy forever after, without danger of divorce.  The uncertainties of life could be replaced by certainty.  The troubles that "worldly" people or Christians with weak faith faced, could be avoided.   Prayer and the Christian life became sort of like a vending machine-- push the right buttons, and the candy you wanted was sure to pop out.

4.   We were told that these teachings and life choices were God's will for our lives, and everyone who really wanted to please God would naturally embrace these ideas. I really did want to please God and follow God’s plan.  I wanted to be one of "God's Green Berets" -- a special spiritual force of His favored soldiers, fighting the devil and setting lost souls free.  I didn't want to be one of the "lukewarm" who never put it all on the line, who never made the grade, who made it into Heaven but just barely, with the smoke of Hell still on their clothes.

5. Having grown up in a dysfunctional home, I thought controlling, authoritarian relationships were normal.  It was what I knew.  As a young college student just out of that home, I felt uncomfortable not having someone to tell me what to do. Being under “a covering of authority” felt safe and secure.

So those were my reasons.  But as far as women and back-to-patriarchy is concerned, I think there's another dynamic to it, aimed specifically at women.  The guaranteed wonderful life (as I described in #3 above) takes a particularly domestic form.  Modern life can be very high-pressure for women, who feel they should try to "have it all" in terms of career, marriage, motherhood, and material goods such as a beautiful home, nice cars and clothes, including being plugged into all the latest technologies and gadgets.   Quiverfull and the patriarchy movement offer a utopian fantasy of domestic tranquility, away from the rat-race of the business world and the traps of materialism, filled with peaceful living, a happy husband, obedient children, and all the time in the world to practice the beautiful arts of homemaking.  No Longer Quivering blogger Broken Daughters describes it very well in her post, The Polished Lives of Others:

I’d have a pantry filled with homemade juices and marmalade and sauces and relishes. I’d have a beautiful, antique and yet modern kitchen. I’d have a great view from my kitchen windows, and I’d wear a beautiful apron. I’d be… hm. One of those fairytale housewives, I guess.

My life would be quiet, relaxed. I’d be busy decorating a beautiful home, not really worrying about money and how to get by. My husband would be thrilled to see my newest crafty decoration idea and I’d have people come over for tea, who would praise my exquisite taste and the heavenly homemade biscuits. . . .

And yes, my kids. How well-behaved they were, and how clean and neat and obedient and whatnot. How tidy their rooms were, how tidy the house was, how lush the gardens! Yes, I was truly the Proverbs 31 woman.

At the end of the day, my tall dark and handsome husband, who made assloads of money doing something real godly, would put his hands on my shoulders and gently kiss my neck and whisper that I was truly the wife of his dreams and no other even came close to me.

Yes, I would enjoy those moments that made me feel so superior to everybody else.

An idyllic vision of life in which you beat everyone else at the competitive game of "who is happiest" and "who has it all together."  And it all happens because of God, who stamped the movement with His endorsement and, even if He doesn't actually love you more than everybody else, at least approves of you more than anyone not in the movement.  That was what Maranatha Campus Ministries offered.  That is what Quiverfull and Biblical Patriarchy offer.

In the end, (as Paul Burleson says so well in a comment on Wade Burleson's blog), it's all about basic human needs:  to be loved, to feel secure, to feel you belong, to feel special.  Spiritually abusive, authoritarian religious groups offer their movements as the surest way to get these needs met.  Ordinary, non-authoritarian Christianity is set forth as an inferior, flawed system that won't meet your needs the way we can.  Ordinary Christianity is only just slightly better than "the world."  But we can offer you the peace, fulfillment and happiness you really want-- if you just do things our way, which is God's way.   Get in on the secret.  Join us.  We guarantee the results-- as long as you're doing everything exactly as we tell you.

It's a heady mix, that Koolaid.  Hard not to drink it, especially if you're in any sort of emotionally vulnerable state, such as alone in a new place, or going through a difficult life transition. The best defense is to learn in advance what the Koolaid looks and smells like.

That's why I'm writing this.  If I can play a part in forewarning-and-forearming anyone being tempted to drink, or if I can help anyone who did drink to forgive themselves, then I become part of the antidote.

And that makes it all worth it.  


Anonymous said...

That is why young Christian college students should be wary of what Christian organizations they attend, and analyze the messages that they are given by the leadership very carefully.

Anonymous said...

It's so hard for me to understand why women embrace this. I realize that all women are different, and many women may feel differently than I do, but....the thought of having children AND a career has never seemed like a rat race to me. The idea of being a stay-at-home mom and homemaker has never seemed like a peaceful "retreat" to me, a way to escape from an otherwise crazy world, it just seems like one lifestyle of many. (Just like the choice to work and have kids is one lifestyle of many, or the decision whether to have kids at all, etc.)

So the idea that patriarchy can "protect" you from a worldly lifestyle that's attacking is--just something I have a hard time relating to.

On the love-bombing front, I have a question for you. Did you ever experience a sort of double-standard of treatment for people who were in the group vs. out? Did it ever seem to you that people on the outside were love-bombed in, but once you got in, the demeanor became something else because now they didn't have to "woo" you and they could start twisting your arm to change you?

Anonymous said...

Greatpost! This is a topic that has to be explored because there is a power of attraction to those groups as there are to any cult-like group that has to be defined so that people are warned.

I would like to add another reason people might join such strict, works-based groups, especially if they grew up in similar groups that are essentially works based, behavior based. At some point, usually around the pre-teen or teen years, it becomes painfully apparent that one cannot perfect oneself which must happen to avoid hell, in that line of thinking. One then has to turn to something "outside oneself," so to speak, to be, as it were, forced into behaving or working out salvation. This is one of the secrets of how Catholicism, the religion of my youth, traps its people.

Some in that mindset will end up in controlling relationships thinking, in the psychological state they are in, that someone stronger than them will help them behave. Others join cults or legalistic religious denominations or organizations such as the patriarchal groups.

Thank God, however, that in Christ Jesus, we are free, and that many have come out of such groups and can now help others.

Kristen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kristen said...

Pnisila, that's an interesting insight. Not having been raised religious, I was not attracted to coercive religion for that reason.

Annonymous, yes, it's true that once I was well and truly into the group, the love bombing stopped, and the impossible standards began. However, some of the rank-and-file members, though they were love-bombing because they'd been told to, also sincerely did have genuine compassion and care for people, and this concern and care didn't stop just because it was no longer required. They remain my friends to this day.

Wide awake said...

Hi Kristen,
I, too, drank the kool-aid for all of my married life as well as being primed beforehand by my fundie-lite leanings. I would add, from my perspective, that the defined gender roles were also very attractive to me-it was a way to change both myself and my husband to procure society's and the church's approval. Soon after we were married, I realized that my tomboyish ways and my husband's passive, nurturing nature were not lauded in these circles or society at large. I was not only unhappy with myself, but with my husband. I thought that by embracing the homemaking lifestyle, I would get all the accolades of a godly wife and mother and, by encouraging my husband's authoritarian leadership in our home, I would position myself to get social recognition at church as well as transform my husband into a leader. I was not alone, in fact, when I was in the cult, many women would remark how it had encouraged their husbands to take more responsibility in their homes. I think many of us were frustrated with shouldering so much responsibility and this was a way to make the men step up to the plate and be active in the family. Plus, it would gratify the women to be married to a more "macho" man instead of a passive one who is more of a follower.

In addition, you are so right about the authoritarian upbringing. I was totally attracted to an oppressive-style of management. I remember bemoaning how my previous church elders didn't seem to be actively addressing sin in the church. I was so relieved when I began attending a "church" that would take these matters seriously. I didn't realize that my upbringing played into this desire until after reading your insights today.

In regards to being involved in something "larger" than myself, I definitely felt during my skirt-wearing, modest days that I was stemming the tide of moral decay in the world just by my appearance in public, showing people a better way.

Thanks so much for your views. If we are not emotionally healthy, all of us are susceptible to drinking the kool-aid. Like you said, it is human nature to want to belong and feel loved and validated. Because of these reasons, it is very hard to leave a cult, once you discover what poison it is. We were only involved a couple of years in deep fundamentalism, but it was difficult to leave our identity and our friends behind. After nearly two years of recovery, soul searching and self-therapy, I am slowly beginning to feel emotionally healthy, but still feel a little bereft without the friendships that we had. My children definitely have mourned the loss of these friendships. They still ask to get together with some of the families. I console myself by telling them that these people are very unhealthy and it is not good for us long-term to be involved with them. Plus, there was so much pain initially when we left that even being around any of these blinded people reminded us of our own sheep-like following. It's all been so jarring, that I still get a weird feeling when I see any of them online or in the store.

People can judge that we are the weak ones of society, but this could happen to anyone. I was a decorated athlete, salutatorian and independent spirit in my high school days. I had the world by its tail. By all appearances, I should have been on the list of "least to be involved in a cult". And, here I am, on the other side. My advice? Cult-proof yourself by addressing any low self-esteem or codependency issues in your life. I didn't know I had them until after leaving the cult.

Hope this shows how many attractions that these places hold for any one of us.

Anonymous said...


The reason I asked about the double-standard love-bombing is that I have seen things similar to this happen. In the past, it confused me. Now I'm starting to put the pieces together.

For instance, I had a friend who was involved in a church like this (and he was genuinely a good person with good motives). He was extremely good at speaking to non-Christians without offending them---making them feel loved and valued, not tactlessly making them feel bad or "less" because they weren't a Christian like he was. I always admired that in him.

Then one of our other friends began to drift away from Christ a bit, and suddenly my always-tactful-and-attractive friend said some things that were, frankly, pushy and rude--not the way you want to go about admonishing someone. I was so completely shocked. I knew that this friend's good, tactful behavior towards non-Christians was not some fake mask; he really did believe in treating people well and making them feel comfortable.

But it's like once you had become a Christian, he felt like he could just nose his way into your life in the rudest way possible if you were doing something he felt was un-Christian. It was strange to watch.

Kristen said...

Wide-Awake, thanks for sharing your story. I agree that many who leave these groups lose friendships; I was fortunate not to because I left when the group was splitting up, and my friends had to leave too. I think you're so right that given the "perfect storm" of personal circumstances, one of these cults could happen to anyone!

Anonymous-- I recognize the type of person you're describing. We, too, were a lot gentler with non-Christian strangers than with our friends who were Christians, so yes, the love-bombing did stop once you were well and truly in. The idea was that "you are your brother's keeper" actually meant "you are your brother's watchdog."

But what I said also holds true-- that in the midst of all that love-bombing, there was also genuine love and friendship that happened. And even when someone left and were were instructed by leadership to ostracize them, many of us grieved deeply over the loss of the relationship.