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.

Shoot ‘em Up at Fundamentalist U

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.

Cole-Withrow-Jerry-Falwell-Commencement-Liberty-University-20130517

Jerry, Get Your Gun

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.

Can a College Be Christian?

After Ben Carson’s stupid and hateful comment that the USA should not have a Muslim president, Baylor theologian Roger Olson noted that we really could not have a Christian president, either. In my current work about evangelical colleges, I’m struggling to define what it meant to be Christian at school, too. It raises an ancient question: Can an other-worldly religion (successfully) run worldly institutions?

Olson noted that the only sincere evangelical to sit in the Oval Office in recent decades has been Jimmy Carter. And Carter, Olson argued, was a terrible president. Not by accident, either, but because he was an honest-to-goodness Christian. As Olson put it,

I am not cynical, but neither am I naïve. America is no longer a true democracy; it is run by corporations and the super-rich elite. Occasionally they don’t get their way, but, for the most part, they do. One reason they do not seem to is that they do not agree among themselves about everything. So, sometimes, a president, a senator, a congressman, has to choose between them in decision-making. But, in the end, the policy remains that “What’s good for business is good for America” even when what’s good for business is bad for the working poor (to say nothing of the destitute).

No, given how modern nation states work, I do not think a real Christian, a true disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to put first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, can be president of the United States or any modern nation state.

The deeper question of belief and institutional necessity is one I’m wrestling with these days. As I write my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, I find myself struggling to offer a satisfactory definition of what it has meant to be a fundamentalist. It’s a question that has bedeviled historians (and fundamentalists) for a good long while, so I feel I’m in good company.

For good reasons, historians have insisted that we need a fairly narrow definition of fundamentalism. In his great book Revive Us Again, Joel Carpenter argued, “more generic usage obscures more than it illumines” (page 4). Carpenter was leery of commentators who slapped a “fundamentalist” label on any and all conservatives or conservative Protestants. As he argued,

Labelling movements, sects, and traditions such as the Pentecostals, Mennonites, Seventh-day Adventists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Churches of Christ, black Baptists, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and holiness Wesleyans as fundamentalists belittles their great diversity and violates their unique identities (4).

If we need a straightforward definition for those reasons, Matthew Sutton’s recent definition of fundamentalism as “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism” will do the trick. Certainly, fundamentalist theology was defined by its vision of end-times as well as by the centrality of those apocalyptic visions to the movement.

But such definitions don’t seem to match the ways fundamentalism has been defined in its leading institutions. At the colleges I’m studying—schools such as Wheaton College, Bob Jones University, Bryan College, Biola University, The King’s College, and similar schools—there’s more to the school than just theology.

When these schools called themselves “fundamentalist” (and they DID, even relatively liberal schools such as Wheaton), they meant more than theology. They meant more than just “radical apocalyptic evangelicalism.” They meant more than just “not-Mennonite-or-Pentecostal.”

Defining fundamentalism as it was used in fundamentalist institutions is a trickier issue than simply defining fundamentalist theology. By and large, when schools talked about themselves as “fundamentalist,” they meant that the professors and administration all signed on to fundamentalist theology. But they also meant that the students would have a vaguely conservative atmosphere in which to study. No smoking, no dancing, no etc. They also meant that students would be controlled and guided in their life choices. And they also meant that students would be more likely to socialize with similarly fundamentalist friends and future spouses.

I’m not sure how to define that kind of fundamentalism. I like the way historian Timothy Gloege has done it in his new book about the Moody Bible Institute. Gloege focuses on what he calls the “corporate evangelical framework” that guided MBI since its founding in the 19th century.

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

What did fundamentalism mean in Chicago?

As Gloege argues, at a school like MBI, fundamentalism was more than a set of “manifestos and theological propositions.” Rather, it worked as a set of “unexamined first principles—as common sense.” Fundamentalism, Gloege writes, is better understood as a certain “grammar” than as a list of religious beliefs.

That kind of definition seems closer to the ways it was used in the schools I’m studying.

Roger E. Olson argues that it will be impossible for any sincere evangelical Christian to be president. There are simply too many worldly factors that violate the otherworldly morality of Christianity. Similarly, evangelical colleges have not defined themselves merely along theological lines. They couldn’t. Instead, they have defined what it has meant to be a “fundamentalist” based on a range of factors. Of course, they care about student religious belief. But they also care about student fashions, patriotism, diets, and social lives. And such things were usually considered a central part of making a school authentically “fundamentalist.”

Can a college be Christian? In the sense that Roger E. Olson is asking, I guess not. Just as every president has to violate evangelical morality, so every institution of higher education has to consider a range of non-religious factors in order to survive.

Loving your Homosexual Neighbor: Hell or Rapture?

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.

I Love You but It's the End of the World...?

I Love You but It’s the End of the World…?

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.