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Fundamentalist Christianity represents a reaction within the evangelical community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries against the Christianity-internal pressures of theological modernity (often equated with theological liberalism) and against emerging external pressures of the "theory of evolution", of rapidly advancing science and industry, and of the growth of cultural secularism. Fundamentalists believed that trends of higher criticism and modernism had started to dilute the "true" Christian message. They fought for a return to what they understood to be the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith, with an emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible, personal holiness, and rejection of secular culture and science. The name "fundamentalist" derives from a 1910 publication of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, The Fundamentals, which contained essays denouncing Biblical criticism, secularism, socialism, Catholicism, and evolution.
Fundamentalist movements existed in most major American Christian denominations during the early 20th century. While fundamentalism as a formal movement retreated into the background after the embarrassment of the 1925 Scopes Trial, many churches and organizations continue to self-identify as fundamentalists. "Fundamentalist Christian" has become a generalized term for anyone who is a Biblical literalist, a creationist (especially a young-earth creationist), or a Christian politician who emphasizes their religion. Fundamentalism comprises a subset of evangelicalism, although not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Before 1880, most Americans acknowledged that the Bible was, if not divinely inspired, at least a convenient foundation for morals and decency. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed that the Bible was good enough for him without “notes or criticism, or explanations about authorship or origin or even cross-references.” Anglo-American Protestants held most positions of importance, so Christianity and culture were largely homogenous.
Then, in the 1880s, sin entered America in the form of changes in assumption regarding the divinity of the Bible. The 1859 publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species rapidly accelerated the secularization of intellectualism, especially the natural sciences. Around this time, assumptions regarding the interpretation of the Bible were changing. As ministers like Horace Bushnell sought to synthesize the Scriptures with new understanding of science, focus shifted away from the idea of personal conversion. Instead, many sought to apply general Christian morality to the culture as a whole. German higher criticism further threatened the traditional understanding of the Bible’s divinity.
As mainline Protestant denominations began to accept more liberal methods of interpretation, there was a conservative reaction within evangelical Protestantism. These “fundamentalists” insisted on retaining the traditional focus on Biblical primacy and simple, down-to-earth interpretation. By 1919, the World Christians Fundamentals Association was organized. Fundamentalists were unified around a plain reading of the Bible, adherence to the traditional orthodox teachings of 19th century Protestantism, and a new method of Biblical interpretation called “dispensationalism.” Between 1880 and 1920, conservative Christians began starting their own “Bible colleges” as an alternative to mainstream, usually secular, institutes of higher learning.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was a full-blown culture war waged in America in the 1920’s and 1930’s. As mainline Protestants abandoned traditional interpretations of the Bible, it seemed that conservative Christianity was being put on trial. After the embarrassing Scopes Trial, fundamentalist evangelicals experienced increasing cultural anxiety. Not only did they face a seemingly hostile culture, but even most Protestants were abandoning what they saw as the "core principles" of Christianity. In fact, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote an encyclopedia entry on Protestantism in 1937 in which, “with a measure of confidence,” he wrote off evangelicalism as a thing of the past.
In the face of such hostility, fundamentalist evangelicals in the 1920s to 1960s increasingly withdrew into their own subculture. Bible colleges served to provide education within this “evangelical ghetto.” Most importantly, however, was the emphasis on the family unit. Fundamentalists viewed the family is a safe haven apart from the "corrupting influence" of the world. By the 1960’s evangelicals perceived that America was becoming a godless society, as extra-marital sex, feminisms, and abortion all seemed to threaten the very existence of the traditional family.
At the same time, outspoken evangelicals were beginning to find success in the public sphere. Billy Graham's evangelistic crusades brought fundamentalist Christianity to the front page of newspapers around the country. Leaders of a newly political fundamentalism include Jerry Falwell and Rob Grant. Prominent politicians like Chuck Colson, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and later, the Prophet Ronald Reagan would further bring evangelicals into the center stage of the media. (The emergence of the Religious Right highlights an interesting paradox in the fundamentalist mindset: If America and the world are doomed anyways, why work to make it better?) Politically active evangelicals failed to understand that America had become a truly multi-cultural nation, and bellicose attempts to re-impose Biblical standards were not only largely fruitless, the misunderstanding contributed to the awkwardness between evangelicals and the society at large.
The five fundamentals of Christian fundamentalism
- Inerrancy of the Bible.
- Literal truth of the Bible.
- The virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists hold this against encroaching materialism which denies the supernatural.
- The doctrine of atonement through substitution, a Calvinist doctrinal innovation according to which Christ inserts his own perfect record, in place of ours, into the divine retributive mechanism. This fundamental is held in opposition to the early Church's "ransom" and "moral uplift" theories of atonement.
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus and the imminent personal return of Jesus Christ. This is a critical building block for Christian fundamentalist movements that deny responsibility for global warming, since the end of the world is near.
The trend in modern US politics and modern "fundamentalism" is increasingly toward blending politics and religion, as the Republican Party and general conservatives are being pulled into an ever increasingly fundamentalist point of view (see Religious Right). There is a worrying tendency among some Christian fundamentalists to oppose democracy.
One of many fallacies that Christian fundamentalists perpetuate is that the Founding Fathers were Christian fundamentalists, when in reality George Washington, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others were actually deists (y'know, people who aren't necessarily religious, but still believe in an invisible supreme being).
In the US, Christian Fundamentalists tend to favor a "pro-life" view, often to an extreme that would not allow exceptions for rape, incest or general (non-fatal) health of the mother. They are also generally opposed to comprehensive sex education, single parenthood, and of course gay rights.
Examples of Christian fundamentalist individuals and institutions
- American Family Association
- Answers in Genesis
- Billy Graham (in his earlier years)
- Bob Jones University
- Brother Stair
- Focus On The Family
- Jerry Falwell
- Ken Ham
- Liberty University
- Patrick Henry College
- Pat Robertson
- Pensacola Christian College
- Regent University
- Biblical literalism
- Cafeteria Christianity – the cherry-picking denounced by fundies, though in practice inevitable
- Christian Reconstructionism
- Got Questions
- "Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism", George Marsden, Eerdmans Publishing, 1991, p. 32
- See the Wikipedia article on Higher criticism.
- D.G. Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002), 204.
- Hart, 56.
- Dr. Dale A. Robbins. "What is a fundamentalist Christian?". http://www.victorious.org/chur21.htm.