Keeping the “Fun” in Fundamentalism

How many Fundamentalists does it take to change a lightbulb? [*Answer below.]

Since the beginning of American fundamentalism in the 1920s, fundamentalism has had an image of a group that could not take a joke. H.L. Mencken, one of the first–and still best–critics of fundamentalism, defined fundamentalism, like Puritanism, as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.

The image of dour fundamentalists remains powerful, with popular representations such as the fun-hating father in Footloose.

That’s not funny.

It has long been a temptation for conservatives to take on comedians for irreverence and political buffoonery.  TV shows such as Family Guy have repeatedly come under fire for their offensive sexual and political jokes.  Here, for example, Ben Shapiro and David Menzies accuse Family Guy of un-funny anti-Tea Party animus.  More recently, the aggressive Catholic conservative William Donohue of the Catholic League has worked to get a retraction by Jon Stewart of some contraception jokes.As announced in the Religion News Service, conservative Cardinal Tom Dolan of New York hopes to change that.  He will be appearing alongside Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert in a panel on September 14 at Fordham University in the Bronx.

The goal of the panel, “Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life,” is to explore the meanings of humor as a ministry.

Can a fundamentalist be funny?  New York Magazine listed a few of “Cardinal Rimshot’s” zingers since moving to his influential post in New York:

“They asked me when I got here, ‘Are you Cardinals, Mets, Brewers, or Yankees?’ And I said, ‘When it comes to baseball, I think I can be pro-choice.’
—To 60 Minutes

“New York has grown on me.”
—Describing his first year in the city, while patting his midsection, per the Times

“You’re the only people who never leave Mass early.”
—To inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, on why he loves ministering to prisoners, per the Associated Press

“The only cardinal I wanted to be growing up was Stan Musial.”
—To Matt Lauer on the Today show

“I’m at a Steak ’n’ Shake. What do I order?”
—Dolan, calling his diet doctor, as recounted in the Daily News

“Go away, Lord. I’m not your man. My Spanish is lousy and my English not much better.”
—On his reaction to being moved from Milwaukee to New York, at a 2009 St. Patrick’s Cathedral service

“I am going to give these to a hungry person. Namely me at about four o’clock.”
—On being given a box of French pastries, as quoted in the Times

“I might have to rent a space and a half.”
—To 60 Minutes while touring the crypt of the archbishops of New York beneath St. Patrick’s Cathedral

“My first pastoral letter’s gonna be a condemnation of light beer and instant mashed potatoes.”
—On Sirius XM Radio’s Catholic channel

“I’ll answer any questions—except about my taxes.”
—At a Fordham University press conference in the midst of the Mitt Romney tax-return controversy

But what is Dolan’s boss’s attitude toward humor?
“I’m not a man who constantly thinks up jokes.”
—Pope Benedict XVI

Will this collection of self-deprecating fat jokes and white-bread baseball jokes be able to hold its own against Colbert’s famously incisive wit?  We at ILYBYGTH can’t wait to find out.

* So how many Fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb? Take your pick:

  • None, fundamentalists don’t believe in change.
  • None, God will change the lightbulb if it is part of His plan.
  • Four, unless there is a slave woman present, in which case they can’t eat pig. (Leviticus 11:4-7).

Okay, so maybe those aren’t so good. Anyone got something better?



In the News: Tebow in Fundamentalist New York

I know I’m not alone in hoping for some kind of Tim Tebow media blackout.  I was hoping the end of the football season, especially with the Broncos’ defeat, would bring some quiet to the Tebow-as-Christian-in-a-strange-land stories.  But Tebow’s move to the New York Jets brought a new round of media focus on Tebow’s style of loud public Christian-ness.

IMHO, the most interesting comment on the Tebow move came from Paul Moses at dotCommonweal.  Moses noted that the New York press tended to gasp at the incongruity of an extravagantly Christian celebrity in the extravagantly pagan Big Apple.

Moses pointed out,

The Times put it this way: “Tebow is also a somewhat incongruous fit: an outspoken Christian playing  in a city known for its extensive night life and a member of a  franchise made famous by the bachelor stylings of Joe Namath and  currently known for the profane speeches of its coach, Rex Ryan.”

And this, from the National Enquirer: “It is unclear how the pie-eyed pundit of the pigskin will respond to the multitude of temptations New York has to offer.”

Moses took such papers to task for assuming too much about life in New York City.  New Yorkers are a decidedly religious group.  Moses cited a Gallup poll from 1991 in which a majority of respondents–53%–said they prayed at least once a day.  The problem, Moses claimed, is that too many people equate Manhattan with the entirety of New York City.  In Manhattan, 17% of poll respondents claimed to be atheists.  In the Bronx, that number dwindled to 1%.

As we’ve pointed out here before, people who do not know much about Fundamentalist America often assume that religiosity goes up only with distance from big cities, education, and indoor plumbing.  It is just not true.  The myth might come from the association in the United States of conservative evangelical Protestantism with conservative religion as a whole.  But if we look at other conservative religious folks, New York City has as much of a claim to fundamentalism as anywhere else.  In the Catholic Church, for example, New York City is now home to genial Archbishop Timothy Dolan.  Dolan’s blog and very public presence inject a strain of conservative religiosity into life in the Big Apple.  And, of course, outside of Christianity, New York City is host to innumerable conservative religious groups.  The old joke about the hayseed who comes to New York and is surprised by the number of “New York Amish” demonstrates that New York has its own profound tradition of deeply conservative culture and theology.

Even within the bounds of conservative Protestantism, large urban areas have always served as strongholds.  True, someone wanting a Protestant fundamentalist education could go to Bob Jones University in lovely Greenville, South Carolina.  Or she could go to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  But she could also head to Los Angeles to Biola University, or to Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute or Wheaton College.

The roots of this commonly held misperception, I think, come from the utter dominance of conservative evangelical Protestantism in some rural areas.  When folks from the big city drive around in fly-over country, they are shocked by the public dominance of this type of fundamentalism.  But such folks ought to look closer at their own cities.  Look for storefront Pentecostal churches.  Look for big cathedrals.  Look beyond the stereotypes of cities as home only to nightlife and paganism, and you’ll notice a deeply religious urban America.

There might be a few translation difficulties as Tebow  moves from the Bible Belt to the Big Apple, but there will not be any lack of fundamentalists ready to greet Tebow as he (if he?) makes his New York Jets debut.