Taking back America

AS THE DECADE of the 1980s opened, supporters rejoiced—and opponents warned—that fundamentalism, born by the 1910s and gone from public radar screens in the 1950s, was now (in historian Martin Marty’s words) “back with a vengeance.” And an agenda.

At its core, fundamentalism had always been theological. Forged in the heat of battle against theological “modernists” who accommodated developments in science and biblical scholarship, fundamentalism built its house on biblical inerrancy. It fought Darwinian evolution for theological reasons. It viewed the mission field of the world through the lens of premillennialism—a bleak view of human culture assuming severe and irreversible decline, from which believers would be rescued only by the personal intervention of Jesus Christ.

But fundamentalism also had a strong ethos of cultural concern. Its roots grew up in the nineteenth century, when evangelical Protestants comfortably behaved as custodians of a presumptively Christian American culture. And it reacted strongly whenever it saw this vision threatened. Higher biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution were not just theological threats, but threats to America’s Christian civilization. At first fundamentalists saw such godless intellectual trends behind the German barbarism of World War I. Then they perceived them in worldwide communism. By the 1970s, the forces of godlessness seemed to have rooted themselves within America itself—attacking American children in their schools, American families in their cohesion and sexual identity, and American institutions in their moral moorings. The old theological commitments were still present. Now, however, the crusade was primarily cultural and political: not about how to read the Bible or understand the end times, but how to vote and act on abortion, feminism, homosexuality, and school prayer.

These concerns arose from the counterculture’s agitations of the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s became the pattern and impetus for radical feminist and gay-rights activism, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s fostered sexual permissiveness. The Engel v. Vitale decision of 1962 declared government-imposed prayer in public schools a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and the following year Abington School District v. Schempp declared against school-sponsored Bible reading. Roe v. Wade, 1973, protected a mother’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

Each of these developments alone was troubling enough, but taken together, they amounted to a full-frontal secularizing attack. No longer could conservative Christians dictate public behavior from the high ground of moral authority that came with being part of the Protestant establishment. By the 1970s, there no longer was a Protestant establishment. Simply shaming transgressors would not work anymore: rapidly losing status in the nation they had for decades thought of as their own preserve, fundamentalists now had to discover new modes of public persuasion and political action.

Abortion and creation

On the issue of abortion, Roman Catholics led the charge. Abortion had long been treated as an excommunicable sin, but in 1968 Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) explicitly reaffirmed this stance in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Then Roe v. Wade triggered a massive wave of Roman Catholic anti-abortion activism. To make progress in the cultural battle, fundamentalists swallowed centuries of confessional pride and joined with Catholics.

But one issue in the new culture war was distinctively Protestant: a quasi-scientific “creationism” arrayed against the Darwinian theory of evolution. By the early twenty-first century, although creationism was still solidly a fundamentalist preserve, linked as it was to a literal reading of the Genesis creation accounts, its camp had expanded to include many evangelicals and even some mainline Protestants through the “intelligent design” movement. Originating in the 1980s from the thought of scientist/historian Charles B. Thaxton (b. 1939), intelligent design (ID) argues that there are organisms in the natural world far too complex to have arisen by mere chance. Creation-science institutes, think-tanks, and museums developed multi-million-dollar budgets and sophisticated public relations campaigns focused on portraying Darwinian evolution as a “theory” that is shaky and unproven.

Creationists also proved savvy political lobbyists, drawing support from such highly placed leaders as former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and former president George W. Bush. Across 43 states, activists brought their movement to legislatures, school boards, and school districts. As a result, some districts adopted standards allowing for critiques of evolutionary theory within the science curriculum, and others either allow creationism to be taught alongside evolution or avoid teaching evolution altogether. Evolutionists have fought back, with battles see-sawing from year to year.

“Secular humanism”

In the 1970s one phrase came to encapsulate the fundamentalists’ sense of frustration: “secular humanism.” This was a concept from the writings of Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984), who drew from his Reformed tradition the insistence that Christianity should transform culture. His film series How Shall We Then Live? contrasts the Christian synthesis of the first 19 centuries of the church with a modern secular humanism, empty and destructive in confronting the fragmentation and moral relativism of the twentieth century. Schaeffer also helped raise Roe v. Wade to a position of preeminence as an example of secularist takeover of government. In 1979, working with soon-to-be surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop (b. 1916), Schaeffer came out with a follow-up film series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? It portrayed abortion as murder and the legalization of abortion as the natural result of secular humanists’ emphasis on freedom of choice in the service of self-indulgence.

Under the rhetorical hand of fundamentalist author and family values activist Tim LaHaye (b. 1926), secular humanism soon morphed from syndrome to conspir- acy. Many fundamentalist parents concluded that the public school systems had already succumbed. They continued a trend begun in the 1960s: founding alternative Christian schools with the explicit aim of arming young men and women against secular humanism both intellectually and politically.

America: chosen and doomed?

Accompanying fundamentalism’s campaign against secularization was its glorious narrative of “Christian America.” From the late 1970s on, fundamentalist leaders portrayed the promised land as a familiar place: the same land of virtue and piety created by the founding fathers and sustained by the Protestant dominance of the 1800s. The fundamentalists knew that this vision of America could not be regained by legislation alone, and so they prayed and organized for national religious revival and personal conversion, taking 2 Chronicles 7:14 as their founding vision. But this rhetoric of cultural recovery mixed uneasily with that of end-times prophecy. Dispensational premillennialism, fundamentalism’s favored end-times theory, had always insisted that the world—including America—would become increasingly evil and chaotic until Jesus returned, caught up his people in a global “rapture,” and set up his thousand-year reign here on earth. This narrative was vividly portrayed in Harold Lee “Hal” Lindsey’s (b. 1929) The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which, by 1990, had sold 28,000,000 copies. The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (b. 1949) took over where Lindsey’s account left off.

Fundamentalists raised on this apocalyptic vision became adept at seeing it fulfilled in their nation’s moral decline. But now such views existed, paradoxically, alongside efforts to work long-term change in the fabric of American society. In the words of historian George Marsden, “America might deserve the wrath of God for its sins, but let an American protester desecrate the flag or criticize the military and such outbursts would be treated as though they were blasphemy.” America was now, oddly but compellingly, “simultaneously Babylon and God’s chosen nation.”

Falwell’s “true fundamentalism”

By 1980 a leader emerged to channel fundamentalism’s newfound social activism: the Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933–2007). Falwell began his ministry in 1956 as the founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. By the late 1970s, reading the signs of America’s conservative religious landscape, Falwell turned the label “fundamentalist” to his own uses as a rallying flag in his crusade to bring the voice of a reputed silent-but-powerful “Moral Majority” to bear in American cultural politics. In 1979 Falwell cofounded the Moral Majority organization with Left Behind author Tim LaHaye and Southern Baptist pastor Charles Stanley (b. 1932). It became the bulwark of the new, culture-warring fundamentalism and helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

For Falwell, the war of the 1980s to reclaim America for God was to be founded on Christian understandings; but it was not to be fought in the churches, the arena of the old fundamentalism. Instead, its battle-grounds would be the schools, the law courts, and the halls of political power. Its enemies included abortion, euthanasia, creeping “humanism” in the public schools, the threat to godly sexuality posed by pornography and homosexuality, new gender roles in the family, the continuing communist threat, and the forces arrayed against the state of Israel.

Fighting the good fight

As they fought these enemies, Falwell urged fundamentalists not to slacken in their efforts to evangelize, plant churches, and improve Christian education. And he continued to build a broad conservative political consensus beyond his fundamentalist base: not only evangelicals who were willing to stand militantly and faithfully for fundamentalist values, but also conservatives among Roman Catholics (at one point the largest single bloc within the Moral Majority), Mormons, Jews, and other concerned groups.

On the outside looking in were separatist fundamentalists in the mold of Bob Jones and Carl McIntire. In 1996 Falwell left the ranks of the independent (fundamentalist) conservative Baptists and brought his Thomas Road Baptist Church into the Southern Baptist Convention.

Today many self-described fundamentalists disavow their culturally engaged brethren. And the stricter fundamentalists do look very different from Falwell’s socially engaged sort. They preach separation from “apostate” religious liberals (all major Protestant denominations); believe in an extreme version of inerrancy and frequently view the King James Version as the only inerrant text of Scripture; observe taboos against a long list of personal “sins” including smoking, drinking, and dancing; and support the anti-communist crusades of men such as Carl McIntire. In short, they seek separation from a world far gone in sin to present a distinctive Christian witness.

But in fact cultural engagement is nothing new for fundamentalists. The movement arose from a nineteenth-century evangelicalism that believed itself to be the custodian of American society—and indeed, like fundamentalism, often saw itself as embattled against corrosive cultural trends (think slavery and saloons). In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the dual sense of cultural custodianship and embattlement has only heightened, proving a potent motivator for today’s politically active fundamentalists (or as many now wish to call themselves, “conservative evangelicals”).

In response to disorienting cultural shifts, contemporary fundamentalists have taken organized action to affirm their own deepest values and spread them through persuasion and political pressure. And while their commitment to an inerrant Scripture leads them to affirm beliefs that place them outside the mainstream of American life, they spend more time and energy in the crusades of cultural politics than in the minutiae of theological debate. This pragmatic approach, which distinguishes them from fundamentalists of earlier decades, leads the “new fundamentalists” to publicize moral causes, sway elections, and worry liberal pundits, resulting in a torrent of public ink and bandwidth never given their forebears. CH

By Chris R. Armstrong

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #102 in 2012]

Chris R. Armstrong is professor of Church History at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN, and managing editor of Christian History.
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