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Monday, July 5, 2010

Characteristics of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity

Jeri Massi, whom I consider to be a friend and who has an excellent blog, has an interesting post on her site called: "A Sociologist Lives Among Christian Fundamentalists: His Conclusions." Jeri is a former fundamentalist Christian who has left that realm but is still a believer (I will allow her to define exactly what label best describes her current beliefs). The post is about a book by James Ault entitled: Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church . Ault is a sociologist who spent two years as part of a Fundamentalist Baptist Church in Massachusetts. His book is quite interesting. Jeri summarized some of Ault's findings in her post. She writes:

The Oral Tradition of Fundamentalism created a ready-made culture where one had not existed before, complete with its own history and its outlook of being at the center of a cosmic struggle. This cosmic struggle, by the way, is not the victorious struggle of Christ to overcome Satan and sin, but rather the struggle of Fundamentalism to restore the present culture to godliness.

The “wall of virtue” – a dress code and code of behavior that makes the Fundamentalist distinct from the rest of society. This springs up far more as a reaction against modern secularism than from any details in the sacred text, even if the sacred text is made to support the details of the wall of virtue.

Outrage – The perception that Fundamentalism is part of a cosmic struggle (the most important part) to return secular society and liberal religion back to God creates a sense of rightness in harangue, protest, confrontational behavior against those perceived to be “on the other side,” and in some instances of illegal and even violent behavior. The Fundamentalist mindset is that people who do not share the views of Fundamentalism are actually, knowingly rebelling against God fuels the fires of outrage. Several writers have noted that the culture of outrage against society, even though the outrage is usually law-abiding, nonetheless reflects the selective nature of the way Fundamentalists approach the Bible. . . .

Charismatic male leadership (the shaman) – . . . their culture is dominated by a few men who pass down the decrees that set the tone for the movement. This shaman approach does stratify Fundamentalism. A Bob Jones Fundamentalist is not identical to a Jerry Falwell Fundamentalist or a Jack Hyles Fundamentalist [or a John MacArthur Fundamentalist]. Baptist Fundamentalism, in fact, can be seen as many small empires, loosely confederated together by the sense of being the last (or most important) fighters in the cosmic struggle to set religion right again.

The different strata of Fundamentalists may not like each other, but they sense a certain strained unity as they confront far worse issues around them. But the shaman is the centerpiece of much of the identity, belief, and behaviors of Fundamentalism. Reading the Bible tends to serve what the shaman decrees rather than being a means to verify what the shaman has proclaimed. Therefore different shamans in Fundamentalism have made decrees that are entirely contrary to the Bible, but their followers refuse to believe this, or simply don’t know that their leaders are speaking in opposition to Scripture. . . .

Impending Cataclysm – The fuel that drives much of Fundamentalism is manifested in two heralded events: The Rapture/Tribulation and the Downfall of America. At different times, depending on external circumstances, the one will have supremacy over the other as the main tool for drawing large crowds, making audacious predictions of doom, and whipping up emotions. The advent of 2000 and the New Millennium brought on an incredible host of Rapture predictions in the late 1990’s, but as the day drew closer, many Fundamentalists fell back on the safer theory of the downfall of America. I mean, there’s nothing worse than waking up on January 2, 2000 with egg on your face and your foot in your mouth.

The tragedy of 9/11 bolstered Fundamentalism’s sagging credibility. Then again, if you predict cataclysm for 90 years straight, sooner or later you will be proved correct. But cataclysm in the Fundamentalist Oral Tradition represents divine judgment that sets earthly conditions right and returns people to a previous ideal state. This ideal state is entirely mythical: Religion will return to doctrinal purity where Christianity (the Fundamentalist version) is openly acknowledged by everybody to be the superior religion, and brown-skinned natives will be ready to receive it; America will return to a pre-modern culture that is drug-free, harmonious, and economically productive. Even Israel will re-form, become a religious nation again, and this time it will accept the Messiah, Jesus Christ, like it should have done the first time, and all will be set right. . . .

Outdated, isolated, and remote – Being out of date has never hindered Fundamentalism before because it could draw in people who felt alienated in modern culture. Fifty years ago, Fundamentalists were distinctively conservative but still able to participate in American society as a recognizable part of it. Fundamentalism offered a genuine remedy because it shared many assumptions and premises that many Americans recognized and even accepted. Fundamentalism, rather than forcing a lot of change onto its converts, simply persuaded them to re-prioritize their values and live in terms of things they already knew to be true. . . .

The internet has raised challenges to Fundamentalism that were not foreseen by the shamans of the Fundamentalist Oral tradition. The situation ethics, selective interpretations of the Bible, and scandals that are part of the very weave of Fundamentalism are now being challenged and debated openly, in forums where the shamans cannot exert control. But this is not one-sided. Fundamentalism relies upon hierarchy, and part of its membership just as vigorously opposes the new challenges because they threaten the fabric of Fundamentalism. The internet, rather than really reforming Fundamentalism, is polarizing it.

While Jeri would consider these characteristics to be only true of fundamentalist Christianity which she believes is a caricature of "true Christianity," I think they are basically true of historic Judaism and Christianity.

1. Oral Tradition--this of course is how religions, including Judaism and Christianity, were passed down from generation to generation until the traditions were written down. Paul himself says that the gospel was received by oral tradition (1 Cor. 15:3) and he tells Timothy to continue to pass it down (2 Tim. 2:2). Of course, Jeri would say that Paul was unique and that once the NT was completed, divine revelation ceased. I would argue that not all Christians agree that revelation has ceased. Many throughout history and today believe that God continues to speak to them.

2. Wall of Virtue--Many of the OT laws were designed to mark Israel off as separate and distinct from the world around them. Some of the practices that were forbidden them were not inherently immoral but they were prohibited because they were practiced by the Gentiles and God wanted his people to be distinct. He prefaced some commands with "Be ye holy, as I am holy" (Lev. 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). The word "holy" refers to being "set apart," or "separate" from everything that might defile. Over and over, Yahweh told the Israelites that they were to be different than the nations around them. They were a "special people," a "chosen people," and they were not bring shame upon the name of their God. The NT picks this up and transfers the notion to Christians.

3. Cosmic Struggle--I think the Bible clearly presents the notion of a "cosmic struggle" between good and evil. While Fundamentalists interpreted this primarily in terms of lifestyle issues (which the Bible does address), they are not totally off base to see the world in terms of "us" (the insiders, "God's people") vs. "them" (the outsiders, the children of the Devil) (John 3:36; 8:44).

4. Male leadership--this definitely is Bible-based. The leaders of Israel were male; priests had to be males; the disciples were male; elders or pastors have to be male. It seems that the Fundamentalists are just following the Bible here.

5. Impending Cataclysm--once again, I think this comes directly from the Bible. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet in a long line of apocalyptic prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, John the Baptist, etc.). He taught that the end of the age would happen before the first generation of his followers passed away (Matt. 24:34; see chapter 12 in The Christian Delusion). While Christians have reinterpreted Jesus' words as well as other prophecies to fit with the fact that its been 2000 years and the end has not come; the fact remains that Jesus taught he would return soon and the disciples, including Paul, believed he would in their lifetimes.

6. Outdated, isolated, and remote--I would apply this to all religions which cling to the superstitious ideas of ancient peoples. Science has shown time and time again that there are natural explanations for what people used to think required supernatural agents. There are still unexplained phenomena but I don't see any need to doubt that they too will be explained naturalistically eventually.

So, while Jeri Massi presents a stinging criticism of Fundamental Christianity, I think her criticisms apply equally to any form of Christianity that takes the Bible seriously.


  1. I think the sociologist got it right. It's about personalities and their using the Bible to back them up. It's not about studying the Bible in every way imaginable. It's like an over-simplification of the Bible. You start with the fundie views, then find your back-up in the Bible.

    Yes, the personalities and the separation and definitely an US vs. THEM worldview.

    May I say again how all this causes harm to the serious-minded child. I was struck by a friend saying how he grew up in a religious home but wasn't paying much attention. THAT'S what saved him from the psychological damage it does.

    And fundies stay in their world by limiting what they read and by refusing to open up their minds. Why would they want to open their minds to the devil, after all? That's what they've been taught will happen if they start questioning. My close childhood friend told me that very thing-"You read too much."

  2. Ault is a sociologist who spent two years as part of a Fundamentalist Baptist Church in Massachusetts.

    Tragically, we do have a few.

    My close childhood friend told me that very thing-"You read too much."

    I think this says all that needs to be said, really.

  3. As usual, lots I'd love to say, but have to be brief: Lynn, you've said it well, and accurately... the damage does vary a lot from person to person. In my own case, I think it "ended up" well, with minimal trauma or scaring (tho I'm not dead and still learning, growing), but that is often not the case.

    My departure was unusually long and gradual, actually beginning in college studying psychology, later practicing it, and still later studying psych and theology at a progressive seminary (Claremont). But I remained "Evangelical"--not fully fundy--until after that seminary experience of 4 years. Many people do not get the educational supports and inputs that I did, nor have the relentless curiosity and do the unending analysis as I did (and still do, as an "outsider"). When they can't see the reasons for the inconsistencies, etc., nor see any alternatives to make sense of the world and their experience, they remain confused (often unknowingly), perhaps doubt-ridden, and often become all the more closed and "us/them" as a result.

    Ken, great material again... I also read parts of a great, fascinating book by a young woman -- can't recall her name now, nor the title -- about her going, under "deep cover," to Liberty U. and it's parent, Thomas Road Bapt. Church. She was assumed to be a true believer. She never was, and the ending about her agony of coming clean with some key friends and a leader, and whether/how to write her planned book are a fascinating study in the power of relationships, some of the "magic" of church services and worship, etc., even to a non-believer. Highly recommended to peruse if not read entirely... and don't miss the last 2 or 3 chapters, once you have the set-up clear. Sorry I can't give even part of the title at the moment... published around 2008 I think, or a year or so after Falwell's death, which was in her time frame.

    Just as to the point on "cosmic struggle:" This is a particularly powerful mental (and group) dynamic, especially with the more passionate followers of any kind of fundamentalism. I recall a book that does a great job of detailing this, in historical development, particularly in the Palestinian or Arab/Muslim-Israeli conflict. It traces the same dynamic of this and other aspects in the fundy mindset and organizations of Christianity, Judaism and Islam--equally all three. "Terror in the Mind of God," by Jurgensmeyer.

  4. The fundamentalists that I know are anxious to differentiate themselves from the Jerry Falwell types. When I called them "Evangelists" they corrected me and said "No, we are Evangelicals" We are not like the TV evangelists. (they were Baptist missionaries)