American Religious History Defining Fundamentalism and Liberalism Essay

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American Religious History

Defining fundamentalism and liberalism in Christianity is hardly an exact science, especially because prior to about 1920 there was not even a term for fundamentalism as it exists today. While present-day fundamentalists often claim descent from the Puritans and Calvinists of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Puritans were not really fundamentalists in the modern sense. They were not in conflict with 20th Century-style liberals and supporters of evolution and Higher Criticism because those did not yet exist. As George McKenna put it "if there were no liberalism there would be no fundamentalism" to react against it (McKenna 231). Today, about one-third of Americans define themselves as evangelical Protestants, and all Republican Party politicians have to make appeals to the Christian Right (Hankins 1). In 1976 there were at least fifty million 'born again' evangelical Protestants in the United States, and today their numbers may be as high as 80-90 million. In the 1970s and 1980s they broke from their traditional alliance with the Democratic Party over issues like black civil rights, gay rights, abortion, evolution and prayer in the public schools, and even though this culture war was particularly intense, some of these battles had been fought before in the 1920s (Provenzo 3). Indeed, the Scopes Trial of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan championed the fundamentalists in the their battle against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, "prefigured the red state/blue state dichotomy that was later to play such an important role in shaping the outcome of national elections" (McKenna 234).

Fundamentalism is rooted in the evangelical and revivalist movements of the 18th and 19th Century, such as the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, although the leading theologian who emerged from that movement, Jonathan Edwards, was an orthodox Calvinist and believer in predestination rather than free will. Edwards was definitely not a "ranting evangelist that one might see on late night television," stereotypically sweating ignorance into the microphone with a Southern drawl (Hankins 5). He was also a leading thinker of the day and highly influential in other areas besides theology, and combined his Calvinist religion with the philosophy of John Locke and the Scottish Common Sense realists, as well as the science of Isaac Newton. In fact, this school of thought was the mainstream of American theology, philosophy and education until it was challenged by the newer scientific thought of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud (Marsden 7). As it gradually shed its Calvinist roots, this philosophy was radically democratic in affirming that all persons were equally able to perceive the world with their senses, understand the Newtonian laws the governed the universe, and that individuals were "moral agents capable of free choice" (Marsden 14). Revivals gave American Christianity its "distinctly populist and democratic cast," unlike Europe where the established churches were the allies of kings, aristocrats and the ruling elites. In the U.S., "religious institutions are the refuge against power," and in history the evangelicals and fundamentalists have not necessarily been allied with the party of the economic elite. On the contrary, this is a fairly recent development in American politics (Hankins 16).

Liberalism also has its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly among Deists and Unitarians who doubted the literal truth of the Bible and were skeptical of the divinity of Christ. In the 19th century, Darwinism seemed to have abolished any scientific support for the idea that God created the universe in six days or that Adam and Eve had ever really existed except symbolically. Liberal Protestant ministers like Lyman Abbott and Henry Ward Beecher simply accepted the idea that evolution was "God's way of doing things," even though theistic evolution undermined the literal truth of the Bible (Longfield 13). They acquiesced to the views of the Higher Critics that the Bible could not be read literally, although many evangelicals like Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday emphatically rejected evolution and Higher Criticism (Longfield 18). As early as 1869, the Unitarian Oliver Wendell Holmes asserted that the Bible books "cannot be taken as literal statements of fact," while D.F. Strauss and other Higher Critics in Germany had already undermined the idea that the Bible was literally true and that it had been written by the divinely-inspired prophets whose names appeared on the books (Marsden 17).

Immanuel Kant and the other Romantics and Idealists had already offered a way out for religion by effectively taking it out of competition with modern science by making it a matter purely for the moral and spiritual sense in each individual human -- a matter of faith and personal experience -- under which "science could have its autonomy, and religion would be beyond its reach" (Marsden 21). Beecher was a Kantian Idealist who rejected Calvinist predestination and believed that evolution would mean gradual progress and improvement of civilization until the Kingdom of God was established on earth. He was a liberal of the 19th Century type rather than a 20th Century 'progressive' or socialist, and his theology appealed greatly to the Victorian middle and upper classes -- who were uncomfortable with their newfound material wealth and success (Marsden 22). For the new rich of the Gilded Age, wealth seemed to be in conflict with their traditional Calvinist upbringing, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. was experiencing tremendous social and labor problems at this time, with more and more wealth becoming concentrated in the hands of the big corporations and the upper 10% of the population.

In this era from 1880-1920, the U.S. was rapidly becoming an urban, industrialized nation, dominated by giant trusts and corporations and with a new workforce of millions of immigrants. Protestants of both liberal and conservative views were deeply uneasy at these developments and struggled to find ways to keep Christianity relevant to modern society with all its social problems. In this case, though, there was no neat political division between theological liberals and conservatives, since evangelicals who would be considered fundamentalists today, like William Jennings Bryan, were often politically liberal, progressive or even radical. Evangelicals certainly stepped up their missionary activities both to the big cities and foreign countries, and the Student Volunteer Movement alone trained 13,000 missionaries in 1886-1936. Other evangelicals campaigned for prohibition and Sunday schools, although at the same time many others supported the Social Gospel at the same time (Longfield 18).

Evangelicals were slow to pick up on labor and social questions, or to break with the idea that the Bible endorsed free market capitalism, although this began to change in the 1870s with the publication of George Washington Gladden's Working People and their Employers. Along with Joseph Strong and Walter Rauschenbusch, Gladden advocated Christian Socialism as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth, and this was also endorsed by populists and progressives like William Jennings Bryan, no matter whether they endorsed theological liberalism (Longfield 20). On the other hand, fundamentalists accepted the dispensationalist ideas of John Nelson Darby, who argued that there would be seven one thousand-year ages of the world and that humanity was now living in the sixth one, just before the end times. This would end with a rapture, seven-year Great Tribulation, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. Only then would the Kingdom of God be established on earth, lasting for one thousand years (Longfiled 20).

Although The Fundamentals (1910-15) are more frequently mentioned than actually read, almost all 741 pages are devoted to an attack on Higher Criticism rather than evolution, political liberalism or any other topic. Clearly, the fundamentalists were most upset by the European academics who denied that the Bible was divinely inspired or that it had been written by the authors whose names were on the books. Without the Bible, after all, Christianity was simply the hodgepodge of myths, fables and superstitions that the Higher Critics claimed that it was. Orthodox and fundamentalist scholars retaliated by denouncing all modernist and rationalist critics of the Bible, going back to Spinoza in the 17th Century, who claimed that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch), that Isaiah had many writers, and that Daniel never existed at all (The Fundamentals 16). Fundamentalist writers affirmed that Moses was the writer of the Pentateuch; that the Old Testament did refer to Jesus; archeology did confirm that the Bible was accurate; and Jesus was God, born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. Two California oil millionaires, Lyman and Milton Stewart, financed the printing of three million copies of The Fundamentals, which were sent free to ministers, churches and missionaries all over the world (The Fundamentals 13). In 1919, William Bell Riley founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association to uphold these principles, while the Northern Baptist Convention established a fundamentals convention a year later (McKenna 230).

Initially, fundamentalists were simply one wing of the mainstream evangelical Protestant churches, particularly the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians, and indeed all these churches have conservative, traditionalist and orthodox wings today. Starting…[continue]

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