A sketch of the history of American fundamentalism

Last June, Justin Taylor posted a 1994 article by John Fea that gives an historical overview of American fundamentalism. I finally read it and it was quite good.

Taylor’s introduction:

The primary and secondary reading on this movement is quite extensive, but Fea’s piece may be the most helpful and concise orientation to the different phases of fundamentalism in the 20th century. He’s aware of the dangers in setting strict dates for each phase (“Restricting open-ended social and intellectual movements to neatly prepared historical packages confined by set dates is the historian’s greatest sin”) but he helpfully identifies four phases of development:

  1. an irenic phase (1893–1919), a harbinger to fundamentalism “proper”;
  2. a militant phase (1920–1936), encompassing the “fundamentalist-modernist controversies”;
  3. a divisive phase (1941–1960), when fundamentalism split into “evangelical” and “separatist” factions;
  4. a separatist phase (1960 to the present), where the self-designation of fundamentalism is restricted to Protestants who remove themselves from mainstream American culture and religion.

The original article is Understanding the Changing Facade of Twentieth-Century American Protestant Fundamentalism: Toward a Historical Definition,” Trinity Journal 5NS (Fall 1994): 181–99.

A guide to American evangelicalism and fundamentalism

Understanding Fundamentalism and EvangelicalismUnderstanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George M. Marsden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture while I was in graduate school, and it was a pleasure to return to his work again. He gives a clear summary of the main trends in American evangelical and fundamentalist history from the 19th century to the present, showing both his understanding of the movements on their own terms and his willingness to critique them. His two chapters on the American evangelical and fundamentalist relationship with science are especially helpful.

View all my reviews

Early America as a “Hebrew republic”

At First Things, Peter Leithart summarizes the work of Haifa University’s Eran Shalev in American Zion. Shalev argues for the centrality of the Old Testament in Americans’ interpretation of their world, and that references to the New Testament began to increase in 1820s and 1830s. A couple of tastes:

American history was seen as a repetition of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Oppressed by a series of cruel English Pharaohs, the people of God crossed the waters to discover a land flowing with milk and honey. (That the land was populated by “Canaanites” who might need to be exterminated was a tragic implication of the story.)

During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship….

The shift to the New Testament was partly due to the fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Debates about slavery are complexly implicated in the process. Abolitionists liked to cite Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (“proclaim liberty to captives”), and Southerners defended slavery from the Old Testament. But Theodore Weld’s The Bible Against Slavery showed that ancient Israelites knew nothing of chattel slavery, and pro-slavery writers pointed out that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. African-American hymns and writings turned the old Puritan narrative upside down. America had become Egypt, white rulers Pharaohs, slaves the oppressed Israelites who would be liberated by bloody plagues sent from heaven.

Political theology’s relationship to liberal democracy

A little over a year ago, I read The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla, which I briefly commented on here. Because it’s a provocative book, I had wanted to read some reviews of it, and I found a collection of blog responses here, of which the James K.A. Smith review that I mentioned in my comments was a part. The best response that I have read so far was by Daniel Philpott, who criticizes Lilla’s thesis that “the idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics. As Philpott writes, Christians have often been the most effective advocates for liberal ideals:

Many scholars have charted roots of the separation of religious and political authority to events, episodes, and ideas that long predate Hobbes. Jesus’ own commandment to render to God and Caesar what is proper to each, Pope Gelasius’ enduring fourth century doctrine of the two swords, the growth of emperor and pope as twin authorities in western Christendom (contrast with eastern Christendom where this separation did not occur and where democracy remains weak), and medieval conciliarism were all important. Historian Brian Tierney has made a compelling and respected case for the growth of the notion of rights in medieval canon law. Theologian Christopher D. Marshall even makes a strong case for the origins of human rights in Old Testament texts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, theologians like Vitoria and de las Casas argued against their king for the rights of Indians, rooting their case both in biblical scriptures and in Thomistic natural law (which Hobbes also rejected). All of this occurred long before Hobbes, sprouted from the very heart of traditional political theology, and arguably helped lay strong foundations for features of modern liberalism. At the very least, none of this can be dismissed, as Lilla appears to do. (Curiously, in Chapter One, he presents a sketch of classic Christian political theology in which he recognizes many of these features but then argues that they were abruptly severed from, and presumably rendered impotent in western political thought).

Indisputably, the Reformation and the attendant wars of religion in early modern Europe propelled the development of liberalism, too. But did liberalism arise only through a rejection of traditional political theology brought about by ferocious fundamentalism and bigoted bloodshed? It is a story that contemporary liberals commonly tell, including the Dean of Contemporary Liberalism, the late John Rawls. But is it accurate? In his book, How The Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, historian Perez Zagorin has argued that this era’s bloody struggles produced three kind of intellectual reactions: first, religion [sic] skepticism, second, the politique approach of temporary accommodationism, but thirdly, and most surprisingly for Lilla’s thesis, arguments for religious freedom and tolerance that were in fact rooted in Christian theology. Diggers, Levelers, other radical Protestants, Mennonites, Anabaptists, Baptists, Quakers – all reached into the very scriptures of the New Testament to argue that expressions of faith ought not to be enforced through the sword. These arguments were in fact the most robust. As Lilla partially acknowledges, Hobbes’ arguments were not very good ones. His scientific materialism, like other forms of deep skepticism, simply cannot sustain arguments for religious toleration – or for virtually any principle of political morality at all. The politiques were pragmatists, open to accommodating religious dissent but also to quashing it if stability demanded it, as King Louis XIV did when he expelled the Huguenots from France in 1685. These theological defenses of religious freedom were not without consequence. As Jose Casanova argues in his post on Lilla, it is virtually impossible to conceive of the religious freedom and establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution apart from the theological arguments of Protestant Christians in the American Colonies, those of Roger Williams being the most famous. As we know, the American constitution was then pivotal in modeling religious freedom for other countries in the world.

You can see the rest of his post for his inclusion of 19th-century American evangelicalism, the beginnings of American feminism, the civil rights movement, and 19th- and 20th-century developments in Catholicism. However one conceives of the proper relationship between church and state, Philpott gives some necessary context for considering the history of liberalism

The religiously unaffiliated

You may have heard about the Pew Report from a few weeks ago. John Turner at The Anxious Bench wrote about the survey and linked to Mark Tooley’s article on the report. Tooley puts the report in some historical context. Here’s a key quote, part of which Turner quoted as well:

The myth that America was once a solidly Christian and church going nation that only recently has secularized is widely believed by religious and secular alike. But the 40 percent of Americans who’ve regularly across the last 80 years at least claimed they attend church regularly is almost certainly higher than church going was in the 19th century, which itself was likely higher than the 18th century, as a footnote in the Pew study briefly admits.

If America now today seems more secular, it is because cultural elites 100 years ago, including college presidents and faculty, publishers and newspaper editors, were likely to be churchmen. Fifty years ago, cultural elites were less churchy but remained at least respectful of religion. Today’s cultural elites, joined by popular entertainment and broadcast journalism, clustered in coastal cities or in university towns in between, are neither respectful nor even very aware of religious America. Almost certainly the 6 percent of Americans whom Pew reports are atheist or agnostic are disproportionately represented within their ranks.

I think that Tooley underestimates the importance of the cultural shift, but his article is still worth the read. As my friend Kevin pointed out when I shared the link on Facebook, Tooley seems to equate churchgoing with Christianity. It’s important to think about the wider cultural atmosphere. I wonder if there were some people in, say, 18th- and 19th-century America who didn’t attend church regularly who may have had a more Christian outlook than some who are regular church attenders today, simply because the cultural environment (the “plausibility structures,” as sociologist Peter Berger calls them) supported Christian belief more than it does now.

Book Review: Douglas Wilson, “Black and Tan”

While looking at Doug Wilson’s blog one day, I happened to notice that he wrote a book on slavery and culture wars.  Black and Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America seemed to be a great book to pair with America’s God, since both books discuss 19th-century American Christianity.

The story of this book begins in the 1990s when Wilson and his fellow Presbyterian minister Steve Wilkins wrote a pamphlet called “Southern Slavery as It Was.”  Controversy erupted when they argued that the abuses of Southern slavery were exaggerated.

Black and Tan reiterates the main points of that pamphlet and discusses the controversy that resulted from it.  The central points might be listed as follows:

  • The Bible does allow for slavery within certain guidelines, although as the gospel does its work within nations, slavery will be abolished because the institution of slavery is against the logic of the gospel
  • Racism and the slave trade are roundly condemned by the Bible
  • Slavery was abolished in the United States in a radical and unbiblical way rather than that gradual way that it should have been if the gospel had done its work in American culture
  • The Civil War empowered the federal government in such a way that it overthrew the truly federal system of government that the Constitution provided for, and this empowerment of humanistic instead of Christian values (which he compares to the French Revolution) paved the way for the current culture wars over abortion and gay marriage by, for example, giving the Supreme Court the power to overturn all states’ abortion laws

This blog post by Wilson also gives a good insight into his purposes. Continue reading