Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fundamentalism, the greatest evil?

In a recent response to one of my posts, someone made the statement that “The rise of Fundamentalism is the greatest danger facing our world today.” Perhaps a short history lesson is in order. The origin of the word “fundamentalist,” as applied to Christians, dates to the publication of a set of essays in 1909 entitled, “The Fundamentals.” These essays were the response of Christians who argued for a more “literal” interpretation of the Bible in opposition to “Modernists” who were attacking the historic doctrines of Christianity.

By “literal” interpretation, these “Fundamentalists” (as they came to be known) believed that the Bible should be interpreted by determining—as much as humanly possible—what the original authors of the biblical writings were trying to communicate to their readers. This is done by interpreting these biblical writings just like any other ancient documents, i.e. by taking such matters into consideration as genre, grammar, figures of speech and historical background. The phrase “literal interpretation” is rather unfortunate because many people came to wrongly assume that “literal interpretation” meant a denial of all symbolism or figures of speech when in reality, the word “literal” was simply used in contrast to more wildly allegorical or metaphorical interpretations.

The early Fundamentalists agreed with the Reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.) and with the Roman Catholic Church, that Jesus was the incarnation of God, that he died as an atoning sacrifice for sins, that he physically rose from the dead, and that the Bible was inspired by God, etc. Modernists tended to deny these historical and fundamental Christian doctrines (and, ironically, still wanted to be known as Christians--go figure!).

Although agreeing with the “fundamental” doctrines of the Christian faith, many Christians called themselves Evangelicals, to distance themselves from the narrow sectarianism that came to characterize Fundamentalism. Both Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, however, agreed not only on the “fundamentals,” they also emphasize the forgiveness of sin through repentance and a personal faith in Jesus Christ. They emphasize the importance of a loving devotion to Jesus Christ and of sharing this faith with others.

Politically, Fundamentalist / Evangelical Christians generally oppose such things as pornography, prostitution, child abuse, sex outside of marriage, abortion-on-demand, homosexual sex, drug abuse, etc. (it can be argued on purely secular grounds that all of these are fundamentally destructive to society). They also oppose the removal of Christian symbols from the public square, and the suppression of Christian voice in public schools.

While Evangelicals / Fundamentalists are often attacked for their political activism (i.e. for exercising their Constitutional rights) my guess is that for every Evangelical / Fundamentalist who is politically active, there are a hundred (if not a thousand) more who believe that our primary task is to preach the gospel and that we should stay out of politics. Although many people think Evangelicals are politically active, the fact is that it is a real challenge to get most Evangelicals to do anything political beyond voting. We are such a huge group that if even half of us became serious about political action, I suspect the result would make Jerry Falwall’s “Moral Majority” or Pat Robertson’s “Christian Coalition” pale in comparison.

There is little chance of that, however. Several years ago when an artist used public funding to depict a crucified Jesus dipped in urine, most Evangelicals barely raised a whimper (and I don’t recall the ACLU complaining about tax dollars being used for a religious display—apparently they are only concerned suppressing about positive religious messages).

Anyway, if the spending of tax dollars to portray a crucified Jesus in urine didn’t motivate most Evangelicals, nothing will (can you imagine what would happen if an artist, with the support of U.S. tax dollars, had publicly displayed a Qur’an dipped in urine? There would be blood in the streets worldwide! The vast majority of Evangelicals / Fundamentalists, however, just quietly pray, worship, engage in outreach programs and give lots and lots of money to various charitable causes (the victims of hurricane Katina and the Afghanistan earthquakes, being two recent examples).

The overwhelmingly vast majority of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists oppose vengeance and personal violence. In other words, while they may support the just use of police and military force, they do not believe in violently taking the law into their own hands and they do not use force to retaliate for wrongs done against them. Although the enemies of Christian Fundamentalists / Evangelicals endlessly refer to supposed Christian violence—like the IRA, crusades, abortion clinic bombers—these are examples of people who are/were for the most part either not Christians at all—at least not in the historical Fundamentalist / Evangelical sense described above—or who represent a tiny fraction of the whole.

Unfortunately, it is this relatively tiny fraction that gets all the press—after all, its news when some wacko claiming to be Christian tries to bomb an abortion clinic. It’s not news that hundreds-of-thousands of other Evangelicals / Fundamentalists went to church that week to worship and to generously give of their time and money to serve others.

How do I know all this? Because I am an insider. Over the course of my fifty-one years on this planet, I have been part of Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches for over thirty of those years. I have been a member or regular attender of seventeen Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches in eleven states from coast to coast. These churches have ranged in size from a few dozen to several thousand members. I’ve worked with them as pastor, youth pastor, board member, and in many other ministries. In addition to churches, I’ve also attended / taught / worked for over a half-dozen Evangelical or Fundamentalist colleges and graduate schools. I’ve personally taught and interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of Evangelical / Fundamentalist students and faculty members. These churches and schools include numerous denominations and range all the way from institutions that were proud to be called Fundamentalist to those that were on the far left wing of Evangelicalism. I've also read dozens (if not hundreds) of Evangelical books. I know Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism from the inside.

Linking Christian Fundamentalism with Islamic Fundamentalism happens regularly in the media. Some people link the two out of honest ignorance. After all, both groups are called “Fundamentalists” so they must be essentially the same, right? Wrong! Other people, however, appear to link the two in a deliberate attempt to link conservative Christians with terrorism. The second possibility is so dishonest and evil that it reminds me of stories about the Nazi demonization of Jews before World War II.