Growing Up Fundamentalist Was Not All Bad

Growing Up Fundamentalist Was Not All Bad May 24, 2016

Over at Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador has republished an essay that Matthew Lee Anderson wrote back in 2009 about evangelical millennials. As I watch some young evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism, I’ve wondered about the valuable effects of growing up fundamentalist. Part of what that involved was never taking someone’s Christian profession for granted. “They may say they follow Christ,” my parents warned, “but do they really?” Of course, evangelicals going back to the Great Pretty Good Awakening have worried about nominal Christianity, the kind where professing believers simply “go through the motions.” But for fundamentalists, this worry about inauthentic Christianity went into overdrive and for good reason. Modernist or liberal theology was capable of mouthing Christian truths while also meaning (interpreting) those truths in ways very different from those Christians who did not flinch from forbidden subjects like miracles, the deity of Christ, or hell and divine judgment (for sin). Modernists could affirm Christian truths in a way that denied their truth.

The way this relates to conversion to Roman Catholicism is my sense that Protestants who have not grown up with the binary categories of liberal and conservative belief are much less likely to see how equivocal Roman Catholic theology has become since Vatican II. Apologists for Rome may want to revert to “development of doctrine” to explain why Protestants could go from heretics to “separated brethren.” And maybe that will satisfy some. But for anyone who grew up a fundamentalist, such word play was part and parcel of the way liberal Christians “interpreted.”

Anderson opens the window further on young evangelicals. Not only have they missed a world that distinguished (even if clumsily) between conservative and liberal Protestants, but the binary with which they grew up was not religious but political: were you a Democrat or a Republican? Turns out, that was a pretty thin reed on which to hang a religious identity:

While younger evangelicals are pro-life, they are not pro-life in the same way as their parents. Rather than pursuing political solutions, younger evangelicals are more intent on engaging in a cultural ground war to change hearts and minds, which in practice ends up diminishing the political importance of abortion. Even the limited success of Democratic overtures toward younger evangelicals ought to concern Republican and cultural conservative leaders, and prompt healthy self-reflection about how well pro-life Republicans have educated their own on their successes and how they have been gained. While non-partisanship is the new political virtue, it is increasingly being used to justify political apathy on moral values not currently in fashion.

The rejection of partisanship by younger evangelicals is part of a broader deterioration and rejection of the institutions that shaped the identities of our parents. While younger evangelicals may claim to be above the partisan fray politically, they are increasingly segregated into self-selected niche communities from which they derive—or better, create—their respective identities. Despite its claims to reject modernity, this communitization suggests the triumph of western liberalism over the evangelical mind.

Consider the case of patriotism among younger evangelicals. For most young evangelicals, it is far easier to gain applause by pointing out America’s flaws than by trumpeting national virtues, especially when those flaws have to do with American consumption and economics. . . . At the core of this revised patriotism is the attempt to rescue the Gospel from its American captivity, the chief symbol of which is the presence of the American flag in many evangelical churches. As the argument goes, the presence of patriotic symbols in the house of God inevitably marginalizes the church by subordinating it to the political order. Many young evangelicals fall into the trap of placing an “or” where there previously had been an “and,” assuming that we can remain loyal only to God or Caesar, but never both.

From whence the devaluation of patriotism? Sadly, much of this view is reinforced at historically Christian universities, which have become hotbeds of a baptized version of Sixties liberalism that is not as much anti-American as it is anti-national.

As someone who believes politics is beneath the gospel (even though politics are valuable for restraining evil and maintaining order), millennial discomfort with Republican civil religion is a welcome development. But the problem is whether a religious identity is in the ready to back up the failure of a faith-based Republicanism. My suspicion is that such a vigorous and ecclesial Christianity is nowhere near the radar of young evangelicals (hence the appeal of Rome in part).

For all of fundamentalism’s flaws, its Greatest Generation adherents knew that missions and evangelism were way more important in the larger (eternal) scheme of things than Kennedy vs. Nixon or Truman vs. Dewey. America was a good thing, maybe even great. But the gospel was so much grander and the scope of eternal life much more weighty. Sure, fundamentalists could be sectarian and intolerant. Still, they got something about Christianity that millennials may never recover.

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