Why are our culture wars so durable? In his new book American Apocalypse, historian Matthew A. Sutton argues that the answer lies in the end of the world. But more evidence keeps piling up that there is a different answer, a better explanation. For some conservative religious people, the culture wars are about more than just winning elections or improving schools. The fight for America’s soul is nothing less than a battle to save people from eternal torment.
Professor Sutton’s book is really terrific. He examines the history of what he calls “radical evangelical” belief as it emerged in the twentieth century. Unlike most historians, he doesn’t ignore important aspects of the radical evangelical family, such as Pentecostals and African Americans. The part that I’m struggling with is Prof. Sutton’s definition of radical evangelicalism. At its heart, Sutton says, American fundamentalism can be understood as
radical apocalyptic evangelicalism. . . . fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse made them who they were.
In other words, Professor Sutton thinks that the heart and soul of fundamentalist belief comes from beliefs about the imminent and cataclysmic apocalypse. Our American culture wars are so virulent, he explains in chapter four, because fundamentalists and other radical evangelicals believe that they will be judged soon by a righteous God. They must fight against immoral movies, immoral booze, and other immoral trends because such things are part of the seductive Satanic lure of the end days.
Certainly, ideas of Bible prophecy and apocalypse are central to fundamentalist belief. But are they really as central as Professor Sutton contends? Are there other ideas that are even more important?
We stumbled across an evangelical warning this morning that raises the question again. In the pages of World Magazine, conservative evangelical Andree Seu Peterson explains why fundamentalists can’t relax. She does not mention the coming apocalypse. To Peterson’s way of thinking, there is a different reason why fundamentalists must continue fighting culture wars.
Peterson warns that things have changed fast in the last ten years. For conservatives, the question of homosexuality used to be cut-and-dried. Ten years ago, she says,
homosexuality was fringy and dangerous and you were dead set against it. Today homosexuality is the guy grilling steaks next door, waving to you over the picket fence, calling, “How about those Phillies!”
Conservatives might be tempted to accept homosexuals as part of God’s family. Christians might be tempted to love their neighbors, as Christ commanded. In secular terms, we might say, conservatives might feel pressure to adapt their beliefs to changing cultural norms.
Such thinking is dangerous, Peterson warns. Not because the world will be ending soon, but for a more basic reason, a reason more fundamental to fundamentalists. If you really care about your neighbor, Peterson explains,
If you want to talk about “love your neighbor,” need we mention that neighbors don’t let neighbors go to hell? … What good is all the good will you reap now when in the future Mr. Steak Griller next door curses you from across the chasm for your quiet complicity in his damnation?
When it comes to culture wars, this I-Love-You-but-You’re-Going-to-Hell logic is the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Whenever religious conservatives might be tempted to relax, to get along, to go with the flow, they can remind themselves of the eternal dangers of compromise. Even when it seems as if the kind thing to do, the loving thing to do, is to meet our neighbors in the middle, such apparent kindness, to some religious conservative, is a terrible mistake.
For some conservative religious people, culture-war issues are not just about accepting our neighbors’ “alternate lifestyles.” If they were, then we could all just get along. As Peterson tells the tale, we could all just smile and wave at one another, then go our separate ways. But for some conservatives, the culture wars have eternal stakes. If they don’t win, they will be guilty of sending people straight to hell.
Is that related to the apocalypse? Sure. Sorta. If Jesus will be returning sometime soon, suddenly and without warning, then these questions of damnation become even more urgent. But it is the damnation itself that is the crucial idea.
For those of us outside the circle of conservative evangelical belief, it can be difficult to understand the vital importance of the idea of damnation to evangelicals. For those of us who don’t believe in a real and terrifying hell, it can be easy to miss the enormous implications of such an idea. The apocalypse is only scary because of the threat of eternal damnation. The culture wars are only worth fighting if we can save some souls from such torment. Missionary work is only crucial because we need to spread the light as far as we can. Indeed, rather than defining fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in the apocalypse, we might better define fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in a real, eternal, and difficult-to-avoid Hell.
Certainly everyone interested in the nature of fundamentalism and culture wars should read Professor Sutton’s book. And maybe someone can explain to me what I’m missing. It seems to me, though, that the central idea to understanding what makes fundamentalists unique is hell, not just the coming apocalypse.