dr ngo on religious fundamentalism (part 1)

Another post by my occasional guest blogger dr ngo, giving an American perspective on religion, politics and history:


by dr ngo

A recent thread on “Obsidian Wings” on the Christian Right intrigued me, in part because of my own past relationship to some of the institutions in question. I grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s in a couple of self-labeled fundamentalist churches (members of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America) in California. For more than a dozen years I attended church regularly: four services every Sunday – Sunday School, morning service, early evening youth service, evening service – often with a prayer meeting on Wednesday night or a “youth fellowship” on Friday night as well. I subscribed to virtually all of their beliefs, at least until almost the end. And I attended Daily Vacation Bible School and various summer camps of the same ilk. So I knew this tradition well, at least one strand of it. (I am well aware that there were many many more; fundamentalists were nothing if not schismatic!).

Then I left the church, and left Christianity for good. Now more than forty years have past, and when I see what the Christian Right [CR] is doing in America today, I understand part of it but am puzzled by the rest. I know where “they” (for a unique subset of “they”) were coming from, but I’m not entirely sure how they got to where they are today.

I am aware that serious studies have been done on how the CR came into being as a political force – who organized it, who funded it – and this is NOT in any way an attempt to compete with or supersede these works. I have no particular insight as to what the CR professes today, much less the psychological dynamics (“authoritarian personality”?) underlying it in its current form. In other words, I’m not directly engaging the “oogedy-boogedy” dialogue as it evolved on Obsidian Wings.

Rather this is a bit of personal history – one piece of a very large mosaic, perhaps – as well as some public musing on how the largely non-political beliefs of half a century ago might have evolved into what we see today. For the first of these I vouch; the latter is speculative, no more valid than the insights of any other observer.

I begin with fundamentalism in the Fifties, as I recall it now. First, we were “Bible-believing” Christians, a description which (we thought) separated us from most members of most Protestant churches, to say nothing of Catholics, Mormons, and the like. We held as a central article of faith that the Bible was literally the Word of God (“verbally inspired”) and therefore to be trusted in all matters, that Jesus Christ was literally God on earth, that he literally died and literally rose again, and that faith in him was the only path to salvation, eternal life in a literal heaven rather than eternal damnation in a literal hell. There was more – much more – but these points were fundamental. Literally.

From these tenets, and our reading of the scriptures (guided always by the Scofield Reference Bible – you could literally hear the pages in the pews turning at the same time!), we deduced behavioral rules that were much more puritanical than those around us, even most other Protestants. We didn’t smoke, we didn’t drink, we didn’t dance, we didn’t gamble. The more “liberal” members of the congregation went to movies; our family didn’t. We observed Sunday as “the Sabbath” and tried to avoid all “worldly” activity on that day; we most certainly did not watch NFL football.

It should come as no surprise that as “Bible-believing” Christians we were convinced that we were in a minority among Americans. The exact boundaries of true Christianity – what was the minimum one had to believe in order to be “saved” – was a topic of endless dispute, but there was no question in our minds that most Americans were NOT real Christians. The more tolerant among us pointed out that we didn’t know just how far one might stray and still be saved by Christ’s mercy, but by and large we assumed that it was not far.

So we lived, as we perceived it, surrounded by unbelievers. We looked around us, at school or at work, in public life and in the movies, and we saw “nominal Christians,” people who did not share our faith, who wouldn’t understand or accept it if we articulated it fully, and who regarded our behavioral norms as odd. (Catholics and Mormons and the like didn’t even count as “nominal Christians,” in our view, but they were not essentially all that different from most who went to Episcopalian or Methodist or Presbyterian churches, in that they were not really “Bible-believing” as we understood the term. Jews, followers of other religions, and atheists were simply farther on the wrong side of the line.) I don’t recall anyone ever estimating or calculating what proportion of American society we represented, but I had the distinct impression it couldn’t have been more than ten percent, perhaps not even a tenth of that! And by our narrow standards, I think I was not far wrong in that guess.

Thus we always felt ourselves isolated, a feeling that continues today, to the bafflement of many non-believers. “How come they always portray themselves as a victimized minority, when American society has always been dominated by self-professed Christians?,” they wonder aloud, not quite grokking the fundamentalist perception that most of the “nominal Christians” who represent the majority of Americans were not real Christians. Their presence failed to alleviate our isolation as a beleaguered band of believers. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” we recited. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life.”

Those with a modicum of theological education referred to “the elect”; in Calvinist terms, the doctrine was called “limited atonement.” Christ died for everyone, yes, but not everyone – not even all of those who called themselves Christians – would be beneficiaries of his death. We were few; we were, and perhaps always would be, outnumbered. If you do not grasp that, you cannot begin to understand the fundamentalist perspective.

(Within the wider realm of Christianity, of course, many believers have conceived of God’s mercy and grace as being much farther-reaching than this, of His love as applying effectively to all of humankind, not just a select few. “Hell” for most of them is not real, and even if it were, very few souls would actually be confined there for eternity. There is much theology, and some commonsense morality, in support of this view. But it was never ours.)

By and large, however, we did not consider ourselves persecuted, and this seems to me one of the points in which my 1950s did not resemble the 21st century of the Christian right. There was certainly some talk of persecution (and reciting of “Blessed are ye when men shall persecute you”), but I recall it as being limited to extremes. My parents had been missionaries in China, so when they talked of the persecution of Chinese believers it was serious stuff: converts who faced the possibility of condign punishment or even death.

Somewhat more mundane were those Americans who were persecuted for making a nuisance of themselves in public by “witnessing” too overtly. It was understood that if you stood up on a soapbox and shouted out “Jesus Saves,” or carried a large sign proclaiming the same message, people would laugh at you or worse. You might risk a promotion, or even your job, for being too outspoken in the workplace. But these were, for most of us, out-of-the-ordinary events. As we went about our daily lives, we felt isolated, but not persecuted.

As I reflect on it now, it strikes me that we benefited from being embedded in a nominally “Christian” society, even if we did not acknowledge the Christianity of many who had shaped it. There were laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol, even though Prohibition was long gone. The expression of immorality and vulgarity in the media was restricted both by overt censorship and by self-censorship; there were a lot of words one simply never encountered on radio or TV or in the newspapers, a lot of situations never depicted. Abortion was illegal (and never mentioned). Divorce was difficult, and a definite social and political liability (as both Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller were to learn). The husband was assumed in law to be the “head of the household,” and his authority (under Christ) was presumed in almost any marital discord.

Public affirmations of Christianity, ranging from Christmas pageants to invocations at public meetings, were routine; we all felt that public officials ought to be governed by Christian morality, though of course we also knew that many would fall short. Our patriotism was also quasi-religious, as our religion tended to be unthinkingly patriotic; the Pilgrim fathers had planted on this continent a nation uniquely dedicated to achieving God’s purposes on earth. (Here, I was in a minority, because my father, who remained a British subject, would point out to us that it was scarcely true that, as one song had it, “Only in America can freedom ring!” His response: “Haven’t they ever heard of the Magna Charta?”) But our church was otherwise pretty non-political; “The powers that be are ordained of God,” we quoted. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

There was also Sabbatarianism. Most businesses simply were not open on Sunday, often because of “blue laws”: no offices, few retail establishments, etc. Even where there were secular activities scheduled on Sundays – e.g., baseball games – they would start in the afternoon, because it was assumed that everyone ought to be in church on Sunday morning. We knew perfectly well that for many Americans Sunday was not a “holy day” in a real sense, but it was a least a “holiday,” and that was better than nothing. (By the same token, I recollect that schools closed on both Good Friday and Easter Monday, but I’m not sure I trust my memory on this point.) I’m not sure that any American born since, say, 1960, can appreciate just how different that was.

What all of this did, in effect, was to create a kind of “Christian” carapace around us, separating us from overt secularism, from outright denial (as opposed to apathetic dismissal) of what we believed. The world of the 1950s was – for us – a “nice” place, safe, full of those who paid lip service to our social values, even if they did not share (as we saw it) the fundamental faith in which those values were grounded. My wife, whose view of the 1950s comes from a very different perspective (female; East/Midwest USA, rather than California; middle-class Presbyterian, &c.), tends to look back on the decade without affection, and I have no doubt she is right that it was a tough time for anyone who was not comfortable with white, patriarchal, conformist America. But for (white) fundamentalists as a whole, it was not a threatening time. “We” were few, but we were surrounded by others who shared enough of our social and cultural values to keep real challenges at a safe distance.


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