Sunday, July 19, 2009

How's this definition of "fundamentalism"?

I was creating a textbox on fundamentalism for one of my writing projects. I call upon ye, O decentralized Muses, what think ye of this definition?

fundamentalism: In American Christianity, a movement that arose in the early twentieth century in reaction to certain developments in science, biblical studies, and culture. Its identity thus has centered on opposition to evolution, to anything but a particular kind of literal reading of the Bible, to egalitarianism, and to anything perceived as a betrayal of traditional American values


Anonymous said...

My worry about the definition is that fundamentalism didn't coalesce around some of the things you mention until well after The Fundamentals were published. E.g., some of the main adherents of inerrancy (Hodge, Warfield) accepted evolution. It also fails to address the issues of separation which came to define the movement.

Ken Schenck said...

How to fit it all in a box, especially when its complexion wandered some over time!

I know Noll uses separation as a defining characteristic, but I haven't been convinced. Was not Jerry Falwell a consummate fundamentalist? Wasn't the scientific creationist movement fundamentalist? Yet these groups were highly engaged.

I haven't pursued it strongly, but I think Noll subconsciously has applied his Reformed aversion to dispensationalists to his understanding of history. After all, was in not the Presbyterians who were most responsible for the rise of fundamentalism? How then does the name get transferred to holiness groups and Pentecostals by him, groups that were tangential at best to The Fundamentals?

I remain open but as yet unconvinced that separatism is a key characteristic of most of fundamentalism's history and am waiting either to be shown what I'm missing or for a Pentecostal or Wesleyan scholar to rise up and stick it to Noll.

Tim Hawk said...

A good definition. The emphasis, of course, being on the word "perceived."

Bill Barnwell said...

It is the case that many fundamentalist churches highly stress "Biblical Separation" in their statements of faith--and this includes separation theologically from most other Christian groups, including Evangelical ones.

Anonymous said...

Your point on Falwell is well taken. However, Falwell is responsible for redefining fundamentalism in the 60's and 70's. Not in the way that C F H Henry did, though. Remember, Henry chided his fellow fundamentalist for NOT being involved with social and political issues (among other things). Falwell provided the way for fundamentalist to retain their separationist ideal with regards to the church, but have a more active political engagement through issues that were near and dear to their hearts.

Prior to Roe v Wade, there was still significant political diversity amongst Northern and Southern fundamentalists. Falwell (as well as the Shaeffer's and many others) later built on the cultural and political perfect storm to create what is modern fundamentalism. (Which, because of its insistence on ecclesiastical separation is a somewhat splintered group.)

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the push back. It still seems to me that it is the attitude toward prevailing cultural trends (which of course have varied over time) rather than the separation per se that is key to a more comprehensive definition of fundamentalism.

1) Groups were separating long before fundamentalism. Are the Shakers fundamentalist? I would say they separated peacefully rather than "fundamentally."

2) Both the roots of fundamentalism and its manifestation since the 70s have been a militant engagement and a militant separation. The militant reaction is thus a more encompassing characteristic even than militant separation, let alone ecclesiastical separation.

3) Holiness and Pentecostal groups had already separated or better yet, withdrawn before fundamentalism became a phenomenon. Again, seemingly lumping these groups in artificially with something that gained real steam in the mid-twenties.

Anonymous said...

Yes, separation has always been an issue among Christian and even pre-Christian sects (I'm thinking Essenes in particular in this latter category). So, I agree, just separation is inadequate. But, like the Essenes, is it a key element for a definition? And if it is, separation from whom or what?

I guess the thing that I am struggling with in defining fundamentalism is the "When?" question. Fundamentalism has its roots going back to the late 19th century. Yet to call that fundamentalism would be obviously anachronistic. Fundamentalism post-Falwell is a dramatically reformed entity. And, so is, IMHO, Fundamentalism post-Scopes.

One of my suspicions is that separation and anti-evolution acquired a much greater importance after the drubbing fundamentalists took during and after the Scopes trial. But if that is the case, separation becomes more of a social than a theological construct.

It seems to me the militancy of fundamentalism had, up until the Falwell era (which coincides with the social upheavals of the 60's), been primarily directed at interpretations of the Bible. Yes, they ranted against women's suffrage, yes, they opposed communism, and yes, they supported prohibition. But the majority of their energies were directed within Christianity, not at society at large, (again, see C F H Henry.) Where it was directed outwardly, it was toward the salvation of the individual, whose transformation would eventually transform society.

It seems that in this last regard they found common ground with the Holiness/pentecostal/charismatic movements. Many of these adherents, as you note, were eventually assimilated into fundamentalism.

So, I guess I'm arguing for a definition that includes inerrancy of the Bible (theological, historical and scientific), seperation (although from whom/what varies) and personal piety mixed with cultural conservatism (although that meant something very different in the South than in the North and West).

(Eek, this post got way to long!)

Ken Schenck said...

Great points. I'll mull them over as you are...