Christian Fundamentalism is a twentieth-century development that originated in American Protestant circles. While most attention to the phenomenon still focuses on the United States, thanks to missionary endeavors, it is now represented around the Christian world.
While many casual observers often speak of fundamentalism as if it were the equivalent of Protestant conservatism, traditionalism, or orthodoxy, scholars point to significant differences. The word fundamentalism appears in no encyclopedias or dictionaries before the 1920s, a fact which signals that some new reality was on the scene, one that would evoke new terminology. Fundamentalism in its broadest sense is a defensive reaction against uncongenial and threatening forces that are often code-named modernism. The conservatisms that were already on the scene had developed gradually over the centuries. Modern fundamentalism appeared suddenly, when the perceived threats seemed unbearable.
The word first appeared in the name of an association in 1919 and a Baptist magazine in 1920. The editor, perceiving assaults on the faith as he knew it, complained that in the Baptist church most people wanted to be conservative, but no one would do battle for the Lord. He called for reaction—and reaction is the key word for understanding fundamentalism—by people who would “do battle for the Lord.” The ensuing fundamentalist-modernist controversy led to some schisms in Baptist and Presbyterian denominations, and issued in a proliferation of Bible colleges, missionary societies, charitable agencies, and radio stations and programs that carried the message and work forward.
The main challenges in the 1920s were evolution, the teaching that human descent resulted from natural selection and, as the fundamentalists saw it, apart from the work of God or the story of the world’s creation in the Bible. Another strand of thought that went into fundamentalist formation was a view that the world would end in a cataclysm, after which through one of a variety of scenarios, Jesus would return to rule for a millennium. Fundamentalists also favored the adjective literal as opposed to symbolic or allegorical when treating biblical miracles or teachings that Jesus was born of a virgin and was physically resurrected. The lynchpin of fundamentalism, however, came to be fiercely defended theories of biblical inerrancy, which held on a kind of philosophical ground that there were and could not have been any errors of historical, geographical, scientific, or any other sorts in the Bible.
Early fundamentalists faced scorn in the culture at large and were opposed by moderates in the Protestant denominations, yet they endured. In 1942 some of them organized as a national association, a move that was countered a year later by more moderate fundamentalists who came to call themselves evangelical. Evangelicalism, popularized by figures like Billy Graham, agreed with fundamentalism on most teachings, but evangelicals were culturally more moderate and they came to outnumber the hard-core fundamentalists.
As decades passed, moderate evangelicals came to prosper more than did fundamentalists. Fundamentalists tended to be separatist, reluctant to cooperate with even conservative Protestants who did not share every detail of their doctrines. Evangelicals moved more toward the cultural mainstream, and their leaders often shared platforms and programs with certain kinds of Catholics and mainline Protestants. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, who share so much by way of doctrine, have adopted quite different styles, and the separatism of fundamentalism has held it back in the competition for souls and influence.
For decades, fundamentalists professed to be and ordinarily were disengaged from politics, concentrating as they did on evangelizing, converting, and preparing believers for life in heaven. In the final third of the twentieth century, however, while some stayed back from the frays, most fundamentalists plunged eagerly into politics. The Supreme Court decisions that disallowed prayer in public schools in 1962 and 1963, followed by a decision that allowed for legalized abortion in 1973, galvanized fundamentalists. They did an about-face and developed sophisticated approaches to mass media, originally through radio but later using television and the Internet, and made political alliances with Republicans. In coalition with conservatives they came to have considerable power in electoral politics and in legislation.
Social scientists observe fundamentalists in various social circumstances and classes. Often typed as rural and lower-class in the early years, many of them became prosperous urbanites and suburbanites, and were known for erecting large churches and producing television programs, supporting colleges such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia, and favoring participation in the affluent society with a zest that would have appalled their grandparents. Christian rock music, Christian films and best-selling books, and Christian self-help programs took on the trappings of their worldly counterparts. In doing so, fundamentalists helped create a culture within the culture, a kind of Jesus-centered replica of their more secular counterparts.
Most fundamentalists inherited and fostered efforts to convert others, as their ancestors in less-threatened nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism had done. Large numbers of them, particularly in the dominant Southern Baptist tradition, insisted on adult baptism after conversion, and brought a biblical concept of being “born again” into the cultural spotlight. There have been few pacifists among the fundamentalists, most of them being strong supporters of military ventures by the United States and expressing themselves as dedicated patriots. On such grounds, they were suspicious of cultural, social, and political moderates and liberals, and often lumped them together as the “other” who was “secular humanist.” Fundamentalists tend to create psychic boundaries and spiritual distance from others, fearing that ecumenical or interreligious ventures would lead to a weakening of the faith that as militants they claim is the only valid form of approach to God.
SEE ALSO Christianity; Jesus Christ; Religion
Ammerman, Nancy. 1987. Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Martin E. Marty