Spargur: How an obsession with purity kills movements

Within every organization, movement, and religion there is always a need for people who truly understand the beliefs, platform, and building blocks of the group and who seek to protect them from corruption. Theoreticians, who help guide the intellectual underpinnings of the movement. However, while they are important, it is just as important that this quest for purity does not become a witch-hunt or a contest to see who is the “most pure”. The theoreticians cannot be allowed to demand a purity that does not allow for the praxeological working out of the movement in real life. Having grown up as the son of a very conservative Baptist preacher, and then became one myself, I understand the need for purity and the fight against heresy. However, I have also seen what happens when that quest goes too far. When purity becomes more important than the cause itself, and everyone becomes obsessed with being the “purest believer”, the movement begins to die as it splinters into hundreds of tiny groups all claiming to be the only “true believers”.

When the fundamentalist (Christian) movement started in the early 20th century, it was a very ecumenical movement. There were fundamentalists within almost every major and even minor non-Catholic denomination in the US. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals to name a few. There were people from all denominations that were concerned by heresies creeping into their churches that were denying the very basics of what it meant to be a Christian. These fundamentalists then defined what the most basic and necessary beliefs of Christianity were, and bonded together across the denominational lines to take a stand against anything that changed Christianity into something unrecognizable.  It allowed for and understood that there were many differences of belief between denominations that while strongly held were not central to what it means to be a Christian. They called these basic tenants the fundamentals of the faith. And all the other disagreements, while important, did not invalidate one’s identity as a Christian.

However, once the fundamentals were agreed upon, the quest for purity did not end. Some of the people involved in the movement were not happy with stopping there. They wanted to be even purer. And so they began to add more and more beliefs to their “fundamentals” until churches began to make the length of a man’s hair an issue worth dividing over. When the fundamentalist movement started, its growth was exponential. They were focused on reaching the world with their message. (the Gospel/the good news). However, churches began to compete against one another, trying to prove that each one was the “purer” church, the better church. And slowly, the focus went from outreach to being the purest. Every year a new heretic was found and cast out from the “real believers”. More and more doctrines were added to the “basic fundamentals” until fundamentalism was no longer about the basic doctrines of Christianity, but was now a labyrinth of legalism and “purity” worried more about what people within the movement thought then reaching people outside with their “good news”.

The opposite extreme (throwing out all of one’s beliefs for the sake of outreach) is also dangerous. But, it is important to not let the fear of corruption prevent one from reaching out with the message they feel is the good news. The liberty movement is at such a crossroads now. We must seek to keep a balance between staying true to our core beliefs, to the things we all can agree on, and reaching out to bring more and more people into the liberty fold. Yes, it is important that we not compromise on the core ideas behind libertarianism. But it is just as important that we do not allow our quest for “purity” to make enemies out of those who should be our allies. 

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