What is Fundamentalism?

There exists an awful lot of conceptual confusion and definitional inexactitude concerning Christianity in general and fundamentalism in particular. Mind you, I’m speaking about the situation as it exists in America. In Australia the confusion is even worse! Australian commentators, both secular and religious, regularly abuse and misuse religious terminology.

The recent seizure of Family of Love members resulted in a fair amount of such abuse and misuse. What exactly is “fundamentalism” – in a non-derogatory sense, that is? And what is “evangelicalism”? What is a cult? What is a sect?

The following is a layman’s guide through the muddled terminological terrain as seen from a Protestant viewpoint. It is designed to help non-Protestants, as well as Protestants, to get a better grasp of some of the terms thrown around rather loosely lately, especially as they are used in their American context.

American Fundamentalism

Historically, fundamentalism arose in America in the late nineteenth century. It was a reaction against several perceived threats to orthodox Protestant faith. Those threats included Darwinism, German higher (biblical) criticism, and the study of comparative religions, all of which were seen as challenging old assumptions about the authority of biblical revelation.

Fundamentalism was also a reaction to another perceived threat of the day, the so-called “social gospel” movement. Led by such figures as Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, the social gospellers tended to equate the gospel with the improvement of the human condition, by means of social and institutional changes, and it tended to minimise personal conversion and the spiritual elements of the Christian faith. (In a sense the social gospel was a precursor to the modern “theologies of liberation”.)

The Fundamentals

In the early twentieth century, two wealthy California oilmen, Lyman and Milton Stewart, anonymously financed a series of books in defense of basic Protestant beliefs. A series of twelve small books were published in Chicago between 1910 and 1915, containing articles and essays designed to defend fundamental Christian truths against biblical criticism and modern theology. The Fundamentals, as they were called, were penned by 64 authors from America, England, Scotland and Canada. The eighty-three articles were written from a number of perspectives, including Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Independent. Three million copies of the books were sent free to every Protestant minister, theological student, missionary and Christian worker then known.

The Fundamentals covered a wide range of topics, defending Protestant orthodoxy from a number of real or imagined enemies, including atheism, socialism, modern philosophy, Mormonism, spiritualism, Romanism, and above all, liberal theology. The multitude of fundamentals was soon reduced to a more manageable number however. By the 1920s five or six essential doctrines were generally recognised, among them the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, Christ’s bodily resurrection, the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the inerrancy of Scripture.

In attempting to stave off the assaults of modernism, theological liberalism and secularism, fundamentalists tended to develop a “siege mentality” – that is, they tended to become more and more insular and isolated from the greater culture around them. Indeed, they became in the real sense of the word, “counter-culturalists”.

By the 1940s the fundamentalists had evolved into two separate camps. One group, which came to be called the “evangelicals”*, regarded the other group as too intolerant, obscurantist and anti-intellectual. The latter, still referring to themselves as “fundamentalists”, were largely self-defined in terms of personal piety and separatism. Thus they were easily caricaturised as those who “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, don’t play cards…” The evangelicals, on the other hand, were more open to modern science, to academia, to culture in general and to awareness of social issues. The evangelicals were represented by men like Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, magazines like Christianity Today, and institutions like Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both groups however shared an equal commitment to the basic fundamentals of Protestant orthodoxy, and both groups were keen to evangelise, or preach the gospel of personal salvation.

Recently, evangelicals have tended to branch into two different directions: those who have especially emphasised the social aspects of Christianity, usually including a left-wing political orientation (no war, no nukes, no capitalism, etc.); and those who have taken a more conservative approach to social and cultural issues (anti-abortion, anti-communism, anti-homosexuality, pro-school prayer, etc.) This latter group, along with many of the traditional fundamentalists, played a large role in the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

Cults and Sects

Just a word about what constitutes a deviant religious group. Evangelicals (and fundamentalists) regard a group as a cult if they deny basic biblical doctrines, like the deity of Christ, or the Trinity. Groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons and Christian Science are seen as Christian cults. Non-Christian cults would include the Hare Krishnas and various New Age groups. A sect on the other hand is regarded as a group which features aberrational practices or teachings, but retains some semblance of biblical Christianity. To the extent that the Family of Love group in Australia has really renounced some of its previous cultic Children of God teachings and habits, it could be regarded as a sect – a bit loony perhaps, but not heretical. Some of the more extreme Pentecostal groups probably can be called sects as well.

A cult then can be seen in terms of heresy, while a sect can be seen more in terms of a denomination, albeit a slightly off-base one.

This then is how American evangelicals regard some rather befuddled terms. I am aware, however, that liberal Protestants, or non-Protestants, or non-religious persons, may use the terms in an altogether different, and often derogatory, fashion. But this, in a nutshell, is how those who wear the labels in question, regard themselves.

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*Although using the term “evangelical” here to define a twentieth century phenomenon, a number of earlier groups can be described as evangelical: the apostolic fathers, early monasticism, the medieval reform movements (Franciscan, Cluniac, etc.), preachers like Bernard of Clairvaux and Wycliffe, German pietism, Methodism, the Great Awakening (Whitefield, etc.), Lord Shaftesbury, the YMCA and the Salvation Army.

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