Chapter 2: What Is Christian Fundamentalism?
The Forces That Drive the Fundamentalist
The most powerful emotions in the fundamentalist psyche are fear and hatred. Obviously, the fundamentalist is driven by the familiar fear of eternal damnation; but less obvious and perhaps even more powerful is their fear and loathing of uncertainty. More than anything else the fundy cannot stand the thought that the deepest philosophical questions might require contemplation and thought, or may not have an answer at all.
In spite of apparent complexity, fundamentalists are simple creatures that can only feel comfortable with absolute knowledge that they have THE TRUTH held by the throat with a firm death-grip. Claiming to be based on faith; they in fact cannot stand the idea of “not knowing” anything. Much of their hatred of the Theory of Evolution is the fact that it describes a vague mechanism without supplying motivation or intent. It might say what happened, but does not tell the fundy why it occurred.
Likewise, the fundamentalist demand that scripture be inerrant and perfect is a desperate attempt to stamp-out any small shred of uncertainty in favor of an all inclusive definition of everything that is, ever was, or ever will be. Just listen at their disdain for the frightening liberal concept of relative morality. Absolute definitions of right and wrong are vital when you cannot tolerate uncertainty.
The fundamentalist is also obsessed with the concept of redemption. Their entire life is also patterned on the model of the sinner who hits bottom and can only recover through total capitulation to the fundamentalist lifestyle. Before conversion to fundamentalism, the typical subject has sunk as far as they could go (often on the verge of suicide) when their life was suddenly changed by rebirth into the fundamentalist world. They never tire of retelling their personal redemption story to any who will listen.
Many fundamentalists spend their whole lives cycling back and forth in a pattern of “falling from grace” to renewed redemption. Like some sort of spiritual bipolar disorder, they go from their old habits back into the fundy flock. Sometimes I wondered if these individuals intentionally left the church just so they could experience miraculous rebirth over again and have an even more grandiose testimony.
Flexibility and Fluidity
While discussing Christian fundamentalism, it is as important to explain what it is not, as to explain what it is. Christian Fundamentalism is not an organization with any real leaders. Yes, some well known individuals (like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) have had political capital and appear to speak for them on occasion, but they have control only over their own perspective groups. There is no actual authority presiding over fundamentalism which can make the group impossible to control and even harder to confront.
In truth, fundamentalism is a loose coalition of churches believing many different doctrines and tenants but sharing a narrow set of core principles. Churches that contain fundamentalists might be called Baptist, Apostolic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational, but all agreeing on these principles. They are:
The Christian Bible Is The Inspired Word Of God
Almost all take the Bible as literally true and infallible with little disagreement. This includes a literal interpretation of creation, Noah and the flood, and every other fantastic story.
Everything Is Absolute
The world we see is in conflict between the forces of good and evil and everything in life must be weighed in this battle. There is no neutral position on any issue, you are either with them on the side of good, or you are evil, no exceptions.
The political arm of fundamentalism has decided to make abortion, gay rights, birth control and “public indecency” into a crusade whose ultimate goal is to organize the previously loose confederation into a single powerful political unit. In themselves, none of these “issues” are actually important fundy doctrines, but are simply manifestations of the deeper “everything is absolute” dogma.
Fundamentalist Christians Are The Only True Christians
Since they are certain that they own the only real truth, all who are not with them must be children of the devil. Their understanding of the scriptures is the only correct understanding, so everyone else must be lost.
Fundamentalists may appear to be very cordial and friendly to other Christians; but behind their backs, they are brutally honest that all non-fundy’s are doomed unless they convert.
This World Will End Very Soon
All fundamentalists share a conviction that our world will be ended very soon (usually within a generation, if not within the next 5 years). At the end, they believe in the physical return of Jesus to conquer the Earth to make the fundamentalist’s rule a new world.
Since very little of this belief is actually contained in the Bible, there are a lot of variations in this doctrine. However, the simple statement above is shared by all fundamentalists.
They also share a common belief in a physical resurrection of the dead and actual places named “Heaven” and “Hell”. These are locations where the judged soul receives either an eternity of bliss or an eternity of the worst possible suffering imaginable. No purgatory or temporary punishments for them; like everything else they believe, all or nothing.
Beyond these core beliefs, nothing else is in total agreement. Each church or group of churches is run by charismatic leaders as a mini-cult that does whatever the collective group thinks best. Since there are no counsels or organizations that define fundamentalism, there are uncountable variations on each doctrine and idea.
At first glance this fluidity might appear to be a weakness, but in reality it is fundamentalism’s greatest strength. Pinning them down in an argument is like trying to nail pudding to a tree. They change the meaning of words so freely that so that you can never have the final word.
Flexibility in Practice
I recently heard a radio broadcast where two activists were both protesting at the same event. One was a Christian fundamentalist and the other a gay activist. Outrageous extreme banter was thrown about by both sides; however, an event occurred that pointed out nicely the way fundamentalists twist words and meaning to fit their purpose.
The $100 Challenge
The fundamentalist was telling the gay man how he was committing a terrible sin. The gay man responded by saying “I’ll bet you can’t even show me the word ‘homosexual’ in that Bible you have there! He said this knowing that the fundamentalist was holding a King James Version Bible translated in the 1600’s and that the term ‘homosexual’ wasn’t created by psychiatrists until the 1800’s. It was a pointless banter of words that didn’t prove anything beyond the fact that the fundamentalist didn’t know the very Bible he wanted to rule the world by.
The fundy ignorantly replied that he knew good and well that the word was in the Bible. The gay man then told him that he would give him $100 if he could show him that word in his Bible and got him to agree to pay him the same amount if he could not. The fundamentalist plainly agreed to the terms exactly as stated.
You could hear him fumbling, turning pages, anxiously turning back and forth looking for the word, mumbling to himself how he was sure that he had seen it. After about five minutes he called over a friend of his asking him where the word was. This friend said something about the book of Corinthians and wondered off.
“That will be $100 please.”
To which the gay man said,
“No, you owe me the $100; you didn’t show me the word ‘homosexual’ at all!”
The fundamentalist then said that the word effeminate means then same thing as homosexual and claimed it was translated as such in newer versions of the Bible, so he won. In no time he became quite angry that the gay man wouldn’t take his word as authority on the matter saying he was a cheat and a liar.
Yes, they both acted like immature children, so what is my point here?
Personally, I don’t care whether the Bible says anything about homosexuals or not. My point is that the fundamentalist man was unable to admit that he was wrong and had no problem twisting words to say what he wanted without regard of the facts. In truth any dictionary will tell you that the word effeminate essentially means “having inappropriate female-like behavior.” The Houghton Mifflin, American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language defines the word “effeminate” this way:
- Having qualities or characteristics more often associated with women than men.
- Characterized by weakness and excessive refinement.
While I would agree that many gay men often do appear to act effeminate, I have known several that acted this way that were not. I personally own 5 different versions of the Bible and none of them use the word homosexual in this particular verse. I do feel that the writers of the New Testament were trying to say that homosexuality was a sin without spelling it out precisely, however this man failed to see the point. It was the specific use of this word that was being called under question, not the Biblical position on the subject. Now that he knew he could not prove what he was so adamant about earlier, he tried to turn the question into a completely different question so he could win.
This is how fundamentalists always react; when they obviously cannot abide by the rules they change them to their own convenience. Black is black, and white is white, but only for as long as it is not applied to them. When it affects them personally then suddenly all bets are off. They desire the freedom to change the rules as it suits them, but they want to deny anyone else that right.
Back to Their Roots
As I have said before, such behavior reveals their Puritan heritage. Every belief, every emotional reaction held dear by the Twenty-First Century Christian fundamentalist can be traced back to Puritan roots.
They hold, that pastors, teachers, and ruling elders of particular congregations, are, or ought to be the highest spiritual officers in the church, over whom (by divine ordinance) there is no superior Pastor but only Jesus Christ.¹
So you will find no bishops, no cardinals and therefore no governing body deciding what is orthodox fundamentalist teaching. The pastor in each individual church is accountable to no one except his own congregation and the whims of public opinion. In theory I guess you could say that that makes fundamentalist churches the purest form of democracy. But if you are a believer, you must ask yourself, does what you call “God” decide right and wrong based on popular vote?
The Changing Face of Fundamentalism
In spite of their efforts to cling to the past, our modern world has still changed the movement. Standardization of dogma has begun to creep in thanks primarily to mass media.
The Biblical commission to spread the gospel has led these highly motivated people to buy television and radio time. As various fundamentalist groups “spread the Word,” other groups have been influenced and been drawn toward a common experience through the cross-pollination of doctrine. As a result, the churches with the largest congregations (and broadest financial base) are beginning to dictate what the rest of them believe.
Who knows? Perhaps our 500 cable channel culture (a society governed by political polls), may be mirroring the structure of the Puritan church without anyone being aware. Maybe this makes fundamentalism a perfect fit to the American democracy.
The Focus of This Book
Since there is no set doctrine, no central counsel, there is a lot of disagreement between Christian fundamentalists on basic doctrine which makes writing a book about them a difficult task.
However, I will attempt to write one by focusing on a specific breed of fundamentalist that I have a lot of experience with. The fundamentalist I used to be.
I was a member of the Pentecostals, extremely charismatic and the most literalist of all, only considering the King James Version of the Bible to be authentic and perfect. We were what many call “Holy Rollers” because church members would literally dance, jump and run the aisles during a service, all the time loudly singing, shouting and rejoicing.
While I will focus on many doctrines that are specific to the Pentecostals, remember that bits and pieces of their belief-system and behavior are evident in all fundamentalist churches. But while they may have their differences (for example the practice of glossolalia commonly called ‘speaking in tongues’), they all appear to have the same love of self determination and a fierce intolerance for those who disagree with them.
Although this work is told through the eyes of a former Pentecostal, I have tried to focus on the core beliefs that define all fundamentalists. Beliefs that can be taken for granted as you walk into any Baptist, Apostolic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational church in America.
I draw most of this material from my personal experience since I grew up in the middle of this world. We felt uncomfortable in churches with more that 100 members, so the churches we attended may have been a converted store or garage, often very meager and humble. But they were charismatic, isolationist, highly motivated to evangelize and absolutely certain that they are right just like the giant mega-churches that cover the land today.
Yet at the same time they are very caring people with a great hunger for nurturing and fellowship. Becoming a member of a fundamentalist church is like being adopted into a gigantic happy family. There is lots of hugging and everyone is called brother or sister. And they pitch in without question to help those who are in need. In short, the fundamentalist church satisfies needs that have long been ignored by modern society. They provide a purpose and a feed that sense of belonging we all have.
Christian fundamentalists are famous for their strict rules and high moral values; yet, they can be surprisingly tolerant of imperfections in their members. They are extremely judgmental of the outside world, but that stops at the big revival tent door. We see this same behavior come to the forefront whenever a famous minister or right-wing politician is caught in a scandal, no matter how sick and perverted. They all cry together, talk about God’s forgiveness and hug for a while.
Their Use of Language
I have already mentioned the way fundamentalists twist words to fit their beliefs and intentions, but there is another way they use language to their benefit.
They also use an elaborate set of code words to talk to each other without “sinners” being privy to the conversation. Over the last twenty years or so the Republican Party has adopted this type of communications from their Christian fundamentalist members. You hear them speak of being for “family values” when they actually mean they are against gay people have equal protection under the law. They also the call themselves “pro-life” when they actually mean they are against reproductive freedom and the rights of the individual.
More traditional Christians would be amazed by the way fundamentalists use the familiar words ‘church’ and ‘Christianity.’ To them these terms only refer to the local congregation or at most other believers who share the exact same views they have. The word ‘Christian’ to them only refers to other fundamentalists, but never more than that; all others are simply deceived. You might doubt what I am saying, but you do not have to press them very far before they reveal that they are the only true Christians.
This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. While fundamentalists may appear cordial and greet Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans as fellow laborers in Christ, it is all for show. Down deep inside they actually believe that everyone who does not hold similar beliefs to their own is lost, part of a sinful satanically controlled world, even if the poor deceived fools embrace Christianity enthusiastically. All other more established and conventional churches are merely false imitations that have been deceived and fundamentalists are the only true church.
Catholics and many Protestant Christians would also immediately notice the lack of emphasis on the Eucharist. This also stems from the Puritan disdain for the ‘flour god’ of the Catholic Eucharist. They were particularly offended by the Catholic doctrine saying that the bread and wine actually become the physical body of Christ.2
In modern fundamentalism, the Eucharist (usually called the Sacrament) is a minor memorial service and nothing more. It doesn’t carry any of the weight or meaning that it does for most other Christians. In most of the Pentecostal churches I grew up in, was just the first part of a service called a ‘foot-washing,’ and considered to be a very minor part of the service at that. Together the ‘sacrament’ and ‘foot-washing’ were a memorial service celebrating church unity. In my experience, a foot-washing was never a regularly scheduled event and done when someone felt the need, usually once or twice a year.
A comical point to note about the Eucharist is that in many fundamentalist churches it is considered a sin to drink any form of alcohol, so they drink grape-juice instead of wine. In order to cover the obvious contradiction it is believed that references to Jesus drinking wine in the Bible are actually referring to ‘new wine’ (unfermented grape-juice.)
What Does Fundamentalism Offer?
It cannot be stressed enough the value of the family atmosphere in these churches. They make every member feel as though they are part of the church family as a whole. They reinforce this feeling of in everything they do and in every other doctrine of fundamentalism. It has many important effects both profound and subtle.
The family atmosphere helps to motivate members to participate in political protests and to ensure that they vote together as a block. This has made them a powerful political force for several decades. Although it may not seem to have been as large a factor in the 2008 election, do not by any means imagine that we have heard the last of the religious-right!
This feeling of belonging also encourages regular attendance, propping up the financial base of the church as well as being a motivational force to win new converts.
Even seemingly irrelevant beliefs and regulations like those covering dress-codes and restricting hair-styles serve this purpose. Specific dress codes and other such rules cause the fundamentalist to stick-out in a crowd, making them feel “out of place” in society causing them to draw tighter together into their church family. The shared sense of community apart from the rest of society is common to all fundamentalist churches and helps make them a powerful force.
Christian fundamentalists are a large collection of believers scattered throughout churches that differ on many beliefs but share a core set of ideas inherited from Puritan values. The Puritan virtues of fluidity and individualism empower these believers making them quarrelsome and uncontrollable, but at the same time these characteristics make them strong, resilient and difficult to overcome.
The fluidity of fundamentalism manifests itself in their ability to twist and code language to whatever end they desire. This allows them to see scripture as infallible (by making the words mean what they want them to) and allows them to win debates and control conversations.
Finally, fundamentalist churches attract members by providing a loving, forgiving family-like atmosphere that has become rare in Western society. This atmosphere reinforces the feeling that fundamentalists are at war, out to save the world and condemn it at the same time.
We will see these ideas explored in greater depth in the following chapters.
- William Bradshaw, English Puritanism, 1605;
- Alan Heimert & Andrew Delbanco, The Puritans in America, 1985; Harvard University Press