Saturday, February 23, 2019

What is Fundamentalism? (Redux)

As I indicated last month (here), this year I am planning to update my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007) and to re-publish it at year’s end. In that connection, here are highlights from the (slightly) updated first chapter.
Beginnings of Christian Fundamentalism
In the first main section of the chapter, I explain that fundamentalism was originally “a sincere movement to preserve or to restore the true faith.” That is, it was not militant—and it certainly was not political as the Christian Right has been in recent years.
Even though there were some precursors, the actual beginning of what came to be called fundamentalism was the publishing of twelve small books between 1910 and 1915. The overarching title of the twelve volumes was The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth.
In June 1920, the Northern Baptist Convention held a conference on “The Fundamentals of Our Baptist Faith” in Buffalo, New York. Writing about that conference in the Baptist publication The Watchman-Examiner, C.L. Laws, the editor, proposed that those “who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’”
Laws’s proposed term seems to be the first public use of the word “fundamentalist.”
Changes in Christian Fundamentalism
During its first 25 years, from 1915 to 1940, there was a considerable shift from being the kind of “mainstream” movement it was in the beginning to being a separatist and a more militant movement.
The Scopes Trial of 1925 marked a definitive change in attitudes toward fundamentalism—thanks mainly to the daily newspaper reports written by reporter H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun. By the end of that “trial of the century,” for most in the general public, and for many even in the churches, fundamentalism was largely discredited. 
The picture is a scene from "Inherit the Wind," a movie about the Scopes Trial.
For the next several decades, then, fundamentalism was “alive and well” only among the militant “biblical separatists.” Four of the most influential proponents of this new type of fundamentalism were J. Frank Norris, J. Gresham Machen (to whom I referred in a recent blog article), Bob Jones, and John R. Rice.
Of these four, Norris (1877~1952) was the most colorful—and the best example of militant fundamentalism. Barry Hankins of Baylor University published his biography of Norris under the title God’s Rascal.
Hankins writes, “While some became militant because they were fundamentalists, Norris became a fundamentalist, in part at least, because he was militant by nature” (p. 176).
Earlier in his book, Hankins states: “Militancy was the indispensable characteristic of fundamentalism—the one that distinguished fundamentalists from other conservative evangelicals” (p. 44).
In this regard, it is important to remember the words spoken before 1925 by the early anti-fundamentalist leader Harry Emerson Fosdick: “All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists.”
Shifts in Terms for Fundamentalism
Because of the negative connotations of the term fundamentalism, in the 1940s under the leadership of Carl F.H. Henry, among others, a group of “moderate fundamentalists” formed the National Association of Evangelicals and the movement came to be known by the name “neo-evangelicalism” instead of fundamentalism.
Gradually, the “neo-“ part of the new term was dropped, and conservative Christianity came to be known as just evangelicalism. Still, there were differences in their ranks: there were those who were more progressive, such as people like Jimmy Carter. Time magazine declared 1976, the year Carter was elected President, as the “year of the evangelical.”
Unlike the more progressive evangelicals such as Carter, there were still many conservatives who formed a large part of that wing of the church—and so it remains today. Accordingly, “conservative evangelical” is now largely a synonym for “fundamentalist.”


  1. I don't think my Fundamental and Evangelical friends would agree with that appraisal. They see each other as quite distinct, and some still won't even associate with the other.

    1. Please see my long, two-part response below.

  2. Morning Leroy. I read the entire post and appreciate the way you developed it. Anyone writing about the subject today will have a good grounding in the perimeters of the phenomenon. I’ve never been comfortable with being known by any of these terms.

  3. The first comment received this morning was from a Thinking Friend whose opinions/comments I take very seriously. She wrote,

    "Reading this first part, 'Accordingly, 'conservative evangelical' is now largely a synonym for “fundamentalist”' seems divisive, like you’ve drawn a line in the sand or trying to put people in a box. Like I said before, I don’t even recognize some of the 'evangelical' Christianity you describe and I don’t like being lumped in with all of that.

    "In this day and age when people are so polarized, how about writing a book about how people could join together to get on with the business of the Kingdom work that needs to be done?"

    1. To begin with, let me respond to just the second paragraph. The last subsection of the final chapter of my book "The Limits of Liberalism" is titled "Recommending the Radiant Center," and in concluding what I had written in two books about the polarity in Christianity I call for seeking to find a center where Christians could, indeed, "join together to get on with the business of the Kingdom work that needs to be done."

      That remains my strong desire--although, as I wrote in my January 15 article, I am less optimistic now about Christians gathering in the "radiant center" than I was ten years ago when I was working on finishing "Limits . . . ."

  4. And now let's think about labels, which are always problematic. As has been said from time to time, and as I have cited many times, "All labels are libels."

    Still there are distinctive positions on many religious as well as political issues, and a label is used to keep from having to make a length explanation about the position being referred to in a given conversation. The militant fundamentalists, especially after 1925 as I explain in Chapter One, were the ones who polarized Christianity, for their position was that they were right and those who did not agree with them were not Christians so could not, of course, be people with whom they could join with to work for the business of the Kingdom.

    The polarity was overcome to a degree with the emergence of the "neo-evangelicals" in the 1940s, as I point out at the end of Chapter One. They gradually dropped the "neo-" part of that label and became the evangelical movement. Billy Graham became a good example of the new evangelicalism, which was broader than the earlier fundamentalism--but he was opposed by those who still considered themselves fundamentalist.

    As I explain in the first chapter of "Fed Up . . . ," it was the fundamentalists who began using that label for themselves. And it was the traditionalist/fundamentalist J. Graham Machen who publicly used the label "liberalism" and who concluded that those who fit in the latter camp were not real Christians.

    Beginning about a hundred years ago, the divisiveness within Christianity grew out of the fundamentalist movement, for it was they who determined that those who did not believe the fundamentals of Christianity, as they understood them, were not Christians.

    But then came the new fundamentalist movement in the late 1970s, and that is the subject of Chapter Two, which I will update and post a blog article about next month. "Fundamentalism" was again used as a label by those who endorsed that position. But, again, that label became so pejorative it ceased to be used as much and the more general term "evangelical" came to be widely used instead. [to be continued]

    1. "Evangelical," however, is a label that includes a lot of differing, and even conflicting, viewpoints. There are those who are open to, and even accepting of, more progressive/liberal ideas and find no problem in working with Christians who hold the latter points of view. But there are others who still hold to more of the fundamentalist position. It is the latter who are now commonly referred to as conservative evangelical.

      I quoted Fosdick saying, "All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists." That is an important distinction. But since not many people want to use the term "fundamentalist" for themselves even though they hold to most of the traditional fundamentalist ideas, we could perhaps make the following rather convoluted statement: all conservative evangelicals are evangelicals but not all evangelicals are conservative evangelicals.

      The Thinking Friend to whom I am responding wrote, "I don’t even recognize some of the 'evangelical' Christianity you describe and I don’t like being lumped in with all of that."

      For the most part, I have not written about evangelical Christianity; the book is about fundamentalism. If this TF doesn't recognize some of the "evangelical" Christianity described, it is because it is conservative evangelical (=fundamentalist) and not evangelical in the broader sense.

      Finally, I am not trying to lump this TF, or anyone else, with any particular group or to pin any label on them. People can self-identify as they feel comfortable.

      I am interested, though, in making clear statements about the problems of fundamentalism, which I understand as the position of what is more commonly known as "conservative evangelical" today, for I think there are many problems in that position--the main one being is that it alienates so many non-Christians from giving any serious consideration to the good news of Christianity, that is, the amazing grace of God.

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson commented,

    "I’m glad to see you updating Fed up with Fundamentalism, Leroy. The major change I see in the movement is its politicization. That’s very evident in the 81% of evangelicals voting for Trump. The first fundamentalists could not have countenanced him and his behavior."

    1. Yes, I think what you said about the major change is quite true--but I don't know how much about this I will be able to include in my updating of Chapter Two.

  6. Local Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton asked,

    "Where do Left Wing Evangelicals, like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, fit in?"

    As I wrote at some length above, the label "evangelical" is a broad one. "Conservative evangelical" describes the far right side of the evangelical position, and as the label "Left Wing" indicates, the evangelicalism of people like Jim Wallis is on the opposite "extreme."

    Some of those on the far right do not want to recognize Wallis, and Christians like him, as evangelicals--or maybe not even as Christians. More than 30 years ago I presented a paper at an ecumenical (Protestant) missionary conference in Japan. In that presentation I had some good things to say about Wallis and his ideas--and (at least) one of the conservative missionaries was highly disapproving of (incensed by) my positive comments about Wallis.

  7. I believe a key to understanding fundamentalism is to look at the logical structure of how it works. This is true for any fundamentalism, not just Christian fundamentalism. First principles are determined, and then a whole system is derived from them by pure logic. Experience and evidence are downplayed. For example, look at market fundamentalism, which assumes unregulated free markets will solve every economic problem, and that the "Invisible Hand" will prevent any trouble. While this philosophy has remained popular in libertarian circles, increasing numbers of people feel this is a failed hypothesis and reject it on evidentiary grounds.

    Christian fundamentalism uses the same type of logic, laying out basic principles and then using logic to derive all sorts of conclusions without worrying too much about consequences or evidence. Other Christians use basic principles more as guides and tests, rather than as a basis for deriving rules. In this sense, fundamentalism is nothing new. The Roman Catholic Church spent centuries using the Inquisition and similar systems to try and even torture alleged heretics for believing in unapproved dogmas, rather than looking for love and kindness. Indeed, early church fathers such as Augustine found themselves trying to lead Christian communities where a majority of the Christians were heretics! Their strategies for dealing with these non-orthodox Christians do not look very Christian today. At its core, orthodoxy required a flat literal reading of scripture that was at odds with how most people were reading the Bible.

    Jesus dealt with another fundamentalism in the gospels, as He used the sabbath as an example of how to open up everyone's understanding of what the law really meant. He was constantly doing things on the sabbath that offended people with a narrow view of the sabbath. He patiently explained each time how a higher value lead to His action. On the other hand, He never went so far as Saint Paul, who argues in Romans 14 that the strong in faith could treat all days the same (among other things), as long as they could "walk in love" with the weak in faith.

    Ecclesiastes 7:16 teaches us, "Do not be too righteous, do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself?" Fundamentalism, no matter what the type, tries to extrapolate too far from its basic principles, and inevitably falls into error. Tolerances are necessary, whether in engineering, economics, or theology. Not even Cadillac could build a car with "zero tolerance." No historic market has ever been "free." No theology can deal with the real world without the flexibility of love. Of course, if you just want to be militant, fundamentalism can work just fine!

  8. Leroy:
    I enjoyed the present volume of "Fed up with Fundamentalism," and look forward to its revision. As you know, studying and writing about Fundamentalism is one of my interest. I believe I sent you a copy of my article, "How the Fundamentalist Grinch Stole the SBC." It is an interest of mine because I grew up with it. I visited Frank Norris' church when we lived in Fort Worth and I faithfully read John R.Rice (Sword of the Lord), Charles Hodge, Criswell and so many other fundamentalists. The one thing that stands out in my mind is the unrelenting meanness and exclusiveness that is so characterizes of this group. I agree with my seminary church history professor, Leon McBeth, that fundamentalism is not really about doctrine. He describes it as a "war-like" movement. It did not surprise me that the two major flag-bearers of SBC fundamentalism, Pressler and Patterson, have been publicly disgraced. The media has now picked up the sexual misconduct of SBC pastors and other leaders which confirms in my mind that fundamentalism is self-destructive. God help us!

    Truett Baker

  9. Still thinking through this one. I remember one of the names from 1984 - Fun-Damn-Mental-ism. Considered by true fundamentalists to be a denial of living holy lives, and by evangelicals as denying the foundations of the gospel of Jesus Christ - virgin birth, miracles, death, burial, resurrection in order to become Politically Correct.

    But I do like your line, "Labels are Libels". What goes around, comes around. Last week we saw it with the United Methodists as their African bishops became "bigots" along with the traditional United Methodists, and the UM missionaries.

    Maybe the Church has once again divided in schism about basic belief and practice.

    But I do like the