The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: Raised Fundamentalist

“A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” ~ George Marsden, historian of fundamentalism

I was born Christian, but raised fundamentalist.  This installment in my story is more background than autobiography. I hope to give readers some perspective on Christian fundamentalism: to remove some misleading notions, to place it in historical context, and to offer a summary from my own experience. I will endeavor to reassert the personal and reflective tone in following installments, but since I am an academic, you must forgive me my pedantic digressions.

Now, “fundamentalism” is a tricky word. To some people, the word conjures the image of a person so extreme, and perhaps even violent, that he in no way resembles a normal person. In reality, most fundamentalist Christians share many features in common with the average American. Fundamentalists can be accountants and police officers, life insurance and Mary Kay salespeople, doctors and scientists, even politicians. They don’t live in compounds out in the woods, but are sprinkled throughout America’s rural and suburban neighborhoods, and maintain a presence in every major metropolitan area. They might dress a bit differently at times, particularly the women, but rarely to the extent that they would be easily identifiable, and certainly not to the extent that a Hasidic Jew’s or a Amish person’s dress marks him as a member of a particular religious community. Thus, it is entirely possible to know a fundamentalist Christian without knowing that he is one. The fundamentalist will likely be eager to inform you of his Christian faith, but even so, you may not realize how distinct a sort of Christian he is.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a subset of evangelical Christianity, which is in turn a subset of Protestant Christianity. The relevant history can be sketched in three phases. First, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old Protestant orthodoxies were shaken by a more democratic, more emotional, more activist form of Christianity – evangelicalism (or pietism for Lutherans). A series of “awakenings” or “revivals” swept across many countries (but most significantly English-speaking ones), leaving behind many new, zealous Christians or newly recommitted Christians who often had only loose ties to institutional churches. Most important to these evangelicals was not the institutional church with its sacraments and subtle theological systems but rather the personal experience of conversion and the immediate zeal for a pure life. Evangelicals formed mission societies, rescue missions, children’s homes, publishing houses, and a host of other Christian organizations; yet they often skirted established denominational channels to do so. Evangelicals were not opposed to established churches, but were confident in their abilities to act independently of them, either alone or in voluntary societies established for specific purposes.

The second stage in this history is known as the modernist controversy. Around the beginning of the 20th century, various scientific, philosophical, and theological currents from Europe gravely disturbed the evangelical status quo. Many of these threatened the way evangelicals read the Bible. Trends in geology and biology (Darwinism) cast doubt upon the creation narratives and other cosmological descriptions in the Bible. New literary and historical approaches to biblical criticism raised questions of diversity and inaccuracy in the Bible. Continental philosophy tended to be more guarded about one’s ability to perceive true reality directly than was the reigning Scottish common sense realism. Some theologians, particularly from German-speaking territories, were suggesting reinterpretations (or abandonment) of doctrines tightly held by evangelicals: the virgin birth, miracles, the cross as substitutionary punishment, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Many evangelicals reacted with an uncompromising condemnation of modernism; these were known as fundamentalists. Interdenominational coalitions were formed to promote and defend traditional ways of thought and life. However, in the end, modernism won control of the five largest Protestant denominations, including their seminaries and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were still numerous, but were banished to the periphery of cultural influence. Here they began to distrust traditional denominations. Believers, they said, must separate themselves from apostate institutions.

The third epoch occurs in the middle of the twentieth century. A split arose within fundamentalism. A group of bright, ambitious, well-educated individuals became dissatisfied with fundamentalism. They found it intellectually stifling, culturally backward, and socially disengaged. They did not want to be liberals, as the modernists came to be called, but wanted to regain cultural standing. (Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism might be considered a manifesto.) They called themselves the new evangelicals (or neo-evangelicals). Perhaps most visible in this group was the rising evangelist, Billy Graham. The neo-evangelicals’ attempt to reform fundamentalism met with stiff resistance. They were labeled compromisers, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of prestige and respectability. They were eventually squeezed out of the fundamentalist network. In reality, the new evangelicals were not always terribly sad to go. Various judgments have been made about the effectiveness of neo-evangelicalism, but its influence on fundamentalism is critical. Fundamentalists became even more retrenched. They learned that attacks could come not only from openly apostate liberals, but even from seemingly orthodox brothers! The neo-evangelical split fixed fundamentalism, culturally and intellectually, firmly in the 1950s. Fundamentalists formed a doctrine of “secondary separation,” stating that it is necessary for believers to cut institutional ties not only with liberals, but with those who would compromise with liberals. Thus, one’s associations became as important as one’s doctrines for determining one’s standing in the fundamentalist community.

In the present day, many of these labels are passé. Much of mainline Protestantism has moved on from the type of liberalism featured in the early 20th century. Huge swaths of evangelicalism exist that have no particular orientation toward the issues that divided fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. But, for true fundamentalists, the battle lines drawn in the 1950s are eternally valid archetypes. When I arrived at a fundamentalist Bible college in 2004, within my first week of classes, I was handed a sheet of paper that displayed a breakdown of Protestant Christianity into 4 groups: liberals, neo-orthodox (a reform movement arising within liberalism), neo-evangelicals, and fundamentalists. I learned quickly that a key fundamentalist skill was taking any person or writing and placing it in the correct box, so that one would know how to deal with it.

As a child, I did not know about the distinctive qualities of fundamentalism. To me, fundamentalism was simply Christianity. The next four articles will treat four aspects of my experience of fundamentalism: authoritarianism, biblicism, separatism, and revivalism. None of these four characteristics is unique to fundamentalism; one can easily find other Christians who manifest one or several of these traits. It is rather the combination of all four into a single seamless, organic religious experience that constitutes the fundamentalism of my youth. In fundamentalism, all four factors influence each other, so that one might say that fundamentalists are not just biblicists, but they practice biblicism in an authoritarian-separatist-revivalist way. Then, repeat the process for the other three.

Series home

Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: