In The Future of Faith (2009), the inimitable Harvey Cox wrote: “The conservative-evangelical-fundamentalist community is neither monolithic nor immobile. It is divided and subdivided along theological, racial, gender, geographical, denominational, and political lines. These divisions collide and conflict, and the internal rhetoric generated is frequently more intense than the rhetoric they direct toward their external opponents.”
Cox pointed to “a fresh theological openness among American evangelicals.” A decade later, however, divisions remain, deepened no doubt as fundamentalism, one segment of Cox’s ideological trilogy, gains new dominance in the national public/political square. At this moment in American religious and political life, fundamentalist doctrinal and social attitudes are in the ascendancy, not as a majority opinion but as an increasingly empowered element of public policy, defining perceptions of Christianity – especially evangelicalism – inside and outside the church. From government-oriented “prayer breakfasts,” to the meaning of religious liberty, to certain international relationships, fundamentalist ideology increasingly defines Protestant approaches to the nature of faith and national governance.
How might non-fundamentalists respond?
In The Roots of Fundamentalism (1973), Ernest Sandeen showed that although influenced by earlier revivalistic groups, Fundamentalism began as a new, 19th-century opposition to liberalism based initially in premillennial eschatology (Jesus returns, true Christians are “raptured,” tribulation follows, Christ’s kingdom prevails) and Princeton Theology (Calvinistic doctrine, Scottish Common Sense Realism and biblical infallibility/inerrancy).
“Fundamentalist dogma affirming the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, when combined with a transactional, increasingly rationalistic approach to Christian conversion, has frequently turned the ‘new birth’ of religious experience into a mere Jesus vaccination.”
Notre Dame’s George Marsden explored Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), defining it as a movement of evangelical Protestants “militantly opposed to modern liberal theologies and to some aspects of secularism in modern culture.” Marsden noted fundamentalism’s high view of biblical authority (inerrancy), salvation only through “the atoning work of Jesus Christ for our sins,” a mandate to share that saving message to others and a “militant” commitment to fight “modernist theologies.” Although in no way exhaustive, the classic “five points” of fundamentalist dogma include: an inerrant Bible, Christ’s virgin birth, his sacrificial death on the cross, his bodily resurrection and his literal second coming (Princeton theologians generally eschewed the latter.)
Fundamentalism exploded into American culture through numerous populist preachers, aggressive evangelism, the country’s first mega-churches, and the infamous Scopes trial (1925) regarding teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. After World War II Billy Graham and other conservatives advanced “Neo-Evangelicalism,” attempting to rebrand evangelicals beyond fundamentalist diatribes and theological stereotypes. Results were mixed. By the 1980s, movements like the Moral Majority, the Religious Roundtable and Focus on Family combined with assorted technology-wise pulpiteers to reassert fundamentalist populism, dogma and right wing politics.
Republicans courted fundamentalists as a new political base, appealing to their socio-political concerns related to homosexuality, abortion, divorce, family values and other conservative agendas. More recently, however, fundamentalists have secured significant influence in state and national political settings. These developments prompted conservative columnist Michael Gerson to write in the April issue of The Atlantic that today’s “fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against [biblical] higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea.”
Gerson’s comments suggest that while responding to fundamentalism is exhausting, it is essential to question its immediate impact on American church/state. This is particularly important since fundamentalist ideology seems to have become the default interpretation many American Christians implicitly or explicitly bring to bear on questions of scripture, doctrine, church and society.
Take biblical inerrancy, please, a theory of biblical authority and interpretation (hermeneutic) with a checkered historical past, requiring elaborate defenses that demand constant negotiations, frequently bordering on crass literalism. Such literalism allowed segments of the church to support the execution of “heretics,” chattel slavery, Jim-Crow-legislated-racism, female “submission” and, yes, white supremacy. (See Leonard, “A Theology for Racism: Southern Fundamentalists and the Civil Rights Movement,” Baptist History and Heritage Journal, Winter 1999.) Belated repentance for these allegedly Bible-based sins seems to suggest “the Bible is inerrant, except where it isn’t,” a theory of the biblical text that may undermine engagement with the text itself.
“While theories about and yearning for Christ’s second coming have been present from the church’s origin, when they impact U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East, then fundamentalism has gained far too much political influence.”
Likewise, fundamentalist dogma affirming the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, when combined with a transactional, increasingly rationalistic approach to Christian conversion, has frequently turned the “new birth” of religious experience into a mere Jesus vaccination, a “sinner’s prayer” that fulfills a salvific contract; no muss, no fuss. Similarly, an emphasis on Jesus as substitution and sacrifice – only one of multiple “atonement theories” in Christian history and orthodoxy – may have inadvertently but inevitably led some fundamentalists to minimize the broader message of Jesus as teacher and guide, a saving proponent of holy exceptions for the disabled, the poor, the stranger and other “least of these.”
While theories about and yearning for Christ’s second coming have been present from the church’s origin, when they impact U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East, then fundamentalism has gained far too much political influence. Amid multiple conjectures regarding Christ’s return, premillennialism, in my view, resides in the apocalyptic “neighborhood of make-believe” (apologies to Mr. Rogers), with historical claims and resulting disappointments often quietly forgotten. Premillennialism itself is an amalgam of theories: pre-tribulation, mid-trib, post-trib, Dispensational, futurist, etc. (see Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming).
Reflecting on all this, I recalled an essay by E. Y. Mullins, president of the Baptist seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, published in volume four of The Fundamentals (1909), that series of articles defending/defining early fundamentalism. Entitled “The Testimony of Religious Experience,” it reflects Mullins’ belief that direct encounter with Christ is the key to Christian faith and doctrine. He concludes: “Christianity does not say renounce reason but only waive your speculative difficulties in the interest of your moral welfare. . . The man born blind did not have to accept any theory of Christ, God or the universe, neither Monism or Idealism, nor any special form of theism. One thing only was required. Says Christ, ‘Let me anoint your eyes with clay and you go wash in the pool of Siloam.’ This he did. His faith worked. . . And finally, ‘He worshipped him.’ He rose from faith to faith under the guidance and inspiration of Christ and this is the experience of all who put their trust in Him.”
Fundamental, isn’t it?