Why do Fundamentalist Families resemble Alcoholic Families?

I remember inviting a family from church over to our house for Sunday lunch several years ago. They had many children. They had recently left a Pentecostal Church to join the church we were attending because the Pentecostal Church had had a wild revival that involved too much chaos at the church services. They objected to the suggestion of the pastor that God was “frolicking” with his children during the chaotic worship services.

churchpeopleSome of this family’s children were the same ages as my own. As their children grew up some of them became drug addicted, some serving time in prison for drug dealing. Why? They had grown up in a teetotalling family that attended Bible believing church twice a week. Their parents stayed together. The family ate meals together, prayed before their meals, honored God and home schooled, strictly limiting TV, video games and movies. What happened?

Nothing extraordinary, that’s about normal for fundamentalist and evangelical families. Almost all of the boys in the youth group at our evangelical church were struggling, several were regular marijuana users, one was occasionally suicidal, several boys got arrested once or twice, one boy used kiddie porn, almost all of the boys used regular porn. Several used alcohol regularly. Most of them were having sex whenever they could. That’s what evangelical teens look like in most churches. Those who have had teens understand this and are not surprised, those who have children under 13 years old do not understand this, and are committed to making sure their young teens go to youth group every week so they won’t act like that.

One of the reasons that fundamentalist teens (and to a lesser degree, evangelical teens) have such a struggle in the teen years is that they have not had a foundation for making decisions in their lives. Developmentally, God turns a switch on in teens’ brains that says: “Start practicing making your own decisions before you have to move out of the house and fall flat on your face.” So the teens make their own decisions, often with disastrous results. Teens know intuitively that at age 18 or 19 they are moving out, and will be making most of their own decisions, especially decisions about how to conduct their day to day lives. They know they have to start practicing making their own decisions.

Non-fundamentalist families that are preparing their children for decision making start very young. “What do you want to eat today? Eggs or oatmeal?”

“Would you like to wear this shirt or that shirt?”

“What story do you want me to read to you?”

For more important decisions:

“Do you want to wear your coat or carry your coat?”

“Do you want to do your homework now or in half an hour?”

“Do you want to clean your room with me in the room or by yourself?”

As children get older they have more latitude:

“You can skip baseball practice if you want to, but I’m worried you won’t get to play first base. Have you thought about that? What will happen if you skip practice?”

Rudeness:

“If you are rude to me then I don’t want to take you to your friend’s house this afternoon. If you want me to have energy to do you favors, then you have to be nice to me.”

School:

“You can decide not to do your homework, but I’m worried that you are limiting your career choices. What do you think you would like to do for a job when you get older?”

Health:

“You can decide to smoke cigarettes, but not in this house. You already know what I think of cigarettes and tobacco companies. What do you think of cigarettes?”

Sex:

“You can watch the videos and movies you decide to, but you know what I think about things that will drag you down, or movies that degrade people. What do you think of the last movie you saw?”

“I feel very uncomfortable with you using porn or watching those music videos, but it’s your decision. What do you think of porn?”

“You know what we believe about sex, but the final decision is up to you. What are you going to do, and are you prepared for the consequences? If you disagree with me, we could make an appointment for you at the doctor for birth control.”

Parties:

“You can decide to smoke marijuana, but I just want to know that you have thought through all the consequences. What are the pros and cons of smoking marijuana?”

“It is your decision to go to the party. It’s up to you. Do you want to talk about it? Do you have any concerns?”

Work:

“You can decide to skip work today if you want, but I’m worried about the consequences. Are you okay with the consequences of skipping work today?”

The Law:

“You’re paying for your own car insurance so you can decide to disobey the traffic laws, it’s up to you. Have you thought through the consequences? I don’t like getting tickets, so I try to stay within the law. I hate getting stopped by the police.”

Some people advise saying something a little different:

“We have high expectations of you. We expect you to obey the laws when driving. But of course we’re not there, so it is ultimately up to you.”

I am not saying pre-teens should be making all their own decisions about TV, the internet, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. What I am saying is that decision-making should be a regular part of a child’s life. And if the parent is open to helping the child sort through their own emotions and thinking, without being too judgmental and pushy, then the child learns gradually to have confidence in their own good judgment. “I can see you made an adult decision about your bicycle. You decided to save up and buy the one you want.”

These are conversations that one can have with a teen one has raised to make their own decisions, but these discussions are not available to fundamentalist parents, or any rigid or authoritarian parent. Discussions that involve disagreeing with one’s parents are not possible in these rigid homes. The parents tend to fall apart when their teens disagree with them or disobey them. Fundamentalist, rigid and authoritarian parents are fragile, easily breakable, and fall apart when their hierarchical system doesn’t work. They rage or cry or threaten or abandon, anything except having a real honest discussion with their teen. In this way they resemble alcoholic homes–homes in which alcohol helps the fragile parent limp along.

The consequence is that the teen has to make all of these decisions by herself, in secret, while lying to her parents, without a calm parent who has confidence in her. One teen in a strict family ran away from home twice. The first time the family thought he had been kidnapped, but his friends said he had two lives: one in front of his parents, and the other in front of his friends. He didn’t like having a split dishonest life, so he ran away to be the whole teen who was making his own decisions. The second time he ran away he joined a gang of wandering teens for a year–just so he could do normal teen development and learn how to make his own decisions. Teens use their friends as a stepping stone away from their parents. It is scary to begin making one’s own life decisions, so they follow their friends. The stricter their parents were at home, the stricter they follow their friends, simply because the stricter their parents were, the less  confidence they have in their own ability to make decisions.

How do I know all this? I was a strict home schooling parent. My daughter used to have friends over for sleepovers. Years later she told us she would take the VW Rabbit out for a spin after we were asleep. Her friends would pile into the Rabbit, push it out into the street, and drive downtown to the main shopping district, all without a driver’s license. It’s impossible to follow your teen around all day at school, or stay up all night and make sure your teen doesn’t climb out the window and visit his friends. The truth is that all of the above decisions are already the teen’s regardless of what kind of home he is growing up in. They are making their own decisions in fundamentalist homes as well as in homes that encourage the teen to make their own decisions. But which home is preparing and encouraging the teen to be self-controlled, and mature?

Friends of mine, also conservative and strict Christians, raised teens who stuck to the rules, never coming home drunk, never trying marijuana, getting excellent grades in school, achieving a bachelor’s degree with honors at a conservative Christian college. At 30 years old his overweight son was still living at home, without a girlfriend, working at a big box store for low wages, unable to make his own decisions.

Family Roles

The Main Addict in the fundamentalist family is the parent who is the most religious, the most rigid, the most dysfunctional. Fundamentalist teens develop caricatures to help them cope: One teen becomes the Family Hero: getting amazing grades, helping take care of the younger children and working a full time job while still in high school. A second child becomes a raging punk Scapegoat, ready to punch the world in the face. A third becomes a sickly Enabler, covering up for, and defending, the main Addict, always buying a new supplement and monitoring blood pressure, temperature, tongue color, snot and poop to make sure they have not been poisoned by the multitude of the toxins they are vulnerable to. A fourth becomes a Lost Child, always absent when there is conflict; watching TV or playing video games, cuddling the cat and reading. A fifth becomes the Clown: cute, adorable, funny, always ready to fall off their chair when tensions are on the upswing. A sixth child becomes a Pastor in a Bible believing church, secretly watching porn each night. Each caricature is a cardboard thin role that the child puts on as an actor to help her or him cope. There isn’t a whole person living inside, just a scared kid. The role is needed as armor against relationships that require emotional maturity. [Most of these roles come from literature about alcoholic families.]

Alcoholic Family

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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15 Responses to Why do Fundamentalist Families resemble Alcoholic Families?

  1. garycummings says:

    All very good points. I used to work in alcohol and drug rehab.. Many of the people came from very religious homes and grew up with a list of “no’s”. They had all of their decisions made for them. When they hot their teens, they rebelled big time. I met quite a few yound men and women in the Navy. Many of them went there to get away from home. In the Navy, with all of their physical needs met, on their off days,many would go to pot parties, some would do harder drugs, and their was a lot of promiscuous sex. Most of the people I associated with were Corpsman, and some of them had been in Nam. They had a lot of PTSD from all the suffering and death they saw. I had my share of minor PTSD working at the Navy hospital taking care of returning vets, and their families as well. By the time I finished a year in Intensive care as a Corpsman, I was well trained in nursing, but I did have some moderate PTSD, which sticks with me to this day. I still think about the 64 patients I lost from 1974 to 1975. Then the many I was with in my nursing career from 1987 to the present.. I understand addiction to some point. A lot of it is related to the family we come from and the scripts we have been handed in life by church and family.
    Read John Bradshaw and Charles Whitfield helped me recover the real me, and get beyond the crap I was handed by both church and family. I did study a Psych for my first Master’s and that gave me a good foundation for later work as an RN. Reading Erik Erikson was a plus as well for me. It helped me raise my self to be whom I am today, for better or for worse. I do have a dark side, but somehow avoided either alcohol or drug addiction.

  2. Laura says:

    Interesting post. I was raised in what I would call a conservative evangelical home, but not fundamentalist. Maybe it teetered on the edge between the two? I avoided faith for several years in my older teens, but returned. Part of the problem in some of the families (me and my friends) was parents who were just out-of-touch. It is not so much that they were rigid and authoritative, but they lived in a Christian bubble and only saw worldly culture in a black and white way. As a result, they could not relate to the decisions to be made…or give proper guidance.

    A friend of mine, raised in a distinctly fundamentalist home – she turned out fine and stayed true to the faith, but all her siblings? Drugs, jail, etc. One serving a life-sentence.

    I’m reminded of a brief post I wrote once regarding the distinction between “education” and “indoctrination”. Unfortunately, it seems like fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals are indoctrinating their kids and teens.

  3. I had a work friend a couple of decades ago who grew up in small town West Virginia. He was of Italian Catholic heritage and so was uniquely situated to make an observation that has stayed with me since he told me this in the late 1980’s. He was of course raised to think of beer, wine, and other strong drink as a normal part of life. When in high school, he was astonished at his Protestant buddies who wanted to binge on alcohol on weekends or whenever they could get away with it. He never felt the urge.

    • Mark says:

      I read somewhere that moderate drinking families tend to raise moderate drinking kids, whereas teetotalers raise alcoholic kids, and alcoholic families raise alcoholic kids.

      • garycummings says:

        Yep, my dad was not a teetotler, even though he was a binge dirnker in his youth (20s). He quit drinking when my sister was born. My mother was raised strictly, and would drink some Mogen David wine . One glass would make her silly. I became a teetotler when I jined the Baptist Church and later the Church of Christ. I gave that up when I left the COC. I binge drank when I was in the Navy, usually after the death of a patient. I consider myself a moderate drinker now. I do agree that moderate drinking families like Germans and Italians and others produce moderate drinkers and that is a good thing.

  4. Phoebe Grigg says:

    Interesting points. I know a lot about the family dynamics of alcoholism, and I do think it can serve as a model for other family systems. I would wonder if people who choose a rigid belief system often come from alcoholic or tea-totaler families (tea-totalers are most often reacting to alcoholism). One could live within a deeply faithful family and participate in the rigid roles and structures that mimic alcoholism. I heard one time that one factor dysfunctional/alcoholic families have in common is a SECRET, and a great need to deny and cover-up the secret, hence the elaborate roles. The secret could be the shame of alcoholism. The secret could be unknown. I know one woman who had no idea why her family was dysfunctional, and discovered after being in recovery that her older sister had been born out of wedlock, which was a great shame in their social group, and so kept secret.

    • Mark says:

      There is also the secret of bad church leaders and ministers who get defended publicly. It’s like defending an alcoholic family member who can’t show up to work. The good cofC people will go to extremes to defend these people and even tell their kids that they are good people, even when the kids can see through the defense and know how bad these people are.

  5. Mark says:

    The idea in the cofC that you aren’t to enjoy anything made for a lot of miserable people. Jesus went to dinner parties and even made wine. Keeping the two genders physically apart (at schools like Harding) and preaching to everyone young that you will go to hell for normal human sexual desire (that God gave you) made me ignore everything else that was said. I see why people figure if they are going to get sent to hell, they might as well have fun here.

    • Deborah Cox says:

      Mark, when you say you ignored everything else that was said, was it like a kind of confused fog for you? I’m asking because I think a fog descended upon me whenever things like this were preached (things that were so inherently incongruous with my lived experience in a body).

      • Mark says:

        I just ignored what was said either by reading a book I had brought with me or the hymn book, I did not experience the confused fog.

  6. I thought of Nadia Boltz-Webber as I read this post a few days ago. We had the opportunity to hear her last night as she was in Memphis for a Lenten series over at Calvary Episcopal. She was a child of this kind of fundamentalism. She was raised CofC. She dropped out of Pepperdine, rebelled and became an alcohol and drug abuser for a decade before turning her life around about 20 years ago and eventually becoming a Lutheran minister. She mentioned her CofC heritage several times last night. She was critical of it and fundamentalism. Is working on a book now about sexuality and in preparation is studying a book about sex published in 1973 by a CofC author and indicated a great deal of frustration with what is said in it. While highly critical, she realizes it will always be a part of her and will express itself viscerally in certain ways and seeks to be self-aware enough to acknowledge it, bring it out, and learn from it. I see an irony in her life. I think she has a wonderful ministry. She is blessing the world now with her insights and the benefits of her experiences. She is on the cutting edge of an experimental and experiential approach to being a Christian and doing church, perhaps we could call it emergent or postmodern. Those words are being used less in these recent days. Whatever, the irony is that she would not be able to do this without her life’s trials that include our CofC heritage with its exclusivism and fundamentalism. The present movement to evangelicalism is at least in the right direction and even that needs to be transcended in my opinion. I am thankful for people like Nadia and you, Mark, for the lessons you have for us that comes from this experience.

  7. Deborah Cox says:

    This is so timely. Thank you! I’m just beginning (at 51) to understand how I did indeed grow up in an alcoholic family where no one drank alcohol. Do you all think religion is the drug of choice for Church of Christ families? I know they tend to be (we tended to be) dissociated from emotion and physical feelings – and I know dissociation is essentially what constitutes alcoholism. Curious what you think about this.

  8. Mark says:

    I am not sure religion is the drug of choice but one verse taken out of context is. There is a difference in the cofC doctrine and the Christian faith. I had to get out to realize that. Most of what I learned about the Christian faith came from Jews first and later, the Anglicans.

  9. garycummings says:

    It is my opinion that cherry-picked verse of Scripture taken out of context are the drug of choice for COC-oholics. Just my two cents.

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