The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism

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The word “evangelical” has been used to include so many Christian groups over the last century that it has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Evangelical Christians need not be “fundamentalists”—a term that in its heyday (around the time of the First World War) was used in America to distinguish between a belief in the inerrancy and moral supremacy of the Bible and another philosophy called, in the media of the day, “modernism.” In that quarrel, the famous Scopes trial was the manufactured darling. Most Christians who consider themselves Evangelical aren’t Pentecostal, a term that refers to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through everyday life—especially in preaching, healing and moral decision-making. A close cousin of the Pentecostal movement is Charismatic Christianity, which has occasionally bridged the divide between robust protestant varieties of “Holy Ghost religion” (“pigeon religion”) and American Catholicism.

Evangelicals tend to be social conservatives. They like their bible strong but not 100-proof. Many are open to discussion about LGBT issues and contraception, but less open to gay marriage and abortion. There are things they have in common with Pentecostals and the more strident forms of biblical fundamentalism, but age, privilege, and education tend to divide them from these other strata. Most Evangelicals are patriotic; most are God Bless America Republicans; almost all tend to be what the press has christened social conservatives and defenders of family “values.” In modern parlance, an Evangelical is a negotiator: some are accommodationists, and some are reformers. The idea that an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who was successful at business and moved to the suburbs isn’t all that far-fetched.

Jerry Falwell (d 2007), Pat Robertson and James Hagee are fundamentalists. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (d 2009) and Kenneth Hagin (d 2003) Are Pentecostals. A subset of Pentecostals are Charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn (b 1953) and prosperity-gospel ministers like the Rev. T D Jakes. After a while, it’s merely tedious to chart the doctrinal and stylistic differences that separate these groups and subsets, which is why the term Evangelical—the broadest possible and most inclusive term to describe conservative Jesus- believers, becomes a convenient way of glossing over differences that outsiders don’t really care about anyway.

I am a soft-shell, no-sell (non-proselytizing) atheist. I don’t like conservatives of any description very much—social, political or religious. But in the interest of fair play and clarifying a thing or two, I have to say this. Christian conservatives, even that subset of Christian fundamentalists, aren’t very dangerous. They will not start shooting at you from the rooftops because you don’t believe in the thousand year reign of Christ, or blow themselves up in a mall because you think the Atonement is a metaphor. In fact, it was partly in the interest of protecting the forerunners of these minority groups and their quasi-pacifist and isolationist tendencies that Thomas Jefferson (who deemed them annoying but harmless) wrote in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists (1802):

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

The principle was firmly rooted before the 19th century (largely a result of 100 years of religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and aristocrats, commoners and clergy (in France, the “estates”) on the social side, but first enshrined in the American Constitution. It wasn’t there to keep religion in its place. It was there to say that religion as religion has nothing to do with the decisions of the state and should not be used to inform or govern the decisions of the state.

We have come a long way since then. Most of it has been a journey to ignorance about the historical origins of the First Amendment, and away from the foundational sentiments that gave us the “establishment” and “free exercise” provisions. When we read about religious groups asking for Bible reading in schools or regional school boards complaining about evolution being taught as “fact” in science classes, we are really witnessing a country out of touch with the secular foundations of the Republic. We see this at work in the courts, in Congress, and in the public arena too much. We hear and read that America was founded as a Christian country (it wasn’t) or that its founding principles were biblical (they weren’t).

Socially conservative religious groups have been overreaching since the early days of the Republic; but they are louder and more consequential now because as media has improved, ideas that were once limited to the intellectual backwater of the Bible-belt have spread throughout the country in widening circles. Televangelism was the successor of the TV-Crusade era of early rock star evangelists like Billy Graham. The internet and social media is now the successor to broadcast evangelism. Zealotry of various sorts is better served by media than the platitudinous religion of mainstream and liberal religion—a fact we need to bear in mind when assessing the power and influence of relatively small groups of adepts as in ISIS and Revd Terry Jones’s anti-Islamic Dove Church World Outreach center.

David_koresh

All this being true, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept my next point: Christian evangelicalism is not an especially dangerous philosophy and at least in the United States never has been. True, certain political agendas like westward expansion, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Redeemer Nation image that gave us the dogma of American Exceptionalism, and even the response to the creeping Mormonism of the Midwest and Plains in the nineteenth century were sometime fueled by biblical tropes and flourishes. But so were abolition and the fight for women’s equality and civil rights and economic justice. The idea of America as the New Jerusalem (the city on the hill-platitude that endangered politicians like to invoke) come ultimately from Christianity and the Bible. But in general the civil body politick of the first settlers has withstood the temptation to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law on the American state.

This is not because Americans are especially savvy or far-sighted; they aren’t. A majority I suspect could not coherently explain the differences and functions of the branches of government or how the electoral process that sends representatives to Congress works. It is arguable that the First Amendment provisions concerning religion would not garner enough votes in enough states to be ratified as an amendment today. And it isn’t because our instruments of government are rock solid either. Listening to the campaign rhetoric of 2016 should alert us to the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “You have a Republic if you can keep it.”

It is a wearying fact that the people who scream their love for America at the highest pitch probably have no clear idea of what it takes to keep it, apart from their customary equation of freedom and liberty with gun ownership and freedom of speech. The close association in the minds of some American religious conservatives between guns and religion is a matter of historical record. But the sorts of murderous activities we associate with a David Koresh, a Jim Jones or an Eric Robert Rudolph are remarkably rare–and in the first two cases examples of cultic father than exoteric aggression. The instances are memorable because of their comparative rarity, thus different from the barrage of suicide bombings and attacks launched by extremists and radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and, through surrogates, abroad.
Conservative Christianity can be annoying, noxious, distracting and sometimes—take the message of the Westboro Baptist Church for example—hateful. I take it for granted that all religions can be, even Zen and Hindu Shaivism. After all, religions are based essentially on differences of opinion. And despite fifty years of interfaith dialogue and attempts at cross cultural understanding, what divides belief is what explains belief.
That brings me to the end point of this little screed. Just as it is true that all religions have the capacity for violence, not all religions have the same capacity for violence.

 

The reasons for this are cultural and historical: the current state of any living faith cannot be located in its foundational documents, however highly revered and programmatic for the faithful. It is one of the reasons why atheist critiques of religion, and Christian conservatism in particular, come up short, based as they usually are on literal readings of the most obnoxious and outmoded passages of scripture. Just as the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition are not explained by the teaching of Jesus, neither are Abolition, the Civil Rights movement, or programs supporting economic justice and the rights of minorities organic extensions of the New Testament.

 

Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Peter Berger have explained, is a process of negotiation that often begins with rejection and opposition to the cultural norms that environ it at its beginning (think first century Palestinian Judaism or seventh century Meccan society) and ends up through a series of accommodations a different thing from what it was in the beginning.
There is no promise that the “thing” will be peaceful and benign. –Or even that it will emerge intact as one thing. Christianity has not survived intact but through a process of fissipiration that we call “denominationalism”—the most dramatic example of which was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. And though many believing Muslims will reject this as an article opposed to a central axiom of their religion, Islam itself has not survived intact either. Indeed splinters of its own form of denominationalism appeared before the death of the Prophet and continued unabated throughout the entirety of its existence. The fountainhead of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, began its process of accommodation so early—from the time of the encounter with the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE–through the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora, and the formation of an ethically-based rabbinical Judaism–that it is difficult to trace its evolution historically.

 

There is no necessity that any religion will be as relevant in the same way in the twenty-first century as it was in the fifteenth or fifth–in fact, given that the conditions of its origin are unrepeatable it is probably impossible to talk strictly about the religion of the first Christians or the religion of Mahammad’s first followers. Although almost every religious reformation begins with the belief that it is a “purifying” movement or a return to the basics of the faith, what such movements have normally produced is not a facsimile of the original but a violent clash between a living and evolved belief system and a caricature of what zealots believe to have been true millennia ago. The most strident Christian Bible-based groups epitomize this pattern, but normally in a non-violent way. The most ardent Islamic radicals believe the same thing, but see violence, in the form of jihad, as an instrument in the purifying process.
Theoretically the God of the Bible may be changeless and in equal proportion righteous, just, and merciful. And it may be important, in the interest of civil conversation, to pretend that all religions proclaim peace, love, mercy and compassion. But our eyes tell us that in the twenty-first century it is not the Christian sort of “fundamentalism” that normally results in mass death, homicide bombings, the murder of school children, the harassment, rape and forced conversion of girls, socially sanctioned honour killings and sectarian purges of sectarian rivals, and attacks on unbelievers.

 

Evangelical Protestantism, including its fundamentalist variety, is a last -gasp defense of the fourfold gospel in its more or less literal and unexamined form. It is broadly non-theological. Islamic fundamentalism likewise is a much larger and more regressive position in relation to the normativity of the Qur’an, but its “fundamentals” are different, have not been negotiated in the same way, nor evolved at anything like the same pace or under the same conditions.
For that reason, the use of the term “fundamentalism” to describe matching trends or patterns in the history of religion is not only inexact and unhelpful, but inevitably leads to wrong conclusions.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism

  1. Thanks Joseph. One minor correction, I believe it is John Hagee not James–if you meant the portly guy from San Antonio who pushed the Christians for Israel movement.

  2. By the by, I grew up in the midst of Pentecostal-cum-Charismatic Xianity, though we neglected those terms in favor of “non-denominational” when selling it in conversation. Oh it had all the same bells and whistles — the raising of hands, the rock concert-esque praise sessions, the laying on of hands, the tongue-tied pseudo-speech — but we believed ourselves fully shorn of the doctrinal baggage which plagued other groups (those “denominations” over there). When I placed my old church in this locus of evangelicalism during a chat with my mother, she had not heard the terminology before, insisting instead that we belonged neither to a denomination nor religion (“Christianity is not a religion ,it’s a relationship”); it was as though I were speaking a new language. How’s that for irony?

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