Confessions of an Outsider in Fundamentalist America

Several people have asked me lately to clarify my position.  If I’m not trying to boost fundamentalism, and I’m not trying to fight against it, why bother with this blog?  I appreciate the question, so I’ll take a stab at an explanation.

Blog readers tend to come from a few different camps.  Some are refugees from Fundamentalist America (or Australia, or Canada, or UK).  That is, they grew up in conservative religious families and have been estranged from that tradition.  Others are residents and defenders of Fundamentalist America.  A few are resolute anti-fundamentalists.

I fit into none of those categories.  I grew up in a mostly secular, culturally liberal family.  We lived in the northern suburbs of Boston, where it was easy to assume that fundamentalism belonged only in Footloose.

I’ll have Bacon with mine.

Once I moved out of that bubble, I found myself working and living with people who shared a profound cultural conservatism, very different from the kind of culture I grew up with.  Most of them were not the monsters I had expected.  By the time I started teaching high school, I had some encounters with cultural conservatives that left a sour taste in my mouth.  I began my academic career as a historian interested in populist movements.  I had hoped to study nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular insurgencies.  I was particularly interested in the strength of conservative popular insurgencies.  When I started my PhD work at the University of Wisconsin, I felt that the conservative folks that I had lived and worked with had not been adequately studied.  Once I read more deeply from recent academic history, I realized that such historians had, indeed, spent a good deal of time examining the conservative popular tradition.  I decided to join that group.

I was particularly interested in educational history, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I was influenced by both the work and the personality of Bill Reese.  Reese had studied grass-roots educational insurgencies.  His work showed me that the best place to study cultural conflict was in educational history.  The field combined all the interesting parts of political history, cultural history, religious history, and intellectual history.  After all, it was—and is—in the schools that the cultural fat hits the fire, so to speak.  The nature of morality, the boundaries of legitimate knowledge, the fundamental premises of religion and culture…all these issues are often only articulated in the public sphere when they need to be adjudicated in public schools.

Once I decided to study educational history, I looked for an important educational movement or group that had not been studied by academic historians.  The Protestant fundamentalists of the 1920s seemed like such a group.  Once Ron Numbers–historian of science and medicine, the world’s leading academic authority on scientific creationism, and an all-around great guy–agreed to work with me, my research path was clear.

Years later, after I have published and spoken a good deal about such conservative religious folks, I found that one question kept coming up, especially among my academic audiences.  Some members of such audiences always wondered why so much educational policy was “still” dictated by cultural conservatives.  Prayers in school, creationism, “heritage” history; all these seemed to come as a surprise to many members of my academic audiences.

Like me, many of the members of those audiences had lived most of their lives in very sheltered, very liberal, very secular environments.  They often shared a disturbing combination of profound ignorance with utter arrogance.  They thought that all of America did or should share their cultural beliefs.  And they believed this while considering themselves open-minded and committed to welcoming a diversity of cultural voices.

I found myself deeply embarrassed for such people, especially because I shared the same background.  Before I began exploring the educational, intellectual, cultural, and religious histories of conservatism, I assumed—without examining my own assumptions—that Fundamentalist America represented only a cultural backwater, destined to dry out and disappear as our society evolved.

Perhaps an example will clarify.  After one talk I gave about anti-evolution activism in the 1920s, one audience member raised a hand and asked, “What is the matter with these people?”  The rest of the audience giggled and nodded.  I have since come to know the person who asked that question.  She is delightful.  She cares deeply about other people.  She is a prominent education researcher and well-known scholar in her field.  She has dedicated her professional life, and much of her personal life, to making public education more accommodating for people with physical disabilities.  She would be horrified to be accused of bigotry, closedmindness, or prejudice.

Yet when she heard my talk about the intellectual background of anti-evolutionism, she did not think twice about dismissing all such people—nearly half of American adults—as “these people.”

It is for people like her that I write this blog.  My mission, if that’s not too lofty a term, is to introduce Fundamentalist America to people who are ignorant about it.  Part of that means demonstrating the popularity and strength of conservative religious ideas in American public life.  Part of it means explaining the reasons why intelligent, well-meaning people may embrace notions such as young-earth creationism and an inerrant Bible as a primary authority in making political decisions.

None of this means I agree with such positions.  I don’t.  But I would like to join those who try to build understanding between opposing cultural visions.  Like Jonathan Haidt, I believe that many of our cultural battles could be less bloody.  One way to make them so is to make sure each side understands the other.  As someone who comes from outside the borders of Fundamentalist America, but spends much of my time exploring the history and culture of Fundamentalist America, I believe I can be of use in explaining FA to other outsiders.

Will this solve all our disagreements?  Of course not.  But I believe it will be better to understand and even sympathize with our opponents’ positions, even if we must eventually respectfully disagree.

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for this post; I was one of the people requesting it.

    I used to be one of “these people.” I think your notion that fundamentalists need to be better understood is spot on, and I agree that they should be respected as people.

    As for whether their views need respect, I rather doubt it. That’s not to say that we should be rude to them, but Creationism is not a view that deserves respect. In most countries today, good information about science is so freely available that belief in Young Earth Creationism is only possible through wilful ignorance. That is not to be respected.

    Lying to children in order to pass on this wilful ignorance is also not to be respected. Beliefs and faith, I am fine with, and I agree that if you ever meet a fundamentalist they are likely to be as nice a person as you could ever hope to meet. But if they claim to be using logic, reason, or science for beliefs that are clearly illogical, unreasonable, and unscientific, no respect is deserved.

    And if they are not using reason, a most powerful and wonderful of human gifts, without a good explanation, I don’t think that is to be respected either. Well, “respected” perhaps in the sense that we respect their freedom to do it, but not “respected” in the sense of holding it in any esteem.

    I don’t think I am being bigoted in saying that. If you think I am, I would be interested in hearing your reasons.

    • @Jonny, I think you make the foundational distinction that needs to be made in these discussions. IF we think that certain beliefs and practices are hurting people without their consent, THEN we must oppose them instead of respecting them.
      Where I think you and I differ is in where we draw that line. You assert that teaching young-earth creationism hurts children. You know more about it than I do, but I don’t think teaching young-earth creationism imposes harm on young people. Compare it, for instance, to a devout Christian Science family that refused life-saving medical treatment for a child. In that case, I think that intervention–by the state, if necessary–is warranted.
      With young-earth creationism, I don’t think it is really a question of science or science education. I’m no cynic, but the amount of evolution students learn in most non-fundamentalist K-12 schools is slim to the point of irrelevance. Not all, but most.
      The main question, to my thinking, is not of science, but of authority. Students in young-earth creation classes learn that the Bible is to be considered the ultimate authority for questions of knowledge and being. Students in evolutionist classes learn that Science is to be considered the ultimate authority for such questions. That, imho, is the real difference. For that reason, I support parents’ and schools’ right to teach such notions. Not in public schools, but in private ones. I agree that teaching evolution–as fact, as William J. Bryan used to insist–can be considered harmful to students of certain backgrounds.
      Jon Anuik would be able to help me out here, I think. I don’t know about Canada, but teaching in Native Alaskan schools is supposed to support Native cultural beliefs. I don’t agree with the scientific veracity of those beliefs, but I think that Native schools should teach them. The history of American education is peppered with stories of well-meaning missionary teachers who imposed their vision of the truth on young people of different cultural backgrounds. If it was wrong for Protestant missionaries to force young people to worship the Trinity and read the KJV, why is it right for evolution to be taught to resistant families?

      • Hi Adam,

        You make some excellent points and I want to discuss them in a blog post of my own. I’ll make the post soon and when I do, I would love to discuss this with you further.

      • Betty Braniac

         /  July 28, 2012

        Teaching myth (Biblical stories) as fact is indeed harmful to those children. And your view of science as authority, on par with scriptural authority, is naiive. The scientific method is open to, and in fact depends on, challenge; if you find that you are not convinced by results of a scientific study, you may go ahead and design a study, conduct it and analyze its results – if your hunch proves correct, the science will change.

        Scriptural authority is in no way challengeable. Except that the texts are all ambiguous and contradictory enough to allow individual and self-serving interpretations.

        You may call your educated educated friends ‘arrogant’ but you sound patronizing about fundamentalist cultures. Young earth creationism makes claims that are specious and in no way factual. Perhaps they could be taught in politics class, or in mythology class. But to teach non-facts as reality is encouraging belief in, essentially, magic.

      • @Betty, I don’t want to be patronizing, but I DO want to challenge or even provoke people who share my own (former) prejudices about conservative Christians in 20th- and 21st-century America. I don’t believe creation science should be taught in public school science classes. But I also don’t agree that there is such an enormous gulf between the reasons why people believe in evolution and the reasons why people believe in creation. This does not mean that creation and evolution are the same; it only means that the reasons why people believe them are very similar. Both beliefs rest in a trust in authority.
        Similarly, just as science changes, creationism changes. It IS challengeable; it does evolve, if you’ll pardon the use of that word. Just as science has changed dramatically in the past hundred years, so has creationism. As Ron Numbers and other historians have demonstrated, young-earth creationism managed to displace many of its creationist rivals with Morris and Whitcomb’s 1960 publication of The Genesis Flood. One could say that creationism is indeed falsifiable, if not quite in a Popperian sense. The orthodoxies of creationist belief are and have always been vigorously debated, challenged, and even overthrown. The method of this falsification is utterly different from that of mainstream science, however. Just as no mainstream scientist would likely be converted to creationism merely by the large number of Scriptural quotations a creationist could compile, so no creationist will be convinced merely by secular scientific arguments. But a creationist COULD be convinced–and in practice many are–by what he or she considered a superior Scriptural argument. In the creationist literature, we see a lot of talk of old-earthers converting to young-earth belief, or pre-Adamic life believers converted to Adamic, and so on.
        Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this is the same process by which mainstream scientific claims are tested and challenged. It more closely resembles other fields in which many schools of thought contend, such as literary criticism. And this is what makes creation/evolution debates so difficult. Creation science presents a unique case, in that it makes claims to be better science than mainstream science, yet its goals are primarily religious. It would be cleaner and neater if creationists simply claimed to reject science in toto and teach religiously inspired doctrines instead. But they don’t. Creationist claims usually insist that their notions about the origins of earth and life are better science, true science. Mainstream scientists object, as they should, imho, that creation science is not really science at all, properly understood.
        I don’t argue that creationism is good mainstream science. But I do object when evolutionists like me look down their noses at creationists. I hear people ask, and I’ve wondered myself, “How can so many people really believe something that mainstream science has rejected?” If we view the dilemma as two competing, internally consistent belief systems, each with elaborate structures of authority, then we can shift the discussion. Instead of asking creationists why they hold such ridiculous beliefs, we can try to understand what creationism means to them. This leads to a different, and imho more productive set of questions: How is creationism justified? How is it supported? What do believers think about mainstream science? The cultural divide between those who believe evolution and those who believe creation doesn’t seem to be going away. By trying to investigate the internal meanings of creationism, those of us on the evolution side of the trenches might be able to build bridges instead of just digging those trenches deeper.

      • Betty Braniac

         /  July 29, 2012

        I am afraid you are quite mistaken as far as authority. Scriptural authority is top-down; scientific ‘authority’ is bottom up, built from observation, experimentation, prediction. Repeatable, testable. In no way comparable. In a real science curriculum, students may go through the process themselves; there is nothing more convincing than learning the methods of science by doing it, yourself. Scientists are pretty cranky about accepting scientific claims and tend to challenge methods and outcomes in minute detail. That’s the beauty of it.

        You seem to be bending over backwards to accommodate the fundamentalist’s tortured creation myth. I understand trying to build bridges – that may happen in many ways, but not by accepting as fact some counter-factual claims, anymore than you will build bridges by trying to find the ‘truth’ in the claims of someone who insists that the moon is made of green cheese and he is holding in his hand a book that proves it.

        I agree with you that it is fascinating that people can insist on denying evidence. It is preferable, to our very human flawed minds (shaped that way by … wait for it … evolution) to have a good story, one that engages our innate sense of being special, of having an essence that out lives our physical being. However all the evidence points to us being very finite, a cobbled together work in progress. And, sadly, not the center of the universe – wait, wasn’t that a battle fought against science sometime in the past, too? 😉

        Perhaps science education can work on a presentation that is more intuitive and appealing. Though to my mind what is more exciting and inspiring than knowing that we are all, every one of us, composed of the same material, of bits of stars that have existed … forever? related to the animals and even the plants around us, for our story is written in our DNA and the most amazing mystery is the search for more information about ourselves.

        BTW you may want to investigate a website that is frequented by former fundamentalists (and a few current fundies) and get their BTDT perspective on the issue

  2. Pro-family Christian

     /  October 7, 2013

    I am a fully exclusivist [but not Fundamentalist] Christian from the UK who believes it was NOT wrong for Protestant missionaries to enter cultures with false (not “different”- FALSE) religious beliefs and teach them about the only real God, Who is a Trinity, and His Word (the Bible- not necessarily KJV. The KJVO fundies are mostly ignorant of the original languages.)

    So I agree that Christians have a God-given right to educate their children in Truth, but not on democratic pluralist grounds. Stanley Fish (far-left wing professor) has actually made it clear how orthodox religious people are being hypocrites if they rely on liberal arguments about democratic rights or respect for cultural diversity; I agree with him.

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