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The Fundamentalists are Winning
I know Fundamentalism when I see it -- and I'm worried
Today’s post is the fourth in a series exploring fundamentalism from a variety of angles in light of the centennial of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s May 1922 sermon, Shall the Fundamentalists Win? The first installment can be read HERE, the second HERE, and the third HERE.
The series continues by looking at fundamentalism as the divine order of reality.
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How one answers the question Shall the Fundamentalists Win? is largely dependent on which definition shapes your understanding of the term.
Currently, there are two major definitions of fundamentalism: a historical-theological one and a social-political one.
In 1980, George Marsden wrote a seminal book on fundamentalism — Fundamentalism in American Culture — that reshaped how people understood both fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Marsden treated fundamentalism in the context of intellectual history, analyzing the early twentieth-century movement as a part of a long line of American thought and theology.
In the 1990s, Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby launched a multi-year interdisciplinary research project on global fundamentalisms — “movements of religious reaction in the twentieth century.” The depth and breadth of the work was enormous, covering a century of history and including sociological and political developments from every major world religion.
I point this out not to encourage you to take sides in an academic argument. Such things are better suited to scholarly conferences. It is helpful, however, to know that there are two major schools of thought regarding the definition of “fundamentalism,” one is local and particular, the other global and universal.
I studied with George Marsden, but I’ve benefited from both definitions. The Marsden approach certainly aids in understanding the development of the Religious Right and Trump evangelicalism; the Marty-Appleby project has proved valuable examining global religious movements post 9/11.
But these days I also find myself dissatisfied with this framing. One seems too narrow, limited in scope to a specific Protestant tradition. The other seems so broad that it makes the term nearly useless. What is fundamentalism now? Only those conservative Protestant movements that take the Bible literally and believe in the Rapture? Any religious reactionary movement that emerges across the globe?
I’m tempted to adopt Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of hard-core pornography to use when explaining fundamentalism: “I know it when I see it.”
* * * * *
Instead of surrendering to the judge, however, I’ve come to understand fundamentalism primarily as a structure of reality, an architecture of creation.
If it is anything at all, fundamentalism is a profound commitment to an ordered, hierarchical universe. Fundamentalism isn’t just a world-view of the universe, not only a belief that gives meaning to the universe, but it is an order and hierarchy deemed to be the very nature of created existence. To fundamentalists this is credo, a reality that demands utter devotion — that sacred orderliness is essential to the continued existence and well-being of everything, especially to human society.
Across the religious spectrum, fundamentalists trust that God not only created the world but designed it as well. The design is a property of its creation. The structure reveals the character of the Creator, and its design is holy.
Fundamentalists understand divine structures as hierarchical — God or the gods at the top, with a descending order of rulers and elites, clerics, classes, families, races and ethnicities, and genders — and believed to have been established by divine will. Sometimes the hierarchies are simple; other groups maintain complex hierarchies of order.
There is nothing random, nothing tangential, nothing unplanned, and nothing that can ultimately thwart God’s order. For order is God’s will for human society. Anything outside of the sacred order is considered impure, rebellious, or sinful. A good life, a faithful community is well-ordered. Harmony, submission, obedience, knowing and accepting one’s place — these are markers of being in line with the divine design.
Of course, nearly every society believes in some sort of order and often assigns a divine nature to their polities through kings or constitutions. But communities that last over time typically adjust their structures, often driven to do so by calamities or political challenges, and they reinterpret their religious aspects accordingly. For fundamentalists, however, order is unchanging and eternal, as a specific plan and directive from the hand of God. Tinkering with God’s order amounts to disobedience, thus creating chaos — the very opposite of divine purpose. And fundamentalism is opposed to chaos, or that which is perceived to be disordered.
If a structure has somehow been corrupted by bad actors, the faithful might call for renewal or reform to restore social order to that of God’s original intent. But fundamentalists would never adjust, adapt, or accommodate what they believe is divinely-ordered structure to foreign influence or external demand. Fundamentalists seek to preserve and strengthen sacred structure, even as they work to adjust society to fit the divine plan. The structure itself is God’s holiness embodied; human beings must submit or change to fit within it.
Fundamentalism is far more than reactionary religion or anti-modernism; more than an evangelical who is mad about something; more than anyone to the right of you; and more than someone with a rigid opinion. Fundamentalism is a kind of religious “physics” — a claim on reality to know how the universe was created, how it behaves, and its origin and ends. In effect, it is a rival “science” with a rival polity to other sciences (like actual physics or biology) and other polities (like democracy or socialism). But fundamentalists don’t see it as a rivalry. They are simply right. Everyone else is wrong.
Because of this, fundamentalism is inherently authoritarian. Unlike other sciences, it isn’t understood as a theory. And unlike other polities, it cannot be flexible. Its boundaries must be enforced. There exists absolute Truth and the ever present possibility of deception. There are insiders and outsiders. Contamination is feared. Purity needs to be maintained. Order must be ensured or, if corrupted, reformed.
Hierarchy provides the divine mechanism to both support and model this reality — clerics and oligarchs in tandem placed over the system as authorities and gatekeepers. The people at the top — the men at the top — are appointed by God to this task, everyone else is a handmaid or servant to their rule. Women who refuse motherhood create chaos; black people in the streets create chaos; the poor pressing for protection and provision create chaos; homosexuality is a “disorder” that creates chaos. All the disruptors of order must be brought back into their rightful — and subservient — place and role for society to flourish.
Because, in its nature, harmony of order rules both the natural world and the world of human polity. “Chaos” is rebellion and sin. God insists on order.
There are softer versions of fundamentalism (one thinks, perhaps, of the Amish), middling versions (like your local Baptist church), or hard versions (Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple). Other than the Baptist church, the Amish and the Peoples Temple fall outside of the historical-theological definition of fundamentalism.
With the possible exception of the Amish, however, they don’t really fit in a “militant rejection of modernity” model. The Baptist church most likely has a praise band, high-tech sound system, the internet, and its members shop at Kroger or get coffee after church at Starbucks — they don’t militantly reject all modernity, just selective bits. Jones’ group didn’t really reject modernity, either. Some people call it a cult. But it was actually a church, one that grew steadily more insistent on a particular order of reality with an attendant authority structure. They weren’t anti-modern. They wanted to shape the future by building a perfect interracial community and creating a better, more modern world.
Despite their differences, however, and using Justice Stewart’s definition, you intuit that all these groups are fundamentalists of some sort when you see them.
Why? Because of their structures of hierarchy, complete with mandates of divine authority and control. They are clearly boundaried communities whose members saw the world the theater of God’s ordered design, the very embodiment of holiness.
Fundamentalists move toward harder forms not from anger (“a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is mad about something”) but from threat of chaos. What fosters chaos? Anything that challenges the order and upends the nature of things. Internal questions arise or members make demands that pressure elites, like the current trend of deconstruction among young evangelicals, is seen as chaotic; or when external questions or groups challenge the certainty of fundamentalist order, like a government mask mandate or universal access to abortion, is experienced as a specific threat to the nature of society (and thus, God’s holiness).
When threatened by disordered change, random events, or unrighteous interference with divine order, these groups develop a strong sense of being persecuted — and persecution fuels either separatism or militant activism. Separatists tend to turn their anxieties inward toward their own group, often shoring up walls between themselves and the world — and, interestingly enough, sometimes gaining new adherents by virtue of strong boundaries. Hierarchical groups that feel persecuted (or threatened with decline) become more rigid, not less, and often retreat further into distinctive subcultures with clearer senses of “us” versus “them” and are deeply unwilling to admit mistakes or abuse within their own institutions and communities.
Militants, however, move the opposite direction. When separatism fails to protect God’s order — or the external order becomes so intolerably ungodly that even the righteous are deceived and defect — they have to do something. They might, in the case of Puritans in the 1640s or the Peoples Temple in the 1970s, create an alternative society (“a city set upon a hill”) that seeks to displace a corrupted order, yet this alternative typically winds up with some sort of violence used to control dissent. Or, the militants go to war with the source of contamination and chaos. It might be a spiritual war, a political one, or an actual one. But the motivation is the same — a persecuted group of believers lashing out against demonic forces of disorder — engaged in a holy crusade.
Fundamentalist groups feel persecuted by both other believers in their same tradition (thus fundamentalist Baptists hate liberal ones) and adherents of other religions (fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims are frequently at actual war).
But, occasionally, fundamentalists in one group find allies with fundamentalists in another group. Like now — fundamentalist Protestants, neo-traditional fundamentalist Roman Catholics, and nationalist Orthodox fundamentalists have discovered the common “threat” of pluralist democracy, widespread liberation movements, and egalitarianism.
Although fundamentalist Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox agree on very little theologically (God exists, the Bible is true, Jesus is Savior, the church is divine) and vary in details of hierarchical authority, they nevertheless are making common cause to defeat threats to order — “Nazis,” women, LGBTQ people, governments and political systems deemed ungodly. These three groups of militant fundamentalists have coalesced into an uneasy alliance with the overall goal of creating a new global order, based upon God’s divine design, with three cooperating spheres of theological influence.
Fundamentalists have allies at war and partners in maintaining hierarchical order, not inter-religious friends or ecumenical relations with those who hold different opinions.
It is important to note that not every hierarchical religion is fundamentalist. For example, Catholic hierarchy is actually quite adaptable, even if it is not particularly nimble; others, like Anglicans are more nimble, if not always sure of how to adapt. Some groups make claims of benevolent or modified hierarchies. But most hierarchical groups, even those who willingly accommodate to new challenges, regularly face temptations of authoritarianism and boundary enforcement. In some ways, authoritarianism is the default position of stressed hierarchies.
But all fundamentalist religions are structures of divinely-ordained hierarchy. Because that’s God’s will. That’s the nature of creation itself. Hierarchy is “science” and polity. All other truth claims — all other theories — are dismissed. Religious-driven authoritarianism is fundamentalism’s only option. Indeed, it is the mission.
* * * * *
One hundred years ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick asked, Shall the fundamentalists win?
A century later, the response is simple: It depends on how you define fundamentalism.
If you think it is mostly a theological movement, there is plenty of evidence to say that it sort of succeeded historically. Fundamentalist churches and beliefs are still around, but the issues that Fosdick identified about biblical literalism and the Virgin birth hardly register in public consciousness now. There has been a very successful fundamentalist missionary effort globally. But, in the United States, fundamentalist doctrines about the Bible or the end times haven’t won the day. Fundamentalist churches are declining — just like other churches — and fundamentalists are still the butt of cultural scorn. Their offspring are leaving their churches in droves, America is less Christian and less religious than in the past. Despite having won some strategic political victories, they’ve not won the battle for hearts and minds. Not much of a victory on its home theological turf.
However, if you think of fundamentalism as a structure of reality, a hierarchy of authority mobilizing to defeat the forces of disorder and chaos in favor of God’s design, well, the picture changes. Authoritarians around the world appeal to divine sanction, recruiting the devout as foot soldiers in a larger spiritual and political war.
The more threatened some people feel, the more fundamentalism grows. The more people question the authority of conventional politics and religion, the more authoritarian those same institutions become. And the threats — from every front — are plentiful. The more chaos, the more need for control. We’re in a vicious cycle of victimization and crusade, the very cycle that fuels fundamentalism. There are not only American Protestants fundamentalists now. There are fundamentalists everywhere. And that’s what is.
Shall the fundamentalists win?
A hundred years ago, Fosdick confidently proclaimed: “I do not believe for one moment that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed.”
Shall the fundamentalists win? I confess that I do not share his certainty. I do not know if they will ultimately win, but they are — right now — stronger than ever.
And that worries me — and inspires me to keep on going.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”
I am here today as someone raised in Fundamentalism who is glad to be liberated from it, who grieves to see the ugly and dangerous thing it has become, and who fears its worst atrocities may still be in the future. I am grateful that Rev. Fosdick pulled the fire alarm a hundred years ago and named the threat of fundamentalism. But I think if Rev. Fosdick were standing here today, he wouldn’t cast the great challenges we now we face as a horserace between two brands of traditional Christianity. Instead, if he were preaching here today, I think he would ask different and more radical questions entirely. . . .
That’s why I’d like to warn you about the five new fundamental realities we face. A hundred years ago, the people sitting where you now sit had no idea what would arise between their time and ours: first, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; second, climate change and a multifaceted environmental catastrophe; third, a resurgence of ugly and vicious white Christian supremacy; fourth, a form of capitalism so successful that it is not only too big to fail, but also too big to control; and fifth, the power of a small cadre of oligarchs to buy candidates and governments and media outlets and use them for their own kleptocratic purposes, including invading countries and threatening World War III.
In light of these probing questions from Jesus, and in light of the five fundamental existential threats we face, a contemporary Harry Emerson Fosdick might raise a question that challenges both fundamentalists and Mainliners, perhaps, What good is winning a religious horserace when your very life is at risk? What good is winning power, money, and numbers when the climate collapses? What good is having your leader on the cover of Time Magazine when the nuclear bombs fall? What good is getting invitations to the White House when the civil war breaks out, or the violent insurrections multiply, or the sea levels rise and the wildfires spread and the crops fail?
(R)eligious fundamentalism has become interwoven in a larger complex of 21st century fundamentalisms: Yes, religious fundamentalism … but also political fundamentalism… economic fundamentalism … racial fundamentalism … nationalistic fundamentalism … partisan fundamentalism … educational fundamentalism … all afraid of change, all addicted to delusions of past grandeur, all too confident in their old answers to wake up to new questions…
A new question interrogates us: What in God’s name are we going to risk and dare and do — together with all who are willing, whatever their religious identity — about the convergence of five fundamental catastrophes that we face right now? That question we must answer, not with words alone, but with the liturgy of our lives.
— Brian McLaren, from his sermon, Shall the 21st Century Fundamentalists Win? (May 2022, reprinted with permission from the author)
Lo, the hosts of evil round us
scorn the Christ, assail his ways.
From the fears that long have bound us
free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage
for the living of these days,
for the living of these days.
— Harry Emerson Fosdick
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