A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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9 thoughts on “A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism”

  1. Wow!!!! I must have missed something in the blog. How did we get onto the subject of same sex marriage? If we ‘use the image of God as our defining compass’ then we understand God to be an asexual spiritual eternal being.

  2. Wow!!!! I must have missed something in the blog. How did we get onto the subject of same sex marriage?

  3. Pre Mellennial Fundamentalism has shaped U.S. foreign policy for at least the last 50 years. Dispensationalism has a lot to answer for. I meet folk who are convinced the doctrine of the Rapture has been the official teaching of the Church for more than 2000 years . No! It was developed by John Nelson Darby around 1830- 1850. It really is the ‘new kid’ on the block.
    Fundamentalists don’t care for change, nor do they care much for the ecology. After all, why paint the house if it is going to be consumed by fire, possibly tomorrow?

    1. I agree, Lance. The idea of ‘absolutes’ and ‘no change’ have become enshrined in fundamentalism to the detriment of all and our planet.

  4. Thanks for this Nicole. Keith Giles did a podcast on dispensationalism as a seven part series on the teachings of John Darby from 1830. Worth a watch sometime. He also wrote a terrific book called Jesus untangled. Pledging allegiance to the lamb. A great read

  5. This is an interesting academic read, and I imagine most would switch off, or get lost in the content, as there are a number of presuppositional concepts that make sense, but require an understanding of the construct of these concepts to know how they could relate together.

    Whilst this is helpful to understand how we got here from a fundamentalist perspective you share, the central issue within the current ssm debate is the justification for ssm based on justice being fulfilled through the social privilege inclusion of equality within the current definition of marriage.

    So the central motivation fuelling the ‘equality justice’ narrative is to redefine the marriage act to permit the inclusive debate of gender identity ideology within a newly redefined marriage act, and thereby normalize a narrative that yes – fundamentally – begins to remove the boundaries of moral defintion by which we navigate our value system of relating and treating one another with regard to the image of God as our guiding compass.

    For the Christian, I’d imagine this would not be too much of a challenge when we mature in our response to this issue, and issues like it, with Micah 6:8 guiding our intent and motives in practical ways.

    And the newly included community under a redefined marriage act, would they hold the same respect and regard? Or could we see ‘give an inch, take a mile’ response in treating something as considered precious, now available to be treated without regard for its implied representation of an eternal relationship in our world, and continues to provide guidance, regardless of the distractions we face within our community?

    I’m sure I say the same as did the liberalists and fundamentalists did … wisdom is justified by her children.

    Because it is our children, and the influence upon their perceived outlook for a Godly destiny, that this issue is ultimately going to influence.

    And that’s the point – our children’s future is our present mission to demonstrate a caring, compassionate and merciful God – through the distortion, the liberalism, and the fundamentalists – to experience loving God, and loving their neighbour in gladness and simplicity of heart.

    We don’t need a redefinition of the marriage act to express the same kindness towards the ssm community as we already have enshrined within current legislation the same rights and privileges available to both oppsex and samesex couples.

    What we do need is a redefinition of what it means to walk in the love of God without the academic theology becoming a hurdle, and instead engaging the relational theology becoming a platform that invites everyone to experience the Person of Jesus Christ through our arms and actions.

    When we define our actions as a Christian community this way – as we have already seen multiple times within our own local community when we serve to empower – then we will demonstrate ‘people don’t care about how much you might academically know, until they relationally know how much your care for them’.

    Let’s lead with love, and allow the academics to the history books, because leading requires us to step into the future…

    1. Hi Martin,
      Thank you for your comments. A few quick thoughts on the various themes that run through your reflection:

      1. Your argument against SSM is an assumption that Christians navigate their outlook through the same moral lens: “begins to remove the boundaries of moral definition by which we navigate our value system of relating and treating one another with regard to the image of God as our guiding compass”. This is not correct. If like me, you come to the conclusion that LGBTIQ people are fearfully and wonderfully made just as they are and have every right to the institution of marriage then it would be immoral to withhold the right from them.
      Secondly, and most importantly, this country needs to govern for the good of all – not just those of faith who feel that SSM is an affront to their faith. It needs to uphold human rights and equality for all.

      2. I agree with your need for church/christianity to be redefined in love. I would add that it is somewhat impossible for LGBTIQ people to relate relationally and feel love while there is an undergirding idea that sees them as ‘lesser or damaged or needing to get ‘fixed’and that would withhold equal rights based on that idea.

      3. I think you cannot remove academic rigour from the expression of faith. It is vital. Dualism is not the answer. In fact, I would argue so many extreme faith groups hold such deeply embedded ideas that harm themselves and others because they failed and mocked the discipline of academic rigour.

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