Read an Excerpt
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1991 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorth American Protestant Fundamentalism
Nancy T. Ammerman
As fundamentalism re-emerged in the United States in the late twentieth century after a period of apparent hibernation, no two words better captured its public image and agenda than "Moral Majority." In 1979 independent Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell declared that people who were concerned about the moral decline of America were a majority waiting to be mobilized. He set out to accomplish that task, and for the next decade conservative voters were registered, rallies were held, and legislators elected. Ronald Reagan came to see religious conservatives as an important constituency, spealung at their rallies and inviting their leaders to the White House. And in 1988, politically active conservative pastors again had the ear of Republican George Bush. By 1989 Falwell could declare his mission was accomplished, that conservative consciences had been raised; he could return to pastoring his church and leading his growing Liberty University.
Pastoring churches and establishing schools had long been the more likely strategies of people who called themselves fundamentalists. Not all saw politics and social change as their mission, and many had discounted such activities as useless, even counterproductive. At the same time that some fundamentalists were lobbying in the White House, others were waiting anxiously for the Rapture, the time when they would be transported to heaven. A new book had appeared that set 1988 as the date for this eschatological event, and many were convinced by its claims that the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, would be the appointed time. Like many dates before it, this appointment with the End Times went unkept, but believers were reminded again of how important it was to be "Rapture ready" and to seek the salvation of others.
Fundamentalists in North America could be found in both camps—waiting for the Rapture and lobbying in the White House. In both cases believers were drawing on a distinctive view of the world that had emerged about a century earlier. They were willing to argue that certain beliefs were "fundamental," and they were willing to organize in a variety of ways to preserve and defend those beliefs.
A Brief Introduction and Definition
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many leaders in American Protestantism were actively seeking ways to adapt traditional beliefs to the realities of "modern" scholarship and sensibilities. They were met head-on, however, by people who saw the adaptations as heresy and declared that they would defend traditional beliefs from such adaptation. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, they produced a number of publications that furthered this defensive cause. Among the most important was a series of short scholarly essays issued over a five-year peiod (1910–15) and entitled "The Fundamentals"—a name that was being widely used as the designation for the threatened beliefs. In 1920 Curtis Lee Laws, editor of the Northern Baptist newspaper The Watchman Examiner, wrote that a "fundamentalist" is a person willing to "do battle royal" for the fundamentals of the faith. It was both a description and a call to action, and the name stuck.
During the 1920s fundamentalists actively fought against modernism in their churches and against evolution in their schools. They lost those battles but retreated and reorganized into a network of institutions that has housed much of the conservative wing of American Protestantism ever since.
However, the name fundamentalist is not synonymous with "conservative." It is, rather, a subset of that larger whole. Fundamentalists share with other conservative Christians their support for "traditional" interpretations of such doctrines as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the reality of the miracles reported in Scripture (including the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead), and the eventual return of Christ to reign over this, earth. In spreading these teachings, conservatives tend to support the more supernatural interpretation of events, while liberals tend to seek naturalistic explanations.
In American society such conservatism in religion is widespread. Seventy-two percent of Americans say the Bible is the Word of God, with over half of that number (39 percent of the total) saying that it should be taken literally. Almost two-thirds say they are certain that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Nearly three-fourths say they believe in life after death. And almost half (44 percent) could be called "creationists," since they believe that God created the world in "pretty much its present form" sometime in the last ten thousand years.
Not all these people, however, are fundamentalists. Even within conservatism there are a number of significant divisions. Among other things, not everyone agrees on that most central of doctrines—how people are saved, that is, how they make themselves acceptable to God. One branch of conservative Protestantism places primary emphasis on the historic creeds of the faith and membership in a church that confesses those beliefs. People are baptized (initiated) as infants into a community of faith. These "confessional" churches are often conservative, but they are not often the home of fundamentalist.
Fundamentalists are more often found in the other, much larger, branch of conservative Protestantism that identifies itself as "evangelical." These are people for whom only an individual decision to follow Jesus will suffice for salvation. They are concerned not only about their own eternal fate but also about the destiny of those around them. They seek to "win souls for Christ" by their words and deeds, testifying to the necessity of a life-changing decision to become a Christian. They often speak of that experience as being "born again." It is an experience that gives them a sense of personal and intimate communion with Jesus and often shapes their lives and conversations in noticeably pious ways.
But even within the evangelical branch there are significant subdivisions. Almost all black Protestants belong here, for instance, but they have developed independent traditions over two centuries of segregation that have made them quite distinctive from many white evangelicals. Blacks hold to many of the conservative doctrines of other evangelicals, and three-fourths of black churchgoers are in one of the black Baptist or Methodist denominations. They are likely to hold Scripture in high regard and to emphasize the necessity of being saved.
These churches were born out of the Great Awakening and the later southern revivals, and they have retained much of that evangelical heritage. But the distinctive style of African American worship and the distinctive relationship of African Americans to society make the label fundamentalist less than apt. Theirs is a style of worship that is distinctive not for its doctrinal content but for the way in which it celebrates a separate ethnic tradition. C. Eric Lincoln has described the function of separateness as protecting the black believer from distortions that whites might introduce and as reinforcing and enhancing the very characteristics of African American worship belittled in white society. He claims that "black ethnicity denies the relevance of white styles of worship for black people and sanctions the ritual patterns developed in the churches of the black experience." Theirs is not, then, a religiously based separation from a secular world but a racially based separation in which church and community are bound tightly together. In Lincoln's words, "in the black community the Black Church is in a real sense a universal church, claiming and representing all Blacks out of a tradition that looks back to the time when there was only the Black Church to bear witness to 'who' or 'what' a black [person] was." When a black preacher speaks, he or she speaks for more than a mere congregation. In that sense, black evangelicals have yet to experience the modern secularization that has separated religious institutions from the political and economic mainstream. Theirs is not a rebellion against modernist compromises. Although they share many beliefs with other evangelicals, those beliefs function quite differently in their very different social world.
Pentecostal and charismatic Christians in North America also belong in the evangelical family but are a distinct group within it. Beginning with the Pentecostal revivals near the turn of the twentieth century, new denominations such as the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ, and the Assemblies of God were formed, in which "gifts of the spirit" (such as speaking in tongues and healing) were emphasized as evidence of the believer's spiritual power. By the 1960s an emphasis on the Holy Spirit's power had also found its way into many mainline denominations, with prayer and healing groups meeting around the country in the parish halls of Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and many other local churches. The Christianity Today–Gallup poll estimated that only about one-third of the nation's twenty-nine million charismatics are in traditional Pentecostal denominations." Whatever their denominational location is, charismatics tend toward becoming "evangelical" in their insistence on a personal experience of salvation. But their religious experiences go considerably beyond the "rebirth" noncharismatic evangelicals claim.
Another group sometimes called "evangelical" or "fundamentalist" is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons. This group's reverence for its scripture, their disciplined way of life, and their aggressive evangelism sometimes cause them to be referred to as "fundamentalist." The term, "Protestant Christian fundamentalism," however, is not appropriate in the case of the large majority of Mormons. While they share some religious and social characteristics with fundamentalists, they are certainly not Protestant. They accept few of the traditional doctrines Protestant fundamentalists hold sacred, and their adoption of a unique sacred text, The Book of Mormon, sets them firmly at odds with Protestant fundamentalists. In fact in recent years Mormons have experienced a fundamentalist movement within their own ranks, in groups seeking to purify their tradition and return to orthodox interpretations of their scripture.
These groups occupy the same general religious territory as fundamentalists. They are all conservative and evangelical, but they are still distinct from each other and from fundamentalists. Mormons have their own scripture, African Americans are defined more by race than by doctrine, and Pentecostals trust the revelatory power of experience more than do the more rationally oriented fundamentalists who seek to confine revelation to Scripture alone.
While we may be able to identify these other distinct subgraips, it is less clear that we can identify fundamentalists as distinct from evangelicals in general and on what basis that might be done. During most of the first half of the twentieth century "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" meant roughly the same things. People might use either name to describe those who preserved and practiced the revivalist heritage of soul winning and maintained a traditional insistence on orthodoxy.
But as orthodox people began to organize for survival in a world dominated by the non-orthodox, two significantly different strategies emerged. Seeking a broad cultural base for their gospel, one group saw benefits in learning to get along with outsiders. They did not wish to adopt the outsiders' ways, but they wanted to be respected. They began, especially after World War 11, to take the name "evangelical" for themselves. Billy Graham can be seen as their primary representative. The other group insisted that getting along was no virtue and that active opposition to liberalism, secularism, and communism was to be pursued. This group retained the name "fundamentalist." To this group we now turn our attention.
Central Features of Fundamentalism in North America
Evangelism. When fundamentalists describe how they are different from other people, they begin with the fact that they are saved. They clearly affirm their kinship with other evangelicals on this point. Much of their organized effort is aimed at seeking out converts. They invite the "lost" to church, broadcast evangelistic messages over radio and television, print millions of pages and record millions of words on cassette tapes—all aimed at convincing the unconvinced that eternity in heaven is better than the eternal damnation in hell that surely awaits the unsaved. Preachers proclaim the hopeless conditions of lives not entrusted to Jesus. And individual believers invest much in prayer and testimony directed at the eternal fate of their families and friends. Evangelism and the salvation of individual souls remains at the heart of the message fundamentalists proclaim to American society in the late twentieth century.
Inerrancy. Fundamentalists also claim that the only sure path to salvation is through a faith in Jesus Christ that is grounded in unwavering faith in an inerrant Bible. As fundamentalists see the situation, if but one error of fact or principle is admitted in Scripture, nothing—not even the redemptive work of Christ—is certain. When asked what else makes them distinctive, fundamentalists will almost invariably claim that they are the people who "really believe the Bible." They insist that true Christians must believe the whole Bible, the parts they like along with the parts they dislike, the hard parts and the easy ones. The Bible can be trusted to provide an accurate description of science and history, as well as morality and religion. And only such an unfailing source can be trusted to provide a sure path to salvation in the hereafter and clear guidance in the here and now. As Kathleen Boone has pointed out, fundamentalists imagine "themselves either steadfast in absolute truth or whirling in the vortex of nihilism."
Such contemporary use of ancient texts requires, of course, careful interpretation. Studies of fundamentalists invariably point to the central role of pastors and Bible teachers in creating authoritative meanings out of the biblical text. Fundamentalists live in communities that are defined by the language they use and the stories they tell. Community leaders, teachers in Christian schools, and Christian media personalities give shape to the way ordinary believers understand their world by offering interpretations that give the infallible text its concrete human reality. The more people are immersed in this fundamentalist community of discourse, the more easily they accept the Bible as completely accurate. They are more likely to question the validity of science than to doubt the unfailing Word of God.
Some aspects of modern science, of course, are not questioned (the earth's roundness and orbit around the sun, for instance). The interpretive task fundamentalists undertake, then, requires a careful balancing of facts about the world presumed by moderns to be true with the assumption that the Bible contains no factual errors. Phrases that seem to indicate a modern view of the solar system (such as "circle of the earth") are highlighted, while statements clearly reflecting an ancient view (such as references to "waters" above and below the earth) are said to be poetic and not intended to be "scientifically precise." Likewise, moral teaching in Scripture that seems to condone slavery or polygamy must be neutralized. Such teaching is neither endorsed as eternally relevant (with the notable exception of patriarchy) nor rejected as a mistake of ancient writers. Rather, such practices are deemed irrelevant to salvation, to be accepted if in keeping with the cultural custom and abandoned if not.
Excerpted from FUNDAMENTALISMS OBSERVED Copyright © 1991 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.