Six Things I Learned While Writing about Contemporary Fundamentalism
Including why a movement planted in the North came to full flower in the South and the reasons real fundamentalists called Jerry Falwell "pseudo."
A few months back I wrote the chapter-length essay “Fundamentalism: Contemporary” for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Religion, edited by Charles Lippy and Peter Williams (CQ Press). And six things about the American Protestant fundamentalism of the past few decades jumped out at me with new clarity. I wonder, as I note them in this blog entry, whether everyone else knew these things but me, or whether some of this will come as “new information” to the readers of Lippy and Williams’s encyclopedia.
Here they are:
1. In the 1970s, fundamentalism transformed itself from a theologically focused movement engaged in a heated church battle within several Protestant denominations, to a culturally focused movement engaged in a heated battle with the “forces of secularism” in America:
By the 1970s, the forces of godlessness seemed to have rooted themselves within America itself—attacking American children in their schools, American families in their cohesion and sexual identity, and American institutions in their moral moorings.
The result was ...
a new sort of fundamentalism—one in which the cultural battle now eclipsed the theological battle both as motivator and as engine of growth. The old theological commitments were still present. Now, however, the crusade was not primarily denominational and theological but cultural and political, not about how to read the Bible or understand the end times, but how to vote and act on abortion, feminism, homosexuality, school prayer, and a host of related issues.
2. In a sense, it was the Roman Catholics who led the charge of the fundamentalist brigade into the cultural arena. The issue at stake was abortion:
Abortion had long been treated as an excommunicable sin in Roman Catholic canon law, but in 1968 Pope Paul VI (1897 -1978) explicitly reaffirmed this stance in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Then Roe v. Wade triggered a massive wave of Roman Catholic anti-abortion activism. Countless politically active right-to-life organizations were founded without official Roman Catholic ties, but staffed by Roman Catholic laypeople. To make progress in the cultural battle, the fundamentalists had to swallow centuries of confessional pride and join with Catholics.
3. Without apparent awareness of the contradiction, fundamentalists now held at one and the same time both a view that the world would only get worse until the (imminent) end times, and a strong commitment to making that world better through political activism:
From the 1970s on, says historian George Marsden in Fundamentalism and American Culture, revised edition, 2006, ‘sermons and fund-raising appeals described in lurid terms how America was under judgment. . . . Yet the United States at the very same time also remained a moral beacon for the ideals of freedom and best hope for defending righteousness against the powers of darkness.’ America was now, oddly but compellingly, ‘simultaneously Babylon and God’s chosen nation.’
4. In the early 80s, when Jerry Falwell led the fundamentalist movement into this new cultural engagement, he found he needed to make common cause not only with Roman Catholics, but also with Mormons, Jews, and other groups concerned with American moral decline. Result? He was blacklisted by fellow fundamentalists:
Dr. George Dollar (author of the insider History of Fundamentalism and former dean of Central Baptist Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota) spoke for these when he derided Falwell as a ‘pseudo-fundamentalist’ for his coalition-building connections with non-fundamentalists.
5. Fundamentalism was born in the North, in the 1920s, but it came of age in the South, in the 1970s:
It took longer for pluralism and secularization to hit the South hard. Despite the controversy that the famous Scopes Trial of 1925 brought to Tennessee, well into the 1960s Southerners could still think of their region as a "Zion," dedicated to Christian conservative values. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the larger national changes began to be felt even in Zion—and by the end of the 1970s, Southerners were united in feeling that their heartland was in danger of becoming instead a "Babylon," infected with the secularizing trends of modern culture. So when America began to organize against these trends, Southerners led the charge. Disturbed from their separate slumber by the divisive campaign for civil rights, second-wave feminist and gay activism, and signs of secularization, the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Robison (b. 1943) now became national leaders in the fundamentalist political reaction.
6. Despite the obvious political identity and the obsession with issues of public and private morality since the 1970s, the heart and soul of fundamentalism is still found in such distinctively religious concerns as the “born-again” experience of conversion and the disciplines of a holy life:
Evangelical seminary president Richard Mouw (Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, California) grew up fundamentalist, and although he is critical of such fundamentalist theological commitments as dispensational premillennialism, he singles out a number of "spiritual merits" that have resulted from that commitment: good preaching on the Old Testament; preaching about a Savior who loves Gentile and Jew alike; and loving action in such ministries as inner-city rescue missions. In short, says Mouw (in The Smell of Sawdust, Zondervan, 2000), dispensationalism "embodied a spirituality that produced some of the most Christlike human beings I have ever known.”
What do you readers of this blog think? Do these insights ring true with what you already knew? Or are they “little-known facts”? I’ll be interested to hear from you.