[fundamentalists, evangelicals and liberals]

Topic: United States

In this week’s New Yorker, Peter J. Boyer’s profile of the preacher Billy Graham (accompanying slide show here) provides a useful short history of American Protestantism in the 20th century — one that thankfully doesn’t mention Barry Goldwater — and draws the frequently overlooked but important distinction between Evangelical Christians and Christian Fundamentalists.

To a lot of left-leaning, non-churchy types, myself included, these terms are largely interchangeable epithets for a poorly understood mass of Americans who believe in creationism, attend megachurches or else miniscule weirdo churches with snakes and speaking in tongues, and buy Tim LaHaye novels. Boyer makes it clear that this perception elides two distinct movements within American Protestantism that have often been in conflict.

Going back to the mid-19th century, there was essentially only what would later be known as fundamentalism: the traditional Protestant belief in the Bible as a literally true description of the world and the sole source of legitimate Christian doctrine. Belief in a six-day creation, a fiery hell and the redemptive power of faith were more or less standard. By the turn of the 20th century, scientific views of our planet’s history, and especially Darwinism, coupled with historical approaches to Biblical texts, had begun to erode this set of beliefs. In response, a new theological movement, liberalism, allowed for greater latitude of belief, seeing much of the Bible as allegory and sometimes denying the divinity of Christ. (Saint John the Divine, in Manhattan, was erected as a cathedral for the preaching of this particular Gospel.)

Fundamentalism was a reactionary movement that rejected liberalism and insisted on maintaining the old truths and rejecting the relativism and compromise of the liberals. By the time of the famous Scopes trial, most American Protestants had come to see fundamentalism as ridiculous and backward. It was also fractious. Its devotion to rooting out error meant that fundamentalist sects were constantly splitting off and condemning each other. One sect declared that only the King James translation of the Bible was legitimate. It is this movement that has given us the strange, small churches, especially in the South.

Meanwhile, the liberal theologians took over the mainline Protestant denominations, often to the discomfort of their flocks. A movement called the New Evangelism then arose as a kind of middle ground between liberalism and fundamentalism, appealing to people who were unhappy with liberal theology but wished to remain loyal to their denominations and to avoid the absurdities and embarrassments of fundamentalism. It adhered to traditional Protestant beliefs, but made a serious effort to back this belief with rigorous scholarship. It also got involved in social issues, refusing to cede good works to the liberals as the more insular fundamentalists had.

This is the movement to which the relatively tolerant Billy Graham belongs, and it’s the movement that has given us megachurches and Christian rock bands, as well as inspiring efforts to help the Sudanese and others. It is much more politically active and powerful than fundamentalism, whose theology it shares to a great extent. With its message of welcome and salvation rather than condemnation and hellfire, Evangelicalism is also responsible for a certain smugness: when you set up the big tent and make the compromises necessary to fill it, you run the risk of telling people what they want to hear. Movements like prosperity theology, which insists that God wants Christian believers to be rich, are products of Evangelicalism. These things tend to upset the fundamentalists, who fiercely opposed the Evangelicals, especially early on.

I don’t know to what extent America’s Christians are aware of this distinction between fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, or what role it plays in today’s political Christianity, but I’m guessing that it still matters considerably. I am more familiar with similar distinctions in Judaism, between the traditionally Orthodox, who are not terribly political and whose numbers remain low, and Chassidic (especially Chabad Lubavitch) Judaism, which proselytizes among Jews and is heavily engaged in Israeli politics. As far as I can tell, Islam also has this dynamic, though I’m not knowledgeable enough to say much on the subject.

Interestingly, both Chassidus and the New Evangelical movement began as efforts to be more tolerant and inclusive, and both movements have over time become known for their extremism and intolerance. What stands out, however, is that unlike intolerant sects of the past, the New Evangelicals and the Chassidim (and the Islamists?) have managed to condemn on a grand scale while still welcoming those whose practice and belief may not yet meet muster. If you roar up to a Chabad House on the back of a Harley on the Sabbath, no one inside will make a fuss about it; instead, they’ll welcome you and sing with you and give you reasons to come roaring back next Saturday, allowing your interest and devotion to develop gradually. This combination of ideological rigor and social welcome can be enormously compelling, and it is perhaps the most important development of religious practice in the 20th century.