Fundamentalism… Some Rants on Its Historical Development (repost)

This is a re-post from April of 2008:

I have been studying a bit on the origins of fundamentalist Christian faith in America (many of the following insights come from: UNGODLY WOMEN: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism; Betty DeBerg). This is a movement that emerged in the 1880’s as a call back to Victorian family code values. Women are to organize the private sphere (home, church [which led to some feminizing in the church as women were the primary congregants], etc.) while men are to be competitive businessmen in the public sphere (all things public, politics, industry, etc.). When this system of separate spheres collapsed by women being liberated and allowed to enter into the public arena, Fundamentalism began as a movement to define a clear cut “moral code” that all should live by.

Male identity was being hurt by this move towards women’s equality, and so men rose up to reclaim male dominance (which some would say was with some motives in ‘self esteem’ and finding a sense of manliness that had been threatened by this cultural shift).

In order to reclaim maleness, fundamentalism arose as a call that included a return to ‘family values’ and called women to embrace the godly calling of submissiveness. It also called the women to quit experimenting with sexual experiences outside of marriage, dancing, smoking… well, basically “flapperism.” I would agree with many of the moral values that these and the new fundamentalist would put forth, but I think the way they went about it all has damaged Christian faith in the present.

In order to defend the ‘moral code’ that they were comfortable with, men in this movement began to do several things. They defeminized the church with militant themes (hmm, ever wonder where some of the modern impulse in right wing faith towards war came from?). They kicked women out of the pulpits (who many had taken leadership because of a lack of godly men who were too tied up with questionable public lives). They attacked the so-called modernists who began to rethink and challenge their assumptions about the Bible. They attacked any person or belief system that could be labeled as a threat to the defence of the ‘moral code’ that they claimed to be biblical. All of this, they did on the grounds that the Bible should be read in a “plain sense”, taking the meaning that makes the most sense as we read it through our lens of culture (this apposed to a pre-modern understanding of Scripture as embedded in a very different cultural context that must not be ignored by proper biblical scholarship). This is why most of the early fundamentalists embraced dispensational theology, because it was based on setting up systems in the Bible so that it all made logical sense (this is where the “Left Behind” gets its view of end times from).

Well, what is my main point? I think that in an ignorant attempt to defend this new view of how to read the bible, driven by the need to preserve the ethics of the ‘moral code’ (a return to separate spheres mentality in order to allow men to feel manly again); that many unnecessary polarities have been constructed in Christian faith. For instance, why is evolution viewed as evil? Because it threatens the ‘moral code’ or the plain reading of the bible. Anyone who considers the first 11 chapters of Genesis are pre-history and that the first 3 chapters are written from an ancient worldview to express God’s truth of creation and evil rather than as modern science, is automatically an evil liberal! So, instead of entering into intelligent dialogue about matters of faith and science, Christians are viewed as naive and irrelevant. So, what do these fundamentalists do? They claim that science is completely driven by atheism and if you believe in any form of evolution you must be a practical atheist… how ridiculous this has become! Science wars are divisive, and when a student is told their entire life that their faith rises and falls on whether God made the earth in 6 days or not, and then come to realize that the majority of scientist believe the earth to be billions of years old… many of these students lose their faith. This is one example of unnecessary polarities.

Finally, I want to call the average Christian to ask questions about their assumptions that were inherited by a late 19th Century reaction to a loss of male identity. Why do I believe this about life… or God… or the mission of the Gospel… or politics? Did I come to that conclusion because of inherited fundamentalism or because that is authentically what the Bible and the way of Jesus communicates? It is in finding new answers to some of these questions that the Church will find new ways of being the people of God in America.

Let me emphasize that these are some thoughts about the origins of the movement, but that other significant factors also existed that contributed to the formation of fundamentalism.

Please share your thoughts!


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  • excellent and well thought out. having come out of a fundy view myself it was good to see a bit of history.
    i was very pleased to read the section on science and evolution, i’ve been surrounded by too many literalists that found me to be lacking in faith because i had a different skew on creationism than the literal.

  • James

    Even a basic understanding of science shows us that over centuries and millenniums humans evolve and adapt to the world around us. Our diets have changed due to agriculture and the rapid availability protein sources – and in turn we are taller and heavier on average then our counterparts in history. There is no longer really a question that human history goes much further back in time then a strict “literal” interpretation of the Biblical account allows for.

    It is interesting to think (and wonder) what our earliest ancestor’s concept of God was. Their was no written language, not even a spoken language for some period of time – so what was their understanding of God. One must assume it was not a strict fundamentalist understanding, but rather an innate awareness that something larger existed in the Universe.

    I believe the story of Adam and Eve closely parallels human patterns of migration and development of societies/culture. It was not accomplished in one man/womans lifetime but rather hundreds or even thousands.

  • defeatingdefeaters

    and it’s that sort of “fundamentalism” that explains the resurgence of Calvinism. Good post.

  • jin_roh

    Thanks for fleshing that out for all of us. I would add the American “pioneer” democracy added to fundamentalism.

    The less educated you are, the more spiritual are.

    Far to many “do it yourselfers” out on those covered wagons.