Religious Fundamentalism

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Nathaniel Hawthorne perhaps best captured the paradox of religious fundamentalism in America in his stories about the Puritans. Repelled by the Puritans' intolerance, Hawthorne admired their realism and their unswerving devotion to principle. The latter trait he vividly depicted in his short story "The Gray Champion" (1835), where a first-generation Puritan mysteriously returns to Boston in 1689 to thwart the subjugation of the colonies by King James II. Like a fiery Old Testament prophet, the old Puritan—the "Gray Champion" of the story's title—denounces the usurpations of Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros and urges the people to resistance.

The character of the Gray Champion symbolizes the Puritans' rigid idealism, an idealism that typifies religious fundamentalism in general. In Hawthorne's view, this idealism constituted both a threat and a promise to republican government. It constituted a threat because it fostered religious intolerance, which if enforced by the state, could destroy civil liberty. It represented a promise because it produced a firm commitment to moral principle, which if properly exercised, could help sustain republicanism. Hence the ultimate paradox of fundamentalism: Its intolerance may destroy republican government, but its rigorous attachment to moral principle may be needed to defend it.

One of the greatest achievements of American consitutionalism was the manner in which it resolved this paradox by harnessing the moral idealism of fundamentalism while restraining its potential for bigotry. The Founders harnessed fundamentalism's moral idealism by stressing the importance of morality in civic life and by acknowledging the crucial role churches played in fostering this morality. At the same time, the Founders sought to temper fundamentalism's intolerance by ensuring that goverment power would never be used to resolve theological differences.

The Founders' arrangement produced an institutional separation between church and state even while forging a practical tie between religion and politics on the basis of morality. Religious fundamentalists were discouraged by the nature of the regime from using the government to promote their theological beliefs; but the door was left open for them to enter the political arena as citizens in order to promote government policies in accord with both the principles of the Constitution and the "laws of nature and nature's God" on which those principles are premised.

The political activities of religious fundamentalists in the new nation (primarily evangelical Christians) reflected the Founders' understanding of the role of religion in society. Many evangelicals opposed state funding of churches because they thought it corrupted religion, and gradually even the congregationalists who supported establishments of religion changed their minds. Hence, when evangelicals became involved in politics in the early nation, they generally sought to do so on the basis of principles of civic morality that were held in common by both reason and revelation. in the years before the civil war, they entered the political arena by the thousands to spear-head crusades against dueling, lotteries, war, poverty, prostitution, alcoholism, and slavery. These political activities on behalf of secular concerns proved that religious fundamentalism could fulfill a vital political function by serving as the political conscience of the nation.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the controversy over Cherokee removal from Georgia. Federal treaties had guaranteed the Cherokees their lands on the condition that they become both peaceful and "civilized." In 1828 and 1829, the Georgia legislature tried to legislate the Cherokee Nation out of existence, extending its laws over Cherokee lands and demanding that the federal government remove the Indians. The evangelical missionaries who had been working among the Cherokees rose to the Indians' defense. They based their arguments against removal not simply on biblical morality but on the natural right of property, the inviolability of contracts, and the God-given equality of all men proclaimed in the declaration of independence, which they argued applied to Indians as well as white men.

Unfortunately, both Congress and the President rebuffed the evangelicals' efforts on behalf of the Cherokees, and the government eventually relocated the Indians further west by force. The controversy nevertheless demonstrated that religious fundamentalists could fulfill the role that the Founders had created for them: they could put their idealism to constructive use by intervening in politics on the basis of principles of natural justice rather than doctrines of sectarian theology.

None of this is to suggest that religious fundamentalists completely forswore introducing sectarian theology into politics in the early nation. Before the Civil War, numerous evangelicals claimed that America had been founded as a "Christian nation," and many sought to introduce sectarian religion into public education. After the Civil War, some even wanted to amend the Constitution to recognize the authority of Jesus Christ and Christianity. In the twentieth century, widespread support persisted among evangelicals for state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the public schools. Nevertheless, these efforts were more the exception than the rule, and sometimes actions that seemed directed at obtaining state support for religion were actually much more complicated. For instance, evangelicals were vigorously criticized for trying to mix church and state in the early nineteenth century when they sought repeal of a law requiring many post offices to be open on Sunday. Yet one reason evangelicals found this law so offensive was that it compelled church members employed by the post office to break the sabbath in violation of their religious beliefs. Thus, evangelicals sought repeal of the law (at least in part) to protect a person's natural right to religious liberty protected by the free exercise clause of the first amendment.

The political significance of religious fundamentalism eventually diminished as the number of fundamentalists declined and as most remaining fundamentalists abandoned politics after the repeal of the eighteenth amendment. Yet the very forces of secularization that some had thought decimated religious fundamentalism may have spurred its resurgence in the late 1970s and 1980s. As social ills proliferated and many persons became disenchanted with both the political liberalism and the moral permissiveness of mainline Christian denominations, evangelicalism prospered and political action by evangelicals reemerged with a vengeance. Social issues such as abortion, pornography, and euthanasia attracted the new evangelicals' attention, much as dueling, slavery, and intemperance had sparked the actions of their forebears in the nineteenth century.

In one key respect, however, many of the new evangelical activists were different from those who came before. In the past, most conservative Christians had continued to lobby for at least a limited state power to sponsor religious exercises, such as devotional Bible reading and organized prayers in public schools. Although support for these activities did not disappear in the 1980s, it did become much less noticeable, as evangelicals focused more on eliminating the government's power to restrict individual religious expression than on promoting a state power to promote religion.

This new emphasis on individual religious freedom can be ascribed at least in part to the changing nature of church-state conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s. Whereas previous church-state battles had focused on how much the government could do to promote religion while staying within the confines of the establishment clause, new controversies concerned how far the state could go in restricting individual religious expression. Public high school students were forbidden by school authorities from meeting on their own during lunch or before school for prayer and Bible study. Churches were prevented from utilizing public facilities readily available for use by other community groups, and zoning laws were invoked to curtail religious activities in private homes. In addition, many parents faced the choice of either removing their children from public schools or allowing their children to be taught the permissibility of behaviors they found morally unacceptable. Some religious parents who tried to teach their children at home were jailed. These new conflicts caused many evangelicals to see government as the problem rather than the solution, and they accordingly sought ways to curb what they regarded as state-sponsored persecution of their religious beliefs and practices.

One result was an attempt to apply the free exercise clause to curriculum objections in the public schools. In 1986, a group of fundamentalist parents in Tennessee petitioned to have their children exempted from a school reading program because they believed the content of the readers disparaged their religious beliefs. The Tennessee parents did not want to change school curriculum; they simply wanted to teach their children reading at home, while allowing the children to participate in the rest of the school's academic program. The district court granted this request, but a three-judge panel on the court of appeals unanimously reversed. However, the judges could not agree on the reasons for reversal. One judge argued that the reading program did not burden the children's free exercise rights because it did not tell them what to believe. A second judge maintained precisely the opposite, arguing that a broader purpose of the reading was to inculcate certain "values"; according to this judge, this purpose gave the school district a compelling state interest in not allowing exemptions to the program. The third judge, meanwhile, claimed that the reading program did burden free exercise, but he did not want to issue a new precedent in this area without express guidance from the Supreme Court. This the Supreme court declined to give, although it later made clear in employment division, department of human resources of oregon v. smith (1990) that it had no intention of broadening free exercise rights. Smith suggests that further litigation using the free exercise approach is likely to fail.

In a related area, there have been efforts by evangelicals to have creationism taught in public schools. Unlike fundamentalists from an earlier era, the new creationists do not argue that evolution should not be taught; they only contend that whenever evolution is taught, "scientific creationism" must also be taught in order to protect the students' right to study different points of view. Hence, they argue their case in terms of academic freedom. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), however, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that adopted this approach as violative of the establishment clause.

One new rationale that has not been invalidated by the Court is equal access, which calls for religious expression to be protected as speech under the First Amendment. The primary idea behind equal access is that religious individuals and groups should be accorded the same access to public facilities as nonreligious individuals and groups. For example, if a public library rents rooms to community groups for meetings, it should not be able to forbid religious groups from renting the rooms for religious meetings because this would be discriminating against certain groups on the basis of the content of their speech. Similarly, if high school students have the right to pass out political leaflets to their classmates on school grounds, then they must also have the right to pass out religious leaflets. The equal access rationale has been applied by evangelicals with particular success in the public high school setting, where many schools previously had denied religious student groups the same right to meet on school grounds routinely afforded to other student groups. The Supreme Court sustained federal legislation providing a limited statutory right to equal access in public secondary schools in board of education of westside community schools v. mergens (1990).

The development of equal access is yet another indication of how successful the Founders were in setting up a system where the political demands of religious fundamentalism would be framed in terms of generally applicable moral principles rather than petitions based on divine right. In America, religious fundamentalists have increasingly recognized that the same laws that protect other citizens also protect them and that they do not need special privileges conferred by the government to prosper.

John G. West, Jr.

(see also: Bender v. Williamsport; Cherokee Indian Cases; Government Aid to Religious Institutions; Religion in Public Schools; Separation of Church and State; School Prayers; Sunday Closing Laws.)


Hawthorne, Nathaniel 1970 "The Gray Champion," "The Man of Adamant," and "The Maypole of Merrymount." In Hawthorne: Selected Tales and Sketches. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Jaffa, Harry V. 1990 The American Founding as the Best Regime: The Bonding of Civil and Religious Liberty. Mont clair, Calif.: Claremont Institute for the Study of Political Philosophy and Statesmanship.

Stokes, Anson Phelps 1950 Church and State in the United States, 3 vols. New York: Harper and Brothers.

West, John G., Jr. 1991 The Changing Battle over Religion in the Public Schools. Wake Forest Law Review 26:361–401.

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Religious Fundamentalism

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