Chapter 1: Christian Fundamentalist History
The Roots of Christian Fundamentalism
Christian fundamentalists believe that they have returned to the practices and doctrines first church in the Book of Acts in the New Testament. They believe that by reading and living by a literal translation of the Bible that they are boldly casting off the stiffness and stale dogmas of the big well-organized religions of the old world. They imagine themselves to be Twenty-First Century versions of Peter and Paul, performing miracles and converting the masses just as the First Century Church did.
Earliest Roots in Elizabethan England
In truth the philosophical roots of their movement can be traced back no further than the early 1600’s. Much insight into the current Christian fundamentalist movement can be gained by studying these earlier literalists. They were radical in the extreme and were very much like what we see today, the only difference being their name, at that time they were called Puritans. They began as a divergent religious sect in Elizabethan England and were greatly influenced by the theology of Calvinism. They felt that the original Christian church had been corrupted by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries and they attempted to ‘purify’ the Anglican Church by purging Roman influence. They were persecuted because they refused to accept the authority of the Anglican bishops and by inference the King of England himself.¹
The Puritans were just one group among many that were so dissatisfied with the way things were in Britain that open Civil War broke out. Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the revolutionaries and succeeded in deposing the King of England, leading the entire British Isles through a very violent and bloody period of history. Because it agreed with many of his political views, Cromwell converted to Puritanism and in some circles Puritanism became identified with his cause. For a short time they were free of persecution,, but when Oliver Cromwell grew ill and died, his enemies took vengeance on his dead corpse and all who joined him in his cause, including the Puritans without regard to whether they supported him or not.
Coming To America
While some Puritans chose to stay and fight their enemies, most chose to flee instead. They desired the freedom to practice their own version of Christianity based on hard work, isolationism, self-interpretation of scripture, and an absolute intolerance for descent or sexual expression. Most of the Puritans left Britain for America settling in the New England area. Although many went to Holland and other European countries, it was in America that their influence had its greatest impact.
Today, these Puritan settlers in the “New England” here in America are best known for giving us the Thanksgiving Day celebration and the Salem Witch trials. However, a little further investigation reveals that almost every concept and idea that we identify as Christian fundamentalism (and much of Conservative ideology) was part of the Puritan/Calvinist psyche. Their influence can be seen in many of the attitudes we think of as being uniquely American, such as self reliance, independence and a disdain for laziness and welfare. This also explains the unique distrust for any form of government that has led us into so many difficulties of late.
Over time, as other less religiously dedicated European settlers arrived, some Puritans felt threatened by their more liberal views as they were introduced into colonial society. Once again many chose to leave rather than compromise by integrating into the more secular community. So they moved to the south and west, with many seeking solace in the wilderness of the Appalachian Woodlands. The southern drawl that we now commonly associate with the Southeastern United States is actually a linguistic fossil left over from the forgotten Elizabethan pronunciation of English retained by these descendants of the Puritans. Shakespeare would have sounded more like a son of the Confederacy than a Cockney to our modern ears. The descendants of these Puritans held to their basic religious doctrines just as stubbornly as their language, with their self reliance and determination being a valuable asset in their new wilderness homes.
During the nineteenth century there were two very prominent religious movements that spread across America. They were especially prevalent in Appalachia. In the 1830’s a Baptist/Seventh Day Adventist movement swept the nation, and in the late nineteenth century an even more successful charismatic religious revival. These movements resonated well with several ideas already established, and were wholeheartedly adopted by the descendants of the Puritans in Appalachia.
…the Puritan longed for a sense of communion with the Holy Spirit, for a closeness to God unattainable through religious duties and prescriptions, through sacraments, priests, saints - the whole panoply of religious apparatus as it still existed in England.¹
Once a national system of roads and highways made every area of the country accessible, these descendants of the Puritans came out of isolation and spread to the rest of the nation, getting us to where we are today. Christian fundamentalists are still most prevalent in the southern Bible-Belt, less so on the East Coast and Midwest and thinly spread all across the rest of the nation. Most currently practicing Christian fundamentalists are completely unaware of their roots and short history. As far as they are concerned, they are an exact continuation of an unbroken tradition leading back to the original Church in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. They have no idea that their views and most of their ideas are at most five hundred years old.
The Empiricist Connection
One cannot help noticing the strange love/hate relationship between religious fundamentalism and the philosophy of Empiricism. Throughout history many different philosophical views have dominated the thinking of humanity. Our modern scientific world is now based on the philosophy of Empiricism; however, most of Western Civilization since Roman times had been dominated by the philosophy of Rationalism.
Rationalism VS Empiricism
Strict Rationalism is the concept that the universe, God and everything else can be proved to exist by using reason and thought. This philosophical view holds that the world of ideas produced by reason is more valid then what our senses tell us is real. To put it in everyday language; our eyes and ears may lie to us, but our beliefs obtained though philosophical deduction are always true.
Based on this philosophy, the Catholic Church could deny all evidence that the Earth revolved around the Sun, because they already concluded the Earth was the center of everything, and something as weak as evidence was not about to shake them. All western religious thought was based on Rationalism for hundreds of years. It was just how things were done. In a Rationalist society, the great thinkers (usually the ones in power) think the great thoughts of reality and impose it on all who don’t have power regardless (or in spite) of any evidence. This philosophy fit the authoritarian societies of church and state in the Middle Ages very well.
At first glance you might think that fundamentalists are rationalists, strictly adhering to what they are told. But you would be very wrong.
Although Empiricism did originate in the ancient Greek world as did Rationalism, it did not gain much acceptance in the Western world until the Renaissance.
As opposed to Rationalism, Empiricism emphasized that reason and knowledge means nothing without repeatable validation via experimentation using the senses. In other words, any postulate or idea about the world has no meaning without the ability to verify the conclusion through carefully devised tests.
From Empiricism we get the concept of verifiability on which all modern science is based. An idea is only as good as the evidence that backs it up. To a person raised in an Empirical society, nothing can be accepted as fact without proof. Thus Empiricism says that any individual can arrive at real truth by examining the evidence available to anyone without the help or assistance of any authority. This philosophy obviously fits a modern democracy far better than Rationalism since every person is free to determine the validity of reality for his or herself. It does not fit well to dictatorships or monarchies where questioning authority can be very bad for your health.
Although Rationalism and Empiricism are often seen as opposing world views; a philosopher can adhere to both doctrines at the same time. I believe in this combination approach myself. By this I mean that I do believe that rational thought must be used to comprehend and learn about the universe; however, empirical means must be used as a correction mechanism to keep logic and reason in touch with reality. In other words rational thought by itself, without use of empirical testing, can go off on wild tangents that may seem logical and coherent, but have no connection with how the universe actually works or behaves.
As you will see in the next chapter; a modern Christian fundamentalist is as much a child of philosophical Empiricism as is modern Science that the fundamentalists war against so vehemently. As you will see in the next chapter, the Puritan ancestors of fundamentalism prided themselves on having no authoritarian leaders, but in having every man (in some circles women too) read the written word for himself. This is a very Empiricist idea.
This shows us that the Puritan (and modern fundamentalist movements) would never have existed if not for the triumph of Empiricism over Rationalism. The date that Puritanism arose coincides very nicely with the arrival of Empiricism as the dominant philosophical view in English society. Likewise, in the Middle East, fundamentalist Islam has followed the spread of Empiricist ideas throughout the Muslim world. Science and fundamentalism seem to be two sides of a double-edged sword that arises with the spread of Empiricism.
Christian fundamentalists believe themselves to be a revival of the original 1st Century style Christianity throwing off the foreign influences that have polluted the church over the last two millennia.
Ironically, America’s Christian fundamentalists are actually the culmination of a religious movement created by the influence of philosophical Empiricism over the last five hundred years. In spite of their distaste for Science and Evolution, their religious ideas are more kin to the modern Scientific Method than 1st Century Christianity. Today’s fundamentalist thought processes would seem totally alien to first Christians.
- Alan Heimert & Andrew Delbanco, The Puritans in America, 1985; Harvard University Press