The following is a narrative and analysis of fundamentalism since the 1970s. I wrote it for Charles Lippy and Peter Williams’s Encyclopedia of Religion in America, just published last month.
The basic argument of what follows is this: Fundamentalism in America changed after the 1970s–perhaps so much that the word “fundamentalism” is no longer appropriate for what it became. In that decade, the movement began a tectonic shift from protecting theological truths in infra-denominational fights to guarding “Christian morality” in a nation specially chosen by God.
To be sure, “correct” views of the person of Christ and his atoning work, along with vividly detailed end-time scenarios, have continued to occupy an important place in the movement, but these things are not what the “new fundamentalists” are most centrally about. No, they have seen America locked in a battle with a secularizing juggernaut, and they have rushed to take up the “arms” of pragmatic political measures and boundary-breaking religious alliances in order to gain the upper hand.
From the year 1980 on, the majority of those who took upon themselves the mantle of historic fundamentalism have sought to shore up family values, sexual mores, and biblical views of creation rather than orthodox doctrines and denominational power. And although this may look like a completely new direction compared with the emphases of fundamentalism’s formative decades (the 1920s – 1950s), I argue that it is, rather, a natural development from the earlier movement’s characteristic concerns.
These are not your mom and dad’s fundamentalists.
This is their story:
Chris R. Armstrong
As the decade of the 1980s opened, friends could rejoice, and opponents warn, that in the words of the historian Martin Marty, fundamentalism was now “back with a vengeance.” This time, however, the opponent was not theological liberals within the denominations, but secularizing forces within the nation.
American Protestant fundamentalism was born in the 1910s, retrenched in the 1930s-1950s, and has resurged since the mid-1970s. The movement has always been at its core theological. Over against the 19th- and 20th century move to modernize Christian theology to accommodate developments in science and biblical scholarship, fundamentalism has built its house on biblical inerrancy—affirming the accuracy of the Christian Bible in every detail, interpreted as literally as possible. It has battled the scientific theory of Darwinian evolution for theological reasons, often insisting that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago in six literal days (a commitment based on a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis). It has grown through evangelism, often with the sophisticated support of communications technologies. It has viewed the mission field of the world through the lens of premillennialism—a bleak view of human culture assuming severe and irreversible decline, from which believers will be rescued only by the personal intervention of Jesus Christ, the returning King come to establish his thousand-year kingdom on earth. Meanwhile, among a significant minority of fundamentalists, the quest for theological purity has entailed strict separation from non-fundamentalists, and indeed even from other conservative Christians who themselves associate with non-fundamentalists.
Though the theological dimensions of fundamentalism have always been primary, the movement has also carried with it a strong ethos of cultural concern. Emerging as it did from the 19th century, when evangelical Protestants could comfortably behave as custodians of a presumptively Christian American culture, fundamentalism reacted strongly whenever it saw this Christendom vision threatened. Higher Biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution were not just theological threats. They seemed threats to America’s Christian civilization. At first fundamentalists saw such godless intellectual trends behind the German barbarism of WW I. Then they perceived them in worldwide communism. 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. If there was such a thing as a “fundamentalist resurgence” originating in the 1970s (and this depends, as we will see, on our definition of “fundamentalism”), then it was a growth in 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.
the fundamentalist battlefields
The cultural concerns of fundamentalists since the late 1970s arose from the counterculture agitations of the 1960s and 1970s. The Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s became the pattern and impetus for radical feminist and gay-rights activism, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s fostered sexual permissiveness. The 1960s and especially the 1970s also saw conservative Christians enter a new era of political involvement as they faced state intervention in such matters as religion in the classroom and abortion. On the former, the Engel v. Vitale decision of 1962 declared government-imposed prayer in public schools a violation of the Establishment Clause of the constitution and the following year Abington Township School District v. Schempp declared against school-sponsored Bible reading. On the latter, Roe v. Wade, 1973, protected the mother’s right to terminate her pregnancy.
For the fundamentalists, each of these developments alone was troubling enough, but taken together, they seemed to amount to a full frontal secularizing attack. No longer, as in the era of the flappers, could conservative Christians dictate public behavior from the high ground of moral authority that came automatically with being part of the Protestant establishment. By the 1970s, there no longer was a Protestant establishment. Simply shaming transgressors would not work any more: a group rapidly losing status in the nation they had for decades and centuries thought of as their own preserve now had to discover new modes of public persuasion and political action.
Nor did this evolution in cultural approach happen automatically or smoothly from within fundamentalist ranks. It was in fact the Roman Catholics who led the charge. The issue was abortion—not a concern that originated in Protestant circles. 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.
One issue in the new culture war was, however, distinctively Protestant, at least in its origins and its key constituency. This was the posing of a quasi-scientific “creationism” over against the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. From World War I on, fundamentalists had understood Darwinism as the biggest threat to Christian civilization in America—matched only, perhaps, by the new winds of higher biblical criticism blowing across the Atlantic from Germany.
By the early 21st century, although creationism was still solidly a fundamentalist preserve, linked as it was to a literal reading of the Genesis creation accounts, it had also expanded to include many evangelicals and even some mainline Protestants. Helping this mainstreaming of creationist argumentation has been the “intelligent design” movement. Originating in the 1980s from the thought of scientist/historian Charles B. Thaxton (b. 1939), then carried forward by mathematician/philosopher William Dembski (b. 1960) and biochemist Michael Behe (b. 1952), intelligent design (ID) argues that there are organisms and organs in the natural world far too complex to have arisen by mere chance.
Today the Roman Catholic Church, which has historically supported a qualified evolutionary position, is now beginning to reconsider that support. Even some non-religious folks, drawing on postmodern understandings of the subjectivity of scientific knowledge, have begun to waver in their support for evolutionary theory. Activist preachers and their followers have continued to make creationism their focus, and creation-science institutes, think-tanks, and museums have developed multi-million-dollar budgets and sophisticated literature campaigns. All of these have focused their argumentation on portraying Darwinian evolution as a “theory” that is shaky and unproven.
Creationists have proved savvy political lobbyists, drawing support from such highly placed leaders as House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and President George W. Bush. Across forty-three states, activists have brought their movement to legislatures, school boards, and school districts. As a result, some districts have adopted standards allowing for critiques of evolutionary theory within the science curriculum, and others have either allowed creationism to be taught alongside evolution or have even avoided teaching evolution altogether.
The signs have not all favored the creationists. Evolutionists have fought back in many states and school districts, with battles see-sawing from year to year. For example, in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982) a federal court declared that Arkansas’s statute requiring public schools to give “balanced treatment” to “creation-science” and “evolution-science” violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court refused to admit creation science as legitimate science. Creationist literature was taken to be religious literature, and thus the Arkansas statute was interpreted as defending a religious position.
During this time of legal skirmishes (which had not ended by the early 21st century), the creationists’ coalitions with other conservatives also waxed and waned, as some conservatives became concerned about being associated in the public mind with “crackpot theories.” But the creationists never flagged in their belief in the rightness of their cause, and the wrongness of evolutionary theory.
Portrait of an enemy: “Secular Humanism”
In the 1970s one phrase came to encapsulate the fundamentalists’ sense of cultural malaise and frustration with perceived government-imposed secularization. This was “secular humanism,” a concept of Francis Schaeffer (1912 – 1984), an influential conservative Reformed (that is, Calvinist Protestant) writer and speaker.
Schaeffer had studied first under the old-school fundamentalist John Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937) at Westminster Theological Seminary, and then under the fundamentalist separatist Carl McIntire (1906 – 2002). When, after World War II, McIntire became increasingly invested in anti-communist and –ecumenist crusades, Schaeffer split from him and established his Swiss think-tank/retreat center, L’Abri. Schaeffer drew from the Reformed tradition that insisted Christianity should transform culture. His film series How Shall We Then Live? contrasted the Christian synthesis of the first 19 centuries of the church with modern “secular humanism,” which had proved empty and destructive in the fragmentation and moral relativism of the twentieth century.
Schaeffer was also instrumental in raising Roe v. Wade to a position of preeminence as an example of secularist takeover of government to promote an anti-Christian and licentious agenda. In 1979, working with Dr. C. Everett Koop (b. 1916; soon to be surgeon general under Reagan), Schaeffer came out with a follow-up film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? that portrayed abortion as murder and the legalization of abortion as the natural result of the secular humanists’ emphasis on freedom of choice in the service of self-indulgence.
Under the rhetorical hand of fundamentalist author and family values activist Tim LaHaye (b. 1926), “secular humanism” morphed from syndrome to conspiracy—a useful (and often downright paranoid) rallying cry to inspire the fundamentalist troops to increasingly urgent action. Many fundamentalist parents concluded that the public school systems had already succumbed to the conspiracy. They continued a trend started in the 1960s to create alternative Christian schools whose explicit aim was to train up young men and women armed against secular humanism both intellectually and politically.
The remarkable shift happening during the 1960s and 1970s was this: fundamentalists had for long contented themselves with blanket condemnations of “the world” as a corrupt realm, from which good Christians would keep themselves unspotted. Turning their backs upon a long heritage of evangelical social reform, they had for decades refused most forms of social action, proclaiming loudly that Jesus would set everything right upon his imminent return, and that meanwhile their sacred task was to save souls from the cultural wreckage. But now, in the face of what seemed the rampant secularization of a once-proud Christian nation, the fundamentalists were increasingly taking on a cultural crusade—active in the schools, the courtrooms, and the halls of political power. Granted, their crusade was (as we have seen) selective. But their new cultural engagement led observers and insiders alike to wonder whether “fundamentalism” was still the right word for this movement.
“Christian America” and the imminent second coming
The positive vision that accompanied the negative campaign against the supposed conspiracy of the “secular humanists “was a glorious narrative of “Christian America.” From the late 1970s on, as fundamentalist leaders labored for a package of political reforms that would turn the tide against humanism, they portrayed the promised land as a familiar place: the same land of virtue and piety created by the Founding Fathers and sustained by the Protestant hegemony of the 1800s.
The fundamentalists knew that this vision of America could not be regained by legislation alone, and so they continued to pray and organize for national religious revival and personal conversion. “If my [God’s] people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,” they insisted, in the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14,” then will I [God] hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
In this effort for national conversion, the rhetoric of cultural recovery mixed uneasily with that of end-times prophecy. The fundamentalists’ chosen narrative of dispensational premillennialism had always insisted that the world—including America, presumably—would become increasingly evil and chaotic until Jesus returned, caught up his “saints” in a global extraction movement called “The Rapture,” and set up his thousand-year reign here on earth. This narrative was vividly portrayed in Harold Lee “Hal” Lindsey’s (b. 1929) The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which, by 1990, had sold 28 million copies. The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (b. 1949) would take over where Lindsey’s account left off, selling over 62 million copies by 2004.
Fundamentalists raised on this apocalyptic vision became adept at finding in their nation’s evident moral decline, or in the threat of communist takeover, or in the litany of other cultural concerns, evidence of this declension. But now such views existed in paradoxical conjunction with concerted efforts to work long-term change in the fabric of American society.
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. . . . Each new crisis in the Cold War, conflict in the Middle East, or development in the European Union proved that the Bible prophecies were fulfilled and the end was near. 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 might deserve the wrath of God for its sins, but let an American protester desecrate the flag or criticize the military and such outbursts would be treated as though they were blasphemy.” America was now, oddly but compellingly, “simultaneously Babylon and God’s chosen nation.”
While fundamentalist premillennialism seems not to have impacted most areas of fundamentalist politics, there was one significant exception: U.S. policy on the state of Israel. The founding of that state in 1948 had provided dispensationalists with a shining example of fulfilled prophecy—a seemingly airtight piece of evidence that the events leading to Christ’s return would soon roll into motion when a USSR-Arab force would invade Israel and trigger the Battle of Armageddon. Yearning to be found on the side of God in this final conflict, fundamentalists continued through the end of the century to insist that the U.S. do its utmost to protect God’s favored nation.
Jerry Falwell and “True Fundamentalism”
By 1980, a leader had emerged to channel fundamentalism’s newfound cultural concern and social action: the Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933 –2007). Falwell had begun his ministry in 1956 as the founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Through the 1990s, his sympathies lay within the independent fundamentalist movement (Thomas Road was affiliated with the fundamentalist Baptist Bible Fellowship International). By the late 1970s, reading the signs of America’s conservative religious landscape, Falwell turned the label “fundamentalist” to his own uses as a rallying flag in his crusade to bring the voice of a reputed silent-but-powerful “Moral Majority” to bear in American cultural politics. In 1979, Falwell co-founded the organization of that name with Left Behind author (and Bob Jones University graduate) Tim LaHaye and Southern Baptist pastor Charles Stanley (b. 1932). It became the bulwark of the new, culture-warring fundamentalism and helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. (A later iteration of the Religious Right’s political machine was the Christian Coalition, co-founded in 1987 by televangelist Pat Robertson [b. 1930] and Republican strategist Ralph Reed [b. 1961].)
Falwell laid out the Moral Majority’s agenda in a 1981 book he commissioned and contributed to, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: The Resurgence of Conservative Christianity. In it, writers Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, both professors at Falwell’s Liberty University (then Liberty Baptist College) in Virginia. They started by claiming that fundamentalists were on the rise—and would likely eclipse all other groups in growth during the coming decades. Then they staked out a definition of “true fundamentalists,” over against the separatistic “hyper-fundamentalists” on the right and the effete, elite, and dangerously compromising evangelicals on the left. Their “hyper-fundamentalists” included such men as fundamentalist newspaper editor John R. Rice (1895 – 1980); the three generations of Bob Joneses of Bob Jones University (South Carolina); and Carl McIntire, founder of the separatist American Council of Christian Churches and the Bible Presbyterian Church. Their “evangelicals” included members of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), readers of Christianity Today magazine, and constituents of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.
Falwell and his writers also listed weaknesses of fundamentalists—clearly aimed most directly at the “hyper-fundamentalists”: they had little capacity for self-criticism, overemphasized external spirituality, resisted change, elevated minor issues, added “hobby horses” to their Bible preaching, depended too much on dynamic leaders, worried too much over labels and associations, saw all issues in black-or-white terms, approached matters of discipline in too authoritarian a way, and questioned the salvation of other Christians who didn’t think like them.
Falwell closed the book with an “Agenda for the Eighties.” This was a rallying cry to the solid fundamentalist middle who, he argued, represented the nation’s “moral majority,” defending America’s Christian moral foundations that had been largely eaten away during the decadent 1960s and 1970s. The war of the 1980s to reclaim America for God was to be founded on Christian understandings; but it was not to be fought in the churches (as had been the doctrinal battles of the original fundamentalists of the 1910s-50s). Its battlegrounds would be the schools, the law courts, and the halls of political power. To save Christian civilization in its flagship nation, fundamentalists must organize on every moral front and at every level, from the local to the national.
The targeted enemies of this fundamentalist crusade were many, and all needed to be conquered by Christian morality: abortion, euthanasia, creeping “humanism” in the public schools, the threat to godly sexuality posed by pornography and homosexuality, new gender roles in the family, issues in medical ethics, anti-war rhetoric putting national defense preparedness at risk, the continuing communist threat, and the forces arrayed against the state of Israel. As they fought these enemies, Falwell also urged fundamentalists not to slacken in their efforts to evangelize, plant churches, and improve Christian education. All fundamentalists must join the moral and spiritual army. Those evangelicals who had not capitulated to elite culture must join, too, or get out of the way.
In the decades that followed, Falwell continued to eschew the separatism of the “hyper-fundamentalists” and also began to build a broad conservative political consensus beyond his fundamentalist base. This consensus included not only evangelicals who were willing to stand militantly and faithfully for fundamentalist values, but also conservatives among Roman Catholics (at one point the largest single bloc within the Moral Majority), Mormons, Jews, and other groups concerned about a perceived moral declension in America. On the outside looking in were the old separatist 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.
In 1996, Falwell left the ranks of the independent conservative Baptists and brought his Thomas Road Baptist Church into the Southern Baptist Convention. Was he still, at that point, a fundamentalist? To answer this question, we must look at the Southern Baptist Convention and the whole history of conservative Christianity in the South.
A Southern Surge
Fundamentalism itself was in its origins—the 1920s through the 1960s—a Northern phenomenon, since during that period, Southern conservative Protestants did not face nearly the degree of cultural challenge that their Northern brethren did. However, the post-1970s surge of a newly politicized fundamentalism is very much a southern story. Illustrative are the statistics from the “Southern Crossroads” states of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri—the land of George Bush Sr. and Jr., Mike Huckabee, and John Ashcroft. In this region, we may gauge the impact of the Moral Majority and its successor, the Christian Coalition, on the Republican Party during the 1980s. Only the Pacific Northwest shows as much Christian Right influence in their state Republican parties as is evident in the Southern Crossroads. Next in the rankings are the South, Mountain West, and Midwest, then the Pacific, Mid-Atlantic, and New England lagging far behind. Whence this Southern political clout of the Christian Right? What has made this the most religiously conservative and politically pugnacious region of the country—the epicenter of the culture wars?
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. Fundamentalism was born in the North, but it came of age in the South.
Speeding the incipient cultural reaction of the formerly isolated South was a massive movement of northward migration from the 1930s through the 1950s. Complacent Southerners, used to maintaining the Christian status quo in their home states, moved into the North and encountered there the alarming signs of imminent cultural collapse. They saw Northern fundamentalists beginning to respond to the secularizing trends, and from California to New England transplanted Southerners joined these fundamentalist crusades—often focused on the public schools. Before long these crusades migrated back into the South, and by the 1960s, few aspects of fundamentalism’s cultural crusade lacked a southern phalanx. Falwell’s leadership in the emerging Moral Majority carried this trend into the 1970s and 1980s, and Southern “Bible-believing” Christianity effectively became hybridized with the old fundamentalism of the North.
Although unlike the development of Northern fundamentalism, the Southern variety did not focus on denominational battles, there was one major exception to this rule: the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Until the late 1970s, control of that denomination was held by a solid majority of denominational moderates. On the left wing were progressives and on the right conservatives, both seeking to move their denomination to a more active stance in the public square. But the Southern Baptist Convention, at ease in its comfortable Zion, did not yet have the sense of cultural crisis endemic in the North, and had never associated with Northern evangelical activism.
Southern Baptists did not, in fact, like to use the label “evangelical” of themselves, even though they shared with Northern evangelicals commitments to orthodoxy, experienced conversion through Christ, and evangelism. The SBC aversion to interdenominational affiliation was of a piece with southern sectionalism—they still remembered the previous century’s rancorous denominational and national splits over slavery—and they had especially balked at making common cause with such paedobaptistic (infant-baptizing) groups as the Presbyterians—prominent in Northern fundamentalism. For such reasons, SBC conservatives of the 1960s and 1970s consistently found themselves on the outside of denominational power, looking in. Their proud denomination saw no reason yet to join itself with the scattered para-church and interdenominational coalition of northern evangelicals, all of whose seminaries put together, after all, didn’t come up to the number of SBC seminarians!
What happened, then, that led to the “fundamentalization” of the Southern Baptist Convention? During the 1960s and 1970s, leaders and future leaders in the denomination headed north for college or graduate school, and there they began reading the northern evangelicals. Especially important were Carl F. H. Henry (1913 – 2003) and Francis Schaeffer, two heralds of cultural crisis who woke up these Southern Christians to the dangers of creeping (even galloping) secularization. SBC leaders such as Richard Land (b. 1946) resonated with these Northern evangelical authors, and when they returned home to find secularizing trends in their own towns and school systems, they began to draw on Northern evangelical ideas to arm their people against the coming cultural storm.
As never before, these conservatives within the denomination began to rally around the fundamentalist standard of biblical inerrancy, against all secular cultural rivals. Throughout the 1970s, this mission proved sufficiently compelling to enough people in the denomination that they became willing to make common cause with Northern fundamentalists and seek wholesale change in the power-structures of their own denomination. In the late 1970s, Texans Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson built a coalition within the denomination (largely drawn from Southern Crossroads states) aimed at electing an SBC president who stood firmly on scriptural inerrancy, and who would appoint an interlocking structure of leaders who shared that conviction. In 1979 their efforts paid off, and an inerrantist president, Adrian Rogers, was elected. At the 1980 convention, another inerrantist president was elected and a resolution was passed that required all SBC seminary faculty members to teach biblical inerrancy. This was accompanied by a slew of other resolutions, all passed, on abortion, school prayer, and endorsement of Christian political candidates. By 1990 the moderates were in full retreat, and the Southern Baptist Convention had armed itself for the culture wars with a new, fundamentalist identity.
Fundamentalism: a question of definitions
There is a good argument that “fundamentalism” may not be the appropriate label for the politicized evangelical movement we have been describing. The fact that many self-described fundamentalists with separatist convictions have vehemently disavowed their culturally engaged brethren of the Falwell ilk should at least give pause. And indeed those stricter fundamentalists in the tradition of Carl McIntire and the Bob Joneses have looked like a different phenomenon from this post-1970s movement. They have espoused complete separation from religious liberalism; believe in an extreme version of inerrancy that amounts to a process of divine dictation through authors who add nothing of their own perspective; frequently the view the King James (Authorized) Version as the inerrant text of Scripture; view other churches, including all major Protestant bodies not committed to their own values, as apostate; see the ecumenical movement (therefore) as a dangerous cabal of apostate bodies; observe taboos against a long list of personal “sins” including smoking, drinking, and dancing; and support the anticommunist crusades of men such as Carl McIntire. Above all, these stricter fundamentalists seek separation from a world far gone in sin. They seek to present a distinctive Christian witness to the world, and where this means division from other, less culture-averse Christians, they are willing to divide. Meaning is to be found exclusively in the “things of God,” and not at all in the inevitably declining (according to their premillennial commitments) world outside their doors.
The new breed of “open” fundamentalists, on the other hand (the term was coined by Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock), have tried to distance themselves from their separatist coreligionists. Despite their continuing commitments to creationism and premillennialism (although often in a form modified from the old dispensationalism), they are now eager to work for change in their nation, and they are willing to engage higher education and the intellectual life, social reform, and even self-criticism in that pursuit. For these sorts of reasons, historians such as Barry Hankins, author of Uneasy in Babylon, on the Southern Baptist Convention takeover by conservatives, eschew this use of the term “fundamentalist” altogether when describing non-separatist groups; such scholars would reserve the term for the “strict” fundamentalists (1) who are strictly separatist and/or (2) who self-identify as fundamentalist. If we apply this definition we end up with a scenario not of resurgence of fundamentalism starting the 1970s, but, if anything, of contraction. To take just one example of this, the premillennial dispensational theology still espoused by many “strict” fundamentalists is now in retreat, even undergoing extensive critique and revision in the school that has historically been its fortress: Dallas Theological Seminary.
But the argument in favor of using “fundamentalism” as a label for this new, post-1970s group is also strong. Cultural engagement is nothing new for fundamentalists. The movement arose from a nineteenth-century evangelicalism that believed itself to be the custodian of American culture—the keepers of the faith who would guide this “chosen nation” in the path of godliness. Any secularizing influence that has threatened that path has always been actively opposed by conservative evangelicals—in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries alike. In fact, fundamentalists share with their evangelical forebears a tendency not just to combat modernity’s depredations, but to positively thrive on that combat.
True, the issues absorbing fundamentalist attention have changed. But the dual sense of cultural custodianship and embattlement against cultural trends has continued—indeed heightened. And this prophetic and embattled American-ness has proved a potent and invigorating compound for the politically active fundamentalists of the 1970s and beyond.
In short, politically active conservative Christians who affirm traditionally fundamentalist items of faith seem still to be “fundamentalists,” whether they prefer to use the label or not. This would make Falwell (who eschewed the label “fundamentalist” late in his ministry), Christian psychologist and crusader for “family values” James Dobson (b. 1936), Christian media figure and 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Pat Robertson, and other conservative Christian leaders, organizations, and churches who share a belief in biblical inerrancy, a sense of cultural crisis, and an activist commitment to respond to that crisis, “fundamentalists” in a coherent and defensible sense.
There is one even broader definition of the term “fundamentalist” that has been contested, at least at points, by many scholars of American religion. This definition is a global, pan-religious one, which was initially expressed in such works as Bruce Lawrence’s Defenders of God (1989) and Norman Cohen’s Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1990). It is perfected and elaborated in the five-volume (3,500-page!) Fundamentalism Project, assembled under the editorial direction of Martin E. Marty between 1991 and 1995.
This broad definition takes the idea of a religious orthodoxy that opposes aspects of the “outside world,” abstracts it from the 20th-century American religious scene, and applies it across religious boundaries, from Islam to Buddhism to Hinduism and beyond. At heart, this definition focuses on the political activism of these movements, while recognizing that their antagonism with “the world” arises from their religious convictions.
Although some scholars question whether the term “fundamentalist,” rooted as it is in the American 1920s, can accurately be extended as a descriptor to conservative groups within such far-flung groups as the Sikhs, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews, there are certainly fruitful parallels between American Protestant fundamentalism and such world movements. In particular, Marsden notes qualities of militancy, concern to preserve religious identity and patrol community “borders,” and desire to provide social modalities that stand against the secular world around them.
Marsden also insists that there is one crucial difference between American fundamentalists and the militant religionists worldwide to whom this label has been applied: Fundamentalists have their evangelical roots deep in the American Enlightenment. Their evangelical forefathers consistently affirmed freedom of religious choice, separation of church and state, and populist religious modes. Thus today, although they do seek legislation that supports their values on certain issues, they are more comfortable with persuasion and voluntary action than state coercion. Though they do hold dear a vision of “Christian America,” for most fundamentalists the heart of that vision is religious freedom.
Unfortunately, this principle of liberty and the lack of literal militancy does not extend to foreign policy. In that department, fundamentalists tend to see their nation uncritically as an agent of God against “the forces of evil.” If that fight against evil forces requires the exercise of military might, then many fundamentalists are willing to support such action.
Insider, fellow-traveller, and ethnographic views
Particularly important when approaching a group that has drawn such negative public portrayal is the ability to see “inside,” from the perspective of participants and sympathetic observers. Such perspectives can never stand on their own, uncriticized, as the final word on a group. But they can enrich our critical understanding.
Insider accounts see beyond fundamentalists’ political involvement and into their theological commitments, spiritual lives, and communal structures. They reveal a fundamentalism that is not just reactive and militant. They show us the strong continuity with a larger spiritual tradition—a conversionist tradition of Protestant revivalism—that goes back to the 17th century in America and beyond, to such earlier European groups as the Puritans and Pietists. To ignore this spiritual, personal, transformational dimension is to mischaracterize the movement. Yes, anti-modern concerns, rhetoric, and action characterized both the earlier fundamentalism of the 1920s and the more politically active movement since the 1970s. But at the heart of the movement are still, not political or cultural agendas, but such distinctively religious concerns as the “born-again” experience of conversion and the disciplines of a holy life.
At the center of fundamentalist consciousness is an understanding of Jesus Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. Out of this understanding flows a sense of personal redemption as well as a compulsion to evangelize—not just to gain members but to see people’s lives transformed. This can happen only, believe fundamentalists, when they preach “the blood”—that is, the Christ’s death interpreted as paying the debt of our sins—and when they absorb and live by the very words of the Christian Bible.
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.” He also appreciates aspects of dispensationalism’s intellectual legacy, especially its understanding of historical change: a sense that God has intervened time and again in crises, and that he will continue to do so. The proof is in the pudding, and the dispensationalists’ belief that “war and poverty and famine” would continue to blight the globe was vindicated, while 20th-century liberals’ optimism that we would be able to lick those problems, soon, has proved hollow.
That such virtues could, despite fundamentalists’ combative public stance, make for a humane and warmly supportive community life, is evidenced in an ethnography of a fundamentalist church community by James M. Ault Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. An expansion of his award-winning documentary film “Born Again,” Spirit and Flesh records Ault’s three-year experience as a participant-observer in a fundamentalist Baptist church in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ault, a Harvard-educated sociologist with a research interest in feminist and other leftist activism, launched into this study in order to better understand the Religious Right. What he discovered was a warm, close-knit, community in which everything revolved around relationships—a stark contrast, in this largely working-class church, to the autonomous individualism of the professional classes in America.
The portrait that emerges in Ault’s study is one of “popular conservatism as an effort to defend family obligations as sacred duties against the tide of individualism and individual rights unleashed in the 1960s and 1970s.” The family dimension extended to the congregation: one of Ault’s most helpful insights came from observing the on-the-ground implementation of convictions that seem, to outsiders, inflexible to the point of inhumanity. When faced with instances in their midst of teen pregnancy, abortion, and divorce, the congregation proceeded in supportive and flexible ways that belied their absolutist political rhetoric.
In response to disorienting and (they have believed) anti-God cultural shifts, contemporary fundamentalists have taken organized action both to affirm their own deepest values through evangelism and community, and to recover those values at a societal level through suasion and political pressure. Their commitments to an inerrant scripture have led them to affirm beliefs that place them outside the mainstream of American life—scientific creationism, theologically motivated pro-Israel activism, and end-times narratives involving the supposed “rapture” of believers at Christ’s imminent return. Unlike the fundamentalists of earlier decades, however, contemporary adherents have spent more time and energy in the crusades of cultural politics than the minutiae of theological debate. This pragmatic approach has publicized moral causes, swayed elections, and worried liberal pundits, resulting in a torrent of public ink and bandwidth never vouchsafed their forebears.
Chris R. Armstrong
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
Norman J. Cohen, ed., The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: A View from Within; A Response from Without. especially helpful in this volume is Clark H. Pinnock, “Defining American Fundamentalism: A Response.”
Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, pref. Jerry Falwell, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (New York: Doubleday, 1981).
Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (University of Alabama Press, 2003).
Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell (Princeton University Press, 2000).
James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)
Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God (Harper & Row, 1989)
Michael Lienesch, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), especially the final chapter: “Renewal: The Continuing Re-creation of Creationism.”
George Marsden, “Fundamentalism Yesterday and Today (2005).” In Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, the five-volume Fundamentalism Project, published by the University of Chicago Press between 1991 and 1995 (some volumes involve other co-editors):
Volume 1: Fundamentalisms Observed (1994)
Volume 2: Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education (1993)
Volume 3: Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance (1996)
Volume 4: Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (2004)
Volume 5: Fundamentalisms Comprehended (1995)
Richard J. Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).
Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).
Chris R. Armstrong (Ph.D., Duke University) is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. His publications include Patron Saints for Postmoderns (Intervarsity Press, 2009) and chapters in Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (Mark A. Noll and Edith L. Blumhofer, eds.) and Portraits of a Generation: Early Pentecostal Leaders (James R. Goff Jr. and Grant Wacker, ed).
A NOTE ABOUT LIPPY AND WILLIAMS’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION IN AMERICA:
If you study American religion seriously, have space on your shelves for its 2,250 pages, and can afford its $400 price tag, then you should get this reference work (otherwise, importune your local librarian to buy one). A compendium of chapter-length essays on every imaginable aspect of American religious institutions, movements, and ideas, it is the worthy successor to Lippy and Williams’s three-volume Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, from which many of the readings were taken for my doctoral exams in the history of Christianity in America at Duke University.