Christians, get yr guns. That’s the message this week from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. The message for us fundamentalism-watchers is that we’ll never get the whole picture about conservative evangelical religion if we limit ourselves to theology alone.
In response to shootings in San Bernardino and elsewhere, Falwell told students at his booming megaversity that they could “end those Muslims.” He told students about the concealed .25 in his own back pocket, joking that he didn’t know if it was illegal or not.
For Liberty watchers like me, this is not the first time the school has taken an aggressive pro-gun position. And for fundamentalism watchers like me, it is more proof that a fundamentalist is never only a fundamentalist.
To put it in nerdy terms, some historians have suggested a theological definition of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Protestantism has been explained as the tradition of millennialism. It is best understood, others say, as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” These definitions are helpful for distinguishing fundamentalism from close cousins such as Pentecostalism, Holiness Wesleyanism, and conservative Anabaptism.
Such definitions fail to explain, however, outbursts like the one from President Falwell. There’s nothing about the apocalypse in his yen for guns. Rather, it is a product of the simple fact that fundamentalists—like all people—are amalgams of multiple identities. Falwell is a fundamentalist, true, but he’s also an American. He’s also a Southerner. He’s also a conservative. And, of course, he’s also a gun-lover.
It is not only Liberty U that has struggled with this conundrum of fundamentalist identity. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, a popular administrator at Mid-America Nazarene University took considerable heat for reminding students that Christian religion did not always come wrapped in the American flag. From a theological position, what Dean Beckum said was utterly unremarkable. But conservative evangelical religion in America is more than just religion. It is also conservative. It is also American.
President Falwell and Liberty University, as I’m arguing in my current book, are emblematic of the complicated nature of conservative evangelical higher education. As institutions, they are driven by humdrum factors such as tuition, enrollment, athletics, and accreditation. As evangelical institutions, they’re driven by a desire to maintain a religiously pure, “safe space” for their students. As conservative institutions, they’re driven by a wide variety of political impulses, including the overpowering urge to shoot em up.