Required Reading: Fifty Shades of Fundamentalism

When is a Fundamentalist not a fundamentalist?  When he or she comes from one of the many other conservative traditions in American religion.

One of the foremost dangers for outsiders like me who hope to understand Fundamentalist America is our tendency to oversimplify the nature of conservative religious folks.  Some commentators talk too blithely about the “Christian Right,” as if there was some secretive star chamber featuring the Pope, David Barton, Tim LaHaye, and a handful of other Jesus moguls, drinking soda pop and planning to take over secular society.

A new book by James C. Burkee helps to explain one of the other groups that has long contributed to the kaleidoscope of Fundamentalist America.  At Religion in American LifeJon Pahl offers a substantial review of Burkee’s Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity.

Why should those of us who hope to understand Fundamentalist America care about Burkee’s book?  Two main reasons.  First, the LCMS has long been an important element in conservative Protestant cultural activism.  Many of the leading creationists, for instance, come from within the LCMS tradition.  And this is a very different group than the sort of tent-revival, Billy Sunday, wave-your-hands-in-the-air kind of evangelical Christianity that many people associate with conservative theology in America.  In the 1920s, for instance, as I note in my Scopes book (now in paperback!), Missouri Synod Lutheran leader John Theodore Mueller pointed out that “after all has been said, there remains a sharp difference between Calvinistic Fundamentalism and confessional Lutheranism—a difference not in degree, but in kind.”  In addition to theological differences, the cultural differences of LCMS as a group of German immigrants–fiercely devoted to preserving both their religious and their cultural traditions–differs markedly from the sort of “take our country back” conservatism of many from the evangelical tradition.

If we outsiders hope to understand the real complexity of conservative religion in America, we need to spend some time with books like Burkee’s.  In addition, Pahl makes some points that are illuminating about the nature of conservative American religion in general.  One of the storylines in Burkee’s book is the desire among a core of the LCMS leadership to purge their institutions of what they saw as dangerous tendencies.  However, Pahl comments,

“By trying to “purify” an institution (and especially its Seminary—they are, after all, notorious places of rampant impurity), conservatives harmed, if not destroyed, it.  Purity, one might put it, is God’s prerogative.  Humans are too dangerous to be trusted with it—as the crucifixion of Jesus supposedly makes manifestly evident.”  

This example of the dangers of the impulse to purify could offer larger lessons about the career of conservative religion.  Since the start of small-f fundamentalism in the 1920s, conservative Protestants have sought to purify their institutions.  It has often led them away from the kind of cultural influence they originally hoped to achieve.  Even Pope Benedict has been said (perhaps unfairly) to desire a smaller, purer Catholic Church.  Burkee’s description of LCMS efforts in this direction could shed helpful light on this broader conservative impulse.

Burkee’s book also discusses the ways LCMS leaders connected a bundle of politically and culturally conservative ideas to their conservative theology.  As Pahl explains,

“A 20th century method of biblical interpretation (usually exercised in English, no less) became a political weapon, which in Otten’s discourse was wielded not only against historically-critical seminary professors, but also against advocates of civil rights, ecumenists, big government, the social gospel, feminists, and communists—’”liberals” all.’(59)” 

This, too, has been a common experience across the universe of conservative religion.  The big-F Fundamentalist tradition, after all, has been to combine religion, politics, and culture into a potent American identity.  Some of elements make very little theological sense, but a wealth of cultural sense.  For instance, what does short hair on men have to do with belief in an inerrant Bible?  Jesus wore it long, after all.  But in the American context, long hair on men means “hippie.”

For those of us trying to make sense of all these seeming contradictions, books like Burkee’s will be a big help.

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