Evangelicals and Closet Fundamentalism

Evangelicals and Closet Fundamentalism July 16, 2013

BurningYou will often hear me say that the main difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical is that a fundamentalist wears his beliefs on his sleeve while the evangelical keeps them under his hat. I have not been able to identify any substantive doctrinal differences between the two—they believe the same things. Their differences are a matter of style, not of substance. The fundamentalist doesn’t discuss ideas, he preaches them. He doesn’t converse, he recites. But the evangelical usually feels driven to maintain an ongoing conversation about what he believes, perhaps citing university studies instead of Bible verses. What you’ll find, however, is that their conclusions always end up identical. No one’s mind really changes after the conversation is done. No intellectual compromises have been made. In fact, for both fundamentalists and evangelicals, compromise is a bad word. It’s not something you want to get caught doing. Wouldn’t be prudent.

The further you delve into each ideology, the more you realize that the linchpin for both systems of thought (if they can be considered separate at all) is the belief that whatever the Bible says is above questioning. As I’ve indicated, evangelicals will sometimes make a good show of “questioning” the text, but you will find that somehow the answer is always that the Bible is still right, even if it appears to be wrong at any point. This single belief has spawned dozens of other intellectual transgressions, and while the particulars vary, the deleterious effects on modern American culture are undeniable. I myself have gotten caught in the crossfire of the ensuing culture wars, and have suffered losses that are real and painful. So this is personal to me. I have seen first hand what happens when reason takes a back seat to trust in a book (or rather to trust in how one’s own tradition reads and interprets that book).

The doctrine of Hell handily illustrates what I am saying. Both fundamentalists and evangelicals believe in it, but the former are far more likely than the latter to admit it out loud. As with many fundamentalist doctrines, evangelicals believe in it but would rather not talk about it. Growing up in an evangelical church myself, I almost never heard about Hell. It just rarely came up (except for when a visiting evangelist came to town). In the culture in which I grew up, it was always implied, occasionally referenced, and then quickly the subject would change in order to talk about how wonderful salvation was and aren’t we glad we don’t have to worry about all that stuff? Besides being afraid of scaring people off, I think evangelicals have just enough sense to know that there is something horrific and indefensible about the notion of eternal torment. I submit that sometimes evangelicals are intellectually insulted by their own beliefs, and therefore they choose to avoid those subjects whenever possible, especially in public.

One time I overheard a well-respected minister tell a friend of mine that I was acting under the influence of the devil. Why else would a devoted believer like me leave the Christian faith and “pursue atheism” (whatever that means)? Neither of them knew I was privy to that conversation and I didn’t immediately respond. But the next time I was around the two of them, without providing context I explained to them that it’s insulting to be told that you are a pawn of the devil, as if your decisions are not your own. I told them that it’s dehumanizing to have your own thoughts, words, and actions be ascribed to the prince of darkness. The minister’s immediate reply was that he would never do such a thing. He acted positively shocked and mortified that I would suggest it. I did not tell either of them that I had already heard those very words from him before, so there was no use in lying. But what would motivate a man of widely-reputed integrity to be so dishonest in front of both of us? I can’t say for sure, but my guess is: Embarrassment. When outsiders are listening, they’d really rather not have to talk about many of the things they believe.

Much to their chagrin, however, circumstances sometimes dictate that they speak on these things whether they want to or not. A couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a book entitled Love Wins, and in that book he questioned the notion of eternal torment. Many felt he raised some good questions, and some began to question the inviolability of the doctrine of Hell. But the sentinels of orthodoxy were not to be challenged, and one influential preacher famously tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell.” He hadn’t even read the book yet because it hadn’t yet been released. All he had heard was that Bell questioned the notion of Hell and that was that. Game Over. Over the next couple of years, Bell’s church hemorrhaged 3,000 members and eventually he resigned and moved to California to surf and hold small conferences for interested pastors who could afford the risk of being associated with him. Any evangelical pastor who wants to jeopardize his own tenure need only publicly recommend Bell’s books now, and for most of them that should do it. This kind of merciless polarization highlights just how essential to evangelical theology Hell is, whether they care to openly discuss it or not.

I don’t blame them, though, for not wanting to talk about it. Hell is a hideous, repulsive concept and most psychologically normal people today would rather not discuss it. But adherence to the doctrine of inerrancy demands that you talk about it at some point, whether you wear your belief on your sleeve or keep it under your hat. For starters, Jesus talks about it quite a bit. You can’t read the gospels without being introduced to this horrific idea (some say he was only referencing a concept already popular in his day, but either way the notion only survives today because of his words). Furthermore, without Hell to save people from, the torturing and killing of Jesus makes no sense at all. Sure, many have tried to reframe the crucifixion as only a demonstration of self-sacrificing love without reference to salvation from eternal punishment, but in order to do so one must break with the language of the Bible itself. If you’re not going to call him “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” then you are putting yourself at odds with the unimpeachable New Testament, and therefore with the foundation of contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist faith.

People have perpetrated some truly terrible things on whole populations under the rubric of (quite literally) scaring the hell out of them. Wars have been justified by referencing this doctrine. People have been tortured in order to elicit confessions because, hey, it’s better for them to suffer now and be spared an eternity of the same, right? You won’t see much overt torture in America today (unless you’re in Gitmo), thanks to an intentionally secular legal system put in place by men with far more sense than most of our contemporary political leaders. But in the Bible Belt, you may very well see families torn apart, children emotionally abused, and systemic social ostracism over differences of religious belief. I myself have been sternly lectured to by friends and family members warning that I will burn in Hell for eternity if I don’t “choose to believe” again (like it’s a switch you just flip). I’ll spare you the harsher consequences beyond that because it’s nunya business :-p Suffice it to say, it’s been rough.

But nobody spoke this way toward me before they found out I’ve become an atheist. While I was still an insider, the notion of Hell stayed tucked away in the recesses of my cultural context like a brown recluse avoiding direct sunlight. It took my “coming out” to summon this monster and now I see it for what it is: It is a scare tactic developed by people long ago in order to keep people in line. Just as my parents told me that Santa Claus watches over all the little children and rewards those who play nice but brings coals and switches to the kids who don’t, so Hell is a made-up thing to scare you into submission. It’s far uglier than coals and switches, though, so most self-respecting people won’t bring it up unless they feel they have to. Evangelicals are secretly embarrassed themselves by their own adherence to this doctrine (I know because I was one), but they have little choice. As long as they feel compelled to cling to the idea that a book can be above reproach, they will never be free to jettison this terrible and manipulative trick.*

It’s all about loyalty to a book.

Of course, there is a way beyond this. You could just begin to question the book. And I don’t mean merely entertaining questions in order to appear more open and academic about it than you really are. Evangelicals I know have been playing that game for many years (I did it, too). That goes back to what I said about the differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists being primarily stylistic. No, I mean you could truly begin to ask the hard questions about why we are supposed to surrender our thought processes to the ideas and biases of people who lived so long ago, during such a superstitious time. You could begin to listen to your gut when it tells you that it would be better to keep some of your beliefs to yourself because, frankly, they’re embarrassing to anyone with a certain level of education and enculturation. I dare say some of your beliefs may be beneath you, and you should question whether it’s truly a virtue to forfeit your own logical instincts simply because you were taught to believe something when you were too young to adequately challenge the things that bothered you even then. Go ahead and question it, because if I’m right, you only get this one life to live. It would be a shame to waste it following a system of thought that kept you living in fear of something that people made up centuries ago.


* I am told from time to time that it resolves something to picture Hell as a privation instead of active torture in unquenchable flame. But there are two big problems with this. First, the language of torture in flame is biblical, coming from the mouth of Jesus himself (if the New Testament can be trusted). Those who want to distance their message from this language need to realize they are distancing themselves from at least part of the message of Jesus himself. And second, if our existence is supposed to be derivative in such a way that we only exist as God keeps us in existence, then existing in a state of eternal privation would require an active work of God to keep us in existence in such a state. So it won’t do to fancy that somehow this makes God less active in the process of damnation. I’m afraid the Hell-as-privation doesn’t really neutralize its horror, nor does it absolve God from responsible sovereignty (a burden unknown to the biblical writers themselves).

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