Civil Religion Series: The Fundamentalists, Then and Now

Rev. T. T. Martin, Dayton, Tenn., circa July 14, 1925, during the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Herald & Examiner photo) (Chicago Tribune historical photo)....OUTSIDE TRIBUNE CO.- NO MAGS, NO SALES, NO INTERNET, NO TV, CHICAGO OUT, NO DIGITAL MANIPULATION...
Rev. T. T. Martin, Dayton, Tenn., circa July 14, 1925, during the Scopes Monkey Trial. (Herald & Examiner photo) (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ.

• Mike Huckabee, 1998

• • •

Civil Religion, part five
The Fundamentalists, Then and Now

Presidential election years in the U.S. provide American Christians an opportunity to reflect upon our faith and how it applies to our lives as citizens and to the public issues that affect us all. We are taking many Tuesdays throughout 2016 to discuss matters like these.

We are looking at material from three books, the first of which is Richard Hughes’s Christian America and the Kingdom of God.

Earlier posts:

Although the 1800s have been characterized as the “Christian” century in the United States, during those years strong forces of modernity were also rising up and threatening to flood the land. The nation was becoming increasingly diverse because of immigration, humans were accomplishing more through innovative technological and industrial means, the cities were growing and offering a different ethos than rural and small town life , science was discovering facts about the world, the universe, and life itself that seemed to contradict what many felt were the plain teachings of the Bible. Furthermore, some began to apply principles of “evolutionary” theory to the Bible itself, giving birth to the discipline of biblical criticism, which seemed to attack the very nature of scripture as “God’s Word,” its authority and credibility.

These dramatic changes that overtook the United States at the end of the nineteenth century are crucial for understanding the rise of American fundamentalism. For these were more than changes. These were ruptures in the fabric of traditional American life— the rural, Protestant, and Anglo-American way of life— that had dominated the United States since the Second Great Awakening. Christian America— as the nineteenth century had defined Christian America— was rapidly disappearing into a vast sea of immigrants, Catholics, alien folkways, and organized labor….and startling new developments in modern science.

(p. 140)

In the early 20th century a movement developed to defend the “fundamentals” of the faith. These boiled down to five propositions:

  1. The inerrancy of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ
  3. The substitutionary atonement
  4. The bodily resurrection of Jesus
  5. Jesus’ imminent return

Richard Hughes makes the cogent observation that placing a statement about the Bible first in this list is telling.

Earlier generations of Christians, reaching all the way back to the ancient church, had understood the Bible as a theology text— that is, a book that probed the mysteries of God and the meaning of human life in the light of God’s work as creator, sustainer, and redeemer. That age-old understanding of the Bible made room for paradox, for ambiguity, and for meaningful reflection on the mysteries of God and the mysteries of the universe. It also made room for metaphor and symbolic expression— qualities essential to Christian theology if, as Christians have always claimed, God as the Infinite One is beyond human comprehension.

But the fundamentalists’ understanding of the Bible as an inerrant text, both scientifically and theologically, robbed the Bible of all its symbolic and metaphoric qualities. It therefore placed God, the Bible, and the entire Christian tradition in an intellectual straightjacket. Either the Bible was true or it was false. Either you believed it or you didn’t. And, of course, since the Bible always said what it meant and meant what it said, there was only one way to understand it. Such assumptions lent to American fundamentalism a rigid and brittle quality that made it uncomfortable with dialogue, ill at ease with diversity, and suspicious of pluralism.

(p. 143)

The fundamentalists were minor players on the national stage throughout much of the 20th century (with notable exceptions, such as during the Scopes trial). They separated themselves from public culture, from universities, and from Christian denominations that they accused of compromising with “modernism,” creating their own denominations, churches, Bible schools, and missions.

After World War II, a movement arose that summoned fundamentalists to become less separatistic, to engage with the world and its ideas once more. This was “evangelicalism.” Its intellectual leader, Carl F.H Henry, edited the evangelicals’ flagship publication, Christianity Today, and the popular face of the movement was evangelist Billy Graham. In essence, as Hughes notes, evangelicalism  was a call to return to the Christian spirit of the nineteenth century that grew out of the Second Great Awakening. This included engagement with American culture and participation in social concerns that the fundamentalists had abandoned for fear of losing their dogmatic identity and slipping into the “social gospel.”

It was in the 1970s and 80s, Hughes observes, that segments of evangelicalism and fundamentalism began merging and emerging into a new cultural force, this time in reaction to the social upheavals of the 1960s. Formerly non-political fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell summoned their people “out of their cultural isolation, to mobilize them for active involvement in American politics, and in that way, to renew the vision of Christian America that had dominated the nineteenth century” (p. 152). Moral Majorities, Christian Coalitions, and the Religious Right were born.

Thus, fundamentalist separatism became transformed into public activism as many of its spokespersons led a new charge, this time not so much against theological and doctrinal errors, but against the social and cultural degradation they saw happening in the U.S. Issues such as abortion, the breakdown of the nuclear family, women’s liberation, and later gay rights, motivated them to action. Joining with evangelicals and Roman Catholics and others with conservative moral positions, they “did something relatively new.” They “entered foursquare into the political arena and sought to achieve its objectives chiefly through the exercise of political power” (p. 153).

The rise of the Christian Right may be chronicled from the “Year of the Evangelical” in 1976 through the Reagan years in the 1980s through a time of building coalitions and electing candidates until it reached its zenith in the presidential terms of George W. Bush. In 2000, 68% of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians supported Bush, and in 2004 that figure rose to 78%.

…the majority of fundamentalists and evangelicals viewed George W. Bush as one of them. He was, after all, a born-again Christian, converted by the evangelical preacher and pastor to presidents, Billy Graham. And though he belonged to a mainline denomination whose theology ranged from moderate to liberal— the United Methodist Church— Bush had far more in common with fundamentalism than he did with his denomination. Fundamentalists and evangelicals understood that well, and when they voted for George W. Bush in 2000, they voted to place in the White House a Christian whose theology, style, and demeanor reflected familiarity with— and even affection for— a fundamentalist-evangelical perspective and worldview.

…At a Bush reelection rally, Gary Walby from Destin, Florida, told the president, “This is the very first time that I have felt God was in the White House.”

(p. 158f)

Richard Hughes suggests that the Bush administration advanced the myths of a “Christian America” that we have discussed in this series. “In their view,” he writes, “America embraced the right, her enemies embraced the wrong, and God stood on the side of the United States, leading her in the redemption of the world” (p. 163).

Hughes is critical of that perspective. As he argues throughout his book, nations may claim to be “Christian,” but they act like nations. And nations by nature function in ways that resemble Babylon more than Jesus.

Like that ancient empire [The Holy Roman Empire], the United States abounds in Christian trappings. And yet the United States embraces virtually all the values that have been common to empires for centuries on end. It pays lip service to peace but thrives on violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above simplicity. In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus.

(p. 186)

30 thoughts on “Civil Religion Series: The Fundamentalists, Then and Now

  1. I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ.
    • Mike Huckabee, 1998


  2. This is more of a comment on the book (which I just started) than this post specifically, but like I said last week, when you’re inside that fundamentalist bubble, you just don’t see it, and now I am a lot embarrassed that I ever fell for the “Christian America” theme.


  3. Judging from the scholarly writings of that day, I suspect there was a fair share of both Poem Truth and Math Truth floating around in the soup in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Christ. The difference between then and now is that they spooned them both up and ate them together as part of the same soup, while we insist on dividing them into different bowls and eating them separately. We also too often put ourselves on a strict diet of one or the other, with Math Truthers denying the nutritional value of Poem Truth and Poem Truthers doing the same in reverse. Fundamentalists dine on Poem Truth soup out of a Math Truth bowl and fail to see the irony.


  4. Hi Aidan.

    I don’t think it necessary to trash the whole OT aka Peter Enns’ histiography. The post Apostolic Church had no problems regarding the OT as real. I suggest you check out the books by Paul Copan and Greg Boyd on OT violence. Believing in the reality of the OT didn’t initiate Christian conquests of other lands and the Crusades started as a defensive strategy (although bybthe middle ages the church was veering off into megalomania. That’s when the leadership start to take an overly literal interpretatiin of OT as God being a warrior).



  5. I agree with you, Dr. Fundystan.
    My own opinion is that ‘Inerrancy’ is definitely a modern construct growing out of a fundamentalists break with the orthodox Christian faith.


  6. Oh, well, I reject inerrancy for simple reasons. You can’t prove a negative. Saying that the Bible is without error just means you have to define what constitutes an error. It is an a priori position with no added value to the hermeneutic. At this point, i don’t see it functioning in any way in Christian theology other than as a shibboleth. I am much more comfortable saying the Bible is true than syaing it is “without error”.


  7. I remember an online essay by Rob Bell, about “Math Truth” and “Poem Truth”.

    The Bible was written when there was only Poem Truth but nowadays we think in Math Truth and try to read it that way.


  8. I can agree with you, Aidan, that some have gone so far in deconstructing the bible it seems that anything resembling solid, reliable truth has gotten tossed with the theological bathwater. But I’m not sure terms like “inerrant” or “infallible” can be realistically applied to scripture, except maybe as a vague statement of faith.
    Try to run a word-by-word, line-by-line inerrancy test on scripture– with the added handicap that if you find just one thing that can be rationally identified as an error, then the whole of scripture is rendered untrue — you might as well chunk your bible in the garbage right now. A detailed comparisson of the gospels alone will provide numerous problems for strict inerrancy. Did both of the thieves crucified with Jesus mock him or only one, while the other recognized his divinity? Did Jesus visit Jerusalem several times (as John records) or just once at the end of his ministry (as the other gospels report)? Why on earth would three gospels (all written earlier than John) fail to record something as monumental as Lazarus’ ressurection?
    And before you can safely apply a concept like inerrancy, you have to examine the yardsticks being used for measurement. Is humankind’s current body of scientific knowledge inerrant? Is there a school of historical scholarship that is inerrant? Were the tens of thousands of scholars and language experts involved in creating translations of the bible over the centuries all inerrant in their work? Are some translations of the bible inerrant while others are not? Are all the oldest surviving source texts of scripture inerrant, even though there are identifiable variances between many of them? If the bible is inerrant, are there any other inerrant written works with which we can compare it? And if not, then how can one rationally identify the bible as inerrant when there are no other inerrant points with which to map a matrix of inerrancy? And, by the way, if someone can provide me with a working, systematic method of judging between errant poetry and inerrant poetry, I’ d love to hear it.
    When you get right down to it, the errancy or inerrancy of the bible really depends on how picky you are.
    Honestly, I think the doctrine of inerrancy is an erroneous attempt to hold both God and the bible to a very modern and very human standard of perfection — a perfection that is mathematical and machine-like in its nature. Could it be that God is not impressed or obsessed with that kind of perfection?


  9. And today we have Ted Cruz supporter, Mike Bickle, saying God raised Hitler up to punish the Jews for turning their back on God.



  10. I think that fundamentalists are right about some things, the retreat from modernity is founded on good ideas – to separate from the direction of the world that is doing so much more damage with the aid of technology etc. What bothers me about fundamentalism is that the 5 tenets they hold mentioned in the post are placed above the real essentials of the faith. Inerrancy, and other concepts raised in the flight from modernity have become the new faith, it replaced the early creeds, statements, even scriptural statements on what comprises the faith.


  11. I’ve heard my wife’s cousin and her husband, both fundamentalists, say that God used the Europeans to judge and punish the native tribes of the Americas. These two people to this day live among Eskimo tribal people in Alaska, and claim to have great admiration for them, except for this: the tribes are still not Christian, and so are under God’s judgment. I argued with them for at least two hours; but, in their smug certainty, they rationalized everything with their ready-to-use theology.


  12. A belief in inerrancy doesn’t in and of itself rule out an understanding of Scriptural metaphor, allegory, etc. “Inerrancy” simply means “without error,” and while many people who believe in inerrancy are also unable to distinguish between, say, the different genres of Revelation and Matthew, a belief in inerrancy does not commit oneself to reading all biblical texts in a single way.

    In fact, a belief in inerrancy can bolster one’s understanding of interpretative issues like typology. The biblicist looks at the Exodus, and says only that it happened. The liberal looks at the Exodus, disagrees with most or all the details presented in the biblical record, but still concludes that this fabricated story about non-existent people and a non-existent flight out of Egypt aided by non-existent miracles in someway “prefigures” the death and resurrection of Christ. A faithful Christian who is shaped by the Scriptures and understands them in light of tradition looks at the Exodus, concludes that the Bible accurately records the details of the events, and *based on the reality of these events* concludes that they prefigure the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Remember: it wasn’t “fundamentalists” who came up with the idea that the Bible contains no errors. The Church Fathers believed this 1900 years before there were any “fundamentalists” in the modern sense of the word.


  13. Evangelicalism’s undiscerning alliance with right wing politics (and concurrent addiction to the power it promises), as well as the related culture war, have been some of the worst mistakes in christendom in the past hundred years. They have at once produced a twisted version of faith that has little or nothing to do with the way of Jesus; attracted and even produced people whose faith is nothing more than in a civil/cultural “christianity”; and alienated large numbers of believers and potential believers, particularly the younger generation.

    I think Michael Spencer was right about the coming evangelical collapse, but I really worry about how much damage the movement will manage to do before that time comes. Exhibit A could be the current presidential race, but don’t get me started on that.


  14. I hope soon that the darkness that is Ted Cruz’s fundamentalism is exposed fully . . . a lot of ‘conservative Christians’ are lining up for him and I’m not sure they know the extent of this darkness. What Cruz has grown out of is not something we want for our country OR our world. All I needed to confirm my fears about him was when he said he wanted to use carpet bombing . . . but there is so much more to know and to fear

    replacing Trump with Cruz? either way, we would unleash hell


  15. But some of those fundamentalists would probably say (or at least think) that it was ‘manifest destiny’ – God’s plan to create a ‘Christian nation’ (at the expense of the heathens).


  16. What you have written is horribly true, J. America was “founded” by European Christians, who then slaughtered (almost) all the rightful inhabitants of the country, kidnapped and enslaved Africans, and forced them to build the wealth of the country in which the enslaved people didn’t share. No one, not even the most fervent fundamentalist, argues with that.


  17. Don’t forget Mike Huckabee flogging investments in gold during his daily hours on Fox.

    Sounds like Glenn Beck as Financial Advisor:
    (I actually used to field phone calls like that. They ceased after the guy quit drinking. I kid you not.)

    And then there’s always the investments in buckets of CHRISTIAN(TM) rice & beans for the Tribulation a la Jim Bakker…

    (And they wonder why “God’s Name is a laughingstock among the heathen”?)


  18. The same Huckabee who said Americans should be made to read Barton’s history books “at gunpoint, if necessary”?

    The same Huckabee who was GOD’s Anointed Choice for Our Next President through the 2008 & 2012 GOP primaries?


  19. Indeed, Christians had and still have much to be ashamed of, as Darwin properly reminded them:

    “A few days afterwards I saw another troop of these banditti-like soldiers start on an expedition against a tribe of Indians at the small Salinas, who had been betrayed by a prisoner cacique…Two hundred soldiers were sent; and they first discovered the Indians by a cloud of dust from their horses’ feet, as they chanced to be travelling…The Indians, men, women, and children, were about one hundred and ten in number, and they were nearly all taken or killed, for the soldiers sabre every man. …My informer said, when he was pursuing an Indian, the man cried out for mercy, at the same time that he was covertly loosing the bolas from his waist, meaning to whirl it round his head and so strike his pursuer. “I however struck him with my sabre to the ground, and then got off my horse, and cut his throat with my knife.” This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood! When I exclaimed that this appeared rather inhuman. he answered, “Why, what can be done? they breed so!”

    Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war, because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age that such atrocities could be committed in a Christian civilized country?”

    –The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter 5


  20. …The sea of faith
    Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating
    To the breath of the night wind
    Down the vast edges drear
    And naked shingles of the world.

    (Browning’s “Dover Beach,” from probably imperfect memory)

    Let’s not forget the truly profound emotional upheaval and pain that Darwin’s writings brought to the individual Christian soul. I don’t wonder that fundamentalists cling to their beliefs.


  21. Don’t forget Mike Huckabee flogging investments in gold during his daily hours on Fox. Yes: A christian minister *explicitly* urging people to store up treasures on earth, where moths doth eat and thieve do break in and steal . . .

    (Or maybe not, since if you listened to Huckabee at the height of the gold craze in 2010 and bought $50 worth of gold, then today you would have $32).


  22. How indoctrinated was I?
    I stopped at the word “inerrancy” in the list and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t capitalized.


  23. It pays lip service to peace but thrives on violence, exalts the rich over the poor, prefers power to humility, places vengeance above forgiveness, extravagance above modesty, and luxury above simplicity. In a word, it rejects the values of Jesus.

    1) pays lip service to peace… how many cars do we see that have both Christian and NRA bumper stickers?

    2) exalts the rich… prosperity gospel, megachurch pastors’ salaries…

    3) prefers power to humility… PACs, Cruz, Trump, ad infinitum ad nauseam

    4) vengeance over forgiveness… Yeah, neither Trump nor Cruz give off a vibe of forgiveness and reconciliation, eh?

    5) extravagance and luxury… when churches have multimedia shows on Sunday morning, and need parking garages…

    kyrie eleison


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