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J. K. Rowling’s Witch Trials: The Pull of Fundamentalism

The controversies swirling around JK Rowling illustrate that fundamentalist thinking is not unique to the religious right.

With the launch of the popular new podcast series The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling (listener warning: it contains strong language and vulgarity), the listening public has gained a window into the life of one of the world’s most influential women, and also the two opposing religious forces that mirror each other in their efforts to oppose her. Host Megan Phelps-Roper brings to the podcast her own background as a former member of the fundamentalist cult known as Westboro Baptist Church, which informs her understanding of the ways J. K. Rowling has been publicly attacked by movements on the right and the left.

Fundamentalism is a label that historically has been primarily applied to right-wing religious thinking. It is hard to define precisely, but academic definitions of fundamentalism generally include 1) a belief that there was an idyllic past that we need to return to; 2) an uncritical reading of sacred texts; and 3) intense policing of ingroup and outgroup. 

I should communicate here at the outset that for a believing and sustaining Latter-day Saint, each of these components of fundamentalism has some validity: the idea of restoration faith implies that there are good things in the past that have been lost and need to be rediscovered and reestablished. Also, sacred texts benefit from reading without the normal human tendency to overanalyze into meaninglessness. And without any gatekeeping and boundaries, organizations dissolve.

Fundamentalism is characterized by isolation and walls.

But taken to unhealthy extremes, these components of fundamentalist religion become antithetical to real faith, which must be freely chosen in the face of competing ideas, ambiguities, and the company of nonbelievers.

Afraid of these tensions, fundamentalism is characterized by isolation and walls. The phrase “Mormon fundamentalists” recalls images of walled compounds owned by polygamous offshoot communities, but strains of right-wing fundamentalist thinking in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have in recent years resulted in psychological walls that are just as impenetrable. Combinations of conspiracy thinking, divisive political loyalties, and a move toward evaluating modern prophetic decisions against narrow interpretations of specific passages in the Doctrine and Covenants have led fundamentalist-leaning church members into regular conflict with church leadership and fueled the growth of charismatic splinter movements.

Cognitive Closure

A strong driver of Fundamentalist thinking is the craving for cognitive closure, where the mind becomes closed off from alternative ways of thinking. Cognitive closure spares us from the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, where new information challenges our understanding of reality. Cognitive dissonance is unsettling, and too much of it can lead to intellectual paralysis and despair. We typically respond to cognitive dissonance with one of several strategies: avoiding the new information, updating our map of reality with the new information, rejecting the new information, transcending the conflict, or embracing some amount of paradox and ambiguity. Some of those responses are designed to maintain cognitive closure; others reflect an openness to the painful work of revising our paradigms.

The modern West is in a crisis of abandonment of the Judeo-Christian faith, and the results are societies drowning in nihilistic despair. The progressive tendency is often to blame right-wing fundamentalism for loss of faith, and it is definitely true that right-wing fundamentalist thinking carries its own sets of problems. But when progressives invoke fundamentalism, they are projecting. In reality, modern progressivism is also fundamentalist: it has merely transferred fundamentalist religious intuitions to a set of secular assumptions about the world. For the Latter-day Saint flavor of progressive fundamentalism, think 1) “Back in its idyllic past, the Church was egalitarian, governed by common consent”; 2) total uncritical deference to writings of “the marginalized” or critical theorists; and 3) people are considered “safe” or “unsafe” based on their adherence to progressive dogma.

In their shift to fundamentalism, Latter-day Saint progressives are following the lead of other formerly-believing activists. Ben Appel described this phenomenon in his article titled “As a Gay Child in a Christian Cult, I Was Taught to Hate Myself. Then I Joined the Church of Social Justice—and Nothing Changed.” Appel’s whole memoir is encapsulated in that lengthy title—it describes his transition from a Christian religion oriented around cognitive closure to a secular progressive religion oriented around cognitive closure. The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling likewise offers, in podcast format, a glimpse of Christian denunciations of J. K. Rowling juxtaposed with similar denunciations from progressive activists. The specific accusations differ between the two groups, but the basic fundamentalist emotional impulses and cognitive mechanisms at work are exactly the same.

Having adopted a new primary religious framework, Latter-day Saint progressives are now exemplifying the cognitive closure described by Ben Appel and other commentators. Notice how among progressive Latter-day Saints, in particular, that they operate in perfect lockstep on issues like gender and sexuality, with none of the diversity of thought that we see in the secular left on those issues. Among Latter-day Saint progressives, there is no equivalent of lesbian journalist Katie Herzog, gay scientist James Cantor, or transgender doctor Erica Andersen, each of whom has dared to publicly question some of the narratives of the new secular religion.

Church members who were formerly believing and sustaining transfer their inherited intuitions about sacredness to their new progressive worldview, and to maintain cognitive closure, they refuse to question the new things that are now deemed sacred, like even the most bizarre choices of identities and pronouns. This notion of sacredness leads to a refusal to question academic texts by “the marginalized,” even texts challenging taboos around incest or indoctrinating children through exposure to sexualized drag performance in early childhood settings. By contrast, among the secular left, never-devout commentators like Bill Maher are more comfortable dissenting from the progressive narrative because they lack any inherited notions of the sacred.

Among progressive church members, we see no evidence of a mental “shelf” where they might place difficult issues or ambiguities around gender and sexuality; no attempts to even acknowledge any contradictions or complexity in their new doctrines, as opposed to the careful and honest approach to faith that we see in the Church’s gospel topics essays. To understand the rigidity of cognitive closure among progressives, consider how much mental effort is required to maintain the belief that this headline describes reality:

And yet, similar headlines are accepted and parroted on a regular basis by progressive Latter-day Saints. We can’t help but wonder if progressives secretly carry reservations about the obvious delusions they are constantly asked to affirm in their new religion; their real level of belief is hard to assess because we have yet to see a single progressive Latter-day Saint willing to publicly voice any amount of dissent from their new doctrines on gender and sexuality.

Allergy to Some

To be sure, we did briefly observe a temporary crack in progressive thought-uniformity after the horrific November 2022 shootings in a queer nightclub in Colorado Springs. Progressives in the church were eager to highlight the “Mormon” background of the shooter because this validated their delusional narrative that the Church’s teachings on gender and sexuality somehow lead to violence. But when the shooter asserted a gender identity of non-binary, progressives mostly went silent rather than explore their cognitive dissonance. Only a few progressives voiced skepticism of the variety typically voiced by commentators like Konstantin Kisin:

Rather than recognize the fact that the term “Mormon” indicates nothing at all about what someone believes or values, and rather than question even the most outlandish gender identity claims, Latter-day Saint progressives quickly retreated to the comfort of groupthink and denial.

Progressive fundamentalism hates distinctions.

All this was to avoid sharing in J. K. Rowling’s heretical sin among the left: she made a distinction. Rowling said that some forms of transgender participation in society jeopardize the safety of women. Her heresy would not have carried any weight had she spoken from the religious right because they are seen as the benighted heathen outgroup. But Rowling spoke from within the left, which made her not just wrong but a harmful heretic, a wolf among the flock.

The wildly irrational progressive reactions to J. K. Rowling speak to another element of fundamentalism: Apart from ingroup/outgroup distinctions, fundamentalism has a deathly allergy to the idea of some. For right-leaning fundamentalists, the idea that some people are constituted differently than other people and thus will respond to gospel concepts in different ways implies a need for a sometimes-unsettling flexibility in our approach to religion. On the fundamentalist right, adaptation, responsiveness, and flexibility on the part of the Church are framed in terms of “mistakes” or even institutional apostasy.  Moreover, these fundamentalists have a hard time making distinctions regarding the importance of gospel concepts: when it comes to beliefs, for example, the idea of a literal worldwide flood is given the exact same creedal necessity as the atonement of Christ. The idea that some gospel concepts might be interpreted in figurative ways and that our mental models of any gospel concepts could be tentative in any way is extremely frustrating to right-leaning fundamentalists.

Likewise, progressive fundamentalism hates distinctions, though it responds with a different toolset. Progressives paper over differences and distinctions in gospel concepts using a combination of relativism and metaphorizing: gospel concepts can all be treated as metaphors, and none of them are more objectively true than others because truth is all relative. Scripture is all equally allegorical. To say that some things are objectively true and others aren’t is to make distinctions, and distinctions feel exclusionary.

When relativism becomes the new sacred orthodoxy, defining terms and making distinctions become the new sins. As Valerie Hudson correctly explained in the Deseret News, this results in a corruption of language. In perverse appeals to empathy and inclusion, progressives refuse definitions for even basic concepts like “woman.” To maintain a now-sacred notion of equity, all concepts must be equally undefinable, and word choices must be policed not for accuracy but for “harm” and “safety,” measured in terms of their emotional impact upon an ever-expanding demographic called “the marginalized.”

The Horseshoe Theory

Political commentators often refer to the horseshoe theory, that at the extremes, political movements behave alike. Both Marxist and fascist movements echo the satanic phrase “not one soul …” which expresses a bottomless craving for sameness over distinctions and disparities. Marxism and fascism just apply that craving to different areas of human experience and give it authoritarian backing. The horseshoe theory also explains the similar features of left- and right-wing religious fundamentalism, and it is no accident that left- and right-wing strains of religious fundamentalism both tend to look to political saviors who validate fundamentalist thinking over living prophets who don’t.

Political historian Robert Conquest is reported to have said that “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing,” and this just reflects the reality that entropy is the way things go in the absence of clear principles. But we might adapt that maxim to religion and say that any religious organization that is not explicitly orthodox sooner or later becomes fundamentalist, in either left- or right-wing manifestations of that mindset.

As Latter-day Saints, the controversy around Rowling will resonate because they’ve seen so much opposition to beloved prophets coming from the fundamentalist extremes. I explored this phenomenon in my recent article, “Prophets Can’t Win.” Really, the experience of J. K. Rowling indicates that truth-tellers, in general, can’t win, especially when their views are perceived to be invalidating of fundamentalist delusions.

About the author

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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