dr ngo on US fundamentalism: part 2


by dr ngo

And then the 1960s came, and I left the church, and things started to change. I also left California, and for 25 of the next 40 years (1964-2004) actually lived outside the United States, where my exposure to trends in American beliefs and behaviors was attenuated by distance. Doubly estranged, then, from the first-person narrative, I can only speculate as to what happened once I was gone.

Clearly there have been all manner of changes in American society. The “Free Speech” movement among many other challenges to censorship; we now see and hear every day words and images that were literally invisible Back In The Day. The Civil Rights movement and the Anti-[Vietnam]-War movement; a breakdown of the apparent consensus of quiescent support of the government, even of American virtue itself. The rise of feminism. The re-emergence of self-conscious “conservatism” in political life, starting with Goldwater in 1964, who fell short, and culminating in the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, which over-achieved. Greater ease of divorce and abortion. The spread of legalized gambling. The public assertion of gay rights. Within Christianity, the rise of radio, and then television, “ministries” that gave louder voice to the most extreme, the most charismatic (and to some extent distanced many believers from local churches). Meanwhile, the virtual collapse of Sabbatarianism; nowadays Chick-Fil-A is notable for being the only fast food chain NOT open on Sundays. The list could go on and on.

What strikes me, in glancing over this half-century or so of change, is how little of it directly challenged fundamentalism as such. The intellectual threats to fundamentalism remain today, as they always have been, the challenges of modernism, not post-modernism. Historical-textual criticism. Darwin. Marx. Freud. All essentially 19th-century, to which (it may be argued) “fundamentalism” was actually a response, a defense of older orthodoxies against ideas that were “modern” long before any of us were born.

And none of this has really changed in the last century. Post-modernism? See above. DNA research? Just further elaboration of Darwinian science. New interpretations of the size and age of the universe? Carrying on a tradition that goes back at least to Galileo. “Creationism” has risen in the context of the political struggle for cultural mastery, rather than in response to any new developments in modern science. (Science has made tremendous strides, but hasn’t forged any really new paradigms since Einstein, and relativity is sufficiently fuzzy to allow for fuzzy non-responses by non-scientists.) Fundamentalism as a theological, rather than a social, movement has faced no new challenges in my lifetime, as far as I can tell. And intellectually it still remains, I suspect, outside the mainstream of America’s religious thinking.

We see, rather, in this period a shattering of the carapace of “nominal Christianity” that had shielded fundamentalists from the secular world beyond. Believers were exposed to the sight of others behaving in ways contrary to the conventional morality of our time – drinking, gambling, fornicating, divorcing, challenging authority (governmental, masculine, parental), swearing, insulting the faith, etc. – and doing so not only without legal consequences but without effective social disapproval. It had to look like Sodom and Gomorrah, or a sign of the coming of The End Of Times.

It is in this context, I suspect, that fundamentalists such as those I grew up with may have been open to recruitment by the newly-politicized Christian Right [CR]. I do not know the full history of how the CR came into being, but I know there were fumbling starts and stops, as with any political movement. And one element of the evolution of its tactics must have been squaring the circle by getting fundamentalists to unite politically with large numbers of “nominal Christians,” because the former were never going to be sufficiently numerous, by themselves, to make a real political difference. The genius lay in identifying and promoting issues that came to feel more vital than the real theological differences that still (I presume) separated the true “Bible-believing” Christians from the rest. The leaders have also managed to convert the traditional fundamentalist sense of isolation into a more general sense of persecution, in spite of the fact that by broadening the base they transformed what was once a tiny minority into a substantial coalition of “Christians.”

And this is where I am a puzzled outsider, because I look at what is now an issue for the CR and what is not, and have difficulty discerning just how this emerged from the background I have described (in Part I). Clearly most of these issues are behavioral, rather than spiritual; this was always the common ground between fundamentalists and the “nominal Christians.”

But even within this sphere, there are paradoxes. Abortion (never mentioned in my youth) is a big issue, where the CR pushes for stronger state intervention; perhaps understandable in view of Roe v. Wade. But the liberalization of divorce – surely a greater threat to the “integrity” of the American family – is not, at least at a political level. Individual clerics and churches may well inveigh against divorce, but I’m not seeing any groundswell of CR support for legislative action to make it more difficult again, the way it used to be.

Similarly, homosexuality has become a political issue, but not adultery, in the sense of wishing state prohibitions against it (re-)enacted and enforced. I see virtually no support for a renewal of Sabbatarian restrictions or the outright prohibition of gambling, including state lotteries. Is there a pattern here? Is the target audience Christians who believe (rightly or wrongly) that they would never be tempted into homosexuality or abortion, but who enjoy Sunday shopping and buying lottery tickets and the possibility of adultery or divorce, if someone better comes along? And what does any of this have to do with fundamentalism, in any theological or ecclesiastical sense? I just don’t get it.

Patriotism as a religious issue – that’s a pretty easy button to find and push. Allowing public “displays” of Christianity seems to be winner, even among fundamentalists who believe that most of those involved – the ministers who give invocations at the start of public gatherings, the teachers who promote Christmas pageants – are only “nominal Christians.” (Fundamentalists tend in practice to follow La Rochefoucauld, even if they’ve never heard of him: “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” It doesn’t really matter whether people believe in the Ten Commandments, much less follow them religiously; what matters is that the state should endorse them and they should see them on display.) Supporting overseas American military adventures stems from a mixture of respect for authority (“the powers that be”), inculcation in patriotic mythology, and for some, a distinctive interpretation of Middle Eastern history, politics, and eschatology, in which the Holy Land plays a central role (and which has been discussed at length elsewhere, e.g., “Slacktivist”).

Evolution as a political issue arises, I think, from the general anti-intellectualism of the Right in America, about which I have written elsewhere. The arguments against evolution are familiar to me from half a century ago; there is no scientific development, or anti-scientific argument, that is new in this period. But a prolonged political campaign that begins with the premise that our public schools are failing – arguably true – and proceeds to the conclusion that therefore they should be undermined or even abandoned – simply arguable – finds in anti-evolution another useful stick with which to beat the state.

Here I can easily comprehend why fundamentalists are engaged; they are (we were) those who believe(d) in the Bible as the literal Word of God, and evolution is a challenge (though some fundamentalists have managed to reconcile Darwin and the Scriptures). What puzzles me here is how the millions of Americans who are not “fundamentalists” (as I understand the term) manage to support the CR without believing the verbal inerrancy of Scripture. My best guess is that the constant efforts to erode the credibility of ALL experts, to dismiss “reason” and “education” as unreliable, has paid off with them. They don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the Bible; they just have to disbelieve “science” as well.

In short, I see the CR as a hodgepodge, with many fundamentalist supporters (as well as “nominal Christians,” by fundamentalist standards), but without real fundamentalist roots for many of its key political issues. I can imagine – I do not know whether or not it is true – many members of the churches I once belonged to now involved in the CR, one way or another. But I do not see the CR as growing naturally out of the faith I once professed. It is too political, too superficial, too inconsistent, too much inclined to ignore or slide past what used to be profound theological differences between the “elect” and the unsaved majority of Americans. To understand its rise and (relative) success I think we need to look not at fundamentalist theology, nor at the psychology of its true believers, but at the particular political operations of those who created and still manipulate the Christian Right.


One thought on “dr ngo on US fundamentalism: part 2

  1. I think there is one big intellectual challenge to fundamentalism that has only developed in the last fifty years (or call it a socio-intellectual challenge). This is a refutation of the belief that a ‘civilised’ democracy requires Christian belief to sustain it. Before WW2 there were almost no non-Christian democracies, and those that existed could be dismissed for other grievous social sins (like Classical Athens and Revolutionary France). Nowadays, as well as Turkey, Japan, Israel and India, there are a number of effectively post-Christian European democracies.

    This poses a serious intellectual problem for certain strains of Protestant theology. Given the total depravity of man (and obviously, the even more total depravity of woman), how can such socities exist, without descending into the barbarism that fundamentalist teaching tells is to be expected? A whole Godless society that nevertheless does not disintigrate into tyranny or brutality means that the excuse offered for the US (that it’s the non-believers who are doing all the bad things in our society) doesn’t work. Protestants also don’t have the Catholic option of using the idea of natural law: that people may instinctively follow ‘Christian’ morality, even without a knowledge of God.

    I wonder if this is the reason that the belief in the imminent extinction or dhimmitude of the whole of Europe is something not only believed but relished by a number of Americans: it removes a major contradiction to their theology. (And equally, if the more militant British atheists did not have the US religious right as a bogeyman, their scare tactics would lose most of their impact).

    More generally, having though a bit more about my own evangelical experiences, I wonder if there isn’t often a trade-off between the striving for religious and political ‘success’ by church movements. In the 1980s, Evangelical Anglicans definitely prioritised mass conversion over attempts to influence the political system (although we did both), and I wonder now if it was related to the feeling of political impotence that Thatcherism induced. If you are converting enough people, you don’t (in some sense) need to focus on specific political issues: a converted nation will change public opinion and hence policies anyhow. Conversely, if your numbers are not growing, then political lobbying may convince you that you are nevertheless making a difference to your country. (There are some movements that have combined political and religious revival, but I think these are less common).

    One of the main threats to fundamentalism, after all, is a loss of purpose. You have to believe that what you are doing is significant or why should you bother? Why not just follow the crowd? The switch to specific political causes may be as much about generating passion in your congregation as any actual effect. Spiritual warfare, is always easier to maintain, as has been shown throughout history, if you can identify the forces of evil here on earth.


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