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.
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).
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.