When he joined the Christian fundamentalist scene, Brian was faced with 'spiritual warfare'

ABC RN, Australia / March 18, 2023

By Siobhan Marin

Brian McDowell entered the "fundamentalist Pentecostal church scene" when he was 17.

His brothers joined the Gold Coast community first and — from Brian's vantage point — it seemed like a positive influence.

"I saw change in their lives, so I thought maybe there's some goodness [in it]," he tells RN's God Forbid.

After joining the church, Brian recalls being enveloped by "the sense of community and acceptance".

"At first, it's 'Come in!' Open arms. 'Jesus loves you, Jesus accepts you. There is grace for anything you might have done wrong,'" he says.

"[It was] love bombing — really roping you in through it. Whether it's done intentionally or unintentionally is up for debate."

The term "love bombing" is typically used in relationships to describe one partner inundating their new spouse with attention and affection. It can create a power imbalance and lead to isolation.

Brian says this tactic drew many people to the church.

"Particularly for people who may sit on the outskirts of society, who might be outcasts — I wasn't, but I saw a lot of people that came in who were."

The love swiftly dissipated, making way for strict expectations around what members should believe, and how they should act.

"Very quickly your behaviour changes," says Brian, "because you realise that if you want to remain accepted in that group that's provided you with safety, belonging, acceptance, then you have to continue to act [a certain] way."

'You are the chosen ones'

Sex before marriage, for example, was viewed as unacceptable.

"Any recognition of your own sexuality, of your feelings towards someone of the same sex, opposite sex, whatever, is definitely frowned upon," explains Brian.

Purity culture wasn't the only problematic teaching, he says.

He recalls his weeks being filled with church-related activities: Bible studies, youth groups, Sunday services.

"All of those things … reinforced the message that, 'You are the chosen ones, you are the ones that are going to help everyone else see the light in the world. And, quite frankly, if they don't, that's OK, they just burn.'"

According to Brian, who officially left the church in 2011, aged 39, the church promoted an "us and them" mentality.

"There's a recognition of everything that's not 'us' is evil," he explains.

"There's this sense of spiritual warfare, where you have to pray and fast and do all these things to defeat the devil, who is everywhere."

What makes a church 'fundamentalist'?

According to Tom Aechtner, associate professor in religion and science at the University of Queensland, there are three main characteristics of contemporary Christian fundamentalism.

First, he says, the Bible is viewed as an inerrant piece of scripture — it's incapable of being wrong. Because of this, Christian fundamentalists employ a literalist reading of the text.

Conservatism is another key factor.

"Nowadays, Christian fundamentalism is sort of married to political conservatism and cultural conservatism," Dr Aechtner explains.

"That's often associated with a rejection of aspects of the world around them … [for example] their perception of what would be perceived to be non-traditional gender roles."

The final attribute is exclusivity: "having strict boundaries about who is in and who's out, who's saved, and how one can be saved".

Life in a secretive sect

Laura McConnell is all too aware of the intricacies of Christian fundamentalism.

The 43-year-old writer and activist grew up in rural New South Wales and was raised in a secretive sect.

"One of the outcomes of that would be that the universe is approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years old," he explains. "Therefore, evolution and all the science around it is incorrect. So, creationism is an outcome of fundamentalism."

The group — which claims to have no name, but is commonly referred to as The Truth and Two by Twos — originated in Ireland in the late 1800s, before offshoots began in other parts of the world.

The organisation also claims to have "no earthly leaders", but Laura rejects this notion.

She points to a strict hierarchy, where male members, known as "workers", assume a priest or pastor-like position.

"[It's] the man in a family or community group who maintains control and says what people can wear," she explains.

"[He's the one] who tightly reins people in when they're getting a bit too 'naughty' and wearing lipstick or daring to have their skirts too short."

Laura adds that women can even be policed for sporting open-toed shoes.

"Our community is very tightly controlled, in terms of gender and sexuality roles," she says.

If these facets of fundamentalism sound counter-cultural, it's intentional.

"[It's] a movement that originates in the late 19th century and 20th century in reaction to liberal Christian theologies," explains Dr Aechtner.

Dr Aechtner adds that many followers view the teachings as constructive, rather than constricting.

"They're getting very clear rules about how to live one's life, and I think sometimes people miss that in modern society," he says.

Ultimately, Dr Aechtner qualifies that "there's a spectrum" to the beliefs and behaviours of these groups, and their members.

Shunned by family members

Despite being a fifth-generation member of The Truth, Laura says fundamentalism "wasn't a natural fit".

"I never felt comfortable fearing the world outside," she explains.

So, at 19, Laura decided to leave.

She was one of the first members of her close family to do so, and recalls it being "a very tumultuous time".

As Laura lived in a town of just 250 people, she continued to run into followers at the post office or local shop. They'd avoid eye contact and pretend not to know her.

This community-wide shunning is one of the reasons Laura views The Truth as a fundamentalist organisation.

"That's cult behaviour when you pretend that people you're meant to love and support no longer exist," she says.

A warning sign

It wasn't until Laura left the sect that she began reckoning with the indoctrination she'd received.

She is now an advocate for women and young people who have renounced fundamentalist religious communities.

"People who want to leave need support," she says.

"Things like housing [and] Centrelink benefits are not easy to obtain. We need to, as a society, understand the impacts and the difficulties in leaving."

Laura explains that the complications are far from just physical.

"You can leave fundamentalist Christianity and take with you a whole lot of other fundamentalist beliefs about gender, race or sexuality," she says.

"So, there's a real unpacking — and breaking apart — that needs to happen."

In the two decades since leaving, Laura has given much thought to what attracts people, including generations of her family, to a fundamentalist sect like The Truth.

She points to poverty, disenfranchisement, grief and loss as some of the factors that influence people to subscribe to extreme ideological frameworks.

Experts agree that insular sects can reel in and dominate vulnerable people with a range of psychological tactics, including coercive control.

"I tend towards seeing fundamentalism as a canary in the coal mine, a bit of a warning sign," says Laura.

"If people are attracted to it, there's something in your social cohesion and social structures which is not working.

"These people are looking for meaning as a result of something being wrong."

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