Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church
(Alfred Knopf 2004)
Honor Book in Nonfiction
Massachusetts Center for the Book
“One of the five best nonfiction books of the year!”
The Christian Science Monitor
“The best single-volume explanation of why American fundamentalist Christianity thrives among certain people . . . and will not die out.” The Washington Post
“It is vital that we learn to see fundamentalists in all traditions as human beings like ourselves. . . . This book has made an important contribution to one of the greatest problems facing the world today.” Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God
“I was swept into Ault’s absorbing narrative right away. The book is a superb combination, a sympathetic portrayal of real people involved in a fundamentalist Baptist church woven together with a well-informed portrayal of an increasingly important element in the religious and political life of America. His brave and courageous inclusion of his own journey as he worked on this project deepens and enriches the story.”
Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity, Harvard University, and author of Fire From Heaven
“Gripping and extremely insightful . . . easily the best account of the inner workings of a fundamentalist community that has ever been written.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School
“One of the maladies of contemporary American politics is its descent into incivility….Spirit and Flesh calls this politics to task, challenging all of us ‘to listen more patiently, carefully, intelligently—even generously—to our opponents. Can somebody say amen?” The New York Times Book Review
How Spirit & Flesh begins:
“If sin weren’t eternal . . .”
February 21, 1984
As I accompanied Pastor Frank Valenti down a corridor into the red-brick labyrinth of Worcester City Hospital built up piecemeal over the past century and a half, the sounds of city traffic and the dim winter light faded away. As we stepped out of the elevator and turned the corner, I first caught sight of them through the thick glass windows of the waiting room outside intensive care: four women huddled in mourning. An eighteen-year-old boy shot himself in the head, Pastor Valenti explained to me on our way there. His brain was liquefied and no brain waves registered. The doctors spoke with his mother about donating his organs. If she agrees, he won’t be “unplugged” from a life-support system until recipients can be found.
Sitting upright in the middle of the group and dressed in black, the boy’s mother seemed dazed and weary as she went through the motions of casting consoling looks at the three younger women bent over sobbing around her. She nodded a look of recognition toward Valenti, as a spare, wiry man, wearing double-knit pants bagging at the seat, came up to greet us in the hallway. Vinnie, the boy’s father, had known “Frankie Valenti” since growing up with him in the rural-suburban towns on the outskirts of Worcester in the 1950s. He and his family had never had anything to do with the fundamentalist Baptist church Valenti had founded in their hometown six years before. They were Catholics and, therefore, like me, “unsaved” in Pastor Valenti’s eyes. Yet knowing Frankie Valenti was now a preacher, they had turned to him in their hour of need.
Vinnie, his eyes fixed wide with terror and grief, asked Frank to walk down the hall with him to talk. Waiting behind, I noticed a large, muscular man, with curly black hair and tattoos on his arms, stalking tensely up and down the hallway. Valenti returned to the mourning women, placed his hand gently on the mother’s shoulder and asked quietly, “Would you mind if I read some scripture?”
“What good will that do?” the curly-haired man suddenly snapped from the waiting room doorway.
“It will make me feel better,” one of the young women responded in angry defiance. Valenti sat down, opened his large leather-covered Bible, dog-eared with use, and read a passage while the curly-haired man looked on in disgust.
When Valenti finished, he asked, “Do you mind if I pray with you?” The mother nodded her assent and Valenti bowed his head, clasped his thick hands together and quietly prayed aloud. Taking leave, he assured the boy’s mother he would be in touch soon. We walked back to the elevator. As the doors opened and we entered, the curly-haired man overtook us, exploding in Valenti’s face. “You know, Vinnie hasn’t been a father to him for years!” he snarled. As he continued his diatribe, Valenti lowered his head, occasionally raising his eyes in a look of tried patience. When the man finished, he said calmly, “I’ll talk with you later this afternoon, Rich.” The elevator doors shut and we descended.
Rich is the mother’s new husband, Valenti explained. Ever since his mother remarried, the boy had had terrible conflicts with his stepfather. “That often happens in those set of circumstances,” he observed sadly. Recently the boy had moved out of his mother’s home and was living in his father’s apartment until two nights ago when he put a bullet through his head. “Everyone tries to undo fifteen years of sin and lousy living,” Valenti said grimacing as we slid back into his two-toned Chevy station wagon and left the hospital parking lot for our next destination. “They don’t understand,” he said, reflecting on the situation in matter-of-fact terms, “you can’t undo sin. It’s eternal. Either you take it to hell or to Calvary. If sin weren’t eternal,” he theorized outloud to me, “hell wouldn’t be eternal. They’re synonymous.”
“Mm, hm,” I muttered, as I often did when unsure what my fundamentalist subjects meant by what they said. Although I had grown up the son of a Methodist minister, I had never heard the Christian Gospel applied in this way, like a law of thermodynamics, to such a familiar, yet grim, human reality. In the church circles I knew growing up in the nineteen-fifties, “sin” was not often spoken about in real-life terms and to use “hell” in a non-metaphorical sense was seen as a sign of backwardness. Pastor Valenti, on the other hand, spoke of sin and hell as mathematical laws of the cosmos.
In any case, at this point in my life, whether sin and hell were synonymous and eternal was irrelevant to me. Ever since my freshman year at Harvard College in the mid-1960s, I would have considered myself an atheist if I thought about it at all. Having pursued a vocation as a scholar, I saw beliefs in God and the supernatural as a universal artifact of human society, and therefore, an important object of study. But there was no place on the horizons of my mind, accustomed, as it was, to adducing causes here and there, for the actions of God–or gods. In any case, it was not Valenti’s religion that had brought me to follow him on his round of duties that February afternoon. It was his politics.
Valenti was vice-president of the Massachusetts chapter of Moral Majority, the most influential new right organization at the time, founded five years before by Jerry Falwell. Valenti was frequently called on by local television, radio and print journalists to represent the “Moral Majority point of view” at a time when popular mobilization for its conservative “pro-family” agenda was growing and transforming American politics beyond recognition. An ex-Catholic and Vietnam vet, Valenti had been among the first to graduate from Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and after returning to his hometown to plant a church, had become one of those thousands of politically aroused fundamentalist preachers who had made Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority household words by the 1980s. (continue above)
“It is vital that we learn to see fundamentalists in all traditions as human beings like ourselves. If we simply dismiss them as either evil or hopelessly irrational, we contribute to the polarization that is putting us all in such deadly peril. James Ault has traced his own journey from disbelief to understanding, and will take his readers with him. This book has made an important contribution to one of the greatest problems facing the world today.”
Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God
“This brilliant book is essential for anyone who wants to better understand fundamentalism —or for fundamentalists who desire to understand how they are viewed by others.” Christianity Today
“[A] seminal opus for bridge-building between fundamentalists and liberals.” Booklist
About Spirit & Flesh (publisher’s jacket)
An unprecedented exploration of abiding and, to many Americans, baffling phenomena in American life Christian fundamentalism and new right conservatism.
In an attempt understand the growing influence of the Christian right, sociologist and documentary filmmaker James Ault spent three years inside the world of a Massachusetts fundamentalist church he came to know while studying a wider range of new right groups. He observed and, where possible, participated in the daily lives of church members. His book takes us into worship services, home Bible studies, youth events, men’s prayer breakfasts, Sunday family dinners, and bitter conflicts leading to a church split. He introduces us to the principal members of the congregation, as well as its shadow community of ex-members. We see how they use the Bible as a “handbook for life,” applying moral absolutes taken from it, more or less successfully, to both quotidian and extraordinary events. He makes clear how the church, embodying traditional extended-family life, provides the security of like-mindedness and community to its members. And finally, Ault describes his own, surprising journey of discovery and belief during and beyond his three years studying this community and making an intimate documentary about it.
Having experienced its life personally and in depth, James Ault is remarkably placed to guide us through the world of Christian fundamentalism. In the course of telling his story, he builds a useful framework for better understanding the popularity of Christian fundamentalism and new right conservatism and their distinctive place in American life.
Spirit & Flesh prologue (cont’d)
I had met Valenti a year before while beginning sociological research to better understand popular support for this new-style conservatism marching proudly behind the banner of “family values.” As a sixties radical who had embraced the anti-war movement, feminism and other new left enthusiasms of the day, I saw “pro-family” conservatism as so foreign to my own politics that I was convinced anthropological methods were the best way to understand it. And so I had begun interviewing members of grass-roots groups and observing their activities: right-to-life demonstrations, the daily work of running a home school, a campaign against sex education in a public school district, and so on.
But, among all the conservative groups I met, Valenti’s fundamentalist Baptist church captured my attention from the moment I first walked through its doors. As a community enterprise, it made manifest a social world I had come to believe provided the foundations for new right conservatism as a popular movement. It was also so different from the images of fundamentalist Christianity dominating the media at that time (and even now), that I had come to see Valenti’s church as a fitting subject for a documentary film for national broadcast. Several weeks before our hospital visit, I first shared this vision with Pastor Valenti and his wife, Sharon. I told them I had already interested a well-known filmmaker in the project and that we had applied for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I was relieved when the Valentis responded positively to the idea, because I knew tough questions would undoubtedly be asked by some church members about the dangers of allowing an unsaved person to portray their congregation for national television. Since I was not saved and, therefore, did not have the Holy Spirit living within me, all their theological reasoning told them I could not possibly understand spiritual things or even the meanings of the Bible as God intended them for us. Nevertheless, hoping this film would somehow materialize, I had intensified my research at Reverend Valenti’s church, plunging myself more deeply into its day-to-day life as a participant-observer. I joined a weekly Bible study group meeting in the home of a newly saved couple, practiced with the Christian Academy’s basketball team, sang an anthem one Sunday with a men’s quintet, and accompanied Pastor Valenti on his round of duties the day we stopped at Worcester City Hospital.
The following evening, on Wednesday, when Pastor Valenti met his congregation for their mid-week service, he briefly recounted our visit and asked his congregation to pray for the boy and his family. “What gripes me,” he said, “is that they want the mother to give his organs and they won’t pull the plug until they find recipients.” I flashed on the women huddled together in the waiting room. Shaking his head grimly, Valenti observed, “They’ve made that thing into a body shop over there!” He had a way with words and, like others in his flock, it favored metaphor.
“You’re either for God or against him.”
I remember trying to muster the courage to first pick up the telephone to call the Reverend Frank Valenti. It was February, 1983, the middle of Ronald Reagan’s first term as President and a moment of ascending strength for a popular conservatism which was then transforming American politics. As a young sociologist recently finished with my Ph. D., I was several months into a research project to better understand what I called the conservative “pro-family” movement. I meant those groups struggling to defend what they saw as traditional family values through a constellation of enthusiasms including opposition to abortion, to sex education, to homosexual rights, and to the Equal Rights Amendment. While the new right as a political coalition also contained libertarians and old-style Republicans, it was this popular movement animated by concerns around family and gender that gave new right conservatism its mass base and political clout.
My apprehension about calling Reverend Valenti stemmed from the suspicion and hostility that hovered over my first contacts with conservatives. I had sought them out near my home in Northampton Massachusetts, a county seat on the Connecticut River in the western part of the state, where I had moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to teach sociology at Smith College. My first contacts had been with grass-roots activists in Right-to-Life groups and in Birthright, an anti-abortion counseling group. They were almost always wary and guarded, imagining that a sociologist, and one teaching at Smith College at that, would be prejudiced against all they stood for. Since I often sensed among them the lurking suspicion that I was an enemy spy ultimately up to no good, I felt it important not to do or say things that stamped me as an opponent. This constant vigilance was often more exhausting than making your way in a foreign country where you did not know the language or customs. In that case, at least, ignorance did not mark you as the enemy.
[To read on, look for this book in your local library or purchase it online.]