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.

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Conversing about conversion

Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and AnglicanismJourneys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism by Robert L. Plummer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The narratives and responses were all pretty interesting. My favorite set was the first, between the Baptist who became Eastern Orthodox and a Baptist seminary professor. Brad Gregory’s response to the Catholic convert to evangelicalism was quite challenging and used a lot of examples from the Reformation period, but he was more successful in pointing out the challenges that disunity poses to Protestants’ claims than in making a compelling case for Catholicism.

I would have liked to see the rejoinders go into more depth in responding to the responses. Overall, it was an informative and readable book.

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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 cultural footprint of liberal theology

About three years ago, I noted Christian Smith’s (via Peter Leithart) contention that liberal theology has enjoyed cultural success while losing its institutional strength. Mark Edwards’ twopart interview of Matthew Hedstrom, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion, reminded me of this point. Hedstrom brought up Smith (and other scholars in Part I), and Part II contained this exchange:

ME: The very title of your book suggests a kind of liberal cultural ascendancy. How does your work intersect with the idea of a “mainline” religious establishment that crumbled during the 1960s and 1970s?

MH: I’ll start with an extreme argument and backtrack from there: liberal Protestantism, at its very core, wants to achieve its own extinction, or at least its own irrelevance. Postmillennial theology desires the Kingdom of God on earth, and believes that human beings, with divine grace, can achieve it. The idea is to redeem the culture—redeem the world—through full participation in it. This is in contrast to a bunkered fundamentalism that aims to save souls but otherwise remain safely removed from a corrupt and corrupting world.

So, from this vantage point, cultural success and institutional decline should go hand in hand. And in many ways they have. The liberal focus on ethics, progress, and this-world salvation means religious liberals can achieve their righteous ends by working for the Peace Corps or Amnesty International or the Human Rights Campaign, or through social work or psychological counseling, or through cultural efforts like literacy promotion. If saving souls is your metric, you’ll do that work through churches or parachurch ministries. But if redeeming the culture and world is your goal, many more avenues are available for doing your religion. Most scholars of American Protestantism seem to have implicitly accepted the terms of the debate offered by religious conservatives, and look only at church life as a measure of religious vitality.
Now the backtrack. The categories of course are not this neat. Religious liberals care about church life, including the saving of souls, however that might be understood; and religious conservatives have done immense social and cultural work (for good and ill, I’d add). The whole Religious Right stands in contrast to what I have presented, in a way. But I think the larger, basic point remains: institutional decline and cultural victory can go hand in hand, and in this case, I think, have.
My book is not primarily political, so I don’t write much about the ways religious liberal impulses have been sublimated into social and political activism, though it does come up here and there. My story is more about culture and spirituality—the term I use, along with spirituality, is “religious sensibilities”—and so I argue that book culture was a critical mechanism for the broad dissemination of liberal religious sensibilities, especially psychological, mystical, and cosmopolitan spirituality.
This is an interesting counterpoint to the decline of liberal Christianity which is often a subject of discussion. Also, I realize that Hedstrom’s characterization of postmillenialism doesn’t work for orthodox postmillenialists who see the church as continuing, not fading away, as the gospel spreads throughout the earth.

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.

Liberal Christianity in the US and Britain

Ross Douthat’s July 15 column on the decline of liberal denominations produced some discussion on the definition of liberal Christianity. Douthat defined it as focused on social reform, while British Baptist pastor and theologian Steve Holmes took a more philosophical view, arguing that liberal Christianity essentially bases itself on the idea that the “human experience” can be spoken of in the singular (and thus the various religions are ways of interpreting this experience). Holmes also makes two arresting observations in his post. First, that Anglican liberals tended to support British imperialism, eugenics, and racism, before taking a turn that is more recognizably “liberal” to Americans in the 1960s and after with support of the sexual revolution, “racial equality,” and environmentalism.* He believes that this comes from liberal Christianity’s tendency to follow the culture in which it is embedded. Secondly, this tendency has become a weakness in the postmodern age. The section in italics reflects my emphasis:

This also explains the reason that the, heretofore extremely successful, liberal tradition of Christianity is currently in meltdown. It is not difficult to see that the idea that true notions of the divine can be derived from an examination of universally shared human experience is vulnerable to at least two, apparently devastating, lines of criticism: the claim that human experience is no guide to reality (a claim made classically by Feuerbach in his Essence of Christianity, and forming the basis of neo-orthodox criticisms of liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century); and the claim that there is no universally shared human experience to serve as a basis for the argument. This latter line has become extremely powerful in contemporary theology. The early liberation theologians developed a postcolonial critique of such claims: supposed accounts of ‘normative’ human experience are in fact an attempt to force others to conform their experience to norms created by white male Europeans. The explosion of contextual theologies demonstrated the power of such a criticism in contemporary culture: every proposed account of shared human experience is, on this analysis, a hegemonic attempt to impose a false consciousness on others. So African-American women properly refused to be assimilated to the project of feminist theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too white, and properly refused to be assimilated to Black theology, seeing the accounts of human experience offered as too male. Instead, they constructed their own narration, womanist theology. (The great womanist theologians are poets, not just theologians: Emilie Townes somewhere entitles a chapter ‘To love our necks unloosed and straight’ – why can’t I write like that?!).

The effect of all this is to make classical liberalism – ‘we all feel like this, so…’ – culturally incredible. For two centuries, it caught the mood of a culture which believed in metanarratives; for the last two decades (or more) the culture has been incredulous towards metanarratives, and so has been profoundly unreceptive to classical liberalism. Today, liberalism sounds like cultural imperialism; when it tries not to, it simply sounds incoherent. (The best example is also the obvious and tedious one: White, metropolitan, Western culture regards the acceptance of gay/lesbian relationships to be an ethical imperative; the churches of sub-Saharan Africa (to give only one example) see the matter differently; one may be affirming of gay/lesbian people by dismissing the moral intuition of Black Africans, but not otherwise. To claim that gay people and Nigerian people share moral intuitions, or to claim to be simultaneously attentive to gay people and non-Western people, alike appear simply incredible.)

This observation fits with my own, less informed sense that pre-1950s liberal theology seemed much more grounded and Christian, even though deficient, than its current form. This seems to me a good explanation of why this is the case.

Douthat’s response, through which I became aware of Holmes’ post, grants the point on the definition, but contends that liberal Christianity has been different in the American and British contexts:

However, this quest has gone in different directions in different times and places, and in the United States from the late-19th onward, it found its most important and enduring expression in the Social Gospel idea that Christianity would be vindicated in an age of science and skepticism to the extent that it confronted social evils as well as private sins, and made the kingdom of heaven more visible on earth. Certainly other theological traditions, Catholic as well as evangelical, have linked personal conversion and social reform; certainly liberal Christianity can’t be reduced to that link and that link alone. But for a long time, from the era of Walter Rauschenbusch down to the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., the liberal churches had good reason to see themselves as the primary custodians of a socially-engaged Christianity. Indeed, the historical importance of their role explains why many religiously-literate Americans today still simply conflate ”liberal Christianity” with “the religion of Christians who are politically liberal.” That’s far too broad a definition, certainly, and one that gives theologians hives with its capaciousness. But it’s also one that reflects the lived reality of American politics and religion for long periods of the twentieth century….

Some of [what Holmes says about British liberal Christians’ mirroring of British culture] maps on to the American experience: The United States, too, had its liberal Protestant imperialists and eugenicists, and of course we have our liberal Christian environmentalists today. But the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement are both absent from this story (in this country, liberal Christians were arguing for civil rights long before the 1980s), and when you lose them you lose a huge part of liberal Christianity’s direct impact on American religion and public life, not to mention its second-order impact on movements (from WWII and Cold War-era neo-orthodoxy to post-1970s neoconservatism) that were both its critics but also to some extent its practical heirs. Nor, in turn, can you understand the point that the intellectual historian Gary Dorrien makes in the essay that my column quoted, about how the leading liberal Christians of the American past often managed to ground progressive politics on “a gospel of personal faith” expressed “in biblical terms,” rather than just on the kind of ecumenical appeals to “shared human religious experience” that are more characteristic of, say, liberal Episcopalianism today. (I think of Bayard Rustin’s line about M.L.K., which I quote in my recent book: “I was always amazed at how it was possible to combine this intense, analytical philosophical mind with this more or less fundamental — well, I don’t like to use the word ‘fundamentalist’ — but this abiding faith.”) Such a biblical and even dogmatic grounding was possible, I think, precisely because in the American landscape the specific cause of social reform was often more central to the self-definition of religious liberalism than the general prioritization of personal experience that came in with Schleiermacher.

The end of Holmes’ post includes an update in response to similar comments from Alan Jacobs:

UPDATE: Wesley Hill kindly pointed me to some comments made by Alan Jacobs of Wheaton (@ayjay) on Twitter, to the effect that in the above I wrongly conflate American and English (sic…) liberalism, ignoring the profound effect of Rauschenbusch had in redefining US liberalism. This seems to me a very fair point in terms of my account of liberal ethics in ‘so what point 1′ above, which I accept is rather parochial and based on UK examples; I think my broader point, ‘if you have to come up with a one sentence journalistic definition of the heart of liberal Christianity, what would it be?’ stands; Rauschenbusch provided a compelling narration of a particular set of religious experiences – pastoring in Hell’s Kitchen for him, but of course wider for others – that gave the US conversation a particular shape (just as the experience of the 1914-18 war gave the European conversations particular shapes – very different in Germany and the UK), but I think the heart of the issue remains the same.

*This is just a broad characterization of “liberal” and “conservative,” I realize. Even the word “liberal” has been used differently in American and British politics, I believe. And I also realize that liberal denominations in America supported eugenics and imperialism. And racism is not an essentially “conservative” position either, although certainly some conservatives have been racists along with people of different persuasions.