Required Reading: RJ Snell and a NEW New Christian Right

“Isn’t a ‘Fundamentalist intellectual’ an oxymoron?”

People ask me that question a lot.  There are lots of ILYBYGTH readers out there who are intrigued, but baffled, by the culture of conservative Christianity in America.  Like me, these are mostly folks who came from secular or liberal backgrounds.  Like me, most of these people just don’t have an intuitive grasp of the culture of conservative Christianity in America.

And a lot of those folks (still) assume a connection between conservative Christianity and intellectual sterility.  They tend to agree with Richard Dawkins’ 1989 statement, that if you meet someone who doesn’t believe evolution, that person must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  In this case, some secular or liberal people who don’t understand Fundamentalist America assume that any conservative Christians must be like Dawkins’ creationists.  In this understanding, the very definition of conservative Christianity means accepting a bunch of outdated ideas hook, line, and sinker.

In this vision of Fundamentalist America, conservative Christianity appears like a threatening monolith, a Borg-like* force that insists on transforming America into a goose-stepping echo box.

One of the first steps toward understanding what we’re calling Fundamentalist America is to understand the limits of that stereotype.  If we want to understand FA, we might start by trying to get a sense of the complexity of it.

A recent article by RJ Snell at Front Porch Republic will help.  In “Thoughts toward a New Religious Right,” Snell criticizes the impulse among some conservative Christian political activists to embrace an ethos of individualism too eagerly.

Snell writes,

We’re accustomed to thinking that the greater a being, the less it requires from others, the more it is self-sufficient, but this is only partially true. Shellfish have no friends, while humans need friends to thrive, and this is a mark of our grandeur, not our inadequacy.  

Snell critiqued the last generation of Christian activists for slipping too easily into the myth of the rugged individualist.  In their eagerness to combat an aggressive idea of collectivism, conservative Christians leaped precipitously into its opposite.  In doing so, Snell argues, conservative Christians forgot the central lessons of their own faith.

We outsiders who are hoping to understand the thinking of conservative religion in America could do well to begin with essays like Snell’s.  It is easy to think we understand the meanings of Fundamentalist America once we grasp a few high-profile ideas.  But if we really want to understand, we need to dig into the many different ideas and thinkers that make up its kaleidoscopic vision.

*Nerd alert.