Evangelicalism and Why Fundamentalism Matters

—I’ve been struggling for a week now trying to determine how best to approach my next blog post. I have recently been interacting with quite a few very conservative evangelicals, who are more fundamentalist than evangelical. The dividing line between the two is becoming increasingly fuzzy these days. This is due in large part to shared presumptions about the Bible, the death of Jesus and the shared view of premillennialism. Part of my hesitation has been due to not wanting to write a “hit piece” on evangelicals. I know a great many of them, I was raised in that “tribe,” and for the most part, they are very decent people. It is therefore quite frustrating, when in dialoguing with them, they discard the struggle for social justice and equality as a “distraction” from the gospel, or as a number have suggested, not a part of the gospel at all. This is especially ironic as the church itself has been a perpetrator of social INJUSTICE often in the past. (See: https://weseeinamirrordarkly.com/2018/09/20/the-church-as-contributor-to-social-injustice/)

—Two years ago I started blogging on WordPress. One of my main goals was to elaborate on and to learn more about The Kingdom of God as described by Jesus. Having grown up evangelical, I have had to fight past my own preconceptions, what I had been taught from an early age: namely that Jesus’ message was a message about escaping God’s wrath against mankind, and going to heaven. This is the gospel in a nutshell for most American conservative Christians.

—Along with those preconceptions I had been taught a particular time frame of events concerning the coming Kingdom, namely dispensationalism. In that school of thought a number of unrelated passages of scripture are woven together rather imaginatively to suggest the “End Times” will include a sudden “rapture” of believers (removal of the church), a 7 year period of “tribulation” of those left behind, persecution by the antichrist and the beast followed by a great battle where Christ returns and kicks $!&. Then the “millennial reign” of Christ would begin.

—This was uncritically excepted as “Biblical teaching” in all the churches I attended before Seminary. The majority of evangelicals in America fall into agreement to some degree or another with this belief. The fact that this is a modern interpretation and has no previous antecedent in church history seemed to matter not, as most churches I attended had little or no knowledge of church history anyway.

—The historical backdrop for this particular time frame for the Kingdom of God owes its development to a number of events toward the end of the 19th century. Revivalism stoked by fears over a rapidly changing America. The industrial revolution and the diminishing of rural America. Growing social unrest over women’s rights. Violent protests against immigrant workers, Italians, Chinese and Irish, Catholicism and socialism. For Americans that had taken White male Protestant privilege for granted, these were scary times.

—Into this mix came a longing to escape. From the perspective of many white Protestant Christians, things were going down hill fast. It seemed to many that we were in the “last days,” spoken of in scripture. “Nailing down” the minutiae of scripture concerning eschatology became an unhealthy obsession. Numerous prophesy conferences were called to set all the facts in order. Fundamentalists increasingly withdrew from society and viewed themselves as set apart from a perverse generation.

—As a result, fundamentalism grew increasingly inward and tribal. Society had become so “wicked” and the Kingdom of God wouldn’t occur until AFTER Christ returned, so the goal became to “reach” as many sinners as possible before the return of Christ and the removal of the church before the “tribulation.” 

The postponement of the Kingdom of God until after the return of Christ (post millennialism), basically absolved fundamentalists from any obligation to seek social justice before Christ’s return. It dovetailed nicely with the racism and social injustices of Southern Christianity. As a result a particularly ugly pattern of Christianity flourished in the Bible Belt bolstered by post millennial eschatology and an inerrant Bible that was used to support unChristlike behaviors.

—So what does this have to do with evangelicalism? Unfortunately, American evangelicals share some “DNA” from fundamentalists. Fundamentalism “birthed” the evangelical movement. Looking back on my own history within evangelicalism I can only surmise that the evangelical narrative is purposefully designed to obfuscate the truth of its racist underpinnings as much as possible as to present itself as standing on the higher ground in opposition to a degenerate world. In a way it is scapegoating, a primitive form of blaming others for wrongs so that in comparison one can feel better about oneself. It is a form of deflection.

This inability or unwillingness to “own it” when it comes to accepting responsibility for injustices is hurting evangelicalism badly. To be unaware or in denial of the past almost guarantees a repeat of past mistakes. And we are seeing that play out in real time. Of course, this is not true of ALL evangelicals, but there is enough unification of belief to talk about a monolithic white culture of privilege that pervades much of it. In retrospect, understanding how much race played a part in the narrative of fundamentalism, it should come as no surprise that the majority of white evangelicals simply do not see bigotry as something they need be concerned about.

—There are some encouraging signs that some evangelicals are concerned that the movement has steered too far to the right, but their warnings have largely been ignored by those in power. When these brave souls dare question the pervading evangelical juggernaut all hell breaks loose, literally! Books are removed from Christian book stores, speaking engagements cancelled, teachers fired, death threats are made. They are told they are being “too political,” (immensely ironic considering the pack of evangelical “advisors” bowing and scraping at Trump’s feet). The price of being a prophet has never been cheap.

—Unfortunately, the evangelical identification with the Republican Party has never been higher than it is now. This is not to say that the Democratic Party has God’s ear and the Republican does not. But it is to say that evangelicals have increasingly aligned themselves with a political machine that since the 1960’s, has sought to marginalize others based on ethnicity, sex and sexual identity. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the 60’s,70’s and 80’s saw a mass defection of Southern fundamentalist Christians to the Republican Party as a result of their former Party pushing social reforms benefiting blacks. The move was entirely racially motivated.

—Not satisfied with changing the face of the Republican Party for the worse, fundamentalists are at work trying to change the face of evangelicalism as well. This is underlying reason for the recent attack on social justice by John MacArthur, and why so many pastors signed on to it. The objections of moderates like Russell Moore have largely been drowned out. It does not bode well for evangelicals.

Further reading:

Mark A. Noll, “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”

Daniel K. Williams, “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right.”

Matthew Avery Sutton, “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism.”

Stephen Prothero, “Why Liberals Win The Culture Wars (Even When they Lose Elections).”

The real origins of the religious right: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

 

 

 

One thought on “Evangelicalism and Why Fundamentalism Matters

  1. It is interesting to see how the modern vs postmodern debate enters so much of the cultural discussion these days. I saw a 3D cartoon last week at the theater entitled “Smallfoot.” One would think a children’s cartoon would just be silly fun, but it had a strong postmodern message: don’t be afraid to question authority. At the core of fundamentalism, and by extension, much of evangelicalism, is the fear of questions. To question authority, to wrestle with the sacred books, is a mark of a “lack of belief.” To do so leads to “backsliding.” The inability or prohibition of asking honest questions stifles spiritual growth and makes discourse impossible.

    Like

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