Nailing Jello to the Wall…Again

Whatever you do, don’t invite an historian to lunch. They’ll ruin your meal with their endless disputes about stuff no one else cares about. In this case, it’s the definition of American fundamentalism that has us in a tizzy. Why is it so problematic?

These days, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m just about finished with my book manuscript about conservative evangelical higher education. In the book, I’m arguing that colleges, universities, seminaries, and Bible institutes did more than most institutions to define evangelicalism. And I’m offering a new definition that will probably get me disinvited to more lunches.

It’s not as straightforward a question as you might think.

Back in the 1930s, the first academic history of Protestant fundamentalists—Stewart G. Cole’s History of Fundamentalism—defined fundamentalism as a “cult;” a blight on American society led by “disturbed men” who suffered from a “psychotic condition.” Ouch.

Soon, leading religious historian H. Richard Niebuhr (the famous theologian’s brother) gave academics a definition that was less vicious, but offered the same basic outlines. Fundamentalism, Niebuhr wrote, was a hillbilly affair, surely destined to wither in the sunshine of modernity.

Sutton

What is fundamentalism? “Radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.”

In 1954, another academic history of fundamentalism suggested a similar explanation. Norman Furniss’ book The Fundamentalist Controversy assumed that fundamentalism meant a lack of knowledge about modern life, a head-in-the-sand stupidity.

These early definitions of fundamentalism were so far removed from reality that it was only a matter of time before a new generation of historians threw them out. Just as a 1960s class of historians from non-elite backgrounds offered new and better histories of minority ethnic groups and working classes, so too did historians from evangelical backgrounds redefine their own tradition.

Most influential, Ernest Sandeen argued that fundamentalism was best understood as the modern rebirth of an old evangelical theological tradition, premillennialism.

George Marsden counter-argued. Yes, premillennialism was vital to fundamentalism, but it was not enough. In his 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture, Marsden lay out the definition of fundamentalism that most nerds still use today. What is fundamentalism? Marsden noted that we need to include revivalism, premillennial theology, common-sense philosophy, and a vague but vital political and cultural conservatism.

Gloege Guaranteed Pure

Or maybe a “grammar. . . a corporate evangelical framework.”

In the past few years, ambitious historians have re-opened the case. Matthew Sutton, for example, fresh off his blockbuster academic hit Aimee Semple McPherson, took on the challenge of defining American fundamentalism. Yes, fundamentalism is a blend of influences, Sutton argued in American Apocalypse, but it’s not just a jumble. If we want to understand fundamentalism, Sutton insisted, we need to understand that the defining feature of the radical evangelical experience has been its fixation with the end times.

Sutton isn’t alone in wondering what it has meant to be fundamentalist. Kathryn Lofton has pointed out (sorry, subscription required) that fundamentalists and their arch theological enemies were both “commonly modern.” Brendan Pietsch has demonstrated that one of the signature methods of fundamentalist Bible-reading—the dispensational lens—is a profoundly modern approach.

Most compelling, from my point of view, has been Timothy E.W. Gloege’s definition. Like me, Gloege focused on evangelical higher education, in his case, the earlier history of the Moody Bible Institute. From that lens, it seems clear that it will always be self-defeating to offer any simple theological definition to fundamentalism. Why? In short, fundamentalism worked as a set of goals, not a system of doctrine. Fundamentalism was a kind of least-common-denominator coalition, not a list of beliefs or a systematized theological vision.

Fundamentalists, Gloege argues, were united by their dream of creating a new, modern sort of orthodoxy, laid out on the model of the modern corporate business organization. But that approach left fundamentalists dangling when it came to traditional orthodoxy. They did not and would not mimic traditional denominational orthodoxies by agreeing on a systematic theology, because they were never willing to compete with denominations. At the same time, however, most fundamentalists valued and venerated the idea of a traditional Christian orthodoxy.

pietsch disp moder

Nothing old…

At the Moody Bible Institute, at least.

I’m still tweaking my argument, so you’ll have to wait until Fundamentalist U comes out to see the deets. (It will be soon, I promise.) It seems clear to me, though, that if we really want to understand the history of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism we will have to ditch our impulse to copy the theological creeds offered time and again by fundamentalists themselves.

If we don’t, we keep bumping up against unsolvable dilemmas:

  • What do we do with people like J. Gresham Machen, the breakaway Princeton Calvinist who said he was and wasn’t a fundamentalist?
  • What sense can we make of a fundamentalism that never agreed with itself on what fundamentalism required? For example, Bob Jones College forced its students to participate in dramatic plays, while Wheaton College banned such things. How can we step in and say one was right?
  • What IS the theology of fundamentalism? Calvinism? Yes. Arminian revivalism? Yes. Dispensational premillennialism? Yes. Amillennialism or postmillennialism? Yes.

It’s tempting to wade into these disputes with a hindsight definition. We might want to say Professor Machen was not a fundamentalist, but rather a Calvinist, or a creedal conservative, or a denominational conservative. All those are also true, but they sidestep the central difficulty that Machen was considered a fundamentalist during the peak of the 1920s controversies, including by himself.

We might want to say that fundamentalism was one core belief, fringed by an accumulation of disputed ideas. If we do that, we can say that both Bob Jones College and Wheaton were fundamentalist, but they disagreed on some non-essential details. That’s a smart approach, but it avoids the main problem—both sides insisted that their positions on student drama were CENTRAL to their fundamentalist identity.

We might try to say that one theology represented real fundamentalism, while others only thought they were fundamentalist.  Those others weren’t real fundamentalist theologies; they were confused. But this mistakes the central fact that both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists worked together and considered themselves fundamentalists. Except when they didn’t. It ignores the fact that Calvinists, revivalists, and lots of others all taught at fundamentalist schools. Maybe not happily, but loosely united in their self-image as fundamentalists. Usually.

In short, there’s no way to untie this knot, definitionally. Instead, we need to cut it; we need to take a different approach to understanding fundamentalism. At least, that’s what I’m arguing in the book. And it’s not easy. It takes me about 128,000 words to make my case.

See? This is why I don’t get to leave the house much. Not many people find this kind of thing as interesting as full-time historians.

Who Cares about Adam?

I don’t get it. Even after all these years studying conservative Christianity and creationism, I still don’t really get it. I mean, I understand the logic and history, but I have a hard time making sense of the ferocious emotion that goes into debates over the existence of an historical Adam & Eve. An author interview in Christianity Today outlines some of the tricky questions involved.

Who cares?

Who cares?

But first, a primer for those like me on the outside looking in: The debate over the historicity of Adam & Eve has a long history in conservative evangelical Protestantism. For us outsiders, making sense of this issue will go a long way toward helping us understand the theological underpinnings for young-earth creationist belief. Without making sense of this theology, it can be easy for mainstream scientists and observers to conclude mistakenly that young-earth creationism is nothing but some kind of cult of personality, a quirk of history.

At least since the 1960s (of course it is an ancient belief, but in 1960 it gained popularity among conservative American evangelicals as a vital theological notion central to orthodox belief), conservative evangelicals have insisted that the obvious meaning of Genesis is that God created two first humans in the Garden of Eden. These two, Adam & Eve, became the progenitors of the entire human race. Theologically, creationists have insisted, our belief in an historical Adam & Eve underpins our trust in the Bible. As Simon Turpin of young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis expressed it,

The debate over whether Adam was historical is ultimately a debate over whether we trust what the Scriptures clearly teach. If we cannot be certain of the beginning, then why would we be certain about what the Scriptures teach elsewhere? The uncertainty of truth is rampant in our culture partly due to the influence of post-modernism which is why many believe the issue over Adam’s historicity is unimportant.

For many creationists, believing the plain truth of the creation story in Genesis means believing in the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ. As Andrew Snelling of the Institute for Creation Research explained,

It is impossible to reject the historicity of the book of Genesis without repudiating the authority of the entire Bible. If Genesis is not true, then neither are the testimonies of those prophets and apostles who believed it was true.

Of course, for mainstream scientists, the notion that human genetic diversity came from only two original humans does not fit the evidence. In order to have today’s genomic sequence, I’m told, humanity must have begun with thousands of original humans.

John Walton of Wheaton College explains to Christianity Today why evangelicals can accept this science while still remaining true to a conservative reading of Scripture. In his new book, The Lost World of Adam & Eve, Walton argues that Adam & Eve can be read as the “priests” of early humanity, not the only two first humans.

Again, for those of us outside of conservative evangelicalism, the controversial nature of such claims can be hard to figure. Recently, theologian Peter Enns was booted from Westminster Theological Seminary for advocating similar ideas. Walton explains in this interview why it is possible to respect the authority of the Bible while still reading Genesis in a way that is not contrary to modern science. Walton insists that

You can affirm a historical Adam, but that doesn’t have quite the implications for biological human origins that are often assumed.

The key, Walton argues, lies in reading Genesis as the original readers would have. To them, Walton says, creation would be more about how the world of Adam & Eve was “ordered,” not just how it was “manufactured.” We can understand Adam as both a real person, a real creation, and as an “archetype” for humanity. Though there may have been other early humans, Walton explains, Adam & Eve served as the ones in God’s sacred space.

Why do such ideas matter? Again, for folks like me trying to understand conservative Protestantism from the outside, it can be difficult to make sense of the ferociously controversial nature of such arguments.

Yet they are at the heart of conservative evangelical Protestantism. As I argued in my 1920s book, conservative evangelicals have never agreed on the proper relationship of Genesis to either modernist theology or science. From J. Gresham Machen in the 1920s to Harold Lindsell in the 1970s, conservative intellectuals battled to affirm the notion that any compromise is deadly to faith.

And as I’m finding in my current research, these battles have long sent shock waves through the world of conservative higher education. Recently, Bryan College has firmed up its insistence that faculty members affirm their belief in an historical Adam & Eve. In 1961, Wheaton College did the same thing.

And fundamentalists are not the only ones who will spring to repudiate theories like Walton’s. Leading atheist pundits, too, agree that Genesis requires an historical Adam & Eve. Jerry Coyne, for example, laments the apologism of folks like Walton. Of course, Coyne does not want people to reject mainstream science in favor of a belief in an historical Adam. Rather, he hopes people will simply accept the obvious conclusion that the Bible is a book of myths.

If all of these whirling debates make your head hurt, join the club. For those of us outside the circle of evangelical Protestantism, it can be very difficult to understand the ferocious feelings at play in the Adam debate. But that ferocity lies at the heart of evangelical belief. Historically, any attempt to rationalize our reading of the Bible, any attempt to explain away the most obvious interpretation of Scripture in favor of one that accords with modern science, any effort to bring our faith into harmony with science…all have been seen as the beginnings of apostasy.

For evangelical readers, Adam & Eve matter. For those of us trying to understand conservative Christianity, this complicated debate will be a good place to start. Why would professors lose jobs over it? Why would Christianity Today dedicate a major article to this interview with John Walton? Why will Walton’s position provoke such furious responses?

“Worker Ants in an Insect Society:” The Case for Christian Education

Can government schools produce anything except totalitarian drones?

The folks at Patheos: The Anxious Bench recently re-ran a consideration of this question by the accomplished historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University.  But does this conservative criticism assume too much about America’s public school system?  Are bad schools more like bad haircuts than anything else?

Source: Sodahead

Source: Sodahead

More on haircuts later.  The question of public schools and Christian students has long exercised conservative intellectuals.  I’ve described the history of this perennial concern among American conservatives in general and among conservative evangelical Protestants in particular in a couple of academic articles and in my 1920s book.  As Professor Kidd notes, this question of separate “Christian” schools has long been a central concern among conservative religious thinkers.

Professor Kidd lays out the case: even in his hometown of Waco, “where parents can pretty reasonably assume that Christian students at public schools will not be harassed for their faith,” public-school values do not pretend to match the values of evangelical Protestantism.  The problem, as Kidd notes, has been trumpeted by conservative Christian intellectuals for generations.  Kidd cites J. Gresham Machen, Christopher Dawson, Douglas Wilson, and Anthony Esolen as varied exemplars of this intellectual tradition.

Kidd cites Christopher Dawson’s 1961 accusation that public schools were only fit to produce “worker ants in an insect society.”  The problem, Kidd argues, is not simply the familiar laundry list of evangelical complaints.  It is not simply that public schools teach evolution, or that they discourage prayer, or that they teach a skewed secularized history.  The deeper problem is an utter lack of purpose in public education.

As Kidd puts it,

Public education, and private secular education, is floundering to identify any purpose these days, other than perhaps “math and science” training, and the ever-popular “critical thinking skills.” (Excellent standardized test scores and successful football teams are also good.) The modern public school system was originally intended to form citizens for democratic citizenship; perhaps that purpose lingers in some public schools today. But Christians should be wary even of education for democratic citizenship, which can easily shade into nationalism and cloud a child’s understanding that her ultimate citizenship is in the city of God.

At a fundamental level, Kidd argues, parents must spend more time asking what purpose they hope their children’s education will serve.  For conservative evangelical Protestants, in general, even the most efficient public schools may seem only efficient paths to damnation.

Here at ILYBYGTH, we must ask: Are public schools really so profoundly anti-Christian?  And, perhaps more important, what does any of this have to do with poodle haircuts?

After all, the public schools also take their share of accusations from the left.  Liberal watchdogs such as the Texas Freedom Network blast politicians for using schools as catspaws in a rabid anti-leftist witch huntAmericans United for Separation of Church and State warns of the “Religious Right’s Plan to Force Fundamentalism on Our Public Schools.”  Academic leftists such as Michael Apple accuse twenty-first century public schools of being profoundly dominated by the conservative shibboleths of “Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality.”

Is this only a matter of perspective?  Are public schools centrist institutions, forced to muddle down the middle of cultural controversies?  From the left, schools appear dominated by conservatism.  From the right, they look like secularist left-wing indoctrination centers.

Or could this be the oldest public-school question in the book?  That is, could these critics be making the mistake of treating public schools as if they were a single ideological entity, when in fact they are a ten-thousand-member cluster with no discernible goals or guiding ideology?  In other words, if you want to attack the ideology of the public school system, you’ll be able to find convincing and terrifying examples of all sorts of ideas.  With such an incredible diversity of schools and school districts, it is all too easy for commentators to accuse “public schools” in general of problems that may not trouble the majority of real schools.

Now, at long last, let’s consider what schools have to do with haircuts:

Blasting “the ideology of the public schools” in general might be like attacking America’s hairstyles in general.  Of course, there are fashions and historic trends.  And of course, anyone can pull up terrifying examples of how they can go wrong.  But America’s hairstyles, like America’s public schools, have no controlling central intelligence.  Both are the result of thousands, millions, of decisions by individuals on a daily basis.

Of course, parents and pundits of any religious or political persuasion should make the decisions that fit them best.  But when those decisions are pushed as a simple rule about the ideological nature of the public schools in general, we may have veered off into poodle-haircut territory.

 

Leftist Bias in the Academy?

Conservatives have long complained that American higher education faculty displayed an intellectually crippling ideological bias.  This has been called “anti-intellectualism,” but a more precise term would be something like “anti-professoriate.”  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the non-conservative sociologist Christian Smith of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Research argues that conservatives may be right.

The accusation of academic bias has been so durable in the intellectual world of Fundamentalist America that one is tempted to dismiss it as sour grapes.  For instance, in the 1920s, Presbyterian orthodox leader J. Gresham Machen finally left his beloved Princeton Seminary to start his own school, driven out, he claimed, by his colleagues’ growing intolerance of Machen’s Biblical orthodoxy.  Less intellectually gifted 1920s fundamentalists made similar charges, in more colorful language.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

Around the time of the Scopes Trial, a cartoon in the Wall Street Journal captured this anti-professoriate feeling among fundamentalists:

 

Education in the Higher Branches

More recently, in the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

In the twenty-first century, small-f fundamentalist blockbust author Tim LaHaye agreed.  University faculties, LaHaye argued, had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.” 

“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

Christian Smith’s recent article argues that this leftist orthodoxy is not merely a figment of conservatives’ imaginations.  His article bemoans the attacks on sociologist Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus published an academic article in which he concluded that children raised by same-sex parents have more emotional disorders as adults.  According to Smith, Regnerus followed the guidelines of academic research and publishing.  His conclusions may or may not be correct, but his work followed the traditions of peer review and editing.  Regnerus’ conclusions may be disagreeable to some, but his research methods stand above reproach.

Yet, according to Smith, the attacks on Regnerus demonstrate the problems with today’s left-leaning academy.  As Smith argues,

“The temptation to use academe to advance a political agenda is too often indulged in sociology, especially by activist faculty in certain fields, like marriage, family, sex, and gender. The crucial line between broadening education and indoctrinating propaganda can grow very thin, sometimes nonexistent. Research programs that advance narrow agendas compatible with particular ideologies are privileged. Survey textbooks in some fields routinely frame their arguments in a way that validates any form of intimate relationship as a family, when the larger social discussion of what a family is and should be is still continuing and worth having. Reviewers for peer-reviewed journals identify “problems” with papers whose findings do not comport with their own beliefs. Job candidates and faculty up for tenure whose political and social views are not ‘correct’ are sometimes weeded out through a subtle (or obvious), ideologically governed process of evaluation, which is publicly justified on more-legitimate grounds—’scholarly weaknesses’ or ‘not fitting in well’ with the department.” 

As we have argued elsewhere, this bias is often wrapped in a near-total ignorance about life in Fundamentalist America.  One of the main reasons for this blog has been to introduce the ideas and culture of Fundamentalist America to outsiders who don’t know much about it.  Like Smith, we do not have to actively defend conservative ideas in order to protest against this sort of myopic academic bias.  Rather, we can promote a true diversity of ideas in higher education.  We can push for a true university, one in which the universe of ideas can be discussed calmly, without fear of the vindictive witch-hunts Smith describes.

In order to do so, we need to actively separate the jumble of issues.  The question is not whether children of same-sex parents have a tougher time in life.  The question is whether we will allow that conclusion to be reached in academic journals.  The question is whether researchers will be free to follow their data wherever it may lead, or whether, as Smith concludes, academic life will be governed by a crippling and unnecessary Stalin-lite motto: “Play it politically safe, avoid controversial questions, publish the right conclusions.”