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A fundamentally wrong direction.

FUNDAMENTALISTS CLING to the conviction that the Bible offers simple, literal answers to all the great questions of life. So they are pleased to assume that, given the chance, everyone will flock to their faith. But fundamentalists have, in fact, been as prone to factionalism as every other form of Protestantism, a welcome development from the Humanist perspective, since it has diminished their power to censor and suppress. The only characteristic that holds the varieties of fundamentalism together is a militant anti-intellectualism that places them at odds with mainstream modern culture. A bit of historical background helps explain why things have turned out this way.

The apocalyptic dispensationalists who are so prominent these days (the people who would take the popular apocalyptic Left Behind novels as serious religious works) are a separate strand of fundamentalism derived from the nineteenth century Irish lay preacher John Nelson Darby. Darby's eccentric reading of the Bible emphasizes a strict futuristic chronology based upon scriptural prophecy and leading up to the second coming of Christ--which his followers believe may not be far off. Though Darby's apocalyptic timetable is sheer nonsense, it has had great influence in the politics of our time.

As part of his whimsical chronology, dispensationalists have suspended the anti-Semitism that has been part of Christianity for centuries, instead attributing a special historical importance to the Jews, and especially to the state of Israel. This is where Jesus will come in for a landing at the End of Days. Hence, offering unquestioned military support to Israel is, as former Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has put it, "God's foreign policy" To their infinite discredit, Israeli politicians, members of the Likud party, have been willing to play along with the evangelicals, currying their favor. Other fundamentalists reject this Zionist interpretation of the Bible, offering a different but no less literal reading of the prophecies.

One must allow for further variations along these lines. Even among dispensationalists there are different interpretations of the Rapture, including serious discussion of whether those snatched away to heaven on the Day of Judgment will leave their underwear behind.

Similarly, fundamentalism and evangelicalism, though they overlap, aren't congruent. The break between the two was one of the major divisions in modern Protestantism. In the United States, that separation came during the years of World War II when the National Association of Evangelicals was set up to give a more appealing face to fundamentalism, which had by then become a harsh, obstreperous, and increasingly disruptive assault on mainstream Protestant congregations. The evangelical clergy who founded Christianity Today in 1956 hoped to give a more scholarly and constructive identity to their faith. Their approach was best embodied in the career of Billy Graham, who sought to rise above denominational feuding by emphasizing the act of conversion. Today's evangelicalism might thus be called a politer form of fundamentalism.

Nonetheless, evangelicals and fundamentalists are united in many basic assumptions. Though there are some evangelicals (some commentators call them "left-wing evangelicals") who credit the Bible with only "limited inerrancy," most share basic fundamentalist principles. They believe in the literal truth and absolute authority of scripture, the imminence of the Second Coming, the uniqueness of the Christian revelation, and the necessity of accepting that revelation if one wishes to be saved from the damnation that awaits unbelievers. This is the sense in which fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be used interchangeably. Those devoted to one or another of these religious camps may find that objectionable, but perhaps it will do them some good to know that those outside their doctrinal limits see more similarities among them than differences, above all their shared commitment to a narrow, rigid, and absurd set of beliefs.

This rapid overview of fundamentalist variations may clarify one important point that Humanists tend to overlook. Although we see evangelicals today as the main force behind the far right wing of the Republican Party, fundamentalism has always been first of all a body of theological, rather than ideological or political, thought. It came into existence to resist liberal and modern tendencies within the Christian church. Alarmed by the willingness of an ever-greater number of clergy to accommodate their teachings to the values and assumptions of secular society, fundamentalism pitted itself desperately against apostasy in the churches. It addressed itself hardly at all to secular humanists in the culture at large, mainly because it believed arguing with them was hopeless; they were beyond the pale. Like many left-wing ideologues who spent most of their energy attacking one another, most of what fundamentalists said and did grew out of their infighting with other members of the Christian community.

Thus, while all fundamentalists found science to be among the most troubling elements on the secular scene, it wasn't science that aggravated them most. They were willing to be scientifically illiterate because their orientation was much narrower. If the devil was at work anywhere in the modern world, it was among those who were manhandling scripture, which meant the biblical scholarship of the day--the "higher criticism" as it was called.

Textual criticism of the Bible had been on the scene since the mid-eighteenth century. Thomas Paine's skeptical reading of the Bible in the Age of Reason was derived from studies like those of the French scholar Jean Astruc, who was the first to doubt that Moses could have written the books attributed to him. Over the course of the next century, biblical criticism became a force to reckon with--a growing body of research that undermined the naive scriptural literalism of earlier generations. Some textual critics of the Bible were secular skeptics, but not all. Many were sincerely religious people who cared enough about their faith to want to study the languages in which the scriptures were written and to delineate the many levels of authorship one finds there. Whatever they may have believed about the Bible's authority, they wanted to understand it as a human document, written by different hands at different times and including a diversity of religious views--some of them borrowed from other traditions, some of them hopelessly outmoded, some of them little better than folklore. There is no way to read the Bible with this much discriminating intelligence without calling into question its status as a divinely inspired work. After all, if the books credited to Moses weren't written by Moses, how can the Bible be infallible? And if it violates all the laws of physics to say that Joshua made the sun stand still over Gibeon, how can one trust anything the Bible tells us about the natural world?

In the eyes of fundamentalists, then, raising questions like this was blasphemous and all the more so when the discoveries of geologists, anthropologists, historians, and biologists began to confirm a non-Biblical understanding of the past. Unfortunately, the Bible is to a considerable extent a historical narrative. And that narrative was becoming more cock-eyed with every passing year. The simple biblical faith of times past was being backed into a corner. Inevitably, the critical reading of scripture forced people to think for themselves, to decide what they could and could not believe. For those who needed firm authority in their lives, nothing could have been more threatening.

The narrow focus fundamentalists took on defending the sanctity of the Bible all but doomed them to becoming anti-intellectual. In the course of the nineteenth century, archaeologists were rewriting our knowledge of prehistory on the basis of new discoveries that radically revised the biblical narrative. Similarly, physicists and paleontologists were developing new insights into atomic theory that would yield better ways of dating bones and artifacts, such as the carbon-14 radioactive dating method. Anthropologists were discovering recurrent themes in the myths and folklore of different cultures that made the stories found in the Bible less and less unique. We were, at the same time, learning more about the religions of the world, which began to look less and less like the undifferentiated heathenism that Christian missionaries were seeking to wipe out. The world was becoming a big, complex, fascinating place filled with new ideas, new insights, and new discoveries. As they saw the faith of their fathers shaken on a daily basis, fundamentalists turned from these developments. Instead, they foolishly insisted on defending the standard biblical chronology that had been worked out in the seventeenth century. Yes, they said, we are willing to believe that Methuselah lived nine hundred years and that God created the universe in seven days before there was a sun and an Earth to define the length of a "day." Yes, Moses parted the Red Sea, and yes, Elijah took to the heavens in his chariot. Yes yes yes, we believe it all.

The inerrancy they insisted on attributing to scripture blinded them to the most obvious empirical facts. They committed themselves to believing in a Garden of Eden that couldn't be located, a great flood for which there was no geological record, the virgin birth, and the physical resurrection of Jesus. Their position amounted to claiming that nothing that was unknown to the tribes of ancient Israel could possibly be true. Challenged to defend such groundless beliefs, what could they do but condemn the honest research of conscientious scholars and scientists as the work of the devil?

The nineteenth century was a great age of scholarship as well as science, and none of the discoveries being reported were making it easier to believe what one learned in Sunday school. The Bible was simply becoming irrelevant in whole areas of the culture where it had once been the supreme authority. But rather than taking on the secular world at large, until well into the twentieth century fundamentalists limited themselves to harassing their fellow Christians, especially the liberal clergy of the day. They elected to fight on a narrow front, taking aim at clergy with whom they might debate this or that biblical passage, this or that theological nuance. Their founding manifesto, "The Fundamentals" was a series of pamphlets published in 1910 by two clergymen at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. (This is the document that gave the movement its name.) It wasn't addressed to the intellectual community at large but to ministers, evangelists, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers. To their credit, the clergy of the day chose overwhelmingly not to place themselves in the position of making their faith laughable.

The controversy that ensued may have seemed like a significant battle to die-hard fundamentalists because the clergy are apt to take such matters as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ seriously. But what fundamentalists failed to see is that, once they got beyond the walls of Bible schools and churches, there were more and more people in the modern world (especially in non-Western societies) who couldn't care less about such mind-cramping orthodoxies. Not only was the Bible losing its relevance but so were whole intellectual categories--like heresy, blasphemy, apostasy, revelation, grace, sin, and orthodoxy. What fundamentalism was up against was far larger than some liberal minister's Sunday homily. They were taking on a tidal wave of secular knowledge with which their small-minded version of Christianity could never expect to compete in depth or richness. For the fundamentalists the scriptures might be holy; those willing to shut out the rest of the world might be able to spend a lifetime picking through scriptural prophesies by chapter and verse ("Bible study," as it is called), but in comparison to the burgeoning frontier of discovery, invention, and innovation that was opening up in modern life, the Bible was becoming ever smaller, less reliable, and less interesting. Despite the undeniable philosophical value some sections of the Bible retain, the Bible as a whole was coming more and more to look like what it essentially is: the worldview of one isolated, intellectually restricted, largely superstitious, and vastly ignorant ancient society whose experience carries no more weight than that of any traditional culture.

There is an authentic pathos to this story. Fundamentalism was born of the travail of people who craved absolute authority. Encountering the complexity of a global culture, they were willing to sacrifice their intellectual dignity to have back the existential security their ancestors had once enjoyed. That is a high price to pay. Nevertheless, they set out to make the Bible everything. But, in fact, what they did was to reduce it to less and less. In seeking to do God's work, fundamentalists were closing the minds of the pious to more and more of the world's amazing variety and so making the God they served seem smaller, grumpier, and more irrationally punitive. They were in effect reducing the mind of God to the size of what a gullible ten-year-old child in a Sunday school class might be willing to believe.

What does the Bible have to tell its readers about the structure of atoms; the chemistry of the blood; the relativity of mass and energy; the architecture of galaxies; the origins of time and space; the history of China, India, and Africa; or the cultures of traditional people? What does it tell us of all the countless fields of research that make up the life of the mind in our time? Think what would not be taught in a university organized along fundamentalist lines--quite simply everything that makes a university universal. Of course, pitting a Bible study circle against all the resources of higher learning looks like an absurdly unfair competition, but it is what fundamentalists have taken on by insisting that the Bible is infallible and tells all we need to know--and worse, that everything outside their diminished understanding of scripture is damnable. As inane as that claim may be to Humanists, I should think many religious people would find it even more offensive as a conception of what it means to be a Christian.

The fundamentalists' original narrow focus on biblical authority accounts for the extraordinary ignorance with which they now presume to take on the entire landscape of modern thought, whether in natural science, the humanities, or the social sciences. The founders of fundamentalism never foresaw what an impossibly embarrassing task they were bequeathing to their successors. Fundamentalists could win the world back from secular thought, but they haven't done their homework. Indeed, one could almost believe that many fundamentalists have never read anything besides the Bible--and in English only, and possibly in the Scofield edition popular among the dispensationalists. They are committed to screening out all that biblical archaeology and philology have unearthed. Which means that they simply have no idea what they are talking about. They don't know the texts; they don't know the contexts of the book they purport to revere. They are bantamweights who have stepped into the ring with heavyweights. So, lacking the intellectual resources to cope with modernity, they have abandoned debate and turned to the ballot box, where they hope to muster enough popular support to suppress, censor, and intimidate.

Theodore Roszak is a professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, and an internationally renowned social critic. His influential book, The Making of a Counter Culture, helped define the youthful rebellion of the sixties. His newest book, published in 2006, is World, Beware! American Triumphalism in an Age of Terror.
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Title Annotation:Christian conservatism
Author:Roszak, Theodore
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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