Saturday, April 18, 2015

Learning the Words: Legalism

This post is revised and expanded from a guest post I wrote for the blog Defeating the Dragons back in 2013. After discovering (and reposting) my post on Reconstructionism, Samantha Field solicited me to write for a new series she was doing on language and fundamentalism.

The premise of Samantha’s series (which is worth a read) was that Christian Fundamentalism engages in a redefinition of language very similar to that described by George Orwell in his novel, 1984, which describes the way that totalitarian systems such as Communism co-opt language and thought to serve their own purposes. (Side note: Raymond Aron makes a compelling point that Stalinism and Nazism are religions - cults, actually. Here is my review of The Opium of the Intellectuals, which I believe should be required reading.) Orwell may have targeted Communism - and Stalinism in particular - but the redefinition of language is hardly unique to political systems such as Marxism. Religious cults and cult-like organizations likewise twist and pervert the very nature of language to create their own version of “newspeak.”

Simply put, fundamentalism, like its fellow cults and cult-like groups - including Communism (in its actual real-life form) - redefine the language. He who controls the language can often control everything else as well. The amazingly prescient George Orwell invented the term “newspeak” in 1984. In it, words were redefined, and language itself was twisted in order to suppress dissent and stop free thought and discussion.

Christian Fundamentalism also has its “newspeak.” This is a different breed from “Christianese,” which is more of a religious shop slang. There is some occasional crossover, but Christianese is really just a subgenre of nerdspeak. It binds a group together with common language, and helps to identify insiders and outsiders. Many of us Christians actually kind of like laughing about Christianese.

In contrast, “newspeak” is aimed at redefining words to end discussion and thought. And also to mislead as to the real meaning and effects of those words.

In my own experience, these words were “conversation enders,” trump cards that shut down any attempt at logical thought or discussion or empathy.

And, it starts with this one, which was a word that was so re-defined that it could only be applied to Mormons and cults and maybe Catholics. But never, never to us.


Learning the Words: Legalism


My family had been attending Bill Gothard’s seminars for a year or so, I believe, when my parents decided that we would join his home schooling program (we had homeschooled for many years prior to that– I had only one year of high school left by that time).

I objected to this decision for several reasons. One was that I had only a year left and didn’t want to make a change (I was allowed to finish my previous course of study, thankfully). One was that the program, which purported to make all learning based on and flow out of scripture, seemed to lack any clear academic organization and vision. It was more about indoctrination than real schooling. These objections were easy for me to articulate. I had the words for these concepts.
My bigger, overarching objection was more difficult. There was a word for it, but I was not allowed to use it, because it had been re-defined.

That word was legalism.

In the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Christian world, legalism has been re-defined to apply only to an extremely narrow concept: a belief that salvation can be earned.

It’s not that this definition is exactly wrong, but that it excludes much of what legalism really is. Conveniently, the narrow definition allowed us to say that other religions were legalistic, because good deeds would be weighed in determining one’s fate after death. Perhaps even Roman Catholics were legalistic. But “true” Christians could not be legalistic, because they acknowledged that only Christ could save.


There were all kinds of rules in the Gothard system (and in the similar ultraconservative systems). These rules were called principles or standards— and they were necessary to achieve “God’s best.”

So, in the Gothard universe, Christians should never send their children to public or private school; girls must wear skirts, not pants (or pick your own version of “modesty”); women shouldn’t work outside the home; Christians should only listen to certain music and read certain books; and on and on.

Of course, this wasn’t legalism. We just wanted “God’s best” in our lives. Never mind that we were encouraged to judge those that did not adhere to all our standards as probably not being real Christians.

So, I couldn’t use legalism to describe a legalistic system or belief. The closest I could come was rigid. That word was inadequate because it allowed the focus to shift from the problematic system, which insisted that “God’s way” included many man-made rules beyond the commands of Christ, and placed the focus on other people within the system who were perhaps a bit “rigid” in their practices. We could be a little less “rigid” than them.

The real problem was the legalism, which insisted that following Christ was really a bunch of rules and cultural preferences. (And, if we are honest, an idolatry of the cultural preferences of past white European and American upper class cultures.)

But I couldn’t say that, because legalism had been taken away from me.


When I wrote this originally, I had yet to really explore the degree to which “Christianity” in America has become the idolatry of a particular socioeconomic status which maybe never really existed except for a few privileged people in the 1950s - or 1850s. If anything, my further research has indicated that the Gothard (and to an extent, the entire Evangelical Industrial Complex) has substituted a very white, middle class, 1950s understanding of the world for the gospel of Jesus Christ, in a way that denies true “godliness” or “morality” to pretty much anyone who doesn’t have a certain degree of privilege and the ability to pretend to adhere to gender essentialism and hierarchy. I’ve blogged about this since, and will continue to discuss the substitution of Christ’s teachings for an idolatry of a past that never was.

Clarifying note:

My parents didn’t adopt all of Gothard’s “standards,” or even all of the ones I listed. However, for the ones they did, the loss of the word “legalism” hampered discussion. Even well into my adulthood. By intent, Gothard removed most external cultural preferences from the realm of Christian freedom and placed them in the category of God’s “standards” for all people at all times in history.

(For what it’s worth, the top areas of conflict, in my observation, caused by legalism: food, music, clothing, and gender roles.)

Newspeak: I still think “ungood” is a useful word, even if it was used by Big Brother.


  1. Well, of course they have to redefine "legalism," or their folks just might start asking awkward questions!

  2. I've noticed this, and pointed it out multiple times, in my ongoing So Much More series. The Botkin sisters either have their own unique definitions for Christian words, or fail to define their terms at all - which allows for, as far as I can tell, 1) their readers to fill in whatever they want, and 2) plausible deniability wiggle room for the Botkins. Probably the most egregious redefinition was this one, where they turned self-denial into "not having a self":

    I've also found Orwell's language commentary to be helpful when dealing with Christians. (His essay on "fascism" as a meaningless word is hilarious, and still 100% true.) One small quibble though. "Christianese" may not be exactly the same thing as "fundy newspeak," but it can definitely shut down communication when it rises to the level where the person has been using it so long, they don't actually realize they're speaking in code and aren't conveying meaning anymore. I once went on a date with a guy like this. He wasn't creepy or a jerk or anything, but he could ONLY communicate in Christianese and was so immersed in evangelical Bible church culture that he couldn't really talk about anything outside that bubble. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a second date.

    1. You are right that some do use Christianese so much that they lose the ability to communicate. Your story is a good example. I too have known people who "spiritualized" everything to the point where actual communication was impossible. (Lawyers often fall prey to this too, honestly. We have to remind ourselves to speak English rather than legalese.)

      This is one reason why I believe it is vitally important to have friendships outside of the bubble. (This is such anathema to Fundies, of course...) If all you can speak is your own religious and political dialect, you lose the ability to communicate with the greater world. And eventually, that way lies Jihad.