Tim LaHaye: dead fundamentalist

Tim LaHaye: dead fundamentalist August 2, 2016

The persecuted hegemons of GetReligion are upset with The New York Times for referring to the late Tim LaHaye as a “fundamentalist”:

Now, it is certainly true that LaHaye went to Bob Jones University, a campus that has long embraced the “fundamentalist” label, but he also led a Southern Baptist church and most members of America’s largest non-Catholic Christian denomination [sic]* would never call themselves fundamentalists. Also, his audience as a writer and speaker was much larger than the “fundamentalist” niche.

Follow the logic there: X was Y. Most Y are not Z. Therefore X cannot be Z.

It is true that “most members” of Southern Baptist congregations would “never call themselves fundamentalists.” But some would and some do — proudly and insistently. Some others certainly qualify as such, by any objective criteria, but have, in recent decades, shied away from preferring the term due to the many negative connotations it has accumulated over the years.

But in any case, “fundamentalist” is a word that means something. It is a useful and necessary descriptive word that conveys meaning and distinction. It is a useful and necessary word that has a definition, and Tim LaHaye fits that definition. Tim LaHaye fits that definition definitively.

In Fundamentalism and American Culture, religious historian George M. Marsden jokingly describes a “fundamentalist” by quoting Tim LaHaye’s close friend and co-worker — and fellow fundamentalist — Jerry Falwell: “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Falwell’s quip echoes the sense of aggrieved misunderstanding that GetReligion complains about — in their post on LaHaye as well as in almost everything they publish. It also reveals what motivates both Falwell and GetReligion to recoil from this “f-word” — their desire to be embraced and included as indistinct members of mainstream evangelicalism. Or, at least, to receive the same general respect they imagine that more mainstream evangelicals must be enjoying.**

Marsden also offered a larger, more serious and more precise definition of fundamentalism — meaning, here, American [white] Christian fundamentalism. He needed to as a historian because fundamentalism is a thing that exists, that has parameters, and that has had and continues to have an effect on the world.

Historian George M. Marsden also apparently “didn’t get the memo” from GetReligion that the “f-word” should never be used when discussing fundamentalists.

Lincoln Mullen provides a nice summary of Marsden’s attempt to define the outlines of this fundamentalism. Here’s Mullen on Marsden:

In the standard narrative, fundamentalism was a reaction by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evangelical Christians against modernizations in American society, such as industrialization, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and changes in popular mores. Fundamentalists resented modernization because it clashed with their out-of-date worldview and literal faith in the Bible and Christian doctrine. …

When fundamentalism reappeared in the 1970s, the flaws in that interpretation were revealed. In its place, a new body of historical work, including Marsden’s book, redefined fundamentalism not as evangelicalism reacting against modernism, but as evangelicalism adopting modernism. The first historian to make this argument was Ernest R. Sandeen in The Roots of Fundamentalism. Sandeen saw fundamentalism as a movement descended from American and British evangelicalism with the additions of dispensationalist eschatology and an explicit definition of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. George Marsden expanded on Sandeen’s definition by unpacking the significance of those additions. Dispensationalism divided history and biblical prophecy into a series of eras, or dispensations — a type of scientific classification. By defining biblical inspiration as extending to the very words of Scripture, fundamentalists created a new hermeneutic which treated the Bible as a source of data to be mined and scientifically analyzed.

Let’s see if the shoe Marsden describes fits Tim LaHaye. “Dispensationalist eschatology”? Check. “An explicit definition of the verbal inspiration of the Bible” (“inerrantist,” “literalist,” etc.)? Check. “Adopting modernism” through a quasi-“scientific analysis” of biblical “data”? Check. (See, for example, LaHaye’s lifelong interest in young-Earth creationism, including his helping to found the Institute for Creation Research.)

LaHaye was also a separatist who played a big role in calling for, creating, and showing how to create, alternative educational systems for Christians apart from the “secular humanism” of the public school system. Those efforts were just as vocally anti-evolution as anything from 1925. (They were also, by the way, post-Brown v. Board of Education — but that, of course, is merely a coincidence and had absolutely nothing to do with the desire of good [white] Christian parents to establish good [white] Christian schools for their good [white] Christian children.)

So, yeah, Tim LaHaye was a premillennial dispensationalist, young-Earth creationist, separatist, inerrantist, biblical literalist. Describing him as a “fundamentalist” is not a pejorative slur or an unfair bit of name-calling. It’s simply accurate.

The Times isn’t slurring Tim LaHaye by categorizing him in the appropriate category. If there’s any slurring going on, it’s being done by GetReligion, with its insistence that no one should be allowed to ever make any distinction between fundamentalists like LaHaye and the vast majority of evangelicals and Southern Baptists. That’s what GetReligion winds up suggesting — not that Tim LaHaye is just like all evangelicals, but that all evangelicals are just like Tim LaHaye. And that’s simply not true and not accurate and not fair.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The Southern Baptist Convention, being still — at least nominally — Baptist, is not a denomination, but rather a voluntary association of congregations. Hence “Convention,” right there in the name. The term “denomination” still strikes many Southern Baptists as fightin’ words — an accusation to be angrily denounced.

Kind of a rookie mistake for GetReligion — a site that proclaims itself to be the religionsplainer for the ignorant masses.

** As the leader of Liberty Baptist College, Jerry Falwell seemed driven by a kind of Wheaton-envy — longing to enjoy the same measure of respectability as that evangelical school. He attempted to achieve that, in part, by developing a bigger and better football team. These days his son, Jerry Jr., pursues this goal by emphatically insisting that Liberty be described as an “evangelical” school — never, ever using the “f-word.” That’s pretty much the same empty assertion of spin you’ll find from GetReligion in the post linked above.


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