Culture, Language, Politics

I’m finally reading Mamdani’s book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (discussed previously here and here), and I was struck by his history of the term fundamentalism,” taken largely from Karen Armstrong’s work:

The term fundamentalism” was invented in 1920 by the Rev. Curtis Lee Laws and was immediately taken up as an honorific by his Baptist and Presbyterian colleagues who swore to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith.” Karen Armstrong has located this phenomenon in a rapidly growing set of American debates over the validity of biblical literalism then being taken up by the increasingly powerful and entrenched conservative Republicans who supported it.

It is such an interesting discussion that, rather than summarize it, I scanned the entire section (just six pages) and OCR’d it so that I could share it here. The full text is below. (If you spot any typos, please point them out in the comments or by e-mail and I’ll try to clean it up. I’ve inserted page numbers where the breaks occur in the original text.)

Here are some links to interviews with Karen Armstrong. Here and here.

Below is an Excerpt from Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror

Christian Fundamentalism and Political Christianity

The term fundamentalism” was invented in 1920 by the Rev. Curtis Lee Laws and was immediately taken up as an honorific by his Baptist and Presbyterian colleagues who swore to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith.” Karen Armstrong has located this phenomenon in a rapidly growing set of American debates over the validity of biblical literalism then being taken up by the increasingly powerful and entrenched conservative Republicans who supported it. In 1910, the Presbyterians of Princeton defined a set of five dogmas standing for the infallibility of Scripture: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture, (2) the virgin birth of Christ, (3) Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross, (4) his bodily resurrection, and (5) the objective reality of his miracles. Between 1910 and 1915, they issued a series of twelve paperback pamphlets called The Fundamentals, dispatching some three million copies to every pastor, professor, and theology student in America. Their next step was to try to expel liberals; the fiercest institutional battles were fought where fundamentalists were the strongest, among Baptists and Presbyterians. [End Page 38]

Karen Armstrong concludes her historical discussion of fundamentalism with the observation that fundamentalism is not a throwback to a premodern culture but a response to an enforced secular modernity. In other words, there would be no fundamentalism without modernity. Furthermore, fundamentalism emerged as a struggle inside religion, not between religions, as a critique of liberal forms of religion that religious conservatives saw as accommodating an aggressive secular power.

Begun in the late nineteenth century, these debates rapidly turned into contests for power and influence across the institutional landscape of America, in universities and public schools, seminaries and churches, elections and the press, courts and legislatures. The outcome was mixed and unstable: fundamentalists won partial legislative victories in several states. Then they won a full victory in 1925 when the Tennessee legislature passed a law that made it a crime to teach evolution in state-funded schools. A few months later, the law was challenged in court when a young biology teacher, John T Scopes–having decided to strike a blow for free speech against religious convention–confessed that he had broken the law when substituting for his school principal in a biology class.

Brought to trial in July 1925, Scopes was defended by the great rationalist lawyer Clarence Darrow, sent by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). On the side of the law was the well-known Democratic politician and Presbyterian leader William Jennings Bryan, who had already launched a crusade against the teaching of evolution in schools. The Scopes trial not only invoked important principles of liberal democracy against one another, it also made for a public debate on the dichotomy in modern Western thinking. If Darrow claimed to stand for free speech, Bryan championed common sense” as understood by ordinary people. If Darrow stood for progress, Bryan contended that there was a link between [End Page 39] Darwinist theories of progress and the German militarism that had surfaced in the carnage of the First World War. Known for the lecture with which he had toured the United States, The Menace of Darwinism,” Bryan argued that the notion that the strong could or should survive had laid the foundation for the bloodiest war in history.” He warned that the same science that manufactured poisonous gases to suffocate soldiers is preaching that man has a brutal ancestry” and is eliminating the miraculous and the supernatural from the Bible.” In the final analysis, though, the trial provided a public spectacle of a historic contest between God and Science.”

Put on the stand by Darrow, Bryan was forced to concede that a literal interpretation of the Bible–holding, for example, that the world was six thousand years old and created in six days–was not possible. Bryan was ridiculed publicly and died a few days after the trial, and Darrow emerged the hero of clear rational thought.” Even though the fundamentalists won the legal battle, they lost the cultural one. Susan Harding, writing in The Book of Jerry Faiwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, comments on how the triumph of modernism at the same time involved a caricature of fundamentalism”:

The modern point of view in America emerged in part from its caricature of conservative Protestants as Fundamentalists. They were the them” who enabled the modern us”. You cannot reason with them. They actually believe the Bible is literally true. They are clinging to traditions. They are reacting against rapid social change. They cannot survive in a modern world . . . . Before the Scopes trial, it was unclear which of the opposed terms, Fundamentalist or Modern, would be the winner and [End Page 40] which the loser, which was superior and which was inferior, which term represented the universal and the future and which the residual, that which was passing away.

Derided as fundamentalists, conservative Protestants were humiliated by the outcome of the Scopes trial, which marked the beginning of their exile from American public life. Leaving their denominations, they founded new organizations. They disavowed social reform, as they did all modern forms of sociability. The fundamentalist counterculture was typified by Bob Jones University, founded in 1927. The founder, Bob Jones, was no intellectual, but an evangelist who wanted a safe” school, that taught liberal arts alongside commonsense Christianity”–at least one Bible course a semester, compulsory chapel attendance, strict social rules that banned interracial dating on campus, and a code of conduct that defined disobedience and disloyalty as unpardonable sins.” Bob Jones University decided not to seek academic accreditation, thereby retaining tighter control over admissions, curriculum, and library resources. By their actions, if not by admission, they seemed to accept the secular caricature of religious conservatives as fundamentalists stuck in time, as premodern people unfit for modern cultural and political life in a secular America.

It took three decades for religious conservatives to return to public life, and that return happened in two separate but connected waves. The first wave followed the Second World War and was spearheaded by evangelicals” who renounced the separatism championed by fundamentalists, arguing that the duty of saving souls in this rotten civilization demanded some degree of cooperation with other Christians, whatever their beliefs.” The founding act of the evangelical movement was the formation in 1942. of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a public lobby on a [End Page 41] par with the National Council of Churches, which was affiliated with the Liberal World Council of Churches. With the arrival of television in the 1950s, young televangelists” such as Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, and Oral Roberts replaced old traveling revivalist preachers and formed their own broadcasting empires and publishing houses. Televangelists started the national prayer breakfast movement” that rapidly gathered members of Congress and preachers, and evangelist Billy Graham became the spiritual counselor of choice for the post-war generation of U.S. presidents.”

The second wave came on the heels of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that affirmed abortion as a woman’s right, which religious conservatives saw as a historic defeat. Taking a cue from southern black churches, which had dramatically and successfully entered public life at the helm of the civil-rights movement, fundamentalists resolved to shed the mainstream moderation of evangelicals for an equally bold leadership. Speaking on the Nebraska tragedy” at a 1982 conference, Jerry Falwell challenged the new Christian right to breach the line of separation between religion and politics and to muster the kind of backbone to stand up for their freedom that Civil Rights people had.”

Their quarantine had lasted nearly half a century. The return of fundamentalism” to American public life was unabashedly political and was at first associated with mass mobilization of white Protestant Christians. The movement’s most visible leaders were national televangelists–Jerry FaIwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker–who were also key in forming organizations with an explicitly political agenda: the Moral Majority, the Religious Roundtable, and Christian Voice. When Faiwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979, he rode piggyback on networks of fundamentalist Baptist churches.” He called on Christians to change history. [End Page 42] The idea that religion and politics don’t mix,” he said, was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.” As conservative Protestants rushed into the Moral Majority, they tore up a tacit contract with modern America” not to mix Bible-believing Protestant rhetoric with day-to-day politics. Falwell’s Moral Majority sermons were known as jeremiads. Named after Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet, a jeremiad laments the moral condition of a people, foresees cataclysmic consequences, and calls for dramatic moral reform and revival.” In his jeremiads, Jerry Faiwell defined abortion as the biological holocaust,” AIDS as a judgment of God against America for endorsing immorality,” and God’s absolute opposition to abortion and homosexuality” as part of the litmus tests of Bible truth.”

Protestant fundamentalists had several victories in the last decades of the twentieth century. They were able to make sure that Arkansas and Louisiana passed bills to ensure that equal time was given in the school curriculum to the literal teaching of Genesis alongside Darwinian evolution. Their most notable achievement, though, was the blocking of the Equal Rights Amendment. Phyllis Schlafly, a Roman Catholic leader whose Eagle Forum” often held joint events with the Moral Majority, chastised feminism as a disease,” the cause of the world’s illness. Ever since Eve disobeyed God and sought her own liberation, she said, feminism had brought sin into the world and with it fear, sickness, pain, anger, hatred, danger, violence, and all varieties of ugliness.” Though thirty of thirty-two required states had voted for the Equal Rights Amendment by 1973, Christian right activists were able to halt its momentum: Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and South Dakota all reversed their previous votes for the amendment.

As early as the mid-1970s, George Gallup, Jr., had polled Americans about their religious views and found that more than [End Page 43] one third–that is, more than fifty million adult Americansdescribed themselves as born again,” defined as having experienced a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ.” Jimmy Carter was America’s first born-again” president. Ronald Reagan was the second, and George W. Bush is the third. Presidential candidate Reagan embraced the Christian right publicly when he spoke at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in 1980, hosted that year by Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Later that year, the Christian right organized a march of several hundred thousand born-again Christians on the Washington Mall for a Washington for Jesus” rally. Three years later, Reagan boldly introduced the language of selfrighteousness, of good” and evil,” to American postwar politics when he told the NAE that the Soviet Union was an evil empire.” By the time of the 1992. Republican national convention in Houston, the religious right showed strong evidence of having consolidated its electoral strength. The party platform included two new planks: one unequivocally opposed abortion under any circumstance, the other denounced the Democrats’ support for gay-rights legislation. In his speech on the opening night of the convention, Patrick Buchanan warned of a coming religious war” that would plague the United States from within: It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

Jerry Faiwell had been right about the civil-rights movement: it did represent a dramatic and successful reentry of religion into politics. The civil-rights and the Christian-right movements illustrate two different forms of political Christianity in the modern world. The contrast between them also shows that the involvement of religious movements in politics is not necessarily reactionary. [End Page 44]