What the Hell is Christian Fundamentalism?


“When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.

Barry Goldwater
Washington Post, July 1994


If what the once and former Senator Goldwater said is true, pucker up and start blowing pecks at pundits.


If you are not familiar with the man known to some as Mr. Conservative, you are invited to take a minute to reflect on his life.


We have all heard talking heads proclaim that in today’s political climate, President Gipper would be considered a tax-and-spend liberal bedfellow, but what of former Presidential Candidate Goldwater? If the “nuclear madman” who rejected the New Deal and backed school prayer called the Religious Right the death rattle of American politics, consider just how far the political pendulum has swung in a mere two decades. (For chronological perspective, consider that the Goldwater quote above occurred the year Silvio Berlusconi first became prime minister of Italy. It hasn’t been that long—unless you’re an Italian magistrate.)



In a recent article in my “X-Rated Bible” series, I stated that “nearly one-third of our nation’s voters are members of the Christian Right.…” Several readers asked to know the source of this fact. They were not accusing me of inventing a fact. Their comments were more along the lines of: Holy cow, that many? Are you sure? Sigh.


The source was the 2013 Economic Values Survey released in July 2013 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)/Brookings Institution, which states that 28% of Americans identify their “religious orientation” as conservative (versus moderate, progressive or nonreligious). The full report adds that 38% of Americans identify themselves as theologically conservative, and 29% as socially conservative.


The United States is the third most populous nation on our Little Blue Planet. 316 million scions of Uncle Sam and climbing. Nearly five percent of the total global population.


If nearly one-third of U.S. voting adults are armed-to-the-teeth, seething Christian fundamentalists who would prefer a totalitarian theocratic regnum of Emperor Franklin Graham over the Enlightenment-inspired federal democratic republic that thus far has served as best it can Emma Lazarus’ tired, poor and huddled masses, then indeed we might be on the cusp of Darwinian deep doo-doo. (Guess what? We are.)


Actually, readers weren’t the only ones who wondered about PRRI’s 28% figure. I thought the number might be too low. After all, I live in South Carolina and sometimes go days without meeting anyone who votes Democrat. Well, that’s not quite true, but my current state of residence has a Republican Governor, Republican State House, Republican State Senate, two Republican U.S. Senators and a 6-1 Republican U.S. Representative Delegation. Sometimes my neighbor’s Shih Tzu even seems to be yipping invectives about Obamacare.


All this made me think that it might be worth remembering what led Barry Goldwater, of all people, to mouth off about the Radical Right. Where the hell did all these fundamentalists come from?



There are a lot of terms used to refer to “my way or the highway” Christians in the United States. The Radical Right. Christian Coalitionists. Ultraconservatives. Christian Radicals. Bible Thumpers. Evangelicals (see below). Creationist Dittoheads. A few others come to mind which I will save for the next time I am alone on the treadmill catching up with the political enemy via Fox News.


The term “fundamentalism” itself has a rather interesting history. It appears that the term was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Watchman-Examiner, a clarion for the Northern Baptist Convention. Following the Convention’s first meeting in Upstate New York, Laws wrote: “We suggest that those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the fundamentals shall be called ‘Fundamentalists.’


Finally someone had coined a fitting label, of pride or derision depending on one’s point of view, which could be applied to a certain type of militant Christianity that goes all the way back to Plymouth Rock. Society swallowed Law’s neologism whole.


The term “fundamentalism” really reached public consciousness two years later in a sermon delivered by Harry Emerson Fosdick at Manhattan’s First Presbyterian Church on May 21, 1922. The message was entitled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”


Fosdick’s sermon is no less powerful today than it was 90 years ago: “Their apparent intention is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions. … All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.”


(Linguistic Note: The term “evangelical” as Fosdick used it would not have had the unpopular connotation accreted upon it today. The word literally is Greek for “good news,” or “gospel,” and indicates a type of Bible-based Protestant Church generally in opposition to the institutional authority of the Church. Yet follow that thread nine decades forward and see how a reticence for institutional religious authority has resulted in so many off-the-wall Evangelical politicians that, were I to provide you a full list of them, my keyboard would crack in half. Next consider the irony that Fundamentalists somehow find a reticence for institutional religious authority compatible with a lust for institutional political authority. Forget the keyboard; my head is about to crack in twain.)


Fosdick exhorted his parish to consider that a major segment of American Christians were utterly resistant to incorporate all of the new scientific discoveries and anthropological truths that were popping up left and right—including of course that Scientific Whore of Babylon, the Theory of Evolution (my words, not his). He called these innovations the “new knowledge,” which was butting heads with “the old faith.”


Although Fosdick called on his flock to act toward Fundamentalists with “intellectual hospitality,” ultimately a Presbyterian investigation about the controversial homily led to Fosdick being relieved of his post. But no matter. He was hired thereafter as a minister at John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s nearby church. (Talk about a billionaire bailout.)


To my mind, here is one of the seminal statements in Fosdick’s sermon: “It is interesting to note where the Fundamentalists are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which no one is to pass except on terms of agreement.”


The hallmark of Christian fundamentalism is a literalist, static hermeneutic, versus the “rounded” and context-driven interpretative process of progressive (then “modernist”) Christianity.


Here we might recall that the verdict of the Scopes Monkey Trial was July 21, 1925, within five years of the birth of the word “fundamentalism.” There was a major national debate raging in the 1920s as to whether the Bible should be interpreted literally or with a grain of salt; this debate had innumerable policy implications, including of course public education curriculum.  Thankfully, “grain of salt” won in the courtroom and in the court of overall public opinion. Eventually, and for the best, salt was removed from the table altogether. (Of course, some saltoholics in Kentucky think the Scopes Trial remains ongoing.)


Fundamentalist Christians of course rejected and still reject evolution. Progressive Christians examined the theory, realized its validity and synthesized it into their religious worldview. One century later, fundamentalist Christians have their laughingstock Creation Museum, while progressive Christians enjoy watching episodes of Nova with the family.


For what it’s worth, Fosdick’s progressive religious worldview had social consequences. He was an outspoken opponent of racism and a reviewer of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, amongst other saintly deeds. I wonder how many fundamentalists followed him down the path of a life devoted to social justice and mercy.



Okay, so fundamentalists are Christians who interpret the Bible literally? Well, in truth, every Christian applies a literal interpretation to at least some parts of the Bible.


Christianity is a rather unique religion in that it requires the adherent to acknowledge at least three events in history: Jesus was crucified. Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus was resurrected.


The novelist John Irving perhaps sums it best in his classic novel A Prayer for Owen Meany: “‘If you don’t believe in Easter,’ Owen Meany said. ‘Don’t kid yourself—Don’t call yourself a Christian.’”


A personal belief in the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension is a core of orthodox (lowercase “o”) Christianity. This is where all Christians—glossolalia Assembly of Godders and bleeding-heart liberal Episcopalians alike—meet to shake hands. (Yes, there are many who consider themselves followers of the teachings of Jesus who do not acknowledge these three events of history. But I side with Irving: these individuals are not “Easter Christians.”)


Beyond a core belief in the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, Christendom is divided into many separate paths of hermeneutic literalism and roundedness, intolerance and tolerance.


What sets Christian fundamentalists apart from the rest of Christendom is a giant leap from a personal belief in the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension to a political dream of a theocratic society wherein all citizen-subjects must bend a knee to a literalist interpretation and application of the Bible. They have a word for this in some parts of the world: Sharia Law. Ask around. See how that’s working for our global neighbors.


Unfortunately—tragically—nearly one-third of our fellow citizens fall somewhere in the shadows of the previous paragraph.


So how did we get from the Roaring Twenties to Sarah Palin? Oy vey.


With the remaining space, it is impossible to do justice to a century-long religio-political movement with ties all the way back to Luther’s 95 Theses. At least Luther wasn’t so ridiculous as to suggest, as some fundamentalists do, that Jesus turned the water at the Cana wedding into grape juice, not wine. While I am myself Roman Catholic, I shall pause to libate Luther for his learning: “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”


To continue following the trail from Senator Goldwater to the contemporary Radical Right, I highly recommend Dr. Sara Diamond’s wonderful, eye-opening article, “On the Road to Political Power and Theocracy.”


Also worth considering are many societal milestones like Engel v. Vitale, Abington School District v. Schempp, Roe v. Wade, the hippie countercultural Jesus People Movement, Carter’s “lust in his heart,” Reagonomics, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Jim Bakker’s satellite and Tammy Faye’s hair, Swaggart’s tears, Oral’s tower, Falwell’s belly fat, etc., et al, which, when all thrown together, sound and look a bit like a Michael W. Smith remix of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”




I find it interesting that the Public Religion Research Institute found that 79% of self-identified religious progressives say that being a religious person is “mostly about doing the right thing,” whereas 54% of religious conservatives say being a religious person is “primarily about having the right beliefs.”


In the end, perhaps the most distinct difference between religious progressivism “the new faith” and religious conservatism “the old faith” is the concept of doing versus believing.


Or, even more simply:  Practicing rather than Preaching.


{Originally published on the website Forward Progressives on August 2, 2014. The website recently closed down without maintaining an archive. The original article received more than 1 million views.}



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