Recently I have been struggling my way through an important book on Christian fundamentalism as it is experienced in Australia. This is for the purposes of a book review. The author, Josie McSkimming, is looking at the stories of 20 individuals who have successfully escaped their membership of a variety of fundamentalist groups in the Sydney area. The book is distinctive for the way that it presents Christian fundamentalism, using fresh categories of analysis and description. This examination of the structures of these Christian groups utilises the terminology and ideas of Michel Foucault. As a philosopher and historian of ideas Foucault is no easy read. What I will be able to share in this blog post will be only the beginning of an impression of his ideas. The reason that I believe him to be of great importance to our blog is that he is deeply interested in the issue of power. His interest in this theme is both historical and contemporary. McSkimming shows how power in its Foucauldian sense is not something as crude as a single individual exercising influence over others. Rather power is something which is dispersed throughout any institution. When we examine the case of a conservative Christian group, we can see how power is not only about authoritarian control but it is also something experienced inside each of the members. The conversion experience which provided the way into the Christian group is not only a matter of a new relationship with God for the individual. It has also transformed the individual self to become part of a new social order. In other words, the converted Christian has allowed him/herself to be part of a social structure which embodies within itself strict rules of discourse and controls over behaviour. Real power exists within these structures of discourse and assumptions. The individual conscience and the decision-making power of the committed member will now be expected to internalise the values and beliefs of the group. The individual is no longer thinking of themselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we’. When this internalisation is working as it should, coercive power on the part of leaders is seldom needed to enforce conformity. Week by week the teaching of the group message will help to reinforce these group values. Also, the internal policeman that every member has appropriated for themselves to guide their beliefs and conduct will also provide a restraint over any fellow members in the event of their going ‘off-message’. To summarise, as a member of such a group you will have taken on a new personality, and this personality is one was created and is now sustained by the systems of group power.
It is interesting to read in McSkimming’s book how the 20 individuals managed to escape from the structure of their conservative groups in Australia. In several cases there was the recognition that they possessed an unacceptable identity, one which could not be articulated within the group – that of the homosexual. The discourse of the group demanded a conformity only to controlled and approved forms of sexuality. Those who knew that they would never be able to fit in with this control found that they were living in a permanent state of dissonance with the group. A nonconformist sexuality in this way allowed them to preserve intact a suppressed area of identity which the group could never possess. This double life or sense of dissonance provided a firm foundation from which to gradually re-assert their pre-group self over the group personality. The path out of the various groups was never straightforward but in each case the individual found some core part of the personality which the group had not destroyed. That provided the means for creating an ideological or emotional resistance to the group system, eventually leading to escape. McSkimming describes in the words of her interviewees the tremendous sense of liberation experienced when the individual finally broke free of the bonds of the old repressive Christian group identity. They recovered the ability to speak of themselves as ‘I’.
Although we have suggested that the power in these conservative Christian groups was exercised without obvious coercion, it is interesting to note how there are still mechanisms of control. One idea from Foucault, relevant to McSkimming’s study, is the idea of pastoral power. In a typical conservative or cultic group, a controlling technique is to insist on obedience and personal submission to leaders. This will involve a form of confession and will ensure that the leader knows the internal workings of the mind of every follower. This will make difficult any kind of disloyal or independent thought. A follower in this sort of relationship will naturally become more fully meshed in the power dynamics of the group. They will never find it easy to reclaim the pre-group personality.
I am still working my way to make sense of these Foucauldian ideas from McSkimming’s book but I have already identified that they are valuable to us for two main reasons. First they provide new insights into the dynamics of conservative/fundamentalist groups. Foucault suggests that power in such groups is dispersed and control is far more subtly organised than many have understood. Secondly we can see that this idea of dispersed power is of importance in any investigation into religious institutions. It would be tidy if all power in a church or cathedral was given to the person/s nominally in charge. In fact, we need to recognise how power exists in many places within any institution. The important thing is to name and identify where power is actually to be found rather than pretending that there are always clear lines of authority at work. Our account of York Minster identified how much power seem to exist among one group, the bell-ringers. Unchallenged, that power had grown over decades to become a destabilising focus within the whole institution. Our analysis of Exeter Cathedral and its problems suggests that a dysfunctional situation had arisen there again because of the way power was being exercised in an untidy unpredictable way. I suggested that the problem was not just one of personalities but the way that the Cathedrals Measure of 1999 had set up structures of power within cathedrals which are unlikely ever to work successfully. Blaming the individuals within institutions when they are struggling to make impossible structures work, is probably never the best solution.
One thing I take from Michel Foucault is that it is important to identify in a dispassionate way how power actually is operating in any institution. The people who work within an institution which has run into problems are not the people to do this work. They are caught up in the subjectivity of the power relationships and they will not ever be able to see exactly what is going on. It takes the outsider, one perhaps familiar with Foucault’s ideas, to analyse, interpret and disentangle the complexities of power relationships. When these are laid bare and exposed to the light of day, it may then be possible to engage everyone concerned in a possible process of recalibration. The problem will always be that power relationships within institutions are normally hidden and often unacknowledged. They are hidden because of human frailty, petty jealousies and competition. When power dynamics are hidden from view they will sometimes undermine and even destroy the individuals caught up in them. In the case of larger institutions, such as cathedrals, we risk the demoralisation and even destruction of highly gifted people. They are trying to work within a system which we suggested is inherently dysfunctional and unable to deal with its issues of power.