Leaving the Christian Right: Harder Than You Think August 27, 2014

Leaving the Christian Right: Harder Than You Think

I didn’t know who Joyce Elaine White was until I read this piece in the American Prospect. I’m still not entirely sure why this piece ran, but I’m glad it did. The article covers her life from about 1973 to 2011 and unravels each layer of her departure — from being a fundamentalist homeschool preacher’s wife and mom in a cultish group, to divorcee and right-wing Christian political leader, to interior designer and conservative political bystander. I think her story is important to read for those on the outside of this world, just to understand how complex it is to untangle yourself from the religious, political, and social ideologies as they interplay in conservative Christian culture.

From the story, about her time as a Maranatha pastor’s wife:

He told her he had prayed to God, promising, “If you will bring her back to me, I’ll call her Joy.” She agreed to follow her husband to his mission post, relinquishing her given name.

“I figured my life was over anyway,” said White, “so why not call me Joy?”

In fundamentalist Christianity, White explains, “they tell you that love is not a feeling. Love is a decision. You decide to love this person. You honor your commitment and your vow that you made before God. I’ve even had ministers say this: It doesn’t matter what you want, think, or feel. It only matters what God wants.” (Robert Hucklebridge did not respond to several requests for an interview.)

The pair became disciples of Bob and Rose Weiner, the founders of Maranatha Christian Church, a charismatic group that had university campus chapters across the country. Former members and critics of the group would later charge the Weiners with “us[ing] a form of mind control that isolated students from their parents and then guid[ing] decisions on such personal matters as career choices, politics and marriage,” according to a 1985 Wall Street Journal article.

She later left the cult, began to realize her individual power, and got involved in conservative politics:

Under the weight of scrutiny, Marantha began to unravel, suffering financial decline and disbandment. In 1992, in the Hucklebridges returned to Odessa. It was no small adjustment — her two children had known only homeschooling in Mexico — but Elaine found a new calling when she became involved in the local Christian Coalition, during the presidential campaign. When she and her husband moved to Austin a year later, her networking with fellow conservative Christians soon landed her a position as director of the Capital City Christian Coalition and later as a lobbyist for the state organization in the state capital.

Upon returning to the United States, though, White decided to pursue the idea of taking dominion in a role distinct from that of pastor’s wife. She abandoned the name given her by her husband and started going by Elaine, her middle name. Joy, her son used to say, “died at the Rio Grande.”

Eventually, after debating the abortion issue in public with a Democrat, Elaine was finally able to leave fundamentalism entirely:

The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, long active in Texas pro-choice politics, debated White for a local television station in the 1990s. After the debate, he offered to discuss common ground they might find together in the abortion debate. He didn’t hear from her — until she showed up at his church, several years later, wanting to talk.

Although White didn’t appear to be frightened on the surface, he said, she was “terrified of disappointing people, not doing the right thing, disappointing God.”

But, he said, “she didn’t quit. She kept facing her monsters.”

“You have to grieve your way out of fundamentalism,” Rigby added.

The profile is well worth a read for those puzzled why those in Christian fundamentalism don’t just up and “get out.” It’s a process that requires time and much work.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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