Monday, March 25, 2019

The Resurgence of Fundamentalism

Last month I posted an article about the (slightly) updated first chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (FuF), which I plan to re-publish at the end of the year. This article is about the updated and renamed second chapter.
Christian Fundamentalism from 1980 to 2005
The first chapter of FuF was largely a historical review of the rise and fall of fundamentalism as a major movement among Christians in the United States in the years between 1915 and 1940.
The second chapter is now primarily historical also, summarizing Christian fundamentalism in the twenty-five years from 1980 to 2005. That was a period marked by the renewal and resurgence of fundamentalist prestige and power, a period of unprecedented growth in denominational organizations and institutions.
Moreover, during those years the fundamentalist-fueled “Religious Right,” also called the “New Christian Right,” greatly increased in numbers and strength not only in ecclesiastical circles but especially in the political arena.
In fact, perhaps the major difference between the fundamentalism of 1915~1940 and the fundamentalism of 1980~2005 was its pervasive participation in politics during the latter period.
Fundamentalist Leaders from 1980 to 2005
In Chapter One I wrote about four main leaders of Christian fundamentalism from 1915 to 1940. Among many leaders that might have been considered in the second chapter, I focus on these four: Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Albert Mohler.
Two of these four have already died (Falwell in 2007 and LaHaye in 2016) and one is now quite elderly (Robertson celebrated his 89th birthday this month). Only Mohler (b. 1959) is still an active leader and spokesman.
Understanding the thought and public activities of these four men—and because of its inherent patriarchalism, the fundamentalist leaders past and present have been men—goes a long way toward understanding the growth and power of conservative evangelicalism in this recent historical period.
Moreover, their strong influence continues to the present day.
Fundamentalism in Other Religions
In the introduction of her widely-read book The Battle for God (2001), Karen Armstrong asserts: “One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism’” (p. ix).  
Interestingly, perhaps now more people associate the word “fundamentalists” with Islamists more than with Christians. At any rate, the third part of Chapter Two gives a brief summary of Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu fundamentalism. 
As I say at the end of the chapter, fundamentalists in all religions are the “true believers,” committed to what they consider to be the absolute truth. Consequently, they are not willing to accept any compromise with anything they deem as deviant from their foundational faith.
While writing this chapter back in 2005, it seemed that there was every likelihood that in the years ahead there would be escalating conflicts between Christian fundamentalists and the fundamentalists in other religions—but now it seems as if that scenario has not developed as much as considered likely then.
However, I also wrote then that there would be ongoing conflicts between fundamentalists and other Christians in this country—and that has certainly been the case from 2005 until the present, seen particularly in the support of DJT by conservative evangelicals.
When working on FuF 15 years ago, I never dreamed that the fundamentalists, by whatever name they’re called, would be the demographic most in support of a President such as the current one.
Chapter Three, which I will write about next month, deals largely with this question: why in the years between 1980 and 2005 did Christian fundamentalism grow in such numerical strength and political power?


  1. Leroy, this may be overly simplified, but I've always believed that people latch onto fundamentalism because they don't have time to think for themselves. F-ism comes across as traditional, nostalgic, akin to your grandparents way of thinking about things when society and the world was much different and simpler.

    With so many things coming at us in the modernizing world who can keep track of it all? How nice for someone authoritative to come along and tell you what you should think and make it sound like it's just like what you were taught in Sunday school so it can't be wrong. With all the distractions you just rely on this person to tell you when things are wrong, when you need to act, how you need to think. In all of this a level of blind trust comes about. One thinks, "I'm no expert on this, so what can I add to the conversation?". So you easily latch on to what that authoritative leader says and start repeating and adopting it as your own thinking.

    While it's not f-ism, I see this at church. People are too busy to ask reasonable questions when an issue is being discussed/decided. Why? It's been thought through by staff and other elected leaders, so when it's brought to the church I think people think, "Well you all have thought this through. You're my friends and I trust you, so it must be okay. I vote yes." When that happens enough those who do ask questions are seen as disrputers rather than ones doing responsible due diligence.

    This, for me, is why F-ism grew so much. On the whole, we've become too busy to think for ourselves...and it's so easy to trust someone else who has spent a lot of time thinking and talking about it already.

    As for its political growth, how can people disagree with what F-ist leaders have said when they cloak it in patriotism, the flag, and the first amendment. And just like that F-ists have co-opted our definition of separation of church and state.

    I'll stop as I'm crossing the line into a rant! Thank you for your time, effort, and thinking on this book project. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Thanks, David, for taking the time to post fairly lengthy comments. I appreciate your interest in my book and your encouragement.

      Your comments are perhaps more relevant to Chapter Three, about which I plan to post an article next month (planned for April 25). In that chapter I think you will find that I basically agree with what you wrote above.

  2. This morning I received an email from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago. (I certainly appreciate hearing from him after almost every blog article I post.) He had just returned from a trip to London, and here is part of what he said in his email:

    "While in London, I bought and read 'Fundamentalism: A Very Brief Introduction' by Malise Ruthven and part of the Oxford University Press series of Very Short Introductions. Although not nearly as detailed as your book (it's only 136 pages), it is a good introduction to fundamentalism in the major religions. You may be familiar with it. Ruthven sees the desire for the control of women as a major driving force behind fundamentalism."

    1. Eric, it was good to hear from you and to know that you got back to Chicago safely.

      Yes, I remember seeing Ruthven's book (first published in 2007), but not until my book was already published (in 2007). It seems to be a good introduction to fundamentalism in the various religions, and thus closely related to the last part of Chapter Two in my book--and that is the main difference between his book and mine: I wrote exclusively about Christian fundamentalism except for that last part of Chapter Two whereas his book throughout seems to be about religious fundamentalism in general. (Please correct me if I am wrong, for I have not read the book in full.)

  3. Remember Obama's gaffe back in 2008? He accurately, but impolitically, stated, "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." There was the small town Trump voter described two election cycles before Trump was elected. Happy, healthy societies do not drift into fundamentalism. Extreme stress drives people there, to a place where ambiguity and nuance are not welcome. Part of the evil genius of neo-liberalism is that it manages to create the very conditions that drive people to support it. Economic fundamentalism is the one fundamentalism to rule them all. Given a choice between "Abandon all hope ye who enter here" and snake oil salesmen, the salesmen have an easy job.

    What amazes me is that the "Masters of the Universe" (and I am not talking about God) have our world on a very short collision course with ecological catastrophe, and they seem oblivious to it. Maybe they really do have secret high tech solutions to the challenge of moving to Mars while earth dies. Then when we are all dead, and the earth cools down, their Martian descendants can come back and build their dream new Eden. On the other hand, that general strategy did not work so well for Noah and his family. We are all still children of Cain, whether or not we are children of Canaan. I know, Genesis says we are all the children of Seth, but Noah's drunken rage says otherwise. Reread those early chapters of Genesis sometime, and see what you think.

    Good luck with your new edition of Fed Up with Fundamentalism!