The rise of Fundamentalism began as a reaction to liberal and progressive views held by Americans in the mid-19th century. One view they reject, held by scholars who employ the methods of biblical criticism¹, is that the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) were not composed by Moses.
In addition, the influx of non-Protestant immigrants at the turn of the 19th century alarmed conservative Christian ministers. In the midst of accelerated fragmentation of Christian denominations and attempts to bring “modernism” into American churches and seminaries, Fundamentalists rushed in to combat the swing of the pendulum toward liberalism.
The roots of American Fundamentalist beliefs can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878 and 1897. Those attending espoused a return to time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns of the past. They believed that distinctive roles for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity, were defined in the Bible, and so was the process of creation. Fundamentalists also believed that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, although some are willing to entertain the possibility of an unknown author where one is not mentioned.
Fundamentalists fought vehemently against America’s pendulum swing toward social liberalism by defending what they defined as the “fundamentals” of historic Christian teachings. One of the ways they expressed their convictions was through the publication and wide distribution of 12 booklets called The Fundamentals between 1910 and 1915. The authors insisted that:
A conversion process must occur when inquirers place their salvation in the hands of Jesus Christ alone;
the Bible is infallible in matters of science and history, as well as theology; and
following a mighty battle, the physical return of Christ to Earth will establish a kingdom where peace and righteousness will reign.
One of the major causes of the rise of the Fundamentalist movement occurred when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in the mid-19th century. Fundamentalist Christian preachers believed the work was a direct attack on the creation stories in the Bible.
Conservative Christian leaders became more than a little anxious when an influx of non-Protestant immigrants arrived at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, owing to increased persecution in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, many Eastern Orthodox Christians also came to Western Europe and America. Immigrants from Germany, the land of “destructive biblical criticism,” arrived in the U.S., which provoked increasing outcries of modernization, largely from “old stock" Americans. A growing number of them believed they had been betrayed by an American Congress that had led the country into World War I after having promised to prevent it from going to war.
Teaching the theory of evolution in public schools
In response to teaching natural selection in public schools, a Tennessee law was passed that prohibited the teaching of any evolution theory that contradicted the Bible. The Butler Act became the subject of the highly publicized Scopes Trial in 1925 when agnostic, ACLU attorney Clarence Darrow defended high-school teacher John Scopes. Fundamentalist prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, a former secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate, argued the case against Scopes. History was made when the courts upheld the Tennessee law, which remained on the books until it was repealed in 1967. Inherit the Wind, a play completed in 1950; and a film with the same title released in 1960, were based on the Scopes trial.
Some saw the “Monkey Trial” as the turning point in the struggle between rural Fundamentalist values and those of scientifically inclined urban dwellers. They contend that the outcome probably inhibited the passage of similar laws in other states that would surely have undergone the ridicule heaped on the Dayton, Tennessee, case. In the long view, however, it set the stage for the last century’s battle for the right to teach evolution and “creation science” in American schools.
Although they achieved victory in court, the Fundamentalist movement lost in the media. Suffering from bad press, the movement continued to struggle, but eventually flourished. During the 1930s, the movement went underground and quietly began to build a network of day schools, Bible colleges, missionary agencies, and social groups for children, young adults and veterans.
During this period, the mainstream Federal Council of Churches, much more liberal than the evangelicals, remained the most powerful national voice of Protestant churches. Partly this could be attributed to the strong individualism that prevented evangelicals from taking concerted action.
In 1942, a National Conference for United Action Among Evangelicals was held in St. Louis, Missouri. The keynote speaker, Dr. Harold Ockenga of Park Street Church in Boston, set the tone:
Alongside of Roman Catholicism is the terrible octopus of liberalism, which spreads itself throughout out Protestant Church, dominating innumerable organizations, pulpits, and publications, as well as seminaries and other schools. Because of our divided condition, the Federal Council of Churches bids fair to control all government relationships for Protestantism.
The conference resulted in the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals. The swing towards conservativism occurred following World War II, as servicemen returned from Europe and many young wives took up the role of rearing children at home.
The Fundamentalist movement divided into two main wings: one more conservative, which maintained the label of Fundamentalist; while the other had more moderate views and preferred the name Evangelical. Many Evangelical leaders entered the print and telecast industry. The Evangelical movement also aided the hugely successful evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic revivals after World War II, while their actions were deemed inappropriate by Fundamentalists.
Both wings agree, however, in their opposition to creeping "secular humanism," the ethical tradition that promotes human values without specific reference to religious beliefs.
Modern Fundamentalist beliefs
Strong advocates of separatism, modern Fundamentalists are staunchly opposed to communism, while many are also opposed to the United Nations and ecumenical activities, especially by the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. They are not in favor of working with those of different opinions and beliefs. At the extreme, some hold a theory of international conspiracy in which the world is moving toward a one-world government system that will be led by the “Antichrist.”
Some Fundamentalists advocate a more stringent code of ethics that prohibits even modest consumption of alcohol, dancing, mixed bathing, gambling or such secular cultural activities as watching movies or listening to rock `n roll music. Included in that code is a more conservative dress code that prohibits women from wearing pants and men from having long hair.
The Moral Majority steps in
Fundamentalism experienced a re-emergence in popularity during the 1970s and ‘80s. The Christian right wing — comprising segments of conservatism, classical liberalism, and those directly opposite of left-wing politics — gave birth to such organizations as the Moral Majority and others.
In 1979, four writers from The Christian Voice left over issues regarding who should control that publication. Then they recruited televangelist Jerry Falwell and founded the Moral Majority. Promulgating a return to traditional values — specifically Christian values — the Moral Majority became the largest conservative lobbying group in the United States. They also stood for the preservation of individual and corporate rights through constraints on a strong central government, and lobbied both Republicans and Democrats to:
suppress homosexual rights,
endorse its vision of family life, and
censor media firms that promote what they call an “anti-family” agenda.
Also in 1979, Fundamentalists in the U.S., including the Moral Majority, became strong supporters of Israel, regarding the Jews as important in the fulfillment of their vision of Armageddon, the biblical place where the final battle will be waged between the forces of good and evil.
The Moral Majority’s lobbying efforts have yielded some results. They lobbied for prayer and the instruction of creationism² in public schools, while opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexual rights, abortion, and the U.S.-Soviet SALT treaties. While the organization has not been successful at prohibiting abortion, the Moral Majority has chipped away at the authority given to those performing that procedure. Choosing to work on a local level, the movement has been successful in preventing certain rights to homosexuals in regard to same-gender marriages.
The Moral Majority was dissolved in 1989 following an exposé written by Memphis reporter Mike Clark, that resulted in suspicion of unethical involvement between the group and the Republican Party. Jerry Falwell, deemed the father of the modern “religious right” movement, organized the Moral Majority Coalition in 2004 and agreed to lead the organization for four years. Dubbed the “21st century resurrection of the Moral Majority” by Falwell, that organization took credit for returning George W. Bush to the presidency and saw the election of many pro-life proponents to national political office.
Perceived by many as fanatical, Fundamentalists failed to garner enough support to fully accomplish its agenda of a return to time-honored values. In order to survive, the movement faces a dilemma between obtaining broader support by moving toward a more moderate viewpoint, and facing the almost certain possibility of losing many conservative backers in the process.
¹Biblical criticism is an overarching term covering various techniques used principally by mainline and liberal Christian theologians to study the sense of Biblical passages. It uses general historical principles, and is based primarily on reason rather than revelation or faith.
²The doctrine that matter and all things were created, bascially as they now exist, by an omnipotent Creator.
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