North American Protestant Fundamentalism

October 18, 2006 at 5:38 am 1 comment

“Fundamentalism is a religious belief, a political movement and a ‘state of mind’.” This essay shall attempt explore this statement in relation to North American Protestant Fundamentalism (NAPF).  In essence, this essay is concerned with exploring exactly what fundamentalism is through the example of a fundamentalist movement.  Thus, I shall begin with offering an exploration of the term itself, arriving at an appropriate definition.  Utilising this definition, I will consider NAPF in three aspects, the religious, the political and the psychological.  This essay shall demonstrate the validity of the described definition of fundamentalism through a consideration of how NAPF adheres to such a definition. 

The term, “Fundamentalist”, first appeared when Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of the Northern Baptist newspaper, The Watchman Examiner,  stated that a ‘Fundamentalist’ is an individual who is willing to perform, “the battle royal,” for the fundamentals of faith.[1]  Laws is here referring to the doctrines outlined in the publication and of “The Fundamentals” which was distributed between 1910 and 1915.  In this context, Fundamentalist designated the tension between conservative and modernistic interpretations within the Protestant movement.  However, fundamentalism has come, in both popular and academic usage since the approximately the 1980s, to refer to the development of a particular form of religiosity, that is not restricted to Protestant Christianity.  The term fundamentalism is extremely contentious and ultimately ambiguous.  Contention exists around whether or not the term should only be applied to Christianity or more broadly, only applied to Abrahamic traditions.[2]  Further, the use of the term altogether, is rejected by some on the basis that it is inherently negative and its usage is often used to devalue and dismiss the group in question.[3] 

However, I agree with Martin Reisebrodt among others, in the conceptualisation of ‘fundamentalism’ as a sociological term that denotes a particular form of religiosity that is inherent to modernity.[4]  First and foremost, a fundamentalist group is a religious group.[5]  Religiously, these groups react to both internal and external changes of modernisation and secularisation that dominantly challenge their accepted worldview.[6]  Fundamentalist groups endeavour to return to an idealised past religious and social order, that is typically characterised as patriarchal and hierarchical.  Comparatively, fundamentalist groups adhere to literal and strict interpretations of the given religious doctrine or text.  Finally, fundamentalisms are politically active: they strive to change their surrounding societal order (and perhaps even the international world) to mirror their own beliefs.[7]

NAPF includes a number of religious traditions, including but not limited to Baptism (particularly Southern Baptist’s) Pentecostal/Charismatic congregations and Evangelical groups.  This essay considers them together on the basis that despite their differences, the groups share: similarities in belief, arose out of the similar circumstances, often coalesce in the form of political lobbying parties (such as Moral Majority) and importantly, the identity of individual NAPF groups, “operate within the larger framework of Christian fundamentalist politics.”[8]  Three key beliefs can be identified amongst NAPF groups: biblical inerrancy, evangelism and apocalypticism.    Biblical inerrancy involves the doctrinal position that the Bible is wholly true: “it can be trusted to provide an accurate description of science and history as well as morality and religion.”[9]  Whilst NAPF readings may be literal, a degree of interpretation is required.[10]  Biblical inerrancy operates on the principle that the Bible in its totality is whole and true: if one rejects certain parts of the Bible, the validity of the text as a whole is questioned.  Furthermore, Biblical inerrancy is for many central to the nature of  G-d: as G-d is wholly perfect, the Bible being G-d’s word, must also be wholly perfect. 

Evangelism is the central to fundamentalism.  In essence, evangelism is the act of proseltyisation which is central to the Christian mission, and indeed to the salvation of the fundamentalist.  However, as Nancy Ammerman notes, the notion of evangelism also clearly denotes differentiation and exclusivism:  the world is divided into those who are saved and not saved.  Apocalyptic beliefs of NAPF can be primarily categorised as premillennial dispensationalism.  This involves the reading of the bible, particularly Daniel and Revelation to decipher the future ‘Second Coming’ of Christ.  This typically involves the rise of the Anti-Christ who will rule the world, and a final battle between the forces of good and evil.  Dispensationalists attempt to correlate historical events with biblical apocalyptic prophecy.  Thus, they consider worldly events and people to represent different biblical notions: both the Pope and communist leaders have been thought to be the Anti-Christ.  Clearly, the specific religious beliefs of NAPF groups have political consequences. 

In order to consider the political nature of NAPF and its beliefs, it is necessary to place these beliefs in the historical context and details of the movement.  In essence, one can describe the NAPF movement as an attempt to return
America to its previous Protestant dominance. Prior to the late 19th century,
America was categorised by the Protestant, “cultural and institutional hegemony.”[11]  As mentioned above, the emergence of NAPF can be placed with the publication of ‘The Fundamentals’ which represented the growing division within Protestant congregations over the adaptation of biblical interpretation to modern science and ideals.  However, the instance of the Fundamentalists becoming a ‘fundamentalism’, is possibly more correctly located during the 1920s NAPF protestation of the teaching of evolution in schools.  The protestation of the 1920s is critical: it represents the emergence of NAPF into the public sphere.  Whilst the growth of ‘fundamentalist’ beliefs occurred previous to this, the movement previously maintained a stance of separationism; separation from the liberals or modernists within and outside of the church.  This protestation did not simply grow out of a dissonance with evolution; rather it can be seen to be the first reaction against their growing minority.  In addition to the growth of modernisation within the arts and sciences,
America experienced an influx of 17.6 million immigrants between 1890-1920.[12]  In essence, where previously Protestant’s felt that
America as a whole mirrored themselves; they were now faced with a vast new religious and ideological pluralism.  Furthermore, the protestation of the 1920s represents another key aspect of fundamentalism, in that it is highly reactive to the change in dominant thought; creationism became central to NAPF both internally, and in the eyes of society.  With the, “public-opinion defeat,” of the Scopes trial in 1925, NAPF reverted back into separatist activities, building their own educational and wider institutions.[13] 

However, the Scopes trial hardly represented the end of NAPF as a fundamentalist movement.  NAPF groups came back into the public sphere in reaction to the societal changes of the 1960s/70s.  The extreme upheaval of the this era in regards to women’s rights, sexual roles, contraception, abortion, gay rights, and in particular the matter of sexual education, drastically alarmed NAPF.[14]  Whilst the 60s saw primarily grass-roots political lobbying, by the 70s and into the 80s, NAPF formed groups that were increasingly public, with growing influence.[15]  Sabrina Ramet notes that the major action that truly ‘forced’ NAPF onto the political scene however was the Roe-Wade decision that allowed for both abortion and gay rights.[16] NAPF perceived the inclusion of women in the Equal Right’s Amendment, the blessing of ‘special rights’ to gay’s and lesbian’s etc, as the state, “condoning immorality and punishing traditional families.”[17]  Indeed, to focus on the inclusion of ‘sex’ in the Equal Right’s Amendment, NAPF’s perceived this change to be an act of, “spiritual warfare” that threatened the family structure and women’s place within it.[18]  The political activities of NAPF groups highlights the strictly modern, or perhaps, more correctly anti-modern, character of fundamentalisms.  Fundamentalisms as religious groups have become politicised due to the politicisation of areas that were traditionally the strong-hold of religion.[19]  Furthermore, within NAPF, there is a strong connection between religion and American nationalism.

As stated above,
America has a history of Protestant hegemony.  For NAPF, the evangelising mission is not solely concerned with recruiting and saving individuals, but saving
America.[20]  NAPF is involved in an overarching concern to return to the traditions of the American ‘Founding Fathers’.  Furthermore, these groups regularly perceive
America to be a central to the spread of God’s word (democracy and free enterprise) throughout the world.[21]  Whilst Ammerman notes this tendency within the constructs of the fundamentalist attempt to, “protect their own rhetorical space and extend it wherever possible,” this tendency can be placed within a wider apocalyptic, theological framework.[22]  For many, although certainly not all, NAPF groups,
America is seen to play a central role in the dispensational end-time Armageddon.[23]  This can be aptly, and indeed eloquently, seen in the apocalyptic series, Left Behind, by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  In this series, the authors posit that a group of American’s fight the ultimate battle in
Iraq.[24]  However, this fictional account for many is not far from reality.  Many NAPF view the current war in Iraq to represent the beginning of ‘end-time’, and perceive
America to be playing the role of ‘good’.[25]  Evidently, NAPF religious beliefs affect their political nature. 


Figure 1

The notion that ‘fundamentalism’ is a state of mind is extremely problematic.  Primarily, many traditional studies of NAPF and fundamentalist groups in general, attempt to locate fundamentalist thought within the area of deep psychological problems.[26]  However, it would largely seem that involvement in NAPF groups tends to lead towards greater psychological wellbeing.  The notion of ‘authoritarianism’ is highly correlated to an attraction to NAPF.[27]  Joseph Tamney and Stephen Johnson, maintain that the “strictness” of NAPF is direct opposition to modernity, and those attracted to these “institutions” display higher levels of authoritiveness.  Furthermore, it would seem that those who accept the model of NAPF as outlined here, are often “authority seeker’s,”;  meaning, that not all people within congregations necessarily accept the religio-political beliefs and activities of their church.[28]  Rather, according to one study, it is the ‘authority seeker’ who endorses a nationalistic belief, and is most likely to be politically active.[29]  The NAPF individual is concerned with the construction of a reliable order, where they see modern society to represent disorder.[30]

A largely unconsidered area of the psychology of fundamentalism is it’s relation to self-object ties.  Based on the ideas of Heinz Kohut and Donald Winnicott concerning the need for ‘mirroring’.  Kohutian mirroring is the process during which the child smiles at her mother, and has it returned.  Here, the child realises that it has a certain power over the reaction of its environment.  According to Kohut, the individual requires positive mirroring throughout their life.  In this process, however, it is central that the child is able to recognise the other as a different, and subjective matter.  Frank Summer’s theorises that attraction to fundamentalism is a product of the individual’s incapacity to realise the subjective difference between herself and others.  The individual becomes involved with a fundamentalist group, allowing themselves to be subsumed into the conformed and strict group identity.  However, this strict group identity is at odds with the ‘other’, who does not mirror itself.[31]  Whilst this theory is relatively untried, it allows for the consideration of why fundamentalists, and NAPF in particular are concerned with the transformation of the ‘other’ (feminists, gays and lesbians, etc) into themselves.[32] 

This essay, has attempted to briefly outline three key aspects of NAPF: as a religious belief system, and a political movement and as a ‘state of mind’.  However, a central concern in this endeavour, was to demonstrate a definition of fundamentalism. Through exploring NAPF, I have demonstrated how fundamentalism involves not only the three aspects stated above, but also how fundamentalism is a reactive modern phenomenon that attempts to regain its perceived previous domination.  Both the beliefs and political activity of NAPF are reactive against the change in dominant social thought, and an attempt to maintain the superiority and dominancy of their own ideological position.  Furthermore, the trend in ‘authoritativeness’ amongst NAPF supports this definition: the attraction to a conformist and authoritative doctrine can be seen to be a reaction to the confusing unsurity of modernity; it is a reactive disposition to modernity that seeks to return to a previous position of order.  In conclusion, it would seem that a definition of fundamentalism as a reactive, religio-political, modern phenomenon is appropriate. 

[1] Ammerman, N.  1994.  “North American Protestant Fundamentalism” in ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby.  Fundamentalisms Observed.  The Fundamentalism Project. vol. 1. pp. 1-66. TheUniversity of
Chicago Press, Chicago. p. 2. 

[2] Reisebrodt, M. 2000. “Fundamentalism and The Resurgence of Religion” Numen. vol. 47 no. 3.  pp. 266-287.  p. 270. 

[3] Reisebrodt. Fundamentalism. p. 271.  This is particularly prominent in the media’s use of the term.  The debate over the use of ‘fundamentalism’ within academia reflects similar concerns to the use of the term ‘cult’. 

[4] Reisebrodt.  Fundamentalism. P. 271; See Marty, M; Appleby, R. 1994.  “Introduction” in ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Fundamentalisms Observed: The Fundamentalism Project. vol. 1.  pp. vii-xii.  TheUniversity of
Chicago Press, Chicago.  

[5] Thus, secular, ideological and political movements, i.e. Communism, cannot be labelled ‘fundamentalist.’ 

[6] Steve Bruce argues vehemently against the notion that fundamentalism is reactive: “[fundamentalism]…is reactive in the sense that all social change is a response  to some other change.” Bruce, S. 1990. “Protestant Resurgence and Fundamentalism” The Political Quarterly. vol. 61 no. 2. pp. 160-168. p. 167.  Bruce’s rationale for the rejection of fundamentalism as a reactive movement is based on the inclusion of South American Protestant Fundamentalism. However, as Ammerman has eloquently argued, South American Protestant Fundamentalism should not be considered to be a fundamentalism.  See Ammerman, N. 1994.  “Accounting for Christian Fundamentalisms: Social Dynamics and Rhetorical Strategies” in ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby. Accounting for fundamentalisms : the dynamic character of movements. The Fundamentalism Project. vol. 4. pp. 149-169.  TheUniversity of
Chicago Press, Chicago. 

[7] Haynes, J. 1997. “Religion, Secularisation, and Politics: A Postmodern Conspectus”
Third World Quarterly. vol. 118 no. 1.  pp. 709-28.  p. 714. 

[8] Gallagher, C. 1997. “Identity Politics and the Religious Right: Hiding Hate in the Landscape” Antipode. vol. 29 no. 3.  pp. 256-277.  p. 258.  Furthermore, an examination of the groups as a whole allows for the wider consideration of their development.  For an example of this, see: Ammerman. “Accounting for Christian Fundamentalism”.  However, this stance is problematic:  each group does have beliefs that are unique, and these are often a source of separation between the various fundamentalisms.  Furthermore, I am operating under the notion that not all Baptists, Evangelical etc are fundamentalist: rather, there is a marked disposition to fundamentalism within these groups. 

[9] Ammerman, N.  1994.  “North American Protestant” p. 5. 

[10] For example, whilst Creationism is often said to be a literal reading of Genesis, Creationist reading generally understand the seven days to represent seven ages.  Thus, a degree of interpretation still exists, whilst maintaining the ultimate truth of the text. 

[11] Coreno, T.  2002.  “Fundamentalism as a Class Culture” Sociology of Religion. vol. 63 no. 3. pp. 335-360. p. 337; Bruce, S. 1987. “The Moral Majority: The Politics of Fundamentalism in Secular Society” in ed. Lionel Caplan. Studies of Religious Fundamentalism. pp. 177-194. Macmillan Press,
London. p. 177. 

[12] Ammerman. “North American” p. 67. 

[13] Woodberry, R. &  Smith, S. 1998. “Fundamentalism Et Al: Conservative Protestants in
America” Annual Review of Sociology. vol. 24. pp. 25-56. p. 28. 

[14] Wilcox, C. 1997. God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in 20th Century
University Press,
London. p. 3-6. 

[15] Exactly how influential such groups are is a matter of great debate.  For example, Jerry Falwell, Moral Majority, has questionable influence; it would seem that despite its attempt to appeal to a wider audience, it primarily consists of and is supported by Baptists.  Also, Pat Robertson’s campaign for president was also problematic. 

[16] Ramet, S. 2005. “Fighting for the Christian Nation: The Christian Right and American Politics” Journal of Human Rights. vol. 4. pp. 431-442. pp. 431-432. 

[17] Ammerman. “Accounting for” p. 164; Ramet. “Fighting for” p. 433; Wilcox. God’s Warrior’s. p. 16. 

[18] Mathews, D. 1993. “Spiritual Warfare: Cultural Fundamentalism and the Equal Right’s Amendment” Religion and American Culture. vol. 3 no. 2. pp. 129-154. p. 132.

[19] Ammerman. “Accounting for” p. 164. 

[20] Ammerman. “Accounting for” p. 152; Bruce. “The Moral Majority” p. 177; p. 181; Also see. Ramet. “Fighting for”; Woodberry. “Fundementalism”

[21] Ammerman. “Accounting for” p. 154. 

[22] Ammerman. “Accounting for” p. 149

[23] See Wilcox, C; Linzey, S; Jelen, T. 1991. “Reluctant Warrior’s: Premillennialism and Politics in the Moral Majority” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. vol. 30 no. 3. pp. 245-258; Wilcox. God’s. p. 2.

[24] See Urban, H. 2006. “
America, Left Behind: Bush, the Neo-Conservatives and Evangelical Christian Fiction” Journal of Religion and Society. vol. 8.  accessed on 12/10/06 at 2:50pm. 

[25] See Figure 1. 

[26] Savage, S. 2002. “A Psychology of Fundamentalism: The Search for Inner Failings” in ed. Martyn Percy and Ian Jones. Fundamentalism: Church and Society. p. 25. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,
London.  p. 25.

[27] Tamney, J; Johnson, S. 1998. “The Popularity of Strict Churches” vol. 39 no. 3. pp. 209-223.

[28] Monaghan, R. 1967. “Three Faces of the True Believer: Motivations for Attending aFundamentalist
Church” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. vol. 6 no. 2. pp. 236-245. 

[29] Monaghan. “Three faces” p. 240. 

[30] Owen, D; Wald, K; Hill, S. 1991. “Authoritarian or Authority-Mindedness? The Cognitive of Fundamentalists and The Christian Right” Religion and American Culture. vol. 1 no. 1. pp. 73-100. p. 76. 

[31] See Summer, F. 2006. “Fundamentalism, Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Theories” Psychoanalytic Review. vol. 93 no. 2. pp. 329-352.  pp. 338-241. 

[32] See Gallagher. “Identity Politics” p. 264. 


Entry filed under: American politics, Apocalypticism, Authoritarianism, Fundamentalism, Psychology, Religious identity, War on terror.

An essay on the Reformation An Authentication Message

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