July 18, 2020

Carrie and What it Reveals About Christian Extremism

Every time I watch the movie Carrie, I find myself thinking about the particular subtype of fundamentalist Christianity that deserves to be called Christian extremism. I think about how toxic it is and how much harm it continues to cause in the world. I think about the countless people who have suffered because of it and how many lives it has ruined. I reflect on how much it has held all of us back, including those of us who never participated in it but merely lived in a country where it has been allowed to run amok. Is it any wonder I've always considered Carrie to be a powerful film?

While Carrie has never been one of my favorite horror films, it has long occupied a special place for me due to the Christian extremist mother, played to perfection by Piper Laurie. The last time I watched it, I found myself feeling somewhat depressed as I realized that what used to strike me as such an over-the-top example of Christian lunacy seemed much less so. Could it be that this type of insanity is more accepted today than it was when Carrie debuted in 1976?

What a horrible thought! And yet, I think there might be something to it. As good as the mother was, the sort of religious gibberish she spouted really wasn't that different from what I heard from Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and a variety of prominent fundamentalist Christians with armies of devoted followers. I'm not denying that we have made progress in some important areas, but it seems like America's tolerance for religious insanity isn't one of them. After all, we are still hearing about things as silly as "prayer shields" around the White House.

It is not hard to find encouraging numbers or highlight trends suggesting declines in religious belief and practice. But these trends do not take into account that many expressions of religious belief by modern politicians probably would have cost them their positions a few decades ago. It seems that Christian extremist organizations such as "the Family" have done their job extremely well, transforming the United States into something different.

Even though I still enjoy Carrie, it doesn't disturb me the way it once did. Maybe that is because I have seen Jesus Camp, or maybe it is because Christian extremism isn't as rare or socially unacceptable as it once was. I don't know about you, but I find that possibility much scarier than any horror movie.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2010. It was revised and expanded in 2020 to highlight the disturbing possibility that wild depictions of Christian extremism have lost much of their impact as this sort of thing has become far too common.