The Evolution of Fundamentalism
The Evolution of Fundamentalism
George Mitrovich - Washington Post, Newsweek, 2/9/2009 - original
One of the extraordinary occurrences within American Christianity is the evolution of fundamentalism from doctrine to nomenclature. American Christian "fundamentalism", which was at the center of the epic Fundamentalist-Modernist debate of the 1920s and 30s, is still with us.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) expresses its core argument, "The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy." "Verbal inspiration", fundamentalism's defining term, holds that every word and every verse of every chapter in every book of the Old and New Testaments is true - not as allegory, metaphor or symbol, but literally true.

But there is another Biblical view, one that embraces the plenary inspiration of scripture; that scripture is inspired but not infallible - plenary defines non-fundamentalist evangelicals. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), not wishing to divide these camps of Christian believers, combined the two into one, "Founded on a common acceptance of the infallibility and plenary authority of Scripture."

The question of verbal or plenary inspiration hardly drives the national debate, but fundamentalism's evolution from anti-modernity into a more broadly accepted evangelicalism masks serious differences - theological, social and political.

Part of it is due to an effort by "fundamentalist" leaders to nuance their beliefs. These are not stupid people. They understand 9/11 changed the world; that any word tied to fundamentalism and Muslim fanaticism carries societal scorn and rejection.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California and a major force within American Christianity, told the Pew Forum in 2005, "Today there really aren't that many Fundamentalists left; I don't know if you know that or not, but they are such a minority; there aren't that many Fundamentalists left in America..."

When Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central asked Warren if he's a "fundamentalist?" Warren responded, "No. A fundamentalist is somebody who stops listening. There are fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist atheist, fundamentalist Secularist...Its an attitude that doesn't listen to anyone else."

But Warren's disavowal doesn't change the equation. There is a difference.

Fundamentalists are pro-life, not all evangelicals are. Fundamentalists oppose gay marriages, not all evangelicals do. Fundamentalists believe in creationism, most evangelicals accept Darwin and keep an open mind. Because they oppose abortion and gay rights, the two dominate issues of their political agenda, fundamentalists vote overwhelmingly Republican.

The fundamentalists' vote in November easily went to McCain and Palin and was nil for Obama and Biden. But the Democratic ticket scored dramatically higher among evangelicals with broader political concerns - the economy, health care, public education, the plight of the poor, Wall Street greed, women's rights, the wars in Iraq War and Afghanistan.

But to the national media, ignorant of the distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical, between adherents of verbal and plenary inspiration, all have become one.

While many fundamentalist ministers have taken noteworthy steps toward more progressive views on AIDS and the environment, as Warren laudably has, there remains a significant breech between their political views and those of evangelicals like Jim Wallis of Sojourners sociologist and evangelist Tony Campolo, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Adam Hamilton of Kansas City's United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the largest Mainline Protestant congregation in America.

Last summer John McCain and Barack Obama appeared at a nationally televised forum at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. Warren asked the candidates, "When does life begin?" Obama gave a highly nuanced answer, saying, among other things, it's "above my pay grade." McCain, conversely, answered directly and dramatically, "At conception."

Obama's answer received polite applause, McCain's, loud and sustained applause. The striking differences in reactions were no surprise: attendance was restricted to members of Saddleback - a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church.

Should that have mattered, should viewers have known of that connection? Yes, because we were in the midst of a critically close presidential campaign - and fundamentalists were potentially a swing factor in the election.

But the national media did not write that story, that the "debate" had taken place in a fundamentalist church with a fundamentalist pastor and a fundamentalist congregation. It reported the story but the references were to evangelicals; fundamentalism was not mentioned.

Fundamentalists and evangelicals share a common faith in the person of Jesus Christ, but it isn't that which separates them; they have significant differences on politics, culture, and social issues - and the dynamic of our democracy requires an understanding of those differences.

George Mitrovich is president of The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum, two leading American public forums, and chairs for the Boston Red Sox The Great Fenway Park Writers Series.

Posted by George Mitrovich on February 9, 2009 8:37 AM