Thank God for Non-Fighting Fundamentalists
Recently here I complained about fundamentalist Calvinists and stated that I have no particular problem with non-fundamentalist Calvinists—of which there are many and I have worked and worshiped with them over the years. I won’t rehearse here what I said in that post. Suffice it to say that I was rather hard on fundamentalism and fundamentalists.
Without taking back anything I said there, here and now I want to say “Thank God for non-fighting fundamentalists” even though I disagree with them about many secondary matters. Our biggest disagreement is probably over what doctrines count as primary (essentials of the Christian faith) and what ones count as secondary or even tertiary (non-essentials).
Not all fundamentalists are what one of my seminary professors liked to call “fightin’ fundies.” Many, including most that I grew up with (family members, friends, spiritual mentors) were not and are not such. These fundamentalists are not mad at anyone. So what makes them fundamentalists nevertheless?
Well, of course, “fundamentalism” is an essentially contested concept. So here I’m only talking about Christians who self-identify as fundamentalists. Many Baptists, Pentecostals, “Bible church” Christians (and others) still call themselves fundamentalists even if they qualify that label in several ways. Even some Presbyterians would call themselves fundamentalists with proper qualifications. The main qualification is something like “But I’m not mad at anyone” or “I’m not interested in fighting anyone but the devil.”
The denomination I grew up in didn’t officially call itself fundamentalist, but in many ways we were that. We didn’t practice “secondary separation” but were very careful about whom we had Christian fellowship with. The first time I visited a Catholic church I was very nervous and defensive—about the same as the first time I attended a movie in a movie theater. Both were when I was about twenty!
I tell my students that I grew up “urban Amish.” I’m only being half facetious. We drove cars, but were very leery of television. We had no records in our home except classical and sacred music. “Pop” music (including jazz and “rock”) was forbidden. When I was sixteen I bought a tiny transistor radio but kept it hidden from my parents. That’s about as rebellious as I got!
If we were fundamentalists, which I think we were even if our leaders preferred “conservative,” we were nice and not mean fundamentalists. We weren’t mad at anyone. We weren’t political or on any crusade to enforce our morality on others. We were absolute about our absolutes (almost everything we believed) but not totalizing about them. We didn’t expect outsiders to understand or want to live like us. And we didn’t see our mission as forcing them to live like us. We regarded ourselves as outsiders to the dominant social order, not owners of it.
I recently visited a Baptist church that calls itself fundamentalist—as a kind of nostalgia trip and to sing hymns and spiritual songs we never sing in my “moderate” Baptist church. The church advertises itself as “non-affiliated” which means “very independent,” but from what the pastor said it has fellowship with a large network of like minded “fundamental Baptist” churches. It and they are “King James Only” Christians. They pride themselves on being “separated from the world.” But they don’t participate in any political campaigns or believe in forcing their beliefs or moral norms on everyone by law.
The worship was warm and enthusiastic and inspiring. The people appeared to be salt of the earth and very friendly and welcoming to a stranger. Nobody made any attempt to interrogate me or “witness” to me although I’m sure they would if I invited that.
I grew up like that. And now that I look back on it, aside from a few particularly eccentric rules (“dos and don’ts that even we admitted were matters of “conviction”), we weren’t all that peculiar or different from other evangelicals. We interpreted the Bible as literally as possible while acknowledging parts of it cannot be taken literally. We went to public schools but were inoculated in church and at home against things we might be taught that were “contrary to God’s Word” (especially naturalistic evolution and the inevitability, if not value, of sex before marriage).
Every year I took a note from our pastor (who happened to be my father) to school to “sit out” during dancing instruction and practice in gym class. I operated the record player while the other kids danced. Was I embarrassed? Not really. In fact, some of the other boys asked how they could get similar notes to be excused from dancing! Was I crippled for life by not learning to dance in junior high school? I doubt it.
Many of our beliefs and practices I now look back upon as quaint, but I don’t think they did me any harm and they may have protected me from falling into evils many of my peers fell into. I was raised to love and fear God—a healthy combination. When the opportunity came to have sex with my girlfriend (at age sixteen) I declined—much to her dismay. Later I heard “through the grapevine” that’s why she broke up with me after “going steady” (much to my parents’ chagrin) for eleven months. I didn’t lack hormones; I loved and feared God.
I first read the Bible “cover to cover” when I was ten years old. That was normal in our church. If you reached twelve or thirteen without reading the Bible through in a year something was wrong with you. The pastor or your Sunday School teacher would talk to you about it. The “kids” sat together in the front of the church and if they started to talk during worship the pastor would call out their names from the pulpit and tell them to go sit with their parents. So that didn’t happen very often! I was taught to respect “God’s house” and act reverently there—which included not bringing food or drink into the sanctuary.
Contrary to what many people think about fundamentalists, we were not anti-Semitic. In fact, we loved Jews because they were “Jesus’ own people.” We believed that God would punish anyone who mistreated Jews. We were also not racist; blacks were welcome in our church and some attended. But we weren’t involved with or supportive of movements for civil rights. Why? Not because we didn’t believe in civil rights but because we thought there were much more urgent things to do—evangelize, support missions, study the Bible, pray and worship God. (We “had church” four times weekly throughout the year and every night for a week or ten days twice a year for “revivals.”) After all, the world as we knew it was about to end any day, so why spend time trying to change it?
Mainly, fundamentalism taught me to let “the Bible absorb the world.” From earliest age I was trained to live in the Christian world and life view and interpret all of life through that lens. Sure, there were details about our particular interpretation of that world and life view that were all screwed up. But, for the most part, I was never able to “see the world as” anything but God’s world, created good but fallen, to be redeemed through Christ.
Jesus was a living person in our home and church. Nothing mattered more than having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Satan was also real, but we did not need to be afraid of him if we loved and served Jesus and had the Holy Spirit living within us. We knew Bible stories like the backs of our hands and memorized large passages of Scripture at early ages.
Now, which would I rather my grandchildren grew up in—something like what I grew up in or a “normal” American family and church? I think that in spite of some very real abuses (e.g., legalism) my childhood and youth among “nice fundamentalists” (not mad at anyone or trying to impose our values and beliefs on others) served me well, providing a foundation for life.
Gradually over the years I learned to interpret Scripture in a more sophisticated manner. I learned that God does not strike people dead for entering a movie theatre or even a bar. I learned that not all doctrines are essential to vital Christian faith. I learned that there are wonderful Christians among Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians. I learned that one can be evangelical (and perhaps more evangelical) without being fundamentalist. And I learned that even if the world as we know it will end soon we should be busy with God establishing justice here and now. But happy, not-mad fundamentalism was a good enough place to start life. I have never regretted it.