Incest was a common theme in the clinical word that I did as a counselor. The incest always reflected pronounced family dysfunction, always gravely influencing each member of the family even if they were sexually abused themselves . Incest is about power and control and often occurs in families who are isolated in some respect from the local community, be that a perceived isolation or something more concrete such as geographical or socioeconomic factors.
But incest is also a term that can be applied to groups as a whole. Some groups can function as an incested family and be similarly inverted, turned-in on themselves with minimal reference to the outside world. Usually this internal reference is perceived as a virtue and in fact reference to the external world is not only discouraged but is often demonized. The world is perceived as dangerous and threatening, “evil” if you please, and contamination by this world is a constant peril. (I feel strongly that this is often an element in the home-schooling movement though certainly not in all cases.)
I would like to focus briefly on what I call “spiritual incest.” By this I mean the tendency to isolate ourselves in groups who believe just as we do and to discourage any dissenting beliefs. In groups like this “doctrinal purity” is inordinately emphasized. And there is nothing wrong with purity of any sorts but when it becomes an obsession it always leads to problems. For example, when the “doctrinal purity” demon is unleashed, it tends to never end. Once there is a “house-cleaning” and the miscreants are expelled or “churched…to use an old frontier term…the demon remains. So, a few years later, there arises a new doctrinal dispute and once again another “house cleaning” is necessary and the ritual is enacted again. For, this is tremendously rewarding to be on the side of the pure and know that you are “cleansing the temple”, that you are “standing firm for the truth that was once delivered unto the saints”, etc., etc. I know. Been there. Done that. Gosh it was fun. I felt so pious.
Oh the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done, and done to others harm which once we took for exercise of virtue. (T. S. Eliot “Four Quartets”)
(HISTORICAL NOTE: Historians have noted that this quest for doctrinal purity, especially in the 19th century on the frontier, created our “denominational society” as churches routinely split over picayune doctrinal disputations, giving rise to new churches and denominations)