Cover story -- Fundamentalists
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Issue Date:  September 23, 2005

The force of fundamentalism

Conservative Christians are making their mark on American culture


The buzz following the presidential election of 2004 was that the religious right had clinched the election for George W. Bush. Overnight, fundamentalist and other conservative Christians were in the news, their influence celebrated or deplored depending on the speaker’s point of view. Since then, the impression has deepened that the election of 2004 was a triumph not just for George Bush and his administration but for the power of conservative evangelical Christianity.

“Arguably, the religious right controls all three branches of government: the administration, the Congress and now with the judiciary,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Barnard College whose book about the role of religion in the election of 2004 will be published this coming spring.

Balmer said the religious right is “tapping into the genius of evangelicalism, that is, organizing at the grassroots level.

“Evangelicals know almost instinctively how to tap into the cultural idiom, no matter whatever the circumstance. It goes all the way back to George Whitefield and the open-air preaching during the 18th century, the circuit riders in the 19th century and the urban evangelicalism of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in the 20th,” Balmer said.

The heightened prominence of conservative Christianity is calling attention to a wing of the church that is, according to some, little understood despite its significance as a religious and political force. With public attention focused on Muslim fundamentalism, it may be time to take a closer look at the homegrown version that is making its mark on American culture.

Birth of a movement

An outgrowth of Protestant evangelicalism, Christian fundamentalism traces its beginnings in the United States to the first decade of the 20th century.

Balmer’s short and admittedly flip explanation of the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical is that a fundamentalist is an angry evangelical. A more standard definition appears in George Marsden’s classic book on American fundamentalism, in which a fundamentalist is described as a militantly antimodern Protestant evangelical. Balmer, himself an evangelical Christian and the author of the PBS 1989 program on fundamentalism “My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Lord” uses Billy Graham as an example of a preacher who is an evangelical but not a fundamentalist.

“Billy Graham is seen as the quintessential evangelist, someone who has the courage of convictions but is not divisive and [is] willing to work with others. Fundamentalists are more doctrinaire and less tolerant,” said Balmer.

The hallmark of fundamentalists, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, is that they ascribe supreme authority to a sacred text to the exclusion of other sources of tradition. Though fundamentalists react against modernity, scholars assert fundamentalism is an intrinsically modern phenomenon.

The year 1910 was a significant one for the development of Christian fundamentalism. Partly in response to a lecture given the prior year at Harvard University on the future of religion, Presbyterians at Princeton formulated five essential dogmas. These included the inerrancy of scripture, the Virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s atonement on the cross for humanity’s sins, the bodily resurrection and the reality of miracles. The latter doctrine was later replaced by the teachings of premillennialism, that is, the belief in biblical prophecy and the conviction that Jesus would return for a 1,000-year rule on earth.

That same year marked the beginning of the publication of 12 pamphlets called “The Fundamentals” that were issued over the next five years. Three million of each pamphlet were distributed free of charge to all Protestant pastors, professors and theology students in America. In the pamphlets, conservative theologians explained basic theological concepts such as the Trinity; refuted higher criticism, which had divided liberal and conservative theologians in the 19th century; and stressed the importance of spreading the Gospel. The tone was not particularly militant, and though the pamphlets later were to acquire great symbolic significance, at the time they passed unremarked.

According to Karen Armstrong in her book The Battle for God, it was World War I that decisively altered conservative Protestantism. Before the war, conservative and liberal Protestants had divided over doctrine and the admissibility of scientific criticism of the Bible, or higher criticism. But despite their differences over dogma, both liberal and conservative Protestants shared a commitment to the social gospel and to the progressive ideals expressed in campaigns for prohibition, improved education, and better working and living conditions for working people. However, the horrific slaughter in World War I struck some Protestant Americans as apocalyptic and confirmed their view that this was the beginning of the end times.

A counterculture grows

Since that time, premillennialism -- the belief that Christ will return to usher in a 1,000-year reign as described in the Book of Revelation -- has become a basic tenet of fundamentalist belief along with the inerrancy of the Bible. Fundamentalists saw their belief in biblical prophecy confirmed with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine. Support for Israel became a staple of fundamentalist belief, with fundamentalists believing that the state of Israel must be reconstituted for the end times to arrive that would usher in Christ’s rule.

In 1919 the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was founded. A few years later, fundamentalists and liberals clashed over Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although opposition to evolution had not been a central tenet of fundamentalism until then, the perception that Clarence Darrow had decisively won in his dispute with William Jennings Bryan radicalized many fundamentalists. Creationism became a core doctrine, and fundamentalists began moving to the political right.

After the Scopes trial in 1925, fundamentalists withdrew from the public arena and created their own defensive counterculture, founding periodicals, Bible schools and seminaries. While tussles over doctrine between liberals and conservatives had marked previous generations, Armstrong notes that by the end of World War II only premillenialists called themselves fundamentalists. Other conservative Christians called themselves evangelicals.

The expansion of state power after World War II, the modernizing of the American South, which then spurred conservative Southerners to reaction, and the liberalizing trends of the 1960s that led fundamentalists to identify secular humanists as the enemy all fueled the emergence of the religious right in the 1970s.

“The real issue that catalyzed them was the Bob Jones case when the Justice Department went after Bob Jones University for its discriminatory policies and they saw this as an infringement on their world and their subculture. There was a White House conference on families during the Carter administration that was perceived as far too liberal and permissive about sexual orientation. And then after they got the movement going, they added abortion,” said Darrell Turner, who writes the annual religion section of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

According to Balmer, polling data suggests anywhere from 25 to 46 percent of Americans are evangelicals, and some surveys put it higher. “It’s a very diverse movement internally,” he said.

Fundamentalists today

History professor Joel Carpenter, author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, said fundamentalism is often used imprecisely and as a term of opprobrium for anyone who is a conservative and traditional-minded Christian. “When it’s used inappropriately, you can estimate huge numbers. In the United States, I’d say maybe 20 million, and that’s a very rough guess.”

With liberal congregations shrinking in the United States, Carpenter said he suspects fundamentalism is still growing in America but added the real dynamism in American religion today is Pentecostalism.

While Pentecostals share many similarities with fundamentalists, including a belief in biblical prophecy, they have a more optimistic view of the world. Both groups share an interest in right-wing politics and frequently make common cause.

“They are both a species of the genus evangelical, revivalist Christians,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter described American fundamentalists as ambivalent about technology. On one hand, they gravitate to it quickly and are media-minded. On the other hand, they don’t share the common American opinion that technology brings progress.

Unlike many fundamentalist movements elsewhere, American fundamentalism has remained largely nonviolent.

“They live in a very strong state with developed legal traditions where the rule of law is supreme and where there is a strong and vital civil society, including labor unions, political parties, churches and other voluntary associations that they have access to,” said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and coeditor of the Fundamentalism Project, a five-volume study of global fundamentalism.

“They have a place at the table politically. They may not run things, but they have powerful influence at every level of government,” Appleby said. “They are gradualists and generally speaking the more oppositional, rejectionist and violent edges that we see in other movements around the world are softened in the U.S. context, in large part because of the context and the setting.”

Balmer sees no immediate end in sight to the political clout -- or ambitions -- wielded by fundamentalists. “They’re trying to undermine the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause. They’re trying to undermine public education, and they’re trying to get their people elected to political office,” he said.

But if Balmer sees the religious right as winning the culture wars, Darrell Turner is less sure. “On the whole issue of gay rights and gay marriage, it could be argued that they are losing,” Turner said. He notes that with both the Episcopal church’s and the United Church of Christ’s decision to ordain gay ministers, the religious right is engaged in a battle not just with secular society but within the churches.

John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, Ohio, notes that as the fundamentalist movement has aged in the United States, Christian fundamentalists’ dislike for the modern world has lessened.

“The image of fundamentalism really comes from the 1920s -- this strong, antimodern reaction. That part of it has simply declined. They [fundamentalists] are less separatist than their parents and grandparents, but they are still quite traditional.”

Green observed that traditionalism within different religious communities has grown and that traditionalists, along with fundamentalists, helped elect George W. Bush. Surveys done by the Bliss Institute report that 88 percent of traditionalist evangelical Protestants and 78 percent of evangelical Protestants voted for George Bush. Among traditionalist Catholics, 72 percent voted for Bush, and among traditionalist mainline Protestants, 68 percent voted for the president. This compares with 53 percent of the overall non-Latino Catholic vote and 50 percent of the mainline Protestant vote.

“What’s happened in the last several decades is that the traditionalists in all of these religious communities have become politically distinctive and have begun to make common cause around these social issues. Originally, it was hard for fundamentalists to do this, but they’ve gotten over that,” Green said.

Given the current agenda of social issues preoccupying voters, Green doesn’t see the informal alliance between fundamentalists and traditionalists shifting soon.

“All of the traditional religious groups get their views from the same source, that is, the Old Testament. To the extent that these issues are on the agenda, they tend to respond the same way,” Green said. “If you could wave a magic wand and make all these issues go away, these groups would split up in other ways.”

Margot Patterson is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

Faces of fundamentalism
Jerry Falwell -- A Baptist pastor, televangelist and founder and leader of the Moral Majority. Has denounced public schools and secular education in general and is a strong supporter of Christian Zionism.

Rick Scarborough -- One of a new generation of leaders for the religious right. A Southern Baptist pastor, Scarborough resigned from his church to lead Vision America, an organization that seeks to recruit patriot pastors who will be “proactive in restoring Judeo-Christian values” and will mobilize churchgoers to go to the polls and vote. Scarborough has close ties with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and has worked to elect conservative judges and politicians.

Richard Land -- President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, Land is host of several syndicated radio shows, author of Imagine! A God-Blessed America and executive editor of the magazine Faith & Family Values. A central figure in the religious right.

Tim LaHaye -- Minister and author of the popular Left Behind series, apocalyptic thrillers about the end of the world and the Rapture of Christians right before it. LaHaye is founder and president of Tim LaHaye Ministries and co-founder of the Pre-Trib Research Center, dedicated to exposing ministers to biblical prophecy.

James Dobson -- Founder and president of Focus on the Family. A doctor and psychologist, Dobson is a member of the Church of the Nazarene and comes out of the Holiness tradition, which started in the 19th century as an attempt to reinvigorate piety within the Meth-odist denomination. Dobson’s concerns are so close to those of fundamentalists that many count him as one. His Focus on the Family organization campaigns against pornography, gay marriage and abortion.


Pat Robertson -- A televangelist, Christian Zionist and charismatic Southern Baptist. Charismatics are part of denominations that generally look askance at the manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit characteristic of Pentecostalism; charismatics form a renewal movement within that denomination. “Pentecostals” and “fundamentalists” have in the past decade been words used interchangeably, but in addition to emphasizing speaking in tongues and others gifts of the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals generally have a more optimistic worldview. Robertson is host of “The 700 Club” and founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 2005

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