The basic premise behind this short series is that evangelicals have a narrative that posits a history of sharing the good news of the Gospel and spreading the Kingdom of God, and that the narrative falls considerably short of the actual facts. The main reason for that is the belief that white evangelicals are somehow different than fundamentalists. There is a marked ignorance of the close ties to fundamentalism among the average evangelical parishioner. There are certain assumptions and character flaws of fundamentalism that have carried over into evangelicalism and have not been addressed. As a result, evangelicalism in the West is slowly dying and has failed to become socially relevant.
As expressed in part one of this series, the theological implications and presumptions concerning the nature of the Bible contributed, or at least supported, the Southern cause in the American Civil War. When defeated by the North, religious Southerners retreated to the SBC without admitting they were on the wrong side of the theological debate. This is an important observation, as it has a direct bearing on how evangelicals use scripture today. Rather than rethink their understanding of scripture, resentment set in and was directed towards blacks in the South. The enforcement of reconstruction soon fell by the wayside, as Northerners had their own sets of problems to deal with. The next century in the South would be a tale of religion fused with the State used to hurt and marginalized black Americans in the Solid South.
The period between reconstruction and the struggle for racial equality in the 50s is also a story of two different nations, flying two different flags: the Bars and Stars and the Confederate flag. Although both sides claimed to be American, in many ways they acted independently of each other. The plight of blacks was better outside of the old Confederate States, but equality of opportunity still was largely out of reach. The great wealth gap apparent today was established in the 100 years following the American Civil War. But what the Northern versions and Southern versions both had in common was white privilege. America was founded on the presupposition of a White American Church, and firmly Protestant.
It is this White American Church that accomplished much in the founding and growth of America, but also has done great harm to the gospel message. For one, it made the rise of Civil Religion inevitable: that is, the identification of Christianity with America, and vise versa. This was the underlying belief of both Northerners and Southerners during the Civil War, and is clearly apparent in the current American culture wars. Both sides have God on their side.
Secondly, the White American Church created a hierarchy of privilege, that largely ignored or minimized the validity of the need for equality among minorities. The black claim of “200 years of oppression” was largely scoffed at, similar to the current dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The White American Church has a difficult time empathizing with those that don’t look like them.
Thirdly, the White American Church dominates evangelicalism. While evangelical churches are no longer segregated, their politics are. That was clear in the 2016 Presidential election. The vast majority of white evangelicals voted for a racist bigot, while the majority of black evangelicals did not. While white evangelicals will largely cite abortion and gay marriage as to why they held their noses and voted for Trump, it is hard to ignore the great racial divide among evangelicals.
But, back to fundamentalism. While the roots of Christian fundamentalism are to be traced back to the American Civil War, fundamentalism did not fully develop into its modern form until the beginning of the 20th century. A series of Bible conferences held and the rise of dispensation teachings contributed to the backbone of a newly energized fundamentalist movement. Hotly contested at first, but eventually settled upon as one of the “fundamentals,” was biblical inerrancy. All biblical interpretation going forth would start with this basic assumption as self evident. Also promoted as essential, was a “plain reading” of the biblical texts, except where obviously of allegorical or poetic meaning. Much of the biblical narratives involving the flood, Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, etc., were literally and historically accurate. The new scientific findings on the origins of man, the flood and the age of the earth were viewed as false, as they did not line up with a literal reading of an inerrant scripture.
Again, this is of note, as it will play a continued role in fundamentalist and evangelical concerns involving race, climate change, evolution, abortion and sexual orientation. It would be the Scopes Monkey Trail of 1925 that would set in motion a firm distrust of science and “expert witness” that has haunted conservative Christianity ever since. In the arena of biblical scholarship it would be an aversion to historical and literary criticism that would dominate fundamentalism, and to a degree, evangelicalism as well going forth.
So, as fundamentalism entered the 20th century, three basic pillars of American fundamentalism emerged. One, the movement was dominated by white men; two, modern findings in science that conflicted with a literal reading of scripture were to be refuted. Third, in reaction to the liberal Christian views on literary and historical criticisms, the Bible was to be viewed as totally true and inerrant. Also looming on the horizon would be a series of conferences on “biblical prophecy.” Dispensationalism would soon become a dominating force in eschatology.
In the next post we will look at how the above four pillars of fundamentalism would coalesce into what would eventually become American evangelicalism.
To be continued.