Neo-fundamentalism (excellent but somewhat lengthy essay)

Neo-fundamentalism (excellent but somewhat lengthy essay) January 19, 2012

Below is an essay written by a friend. I have only altered it to correct spelling and mechanical errors (e.g., to put a space between words where one was missing). I judge this an incisive explanation of something significant happening among evangelicals today. In fact, I have said here before that I now believe there are really two evangelicalism–the one focused on in this paper and traditional, mainline, moderate evangelicalism (the “Billy Graham coalition” including the National Association of Evangelicals, etc.). The difference is that, in contrast to the neo-fundamentalism described in this paper, traditional evangelicalism is broader, more inclusive, more irenic and less separatistic and militant with regard to those with whom they disagree. I believe Mike Clawson is a regular visitor here, so feel free to direct questions to him.

Young, Restless, and Fundamentalist:

Neo-fundamentalism among American Evangelicals


Michael Clawson

Baylor University – Department of Religion

A New Fundamentalist Reaction

In his 2007book The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, influential evangelical pastor and author, John MacArthur wrote the following:

[Quote] The evangelical movement as we speak of it today is already doomed. It stands roughly where the mainstream denominations were in the early part of the twentieth century when those denominations began formally excommunicating conservative voices of dissent from their midst – and sounder evangelicals began actively separating from those denominations en masse… It is time for the faithful remnant to redraw clear lines and step up our energies in the Truth War – contending earnestly for the faith. In light of all the biblical commands to fight a good warfare, it is both naïve and disobedient for Christians in this postmodern generation to shirk that duty.[1] [End Quote]

I contend that this growing concern expressed by MacArthur and many other evangelicals represents a new movement within evangelicalism toward what I have termed neo-fundamentalism.  This is not simply a return to the original Protestant fundamentalism of the early-twentieth century, though it is analogous to it. Instead, I argue that some conservative evangelicals are reacting to the contemporary influences of postmodernity in much the same way that the original fundamentalists did towards the influences of modernity a century ago – namely through hostility towards the broader culture, retrenchment around certain theological doctrines, and conflict with, or separatism from others within a more broadly defined evangelicalism.[2] Because of these similarities, I want to suggest that fundamentalism as a scholarly category (as opposed to its more derogatory uses in the popular media) is a useful framework within which to understand this contemporary phenomenon.

The driving force behind neo-fundamentalism, as with historic fundamentalism, is a “remnant mentality.” Neo-fundamentalists believe they alone are remaining true to the fullness of the gospel and orthodox faith while the rest of the evangelical church is in grave, near-apocalyptic danger of theological drift, moral laxity, and compromise with a postmodern culture – a culture which they see as being characterized by a skepticism towards Enlightenment conceptions of “absolute truth,” a pluralistic blending of diverse beliefs, values, and cultures, and a suspicion of hierarchies and traditional sources of authority.[3] Because of this hostility toward postmodern ways of thinking, neo-fundamentalists have little tolerance for diversity of opinions among evangelicals on any issues they perceive as essential doctrines – which are most of them – as opposed to the broader evangelical movement which historically has allowed for a much wider range of disagreement on disputable matters.[4] Neo-fundamentalists thus respond to the challenges of a postmodern culture by narrowing the boundaries of what they consider genuinely evangelical and orthodox Christianity, and rejecting those who maintain a more open stance.

While similar, this new movement’s primary concerns are typically not the same as those of more traditional fundamentalists. In regards to behavioral standards, for instance, neo-fundamentalists are less concerned about the sort of moral restrictions that animated conservatives of a century ago: drinking, dancing, card playing and the like.[5] Instead they typically focus on contemporary social issues like gender roles or sexual orientation. And while they would still agree with earlier fundamentalists on issues of scriptural inerrancy or anti-evolution, their theological arguments more commonly focus on the nature of truth and Calvinistic soteriology. Institutionally, this movement is not arising from the older bastions of fundamentalism – Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, or even Liberty University – but within mainstream evangelical circles – from Gordon-Conwell, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; from well-known and influential mega-church pastors in the Twin Cities, Seattle, and Southern California; and from massive worship festivals and ministry conferences popular with tens of thousands of evangelical college students as well as numerous pastors and lay-leaders. Leading voices associated with this trend include scholars like David Wells, DA Carson and Albert Mohler, Religious Right media-personalities like James Dobson, and well-known pastors like John MacArthur, John Piper and Mark Driscoll.

Of course those to whom I am referring as neo-fundamentalists would not self-identify with that term. I should note that I am here using the term “fundamentalist” historically and descriptively, with no particular value judgment implied. It is an open question as to what they would call themselves, or even whether they currently see themselves as a distinct movement apart from evangelicalism.

Historical Background

Protestant fundamentalism originated in the early twentieth century in response to broad changes in American society, and especially in reaction against the liberalizing effects of modern scholarship in historic Protestant denominations. Fundamentalists defined and defended what they believed were the fundamental orthodox beliefs under attack by the modernists: biblical inerrancy, the reality of miracles such as the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, the deity of Christ, as well as his substitutionary atonement and pre-millennial second coming. They also resisted liberalizing trends in the realm of personal moral behavior, and the spread of evolutionary teaching in the public schools. The loss of battles for denominational control in the 1920s led many fundamentalists eventually to withdraw into new denominations or conservative enclaves. Separation from liberals and modernists as well as antagonism towards the broader culture became hallmarks of historic fundamentalism.

Neo-evangelicalism arose in the mid-twentieth century in deliberate contrast to this attitude of hostility and withdrawal. Led out of fundamentalist isolationism by leaders like Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Harold Ockenga, these new evangelicals argued that conservatives must engage their culture constructively while still holding to the fundamental doctrines of the faith without dividing over secondary issues.[6] This approach enabled them to found countless cooperative ministries, evangelical schools, and publishing enterprises.

Despite the success of this evangelical movement, a resurgence of fundamentalist attitudes began in the late 1970s and 80s in reaction against the massive cultural shifts of the 1960s.[7] As the “culture wars” heated up, evangelicals began increasingly to reclaim the “fighting” spirit of their fundamentalist forebears. Key to this development was Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family ministries. While more traditionally fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson had only limited appeal among mainstream evangelicals, Dobson’s status as a parenting guru, the broadly evangelical nature of his ministry, and his brilliant command of the medium of talk radio, gave him access to a much wider religious audience and enabled him to bring millions of evangelicals along when he joined the culture wars in the early 1980s. Dobson served as a bridge between traditional fundamentalism and contemporary evangelicalism and at the same time laid the seeds of a neo-fundamentalist movement increasingly hostile to the broader culture.

But even as conservative evangelicals became increasingly negative towards culture, the culture itself shifted. While the enemy for the Christian Right in the 70s and 80s had been secular humanism, a philosophy born out of the scientific rationalism of late-Modernity, by the 1990’s secular humanism itself had been relativised by the growing postmodern ethos of pluralism, diversity and tolerance. These became the new villains for neo-fundamentalist evangelicals. For instance, in 1998 well-known Christian apologists Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler published The New Tolerance: How a cultural movement threatens to destroy you, your faith, and your children.[8] McDowell also went on to create the “Beyond Belief Campaign”, a series of national youth conferences equipping teens to take a stand for the “absolute, objective truths” of the Christian gospel against the pluralism of a postmodern culture.[9] Not to be outdone, Focus on the Family created their own DVD curriculum and training conferences called The Truth Project, whose first session taught participants how to defend “absolute and eternal truth.”[10] James Dobson’s son, Ryan Dobson, also published his own book in 2007 entitled Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid, which encourages teens to be intolerant (“in love”) of “stupid” ideas like homosexuality, environmentalism, and liberal politics.[11]

The Neo-Fundamentalists

While Dobson and McDowell were among the first to identify this new enemy of postmodern pluralism and relativism, other leaders have constructed a genuine neo-fundamentalist alternative to any evangelical accommodation with postmodernity. Today, I will focus on three of the most influential – John Piper, Albert Mohler, and Mark Driscoll.

John Piper & the New Calvinists

John Piper is the long-time pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, a mega-church in the Baptist General Conference, a broadly evangelical denomination. However, his greatest influence comes through numerous books and well-attended speaking engagements, leading to his position, according to former Christianity Today editor Collin Hansen,as “the chief spokesperson for the Calvinist resurgence among young evangelicals.”[12] This Calvinist resurgence, while not exactly synonymous with neo-fundamentalism, is very closely related in that nearly all of the current neo-fundamentalist leaders are militantly Calvinist in their theology.

In his book, Young, Restless and Reformed, Hansen elaborates on the New Calvinism, describing how college-aged evangelicals often encounter the Reformed teachings of John Piper and others at events like the Passion conference, an annual worship gathering attended by thousands of young adult Christians. At such events Piper and others introduce young people to Calvinist doctrines of absolute divine sovereignty and total human depravity. However, far from the usual stereotypes of Calvinists as the “frozen chosen,” unmotivated, at best, regarding evangelism, the Passion conferences combine their Calvinism with cutting edge, emotionally stirring worship music and a passionate call to missions and evangelism.[13]

Piper’s theological message also includes a strong commitment to double imputation and penal substitution as the only normative atonement theory; to scripture as completely inerrant and solely authoritative; and to exclusive male headship in the family and in the church. While many young Passion attendees may be attracted initially to the grandeur of Piper’s transcendent and all-sovereign God, they are soon drawn to these further commitments as part and parcel of Piper’s seemingly fully integrated Reformed worldview.  Hansen suggests that the confident certainty of the Calvinist framework attracts young evangelicals who feel besieged in their Christian beliefs by the pluralistic postmodern culture around them and are left unsatisfied by what they feel is the “dumbed down” approach to the gospel found in the seeker-oriented mega-churches of mainstream evangelicalism.[14]

Of course a strong commitment to Calvinist doctrine alone does not make one a neo-fundamentalist. That further step comes when Piper and other New Calvinists assert that theirs is the only legitimately evangelical and orthodox interpretation of the gospel. For instance, at a Neo-Calvinist event in 2008 Piper identified Arminianism or Wesleyanism (which he claims is held by most evangelicals) as a “false gospel” and asserted that Arminians can only be saved if their “heart belief” (in their utter dependence on God) unwittingly contradicts the theology they hold to consciously/intellectually. He went on to assert that Arminian church members should not be excommunicated, but that anyone responsible for leading or teaching others in the church should. He also recommended separating from denominations that allow Arminianism to be taught (despite the fact that he and his church remain within the Baptist General Conference, which takes no official stance on the issue and does allow both perspectives).[15] This sort of theological narrowness and willingness to separate over issues most mainstream evangelicals would consider “nonessential” is a major similarity between those New Calvinists who follow Piper’s way of thinking and earlier forms of fundamentalism.

Al Mohler and the Church Militant

If Piper wants more inclusive evangelicals kicked out of the camp metaphorically, Al Mohler did it literally. When R. Albert Mohler Jr. was appointed to head Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, his message to faculty was simple: sign a statement of faith affirming biblical inerrancy or find employment elsewhere.[16] At the time Southern was still a refuge for moderate and liberal professors, and ninety-six percent of the faculty left or were driven out when Mohler began to enforce his demand.[17]

As America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist shadow looms large in the evangelical world, and Mohler is one of their most influential leaders, calling both Southern Baptists and evangelicals in general to greater political and cultural militancy. A regular spokesperson on CNN and other major media outlets, Mohler has urged the church to get back on a “wartime footing” in its relation to the broader culture,[18] especially in relation to issues of abortion and LGBT rights which he sees as a major threat to Christian values and a key sign of the decline of Western civilization. Mohler, for instance, has declared the teaching of diversity in public schools as a sign that they have become an essentially “pagan and ungodly system”, and advises Christian parents to withdraw their children from them.[19]

Like other neo-fundamentalists Mohler blames the postmodern view “that truth is relative or socially constructed” for this cultural decline, and believes such views are a “direct challenge to the Christian gospel.”[20] And like fundamentalists, both old and new, Mohler sees evangelical Christians as a besieged and faithful remnant, in his words “a cognitive minority,” within this larger society.[21]While Mohler still calls for Christian activism and militancy, overall his outlooks seems to be one of growing pessimism, seeing little hope for the re-establishment of a conservative moral center in America.[22]

Though Mohler stands squarely in line with other leaders of the Religious Right on such issues, his significance for the neo-fundamentalist movement is his ability to impact the next generation of Christian leaders though his position as a media personality and as the president of one of the world’s largest seminaries. Only in his early-fifties and already possessing a significant national platform, Mohler is a natural successor to aging neo-fundamentalist spokesmen like Dobson or Robertson. Such influence strongly indicates that both the Religious Right and neo-fundamentalism will remain a significant presence within mainstream evangelicalism for some time to come.

Mark Driscoll and Masculine Christianity

Besides a rejection of postmodernity, an embrace of Calvinism, and a continuation of the culture wars, a final key characteristic of neo-fundamentalism is a strong emphasis on traditional gender roles in an attempt to reclaim a more “masculine” version of the faith. No one illustrates this tendency better than Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill Church, a rapidly growing mega-church in Seattle, as well as the Acts 29 church planting network. Driscoll is known by many as “the cussing pastor,”[23] and his penchant for rhetorical vulgarities, along with his open embrace of certain practices usually shunned by conservative evangelicals – drinking beer, getting tattoos, and appreciating secular entertainment for instance – makes him a controversial figure to other neo-fundamentalists.  Indeed, he seems to lack the level of hostility towards secular culture typical of fundamentalists, at least regarding the aforementioned issues of behavior and entertainment.

One might therefore assume that Driscoll is not in fact a neo-fundamentalist. And yet Driscoll often shares the stage at national conferences with other neo-fundamentalist leaders. And while many of the older leaders often have gentle criticisms for him (especially in regards to his language choices), Piper and others have made it clear that Driscoll’s doctrine is acceptable to them and that they are unwilling to kick him out of the camp over stylistic differences.[24]Indeed, Driscoll theology is completely in line with the older generation of neo-fundamentalists on everything from gender roles, to biblical inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement, and opposition to same-sex relations.[25] In addition, Driscoll is very much a New Calvinist and preaches this doctrine often and strongly, though unlike Piper, he does not advocate separating from non-Calvinist evangelicals over the issue. Despite this somewhat more conciliatory attitude towards other evangelicals and his more flexible behavioral code, critics of Driscoll point out that his embrace of culture appears only skin deep. While rejecting legalism in regards to certain behavioral practices, Driscoll is still openly hostile to the deeper ethos of a postmodern culture and any Christians who might embrace it, dismissing their relativistic views as no more than thinly veiled excuses for sexual sin, and warning that the “demons” of postmodernity will ultimately result in “pandemonium” if the church does not guard against them.[26]

Emphases on sexual ethics and gender roles also feature frequently in Driscoll’s preaching, as they do among neo-fundamentalists in general. Driscoll frequently decries gender equality as the source of many ills in both society and the church, preaching that men are to be breadwinners and the heads of their households and that a woman’s God-given role is raising kids and supporting her husband within the home.[27] He sees feminism and what he deems to be “feminine” modes of piety as the source of much decline in the modern church, and seeks to reverse the trend by reclaiming a supposedly more “masculine” approach to Christianity, which for Driscoll almost invariably involves displays of violence.[28] For instance in a 2007 interview Driscoll explained:

Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. [But] In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.[29] Driscoll’s justification for such violent rhetoric is that winning men back to the church requires a faith that glorifies violence and power as expressions of masculinity.

Driscoll’s influence among the next generation of neo-fundamentalist leaders is considerable. His hip, sharp-edged style is mimicked by many young church planters who look to him and his church as a model for effective, innovative and culturally relevant ministry, and his balance of this approach with an affirmation of neo-fundamentalist doctrines and gender norms is likely to become the dominant trend among neo-fundamentalists in the years to come.

Are They Fundamentalists?

George Marsden has defined the fundamentalism of the early 20th century as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism,” and argues that this militant opposition to the cultural and theological trends of their day was what most clearly set off fundamentalists from other evangelicals.[30]And while cultural and theological trends have moved on since that time, some Protestant evangelicals still find themselves militantly opposed to the current culture of postmodernity, and this open hostility is likewise what sets them off from other evangelicals today. It is not just postmodernism in the secular culture against which neo-fundamentalists are reacting, however. More significantly, they are concerned about the ways in which postmodern ideas seem to be filtering into the evangelical church, both in subtle manifestations like the consumer-oriented Christianity of the “seeker-driven” mega-churches, as well as more explicitly postmodern forms of faith like the emerging church movement. And just as the original fundamentalists separated themselves from other evangelicals they felt had accommodated too much to modernity, the neo-fundamentalists seem to be at the beginning stages of a similar separation from those evangelicals they feel are too much influenced by postmodernity.

Drawing such a comparison between old and new fundamentalists can be useful in a number of ways to the historian and other contemporary observers. First among these benefits is the ability to distinguish between different types of evangelicals in America. Media commentators and even many scholars often seem unable to recognize the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, much less the numerous other distinctions within the multifaceted evangelical movement. For this reason, identifying neo-fundamentalism as a distinct movement should be helpful in gaining a more nuanced picture of contemporary evangelicalism.

Positively identifying this reactionary movement as a type of fundamentalism is also useful in allowing comparisons between the neo-fundamentalists and other forms of fundamentalism, both historic and contemporary. The Fundamentalism Project for instance, directed by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby, compared multiple fundamentalist-type movements across every major religion and made a strong case for “family resemblances” which occur among most of these movements.[31] Greater understanding of fundamentalism in general and of neo-fundamentalism in particular may be reached by analyzing this new movement in comparison with or in contrast to these other fundamentalisms.

Finally, understanding this neo-fundamentalist movement as analogous to historic Protestant fundamentalism may be useful, though reservedly so, in predicting possible future developments and trajectories for the movement. It will be interesting to see, for instance, whether neo-fundamentalists will in fact follow the separatist path of their fundamentalist forbears – creating new institutions separate from the mainstream of evangelicalism, or whether they will find a way to remain within the evangelical movement even while critiquing it. If current trends hold, they may even become the dominant force within North American evangelicalism over the next decade and beyond.

[1] John MacArthur, The Truth War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 172-173.

[2] While much excellent work has been done in recent decades in the field of comparative fundamentalisms across numerous religious traditions (see especially the work of The Fundamentalism Project led by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, as well as the ground-breaking book by Bruce B. Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age [Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989]), I am not here attempting to correlate neo-fundamentalism with these other contemporary trends. Instead my emphasis is on describing this singular current trend among American evangelicals, and making a historical comparison between them and their own direct ancestors in the original conservative Protestant fundamentalism of the early to mid-twentieth century, especially as described by scholars such as George M. Marsden (cf. Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd Ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006]) and Joel A. Carpenter (cf. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997]) among others.

[3] Scot McKnight, a theologian at North Park University and long-time participant-observer within evangelicalism, was among the first to name and describe this neo-fundamentalist trend in a pair of articles published on his heavily-trafficked weblog: “The Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism,” Jesus Creed blog, August 25, 2006,; “The Rise of Neo-fundamentalism 2,” Jesus Creed blog, August 28, 2006,

[4] Scot McKnight, email message to author, November 30, 2008.


[6] Carl F.H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1947)

[7] Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[8] Bob Hostetler and Josh McDowell, The New Tolerance: How a cultural movement threatens to destroy you, your faith, and your children (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Hose Publishers, 1998).

[9] Josh McDowell, Beyond Belief to Convictions (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2002), 11-18.

[10] Focus on the Family, “The Truth Project Lessons”, The Truth Project website,

[11] Ryan Dobson, Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007).

[12] Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, Reformed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 29.

[13]Ibid, 17.

[14]Ibid, 126.

[15] John Piper, “How I Distinguish Between the Gospel and False Gospels”, Desiring God website, February 26, 2008,

[16]Mohler, “Two Inaugural Addresses”,, August 31, 1993,

[17] Hansen, 2008, 72-73.

[18]Mohler, “Two Inaugural Addresses”,, August 26, 2003,

[19] Mohler, Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008), 65-72

[20]Ibid, xiii. Albert Mohler, “Ministry is Stranger Than it Used to Be: The Challenge of Postmodernism”,, July 15, 2004,

[21] Mohler, “Transforming Culture: Christian Truth Confronts Post-Christian America”,,

[22] Mohler, “Keeping The Faith In a Faithless Age: The Church As The Moral Minority”,,

[23] A descriptive appellation coined by Donald Miller in his book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 133-134.

[24]John Piper, “John Piper on Why He Invited Mark Driscoll”, online video, Desiring God website, June 19, 2008,

[25]Hansen, 139.

[26] Driscoll (2004): 53, 176.

[27] Grace Driscoll and Mark Driscoll, “Should I be a stay-at-home Dad?”, online video,, September 28, 2008,

[28]Ibid, 146.

[29]Relevant Magazine, “Seven Big Questions: Seven leaders on where the church is heading”, January/February 2007, 74-79.

[30]Marsden, 4.

[31]Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan.Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

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