Every once in a while a progressive pundit will howl a warning about the fundamentalist conspiracy. Watch out, we’re told, rich and sinister conservatives are organizing a vast army to mount an electoral coup of this great land. We see more proof today that these warnings are more fantasy than reality. The nature of conservative religion tends to work against any insuperable fundamentalist coalition.
From the beginnings of America’s modern culture wars, fundamentalist-watchers have warned of the coming fundamentalist storm. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,
The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.
Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.”
But these Cassandresque warnings tell us more about Asimov and Shipley than they do about real fundamentalists. In practice, the nature of conservative Protestantism in America has usually made any sort of collective action impossible.
In the 1950s, to cite only the most obvious historical example, fundamentalists split from evangelicals over the question of Billy Graham’s crusades. Fundamentalists refused to embrace Graham’s wildly successful outreach, in spite of Graham’s conservative theology. Why? Because Graham also worked with liberal and progressive Protestants. Instead of making a pragmatic decision to support Graham as the least-bad option, fundamentalists instead clung to a purer separatism.
These days, too, conservative Protestants often refuse to win. Most recently, we see a protest among conservative Calvinist Southern Baptist pastors against conservative Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson. As we’ve noted in these pages, Dr. Carson is a profoundly conservative religious thinker. And he seems like the best hope of religious conservatives in the 2016 elections.
Yet as Christianity Today reports, Southern Baptist conservatives have dis-invited Carson from their annual meeting. Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, some SBC pastors noted, put him at odds with Baptist orthodoxy.
They’re right, of course. Seventh-day Adventism holds to many peculiar theological doctrines, including those in the prophetic writings of Ellen G. White.
But the refusal of Calvinist Southern Baptists to welcome a prominent Seventh-day Adventist helps demonstrate why Isaac Asimov and Maynard Shipley could have relaxed. Among conservative Protestants, suspicion and even virulent hatred of theological near-neighbors have long roots. The notion that a fundamentalist army—a creationist army—is organizing in conservative colleges and meetings just doesn’t match reality.
Could conservatives win? Sure. But intra-conservative clashes like this show how difficult it is for conservative Protestants to act together.