V. Sexual Roots of the Fundamentalist Psyche
"Think of the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult. Can we be quite certain that it is not precisely religious education which bears a large share of the blame for this relative atrophy?" -- Freud
My goal is to plumb the root cause of phenomena that are well-known. Fundamentalists live in a world obsessed with sexuality. It provides the primary texts of Biblical citation. It's the concrete referent of the fulminations against secularism, secular humanism, post-modernism, ethical relativism, feminism, deconstructionism, etc. It's also what the vaunted claim of "moral values" is all about. Morality is not about a life of charity, or the pursuit of justice, or the opening of oneself to the depth of human suffering. It's about avoiding certain sexual sins and fixating on that dimension of life to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Battling sex is apparently what life is all about as if the primary plan of the creator were to put us on earth so that we'll be tempted by that in us that we must condemn in order to win salvation. By the same token, each new scandal reveals the consequences of sexual repression: the brutal abuse of young boys by a legion of pedophile priests; the sexual license of Jim Jones and David Koresh; the sadomasochistic bondage rituals that Jimmy Swaggart significantly could only enact with prostitutes; the epidemic of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse that is the untold story of the fundamentalist family. The repression of sexuality has as a necessary consequence the brutalization of the other.
All such phenomena are variations on the same tired story. Sexual repression breeds foul imaginings. Which of necessity fixate on the sexual. What has been rendered foul within runs amuck in the world. Following the dictates of a punitive super-ego the psyche becomes obsessed with the attack on sexuality. The purpose is to render evil virtually everything connected with sex until life itself is reduced to an allegory in which the battle of good and evil is all about the temptations of the flesh, as if nothing else in life matters so complete is the vindictive fixation of the Deity on the human genitals.
The eroticization of thanatos necessarily has a flip side: the demonization of eros. The libidinal economy on which fundamentalism rests is as simple as it is devastating. Eros must be turned into evil, sin, pollution. So that all of one's desire can go into thanatos. Or vice-versa. Once destructiveness has been eroticized all one's energies become fixated on the erotic since it poses the greatest threat to the resentment one feels toward life in general. The chicken-egg question of temporal priority misses the necessary dialectical connection. The only way to triumph over eros is by eroticizing death. And the only way to secure that eroticization is by projecting guilt, sin, resentment and punishment into every aspect of human sexuality. Such is the basic logic to which the fundamentalist project is wedded.
To understand why that is so, however, requires answering two questions.
(1)What must sex be for it to assume such importance?
(2)And what must happen to it for the fundamentalist mind set to assume control over the psyche?
What is needed is an account of the genesis of fundamentalism through a description of the sequence of formative experiences through which thanatos by invading sexuality assumes control over a psyche.
Fundamentalism fixates on sex not by accident or divine decree but by the exigencies of immediate experience. Eros is that force which binds us to life as that blessing which can be lived and loved as an end in itself. It is the spontaneity that weds the child to an innocent and unbridled curiosity; the vitality that resists any restraints imposed on the outpouring of an affective embrace of life in all its forms; the ability to experience the natural prior to and free of the ethical, as a matter of fascination and exploration. Eros is that in us which wants to incarnate itself fully, to expend oneself in investing all of one's energies into life. And when all of this becomes overtly sexual it discovers its innermost meaning: to open oneself to another and incarnate in the body the depth of feeling that two subjects can have toward each other. Sexual pleasure is the temple of a holiness that neither wants nor needs other worlds so completely has it found fulfillment in this one. Such an erotic valuation becomes in poets like Whitman and Blake the prime agent of all human perception; it is in Plato the source of noble laws and institutions; and in Freud it is that which pits itself against the forces of death. It is also, of course, that which rises up at puberty and at crucial crises throughout life in rebellion against the controls that those who hate and fear it have placed upon desire.
Because it poses a comprehensive threat to the fundamentalist project eros must be poisoned at early as possible. Ironically there is, however, only one way this project can succeed. Through love. To summarize briefly a concept I've developed at length elsewhere, parenting is the act through which the parent's conscious and unconscious conflicts and desires become the psyche of the child. This transmission is the act through which the child's psyche is born. The child's unconditional love is the condition that makes it all possible. To put it in more concrete terms, from an early age one must be indoctrinated by those one trusts and loves in the primary lesson: that obedience is the price one must pay to retain love. And so deep must become one's need for this love that one becomes willing to make any sacrifice it requires. Thereby the condition is set for the greatest transformation. The energy from which the very life of the psyche springs has been invaded by a virus that attacks the subject from within. The process that will issue in the super-ego has taken root. In Lacanian terms, one's desire has become the desire of the other with that condition set as the way one will experience both oneself and the world. Good and evil can now be bred into everything. The body has become the scene of ethical instruction. All natural functions are turned into matters of intense preoccupation. All innocent curiosities nipped in the bud. Spontaneity itself becomes a source of inhibition. The reign of the literal is born. That which most intimately attaches us to life becomes the thing upon which a ceaseless attack is waged. All natural instincts must become evidence that the only way to experience the body is as a site of sinful desires. Embodiment itself must become something one hates and fears, a condition in which something evil and disgusting is always at work. Everything that desire opens up in the subject must be turned back against itself. Sin, shame, and guilt must come to define the relationship that the subject lives to itself. The goal of fundamentalist child-rearing is to create a subject preoccupied with waging war on itself, with battling against its own desires under the gaze of a judgmental, punitive super-ego. 
The super-ego maintains this power because internally a fundamental transformation has occurred. All of one's desire has been channeled into one's service to the super-ego. It is thereby empowered to wage an attack on anything in the subject that would oppose or threaten its reign. The super-ego is as Freud noted harsher than the actual parents. It is so because it fuses prohibition with the quest for love. What is the first and perhaps the deepest attachment of one's life is bound to a force opposed to the very thing from which it draws its energy. Sexuality of necessity brings this conflict to a head. For in it one experiences at its greatest intensity the clash of the two principles that constitute the psyche: (1) that in us that would break free of the super-ego and constitute a desire independent of it and (2) the power of the super-ego, as a result of the love one has invested in it, to crush the opponent. This conflict is inescapable for the simplest of reasons. Operating upon sexuality was precisely how the super-ego was formed. It is in one's sexuality, accordingly, that one experiences the true virulence of a force that has the power to turn the inner world into a place of self-torture. All one has to do is desire what it forbids. One then learns the truth. That capitulation under the unrelenting pressure of that self-torture is the triumph of a fundamentalist education. In the war on sex the process of formation completes itself. Its product is a subject living a relationship to itself defined by self-contempt, self-punishment, and self-unraveling. Any attempt to break with the super-ego only serves to increase its power. Appearances to the contrary, the super-ego isn't about morality. It's about power-and the irresistible privilege that comes with power: to torture, in fact to erect torture as the relationship the subject lives to itself.
How could it be otherwise? What else could child-rearing be for the parents but the chance to prove themselves to the Lord by taking whatever measures are required to assure that His commands assume total control over the child's psyche. Getting the child to internalize a super-ego that makes guilt over one's desires the primary relationship the subject has to itself assumes in fundamentalism the status of a categorical imperative. Life must be filled up with inhibitions and prohibitions in order to assure that sexuality will always be experienced as a fall into sin. Internally that experience is guaranteed by the condition that lays in wait to assault the transgressive psyche, even when the transgression is only in thought or fantasy. Transgression, one discovers, floods the psyche with guilt, shame, and the conviction of a fundamental badness that can only be purged by an attack on oneself. That attack is the nuptial offering that seals one's marriage to the super-ego. It is the way one restores one's communion with it. In punishing oneself one experiences the joy, the libidinal pleasure, of a union that feeds on destructiveness. Thereby one reveals the truth: that thanatos has taken control of the psyche. A subject at war with itself has been created, one that will experience desire itself as a sign of guilt and will loathe it as that within oneself that one must strive to extinguish. Thanatos has created a psyche dedicated to soul murder-to the murder of one's own soul. The power that death-work has assumed in the psyche now ravages the psyche. In three interconnected ways. (1) So great is the power guilt has assumed that any opposition to the super-ego unleashes an attack that threatens with psyche with self-dissolution. Such is the true power of the super-ego: unending torment with no exit save suicide or psychotic self-fragmentation. (2)Ego identity thus becomes the active, constant effort to spy out and combat everything in itself that could be labeled a source or occasion of sin. (3) In the body consequently a condition now maintains in which every desire becomes the overture to a war that must be waged until the very sources of desire have been conquered, until everything that might once have been natural has been rendered thoroughly unnatural. Sado-masochism has come to define the subject's relationship to itself. The only pleasure lies in the coldness and cruelty of an unrelenting attack upon one's sinfulness and the pleasure one gets from making oneself the abject object of that wrath. A world of perfect self-hatred has been created. A culture of pure thanatos has been installed as the unity of a psyche that must project good and evil, sin and punishment, damnation and salvation into everything until life itself becomes the doleful and guilty passage of a shriveled and shrunken (but saved!) subjectivity toward the only thing it can desire. The End-the death of desire itself, the unending struggle against it, and the ever-present danger that one will slip and find oneself in the clutches of the damned. The Apocalyptic desire is born.
Sexuality has been transformed into the festering wound out of which resentment is born. For every time desire rises up one experiences again one's powerlessness to break the strangle-hold the super-ego has over one's sexuality. A jaundiced eye then casts its gaze on all who have succeeded where one failed Envy rises up, offering one the only exit from inner conflict--hatred of the sexual and an unending war upon it. That war has become one's deepest necessity. Envy begets hatred begets rage. The only way to relieve that rage is by projecting it onto the world. That act has an added charm: it is the way one achieves identification with that super-ego that has never stopped assaulting one from within. As avenging angel damning a sinful world one reclaims as resentment what one has had to sacrifice as desire. The transformation is complete. One is no longer a child tortured into submission by a punitive super-ego. One has become an adult projecting that destructiveness upon the world. For a psyche so bound to hatred requires a constant supply of fresh objects and occasions on which to vent itself. It is wedded to the search for a sublime fulfillment of the rage that defines it. And because everything within the psyche opposed to this project has been killed there is no way to halt it. Death has become absolute and craves that total unbinding that can come only with a totalizing Apocalyptic projection. (The destructiveness analyzed in section 4 is the necessary outgrowth of the sexual condition this section describes. That inversion is the circle the fundamentalist psyche is unable to break out of.)
The process I've just described is not a disorder restricted to the reddest neck in the reddest state. It is a portrait drawn from what also typified a Roman Catholic childhood in the late fifties and early sixties. What Freud struggled to comprehend Roman Catholicism throughout its history has known instinctively and with a thoroughness that enabled it to raise the whole thing to the level of a system based on the most fundamental of recognitions: that working upon human sexuality is the way to attain complete dominance over the psyche. The systematic perfection of that labor depends on a single insight : wounding someone in their "soul" is the way one gains the greatest power over them; and one does it best when one takes what is most open, vulnerable, and loving in a child and exploits it to forge the bonds that will enslave that psyche, perhaps forever. The super-ego draws its force from that desperate love it has solicited so that it can appropriate the energies invested in that love in order to wage an attack upon the psyche and thereby eventually on life itself.
Given the genius of Catholicism it should come as no surprise that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is the most popular fundamentalist work of our time, hailed and promoted by fundamentalist preachers. What seems odd at first given the fact that Gibson is not strictly speaking a fundamentalist but a reactionary Catholic on the warpath against Vatican II makes perfect sense when seen in terms of the libidinal structure of Gibson's film and the psychological needs it fuels. The long standing fundamentalist hatred of Catholicism is misplaced. Equally misplaced is the attempt to confine fundamentalism to preachers in the Bible-belt. Fundamentalism is on the rise today and takes many forms because it speaks to something that has long been active in Christianity, something that the old Church exemplified and that we may find impossible to expunge from Judeo-Christianity in general because the truth of the matter is the existence of a contiuum that finds fundamentalism in the position of the Hegelian Notion, the telos and immanent logos that develops through the course of Judeo-Christianity until it achieves in fundamentalism its proper and final form. Orwell offers the following definition of liberty: "Liberty is telling people what they don't want to hear." Is it time to extend that principle to religious belief in all its forms? A New Year's Resolution.
Walter A. Davis is professor emeritus of English at Ohio State University. He is the author of Deracination: Historiocity, Hiroshima and the Tragic Imperative. He can be reached at: email@example.com
(1) Charles Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
(2) Fundamentalist readings of Revelations are an exercise in interpretive ingenuity in service to an ox-like stupidity. Every image in the text must be literalized and attached to a specific event or person. So that in the grandest feat of fundamentalist interpretation everything in Revelations squares with specific details of contemporary history. But of course this effort requires its own revisionism since this operation must be performed repeatedly, as it has been in America by fundamentalists since the 1840's. The same drama, ever approaching, ever delayed (and more's the pity), with history and its participants made stock figures in an abstract allegory. In service to the fundamentalist dream: that grand day when it will all finally fall into place, no more disappointing prefigurements, but the real thing. The act of interpretation in such a framework is both mechanical and mad. The frantic search is always on for events that will tie down and confirm the bizarre images of Revelations since they provide the secret code to the meaning of history. Thus the fundamentalist as reader driven half-mad in the constant mental gymnastics required to puzzle the whole thing out then just as constantly revise the thing, as events dictate, with no way to stop playing this game.
(3) It would be interesting to do a complete reading of Revelations as a psychological text; that is, one where the psyche of the author projects in the action of the text the inner drama that defines it. In John's case we have a repetition compulsion in which each attempt to express love is overcome by an eruption of rage. This rage, however, can never be successfully discharged. As a result it expands with each repetition. Only with a cataclysmic projection of total destruction can John finally rid himself of it in a way that enables him to end his book with an expression of love. But that love exacts a terrible price: it is only possible after this world has been destroyed.
(4) Often for this to work a lot of sex is necessary. Under one condition : it must always be experienced as a fall into sinfulness, the disgust that the fornicator must feel toward him or herself as well as the other with whom one performs the act of darkness. This also offers an explanation of a new mutation in fundamentalism: the young college age fundamentalist who reportedly are also enjoying a frequent if not lively sex life on campus. Since their conversion came before they had a chance to sin, they must experience both sin and salvation at one and the same time in an idyllic space that is beyond the principle of contradiction. Thereby they become all the more fervent in their saved status the more they experience the mindlessness of a sinfulness they cannot permit to enter their consciousness the way genuine eros always does-as that which shatters all else with the demand to affirm and live out all that it puts one in touch with within oneself.