The New Fundamentalists

A century ago (May 21, 1922) Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon entitled Shall the Fundamentalists Win. America and the American Church especially at the time was in the midst of significant cultural upheaval with a debate roaring between two factions, the Modernists (or Liberals) and the Fundamentalists. The Fundamentals a series of essays designed to defend conservative Christian teachings and provide serious challenges to the Modernist understandings of the Bible had been released just a few years prior and America was just a few years from the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Judging by the title of Fosdick’s sermon you might think that the sermon was a point by point rebuttal of the Fundamentalist’s Biblical stance; indeed I have know people who have judged Fosdick’s position based entirely on that title. But Fosdick does not condemn the Fundamentalists’ reading of the Scriptures, he does not outright condemn their beliefs as superstitious or indefensible. Rather citing the words of Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” he calls for a healthy caution within the church. hat Fosdick saw as harmful in the Fundamentalists was not their beliefs about the Bible but their rabid insistence that their beliefs were the only possible Christian beliefs. Indeed if you read The Fundamentals there are a few who make well reasoned arguments asking serious and necessary questions of the Modernists, but there are many who are dismissive of the Modernists, attacking with passion more than reason.

Fosdick’s assessment of the Fundamentalists was correct, they were too rigid in their thinking and needed to listen more and show more grace to those with whom they disagreed. It was not their conservative reading of Scripture that was wrong, it was their inability to have loving discourse with those who disagreed with them. In the end, except perhaps in the South the influence of the Fundamentalists waned after the 1920’s and even many of those who continue to hold to similar theological opinions are far more liberal in their treatment of those who disagree.

But there are still those within Christianity for whom Fosdick’s warning is appropriate, a group of individuals of whom I would repeat the line, “Shall the fundamentalists win”? But notice that I do not capitalize the “F”, just like I will not capitalize the “L” in liberal because I am not talking about these groups from the early 1900’s, I am talking about people who embody the mindsets. The difficulty is that what is becoming concerning to me is that the fundamentalists are not limited to one side of the theological spectrum. The hardening of positions that is so rampant in American politics is alive and well in the American church as well and it is not simply on the right, the left is also infected. There is less of Gamaliel’s attitude that God works in history to support those who are doing things right and more of the mindset of the counsel that said we need to stomp out the heretics. Perhaps I am simply becoming more aware of the situations, but it certainly seems that from both ends of the Church there is less willingness to suffer theological disagreement and a greater desire withhold power from the other side. From what I see there is still a wide middle where a liberal understanding reigns, but the edges are hardening. I would expect this from the edge whose theological heritage includes the original Fundamentalists, so it is more disturbing to me to see this mentality adopted by those whose roots find more in common with the Modernists.

One of the best books I have read this year is Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World by Tara Isabella Burton, and one of her major theses is that political liberal identity is being treated as religion. It should not be a controversial thesis that politics in this country on both sides is becoming a religion and one of the more negative qualities of any religion is it is at best suspicious of other religions (and at worst hostile). What I think is happening is these new political denominations are having influence within the Church as Christians begin to overlap their Christian convictions with their new political religion. As this happens there is less grace and generosity for the competing political denomination which is aligned with the other theological wing of the Church. The frightening result is that even on the left there is less liberal generosity for their brothers and sisters with differing beliefs. Every social issue is not simply an issue of justice but of civil rights and to push back against a specific policy is to violate the sacred push for justice. Even legitimate push back and criticism is taken as an affront to be dealt with and there is little grace for deviation. The fundamentalist spirit is certainly taking root in our culture, and it is disturbing to think about where we will head if this tendency continues.

Shall fundamentalism win? Shall we allow this mindset that wants to expel others from the church because of differences in non-essential beliefs continue? Sadly I think it will, one of the reasons is because like the original Fundamentalists, our modern ones on both left and right frame non-essential issues as essentials. For fundamentalists every issue is a slippery slope and to give in on any minor point is to compromise the whole argument. For the fundamentalist opponents do not have reasonable opinions that are grounded in solid logic and principles, rather each opponent is “a communist”, “a Fascist”, “a Nationalist”, “woke”. By contrast the liberal mindset is to listen to the opinions of others and learn from them, not necessarily agree with those opinions but learn, grow, and develop. We live in a world with a vast range of opinions, and even though objective truth exists you are not guaranteed to know it all the time.

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