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.

Media fragmentation and a culture of distrust

Not a unique set of ideas, but Alastair Roberts brings some important trends together in his post on the prevalence of distrust and falsehood as a social crisis in American culture and, more specifically, in American evangelicalism:

Some of the factors that have given rise to our current situation are related to the current form of our media. The unrelenting and over-dramatized urgency of the media cycle, especially as that has been accelerated on social media, heightens our anxiety and reactivity. It foregrounds political threats and changes and makes it difficult to keep a cool head. When our lives are dominated by exposure to and reaction to ‘news’ we can easily lose our grip upon those more stable and enduring realities that keep us grounded and level-headed. Both sides of the current American election have been engaging in extreme catastrophization and sensationalism for some time. This has made various sides increasingly less credible to those who do not share their prior political convictions and has made us all more fearful of and antagonistic towards each other. It has also created an appetite for radical, unmeasured, and partisan action.

The Internet has occasioned a dramatic diversification and expansion of our sources of information, while decreasing the power of traditional gatekeepers. We are surrounded by a bewildering excess of information of dubious quality, but the social processes by which we would formerly have dealt with such information, distilling meaning from it, have been weakened. Information is no longer largely pre-digested, pre-selected, and tested for us by the work of responsible gatekeepers, who help us to make sense of it. We are now deluged in senseless information and faced with armies of competing gatekeepers, producing a sense of disorientation and anxiety.

Where we are overwhelmed by senseless information, it is unsurprising that we will often retreat to the reassuring, yet highly partisan, echo chambers of social media, where we can find clear signals that pierce through the white noise of information that faces us online. Information is increasingly socially mediated in the current Internet: our social networks are the nets of trust with which we trawl the vast oceans of information online. As trust in traditional gatekeepers and authorities has weakened, we increasingly place our trust in less hierarchical social groups and filter our information through them.

Our news online is increasingly disaggregated. A traditional newspaper is a unified and edited body of news, but online we read from a multitude of competing sources, largely sourced by friendship groups. As our news no longer comes as a package, exists within a click-driven economy, and is largely sourced for purposes of social bonding, sensationalism, catastrophization, ideological reinforcement, outrage, and the like are incentivized. In a world of so much easily accessible information, news is a buyer’s market and pandering to the consumer by telling them what they want to hear becomes a greater temptation. Coupled with the growth of non-mainstream media sources that are often much less scrupulous about accuracy, the result is a much less truthful society. Even formerly respectable broadsheets are now not above publishing tabloid-style articles and hot takes and clickbait akin to popular websites.

The traditional mainstream media also seems to be increasingly partisan and left-leaning, serving as the organ of privileged opinion. Even the comedians that one would traditionally expect to criticize those in power seem to spare the progressive left their ridicule.

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.

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.

Roots of the New Calvinism

From where I sit, the most dynamic trend in evangelicalism today is the re-energized Reformed movement. I ran across an old post by Justin Taylor that brings together some resources analyzing the movement. They’re all by people inside the movement (Mark Dever, Trevin Wax, and Collin Hansen), but they’re valuable nonetheless.

As Joel noted some time ago, Molly Worthen is doing some valuable analysis from outside the movement.