What does it mean to be a “fundamentalist” in America? And what does “fundamentalism” mean for American education?
As with any theological tendency, the definition of “fundamentalism” has long been fraught with bitter disputation. As I learned in my study of 1920s American fundamentalism, there will be exceptions to every rule and protestations of every boundary.
Olson offers outsiders like me a convenient double list. First, he gives his carefully hedged list of theological determinants. In the context of American Christianity, someone is likely a fundamentalist if he or she agrees with some or all of the following list:
- Embrace of traditional conservative Christian doctrine, such as divinity of Christ, the trinity, inspiration of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, and so on;
- Refusal to fellowship with those who are not similarly theologically aligned;
- Refusal to fellowship with those who fellowship with those who are not similarly theologically aligned;
- Embrace of Biblical inerrancy—the notion that the original autographs of the Bible are without error;
- Belief that the King James Version is the proper English translation;
- Belief that young earth creationism and premillennial eschatology are central to true Christian faith;
- Belief that America is “God’s Nation;”
- An insistence that good education must be Bible-based;
- Belief that Catholics are not real Christians.
Does Professor Olson insist on this list as the ultimate definition? No. As he warns, “These are not absolute litmus tests. It’s theoretically possible that a person might hold most of these beliefs and, for some unforeseen reason (a fluke) not be a fundamentalist.”
Most helpful of all, Professor Olson notes that the label “fundamentalist” is often used in looser ways. The list above describes a certain tradition among American Protestantism. But “fundamentalism,” as Olson argues, has long been used to describe other phenomena as well.
Olson gives us four of these other traditional uses of “fundamentalism.”
First, there’s a sense that “anyone considered religiously conservative and fanatical” is a fundamentalist. Second, some people use “fundamentalism” to describe any sort of religiously motivated anti-modernism. Third, some folks call anyone they don’t like a fundamentalist. If you are conniving, or manipulative in your dealings with other church folk, even if you are theologically liberal, you might be called a fundamentalist. Finally, Olson offers his “historical-theological meaning:” “militant defense of conservative Protestantism against liberal theology and higher biblical criticism.”
Many thanks to the good professor for offering this nuanced public definition. My summary here doesn’t do justice, and I suggest reading the article in its entirety. Outsiders to the world of conservative American Christianity like me often have a very difficult time decoding the dense layers of meaning attached to such labels. Yet for many within the porous boundaries of “fundamentalism,” many of the distinctions remain more inherited and implied than intellectually understood.
Olson relates one anecdote that reveals some of these implicit meanings, the sort of meanings that might often be lost on outsiders.
“About fifteen years ago I noticed that a seminary historically noted for being fundamentalist (in the historical-theological sense) had set up a table in the evangelical college where I then taught to recruit undergraduates. I approached the recruiter, a relatively young (early middle aged) employee of the seminary. I told him I would have difficulty recommending that any of my students attend his seminary. He asked why. I told him that the seminary had a reputation for being fundamentalist. He said ‘No, we’re changing. We’re evangelical now.’ So I asked him this question: ‘If Billy Graham volunteered to preach in your seminary’s chapel free of charge, no honorarium expected, would your president allow it?’ His slightly red-faced response was ‘We’re moving in that direction.’ Enough said.”
Before I started my academic research into American religion, I wouldn’t have made much sense of this encounter. For insiders, though, it is just obvious, even humorous, that some seminaries just would not have Graham. And some might claim to be “evangelical” while everyone knows they are still “fundamentalist.”
Before we move on, let’s consider some of the implications of this definition of fundamentalism for American education. If, as Olson argues, his list includes broad and widely shared tendencies among conservative Protestants, we can see why such folks have long been so keenly interested in educational issues. Some of the connections are obvious. Professor Olson suggests that young-earth creationism is considered a “crucial Christian belief…” among many fundamentalists. Supporters of creationist school policies, then, would have ardent supporters from the fundamentalist community. Second, Olson’s fundamentalists often believe “the Bible ought to be the basis of an entire educational curriculum, including studies of science, philosophy, psychology, etc.” Again, the educational implications are obvious.
But beyond creationism and Bible, elements of Olson’s definition offer insights into the intersection between American fundamentalism and American education. For instance, the notion of “secondary separation” should deflate some of the ever-present suspicion of a vast fundamentalist educational conspiracy. As Olson describes, many fundamentalist types refuse to work with those with whom they disagree. More than that, fundamentalists often refuse to associate with those who fellowship with those with whom they disagree. That is, a fundamentalist must be very careful to associate only with those who are free of any connection to any organization or church that has any sort of suspect connection.
In educational politics, this sort of rigid separationism can have important consequences. Many fundamentalists might sternly oppose policies, for instance, that promote teaching intelligent design in public schools. Or fundamentalists might (and have) fought against prayers in public schools, when those prayers become broad and ecumenical.
Finally, the rigid separationist tradition has led to a long history of separate educational institutions. From Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1920s, through a host of new colleges and schools throughout the twentieth century, fundamentalists have often been keen to found their own schools. After all, if education must be based on the Bible, and young people must be taught to avoid the dangers of less-strict separationism, then many fundamentalists would insist on their own schools, their own textbooks, their own teachers, and so on.
As with any theological or cultural definition, Professor Olson’s attempt to give a brief and readable account can be disputed endlessly. But for those of us outsiders trying to understand the complicated landscape of conservatism in American education, Olson’s article is a good place to begin.