on fundamentalism

May 25, 2007

politics / theology

I have tried to stay somewhat quiet about the recent passing of Jerry Falwell. Initial reactions and thoughts aside, I think I have some comments on surrounding issues at this point.

I’m not a fundamentalist. That is, very possibly, obvious. I don’t even agree with all of the fundamentals, much less all the other things that tend to follow the movement. I may blog a bit on my thoughts about the fundamentals, and the other attachments like dispensationalism, dominionism, and so on at some point in the future. These are very powerful theological ideas, although many who hold them don’t know their names.

Now that that’s out of the way, the developments that fundamentalism has taken in its roughly 100 year history in our country are very interesting. The movement began as an attempt to counter liberal theology, to an extent to counter secular science, and to continue the Protestant tradition of bashing Roman Catholicism. In doing this, it lost its presence at major seminaries and universities, and became an object of ridicule in the public eye after ridiculous episodes such as the Scopes trial. Perhaps because of events like this, and perhaps as a cause of events like this, fundamentalists were known for separatism from culture as a whole. The idea is, roughly, that “culture is going to hell, so we’re going to hide over here so that we don’t go to hell with it.”

During the time around World War II, evangelicalism broke from fundamentalism, deciding that Catholics and liberals could indeed be Christians, and could indeed have things to offer. Billy Graham is the prime example of this, receiving massive criticism for allowing non-fundamentalists to help in his events and other things in the 1940s. As this occurred, evangelicals began to form their own seminaries, and return to major universities such as Harvard and Yale to teach with, discuss things with, and work with various other types of theologians. They also began to question the fundamentalist practice of separatism, leading to an interest in social justice, among other things. The idea with this is, again roughly, that “we don’t want culture to go to hell, so we’re going to try to do some things to help it.”

This divide between the two roughly conservative camps continued, for the most part, until the time of Jerry Falwell’s decision to take America back from secularization. His idea was, from the 70s until the present, again roughly, that “culture will go to hell unless we change it back to the way it used to be.” You see the difference here, I’m sure. This may help explain some of the ridiculous comments he’s known for having made over the years, relating to everything from presidential elections to natural disasters. As this idea developed, it merged, in a lot of ways, with evangelicalism. Often, it is difficult today to tell the difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

The legacy that is left from things like this is very strong on several fronts. For one example, we can ask nearly anyone who’s not a Christian what thoughts these things bring to mind. For another example, we can look at the close ties that the Republican Party has enjoyed with evangelical Christianity, and the endorsement it has received as the party of morality. If we think about it, or view the countless evidence, Republicans are not necessarily more spiritual or moral or anything else than Democrats, or Independents, or Communists, or Anarchists, or whatever else.

But we don’t think about it, and that’s the legacy of modern Christian fundamentalism. We don’t think about whether or not it’s a good thing to throw prayer at non-Christians in schools, or whether it’s a good idea to post 10 out of 613 commandments from the Old Testament in courthouses, and we don’t think about whether or not a man who said “God helps those who help themselves” really would approve of us using him as our support for a Christian America.

And then, we don’t think about whether or not specific wars are good, whether war in general is good, whether or not we should try to protect the environment, or whether or not it’s bad to lie. Our agenda has been set, and we won’t allow ourselves to see anything outside of it. At that point, we’ve lost something of the nature of God.