Totalitarian Evangelicalism

by Virginia M. Doland

Dr. Doland is chair of the English department at Biola University, La Mirada, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 4, 1983, pp. 429-431. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The desire to impose a preconceived pattern on other’s thoughts and actions, though not biblical, is a dangerous temptation for many evangelicals.

Although the teacher was shocked at his class’s response, unfortunately the desire to impose one’s preconceived pattern on the thoughts and actions of others, even though not biblical, is a dangerous temptation for many evangelicals. Since a society’s desire to produce a standard, approved human product through a rigid control of thought and action is basically totalitarian, its existence within a closed evangelical context can properly be called totalitarian evangelicalism.

Because a phrase like "totalitarian evangelicalism" has a frightening ring to it, I will distinguish it from those "goods" and "partial goods" -- which have some justification in the facts of life and human nature -- by explaining what I do not mean by it.

First of all, "totalitarian evangelicalism" is not a simple hierarchical arrangement instituted solely for the purpose of doing things "decently and in order"; obviously, any society needs laws, rules and modes of accepted conduct. Unlike a simple authoritarian society, in which the purpose of rules and regulations is to maintain order and structure, a totalitarian society institutes order for the purpose of control -- control of mind and body, thought and action. Make no mistake, the difference is one of kind, not degree. A simple ordered society will settle for outward conformity; a totalitarian one demands complete inward allegiance. Simply obeying the rules is not sufficient; one must feel at one with such a society in every corner of one’s being. Whether such allegiance is achievable, let alone desirable, does not seem to be at issue, for unquestioning allegiance is postulated as the norm even though the bed is, more often than not, a Procrustean one.

A second clarification to be made is that "totalitarian evangelicalism" is neither healthy nor efficient. As Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, efficiency is so subordinated to control that the totalitarian society can afford to spend 50 to 75 per cent of its energies enforcing control of one sort or another on its citizens.

Such a system of priorities strikes at the essence of evangelicalism, for within a totalitarian evangelical system, thought -- or, more insidiously, spirit -- control takes precedence over spiritual growth. The process of spiritual growth involves individual struggle, doubt and one’s confrontation with God -- tensions that are effectively short-circuited by thought control. Far from being healthy, then, the set of attitudes that I am discussing is inimical to spiritual maturity.

The Bible’s life-giving, liberalizing force should encourage the Christian to search for the truth which does indeed make him or her free. But, difficult though it may be, we must enter into the deep places of faith and the soul and ask the hard questions of Christianity with some kind of faith that answers are really there. They are, of course, but we must descend into them and into ourselves if they are ever to be known. To avoid that journey will change the destination. We need to set aside our fear of getting outside of God, for if we journey in honesty and truthfulness the path cannot end anywhere else but within God. As T. S. Eliot, himself a great journeyer, observes: "We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." Without such exploration we in all probability will never know the place at all. Far from being biblical, the kind of control that stops spiritual growth seems to verge upon the sinful; it is to self-forge a manacle for one’s soul.

Totalitarianism is, almost by definition, religious in its intensity and in the nature of the demands it makes upon the total being of its adherents. In its evangelical form it insidiously rigidifies and codifies the attitudes of the spirit. God frees; humans enslave. To achieve this slavery, four methods have been the most obvious in my own experience. The first was to break down the person’s concept of his or her own individuality; one must think of oneself primarily as a member of a group. Uniform behavior, when it becomes a reflex, admirably depresses one’s sense of individuality. Such a reflex was brought about by means of an intricate system of rules which existed for their own sake -- for the sake of the psychological conditioning they instilled -- and not for any actual necessity. From my own experience I learned how the system worked.

In the totalitarian evangelical society in which I as an undergraduate student spent three years of my life (and the situation there reportedly has not significantly changed over the years), all students were subject to numerous unwarranted demands. Women were required to be in bed at 11 PM. (not 10:59 or 11:01) and up at 7 AM. (not 7:01). Disobedience was unheard of, deterred by the prompt and efficient punishment meted out by hall monitors and discipline committees.

Breakfast was served exactly at 7:25, and everyone was required to be there -- even those who had no morning classes or who did not want to eat. Dress was strictly regulated (for women, skirts and blouses or dresses, stockings and flats, and no hair curlers), and attendance was checked (by the table monitor). Table manners were closely observed; and as one chewed one’s grits in the dull Carolina darkness, "Our Etiquette Rule for Today" was announced. Conversation was evaluated for spirituality and attitude. At 7:45 exactly we would be dismissed to get our room ready for inspection, which was daily and thorough and precisely at 8:05. And the rest of the day was filled with similar restrictive rules.

I want to stress again that such precision and multiplicity of rules were designed primarily to take away the volitional impulse. The way the morning was set up, made it impossible for students to decide anything for themselves. And this kind of automatic, volitionless going through the motions distorted one’s spirit as it bent one’s mind. The rules, we were taught to think, were not important; it was our attitude toward them that was significant. And something did happen to my attitude toward myself and my world as I automatically followed the prescribed regimen.

It is interesting that very few students rebelled; that seemed simply not a possibility. In my three years there, I received a total of nine demerits (a demerit was given for being a minute or two late for class, for example, or for not making one’s bed to the satisfaction of the monitor), but that was not an unusually good record since most students received no demerits at all. Whether I would or no, I was a member of a group; every day in every way, if I would but accept the patterns of my society, I could be defined from without and therefore was not in need of definition from within.

Not only must one conform, but one’s apparent attitude in the midst of external compliance had to be constantly evaluated: Does the student smile as she jumps out of bed promptly at 7 AM.? Does the student pray often enough and long enough in prayer meeting? Indeed, does the student go regularly and joyfully to the "optional" Sunday school and prayer meetings? Does his or her facial expression sometimes reveal a questioning of decisions made by superiors? Under the totalitarian system these were valid questions, and simply to have done nothing wrong (or noncompliant) was no salvation.

At the college I attended, such evaluation was accomplished by a "spiritual police" system which effectively enforced attitudinal and spiritual conformity. Each dorm room had an assistant prayer captain responsible for assessing and reporting on the spirituality of the other students in the room. Every four rooms had a prayer captain to whom the assistants reported; she, in turn, reported to the assistant monitor, who reported to the monitor, who reported to the dorm supervisor, who reported to the assistant dean of women, who reported to the dean of women. At each step the reports were evaluated -- and the assistant prayer captain or monitor who observed no spiritual problems among any of her charges would soon become a spiritual problem herself!

The terrifying thing about such a system was the arrogance implicit in the evaluation of unique spiritual beings on the basis of some predetermined, often shallowly conceived quality control. The "product" who fell short of the system’s "standards" was hauled out of classes or bed and questioned by the administration! If some perceived defect in spirituality or attitude was indeed found, the hapless student might be expelled with a bad recommendation even the week before graduation. After all, "If you’re not an asset, you are a liability" -- or so proclaimed the sign in two locations on every dormitory floor.

Yet a third quality inherent in this totalitarian system was a suspension of normal values of common sense and individual judgment. Another sign in our dormitory admonished: "Griping is not tolerated -- constructive suggestions are appreciated." To my young ears that sounded minimally acceptable, although even then it seemed to me that sometimes griping can be a valid human need. But in reality, no suggestions, constructive or otherwise, were tolerated; to "suggest" implied individual thought and evaluation, the perception of a possible improvement -- obviously dangerous qualities in that world.

In my own case, I was branded forever as a "malcontent" whose treason merited permanent admission into her record -- for making the innocent suggestion that paper towels be installed in the women’s restroom. What I did not realize then, and what I still have a little trouble understanding even now, was the nature of my offense. Evidently what was so treasonable was not the suggestion itself but the fact that I had individually exercised my common sense and made an evaluation. The premium, I found, was on passivity, on detachment from one’s environment in any thinking fashion. Passive people "belong"; they are easier to lead.

The final quality of the totalitarian evangelical mentality that I experienced was its paranoia about the outside world. The implication seemed to be that in conformity and loyalty lay safety; since the world conspires against us, let us not look at its ideas, participate in its institutions, or understand its needs lest we be led away from the faith. We must "stand," build a wall, patrol the campus with machine guns, and quarter our faculty in on-campus dorm rooms, for if they lived elsewhere they would bring the corruption of the outside world in to the students. While it is true that there was a hostile world which surrounded our community, common sense, and Christ’s practice, would indicate that we evangelicals should have tried to change it (or, failing that, to influence it), rather than to exorcise it.

The inescapable truth about the totalitarian evangelicalism I experienced was that, although the totalitarianism was real, the evangelicalism can scarcely have been. In imposing a rigid pattern of thought control, evangelical totalitarianism had given itself over to the "world system," substituting human power for God’s freedom.

Although my experience was with an extreme system, the point is valid in less extreme situations. We evangelicals seem to have a built-in weakness for some aspects of totalitarianism. We worry about those who do not fit in, we are uneasy about questioners and doubters, we feel that there needs to be more order" and regularity. We seem sometimes to have a prefabricated (and entirely unbiblical) concept of what a Christian should act like, look like, even think like. Rigidity and totalitarianism are bedfellows; they are alike a spiritual abomination, making a mockery of the freedom of our Lord.

To cast our lot with such a mind-set is to avoid facing the variety and complexity of God’s world. Those who devise and run such systems do irreparable harm to young people, and as a result they have a negative impact on the future of evangelicalism. Dedication and zealousness will not excuse such "leaders" for, in Christ’s words: "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."