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.

The future of the right

Ross Douthat made some points in his latest column that have been rattling around less eloquently in my head.

Why Christians might still choose to support Trump over Clinton (though I will not vote for either):

Asking Christian conservatives to accept a Clinton presidency is asking them to cooperate not only with pro-abortion policy-making, but also their own legal-cultural isolation. If you can’t see why some people in that situation might persuade themselves that Trump would be the lesser evil, you need to work harder to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.

On the Trumpian right:

America needs a religious right. Maybe not the religious right it has; certainly not the religious right of Carson and Falwell Jr. But the Trump era has revealed what you get when you leach the Christianity out of conservatism: A right-of-center politics that cares less about marriage and abortion, just as some liberals would wish, but one that’s ultimately farmore divisive than the evangelical politics of George W. Bush.

When religious conservatives were ascendant, the G.O.P. actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, it pursued criminal justice reform in the states. That ascendance crumbled because of the religious right’s own faults (which certain of Trump’s Christian supporters amply display), and because of trends toward secularization and individualism that no politics can master; it cannot and should not be restored.

But some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.

How the Vatican views canon law

An interesting interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by John Allen at Crux:

For Americans, and perhaps Anglo-Saxons generally, law is a lowest common denominator of civic morality. It’s what we expect everyone to do all the time, and if a law is being widely disobeyed, for us that’s a crisis – we either want to repeal the law or launch a crackdown, but we can’t have people making exceptions on the fly.

For Mediterranean cultures, which still shape the thought-world of the Vatican to a significant degree, law is instead more akin to an ideal. It describes a moral aspiration, but realistically it’s understood that many people much of the time will fall short. (If you don’t believe it, come to Italy sometime and watch how the locals approach traffic laws!)…

The “money quote” on this score comes in one of Francis’ footnotes (number 336, to be exact), in which the pontiff says, “This is also the case with regard to sacramental discipline.”

In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion….

In other words, what Pope Francis has done is let the rest of the world in on one of the best-kept secrets about the Catholic Church: Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too.

At one stage, Francis writes that the divorced and remarried can find themselves in situations “which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications, leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.”

Hat tip: Albert Mohler, The Briefing

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.

View all my reviews

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.

Evangelicals try to win back New England

Slate had a piece today by Ruth Graham about efforts to plant evangelical churches in New England, which Graham calls “the most proudly and profoundly secular region in America.” She opens with the following anecdote:

The pastor of a small church in rural Vermont is not the kind of guy you’d expect to speak with a slow North Carolina drawl. But Lyandon Warren felt a calling to New England ever since he heard a speaker in his college Christian Studies program explain that less than 3 percent of the region’s population is evangelical Christians. By his denomination’s definition, those numbers indicate an “unreached people group”—a whole population without a viable Christian community. “My heart was opened,” he says. “To be a foot-soldier on that battleground is a joy and a privilege.”

In 2006, Warren moved to Vermont to open a new Baptist church in a town whose last church had closed its doors the year before due to lack of attendance. His congregation, which meets in the closed church’s old white clapboard building, grew slowly but steadily, and in early September, Warren opened up a second new church in a nearby town. Similar churches have sprung up throughout the region: New England has become a mission field, and there are seeds of a revival sprouting.

In her story, Graham links to this post by Collin Hansen about a regional Gospel Coalition conference held in Boston, and one of the people connected to this, Presbyterian minister Stephen Um, is a major figure in Graham’s story.

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.