Regarding Christian fundamentalism, Jerry Falwell Sr. once said, “A fundamentalist is just an evangelical who is mad at something.” I’ve thought about this quote quite often over the past month as I’ve worked to research and attempt to unpack the fundamentalist worldview. I’ve spent some time teaching about fundamentalism, and am planning on writing a longer think piece, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts now, and why I believe this perspective is potentially the most destructive in our society today.
I want to make clear in the beginning here, that I am not attacking Christianity or religion in general, but I am attempting to create an argument against the fundamentalist cultural agenda and its approach to the world.
At its core, fundamentalism operates off three primary principles:
The absolute authority of the Bible.
The need to save sinners.
The second coming of Christ.
At surface level this would come across as standard evangelical beliefs that many were taught growing up in the church. Debating these concepts isn’t really the point of this post, and there are evangelical people out there who hold these beliefs but prioritize love and grace allowing their focus to be more positive than Christian fundamentalists.
However, these ideals when prioritized over love and combined with staunch beliefs on divine will and a pessimistic view of the world (detailed later) tend to play out in a far more aggressive and combative manner.
The Absolute Authority of the Bible
Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. This does not mean that they have no understanding of the symbolism in the Bible, in fact they spend a lot of their time trying to attach symbolism to different aspects of our society. It means that they believe in a “plain read” approach to the bible, or that everything in the bible is clear enough for anyone who reads it to understand, and that what they read plainly is true for everyone and for all time. They do not place a lot of value in textual criticism, unpacking historical relevance, cultural explanations for certain texts, or the progress that has occurred over thousands of years.
This immediately forces fundamentalists into a war with any conclusion that they believe directly contradicts this “plain read” version of the bible. It completely ignores different ideas or concepts of what truth is, such as the different layers or spectrum of understanding that make up a person’s worldview. Like how observable truth, math, physics, or the hard sciences having a different approach and result in different knowledge than more abstract aspects to truth like those found in philosophy or religious studies.
Most worldviews tend to hold all truth in concert and dialogue with itself, causing each facet of that truth to consistently and poetically restructure and re-evaluate itself as new objective or personal discoveries occur. It makes developing knowledge and wisdom an ongoing dance in our lives that gracefully maneuvers and adapts to whatever life shows us. Intellectual integrity allows the world to present itself to us and we then come to conclusions through experience, reason, and information from trusted sources. This makes humility the primary virtue for education because it works to limit our own bias and allow us to discover the ends ourselves. Faith is one of many parts that then formulate our worldviews as it works within this dance but does not dominate it.
The fundamentalist approach however forces truth to fit in the mold it has constructed for it. It sets up high walls and barriers around itself and prepares to fight any challenge to it. It in essence starts from a conclusion and then attempts to bend and break the other aspects of learning to agree with it. This is clearly seen in the fundamentalist foundation to a lot of flat earth theories which see a round earth to be an attack on established biblical beliefs. So, fundamentalists manipulate tests and exclude information until they are satisfied. It is also seen historically in the push against evolution, against heliocentric views of our solar system, the abolition of slavery, and even against the rights of disenfranchised groups.
In short pursuing truth is no longer a dance but a battleground, one that either forces truth to submit or be ruthlessly attacked.
To demonstrate this and close this section, I present this quote from Pat Robertson:
“Textbooks used in public schools often tend to destroy long established moral values. Parents have every right to insist on quality moral education for their children. They should fight for it in public schools, and if good public education is denied them, they must do everything possible to establish an alternative private system of education where Christian values can be taught.”
In short, if schools won’t teach what we believe then leave the schools.
The Need to Save Sinners
This is a touchy subject for many, either due to a genuine desire to help people, or traumatic experiences they have had throughout their lives because of it.
While we don’t have time to dive into the many different meanings and religious interpretations of what “Sin” is, we know that every philosophy and religion has attempted to understand and in some way deal with innate problems in the human condition. We know through our lives and studies that there are both healthy and unhealthy ways to approach this.
The issue is not with the desire to help people transform and change for the better, but the specific view of people that fundamentalists have. To approach the problems in humanity without love or grace causes people to create artificial caste systems in their own minds. People have either accepted their view, believe it to be true, and have ascended to a higher level, or they haven’t and are spiritually and culturally below them. There are those bound for heaven and those bound for hell and it’s as simple as that to them. If you have not chosen heaven, then you have actively chosen hell and to remain in sin.
Whether street corner preachers, zealous relatives, or hometown ministers, this is the level that most people’s encounters with fundamentalism has occurred. If this was where this ended, I would have barely mentioned it in this post. However, there is a long road that this perspective takes a person down. The more pronounced this perspective becomes, the stronger lines people begin to draw between “us” and “them”. “We” are the righteous, the citizens of heaven, “you” are the sinners, the people of this world. If people then believe a group is actively choosing to be in sin, then their influence in this world is sinful. This means that most problems in our society are the result of a particular group of sinners causing it.
The language I am using here is incredibly difficult for me to type, and probably hard for many who are reading this to see to. That is because it is often still present in our lives now. In every push for love and progress, we find more aggressive fundamentalists pushing back against it. As society progressed, and pushed for the LGBT community to have their love recognized on a societal level, the Westboro Baptist Church responded with this:
“Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love.”
We see it consistently when televangelists and the like associate global tragedies with God’s divine judgment on sinners. It is the reason why fundamentalists believe their moral principles must become law as sinners would never willingly choose to live by them. They view America or their own countries as being in danger and only the righteous can turn it around, as Jerry Falwell Sr once said:
“We need a return to the God and the Bible as never before in the history of America. Undoubtedly, we are at the edge of eternity…We have stretched the rubber band of morality too far already. A few more stretches and it will undoubtedly snap forever. When that happens we will become like all the other nations preceding us who’ve fallen under the judgment of God…Let us unite our hearts and lives together for the cause of a new America, a moral America in which righteousness will exalt this nation. Only as we do this can we exempt ourselves from one day having to look our children in the eyes and answer the question, “Mom and Dad, where were you the day freedom died in America?”
The Second Coming of Christ
The second coming of Christ is a significant aspect to the Christian faith. Like the other subjects discussed in this post, it has numerous interpretations and beliefs surrounding it. These beliefs run the entire spectrum of a symbolic return to the central teachings of Christ, to the physical return. But tied with this concept is an entire subject of theology entitled “eschatology” or the study of “the end”. A person can spend their entire life on only this aspect of religious study and never come out of it, as the ramifications to what Christians believe about this subject make up the majority of how they live their lives now. If I could reduce it down, I would call it a study about hope, where it is placed, and how people react to it.
Once again, I don’t quite have the time to dive into the tangled web of different beliefs, but for the sake of this post the key societal and cultural concept is, is the world going to get better, going to get worse, or remain roughly the same.
Due to the fundamentalist approach to the bible that was discussed above, the majority believe that the world will become darker, more sinful, and more dangerous as time goes on. This is incredibly important because it is not just a belief, but an expectation that the world will continue to decline. The worse the world becomes, the sooner the return of Christ. I discussed my personal experience with this at length in another post, so I won’t repeat that here, but they anticipate that with this perpetual decline, Christians will become the most persecuted group of people on earth.
This perspective will obviously create a great deal of mistrust on a large scale if a person believes that they are going to be persecuted and that the world itself is going to be against them. If you tie this with the previous sections above, viewing people only as either the righteous or the sinful, and viewing truth as only what is contained in the bible, it creates a structure in which they can dismiss anything in society they don’t like as a personal affront to them. Or they can re-translate it as the persecution they expect to happen.
One fundamentalist minister Steve Cioccolanti said this regarding the pandemic and governmental response:
“It’s a real experiment on how to control the masses. It is not hard to imagine if they were to roll out a big lie, they could deceive the masses and get them to comply. Get them to huddle and stay home. To be quarantined, which is imprisonment…We’re giving tyrannical power to people and this is how the persecution will increase in the last days. We know this, we’ve preached this, and we’ve prepared for this.”
In essence, fundamentalist Christians expect the world to become worse, expect to be attacked, and are preparing for a fight.
When you take these perspectives, what you find is that fundamentalists have placed themselves in an antagonistic position in society. They define themselves more by what they are against then what they are for. They have in essence built a nearly impenetrable tunnel around their worldview that only positively engages with things inside it, and either refuses to acknowledge or actively attacks things outside it.
They have created an epistemology or approach to truth that is based only on faith in their interpretations of the bible and oppose any reasoning that contradicts it. They find enemies in anyone who advocates for progressive measures, and push to return to an idealistic biblical society that they have constructed in their own minds. They believe those outside are contributing to the eventual judgment of the nation, and so attempt to change the laws of the nation to force those who disagree with them to comply.
They see battlegrounds on every front and believe that remaining faithful is more important than being loving. The world is dark and sinful, and the only hope is to band together and push against it.
When facts are seen as lies, when progress is viewed as evil, and the common good dismissed as persecution, our society becomes a dark and dangerous place to live.
Striving for Love
It is difficult to find a peaceful common ground with someone who constantly feels like they are in the middle of a war. Or when what you believe to be loving actions are reinterpreted as having sinister motives.
However, I ask that we start by imagining what it would be like to have this mindset. It’s easy to dismiss fundamentalists and claim that they simply should know better, but in reality the walls of their tunneled thinking are so thick that it is incredibly difficult to break out of. Think about the fear that arises when they believe that even entertaining a progressive agenda could result in eternal judgment. In the end it takes a personal, healthy, and humble view of doubt for a person to begin to come out of it. This process is often traumatic and many people risk finding themselves alone and shunned by the community that they once held close.
I have always believed that understanding others is the first necessary step in creating a better society. This includes fundamentalists along with everyone else. I’m not saying we shouldn’t stand for truth and fight for what we believe in, but we always do so with the intent to eventually encompass everyone in the love that we tirelessly fight for.
Love is always modeled by our actions, and sees in itself a reflection of the end it is trying to achieve. As long as we continue to show love, even to those who attack or dismiss us, even when people view our love as evil, we will inevitably see the better society we are all fighting for.
Love will always win in the end.