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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

What Has Become of American Fundamentalism?

Published Saturday, January 1, 2022 By George Marsden

The answer to this question depends—not surprisingly—on what we mean by “fundamentalism.” As a religious designation, the term is just over a century old. Yet it never had just one meaning, and over the decades, these principal meanings have changed. So, to avoid confusion, we need to stay alert to these various meanings and be clear as to which we are talking about.            

During the 1920s, the most common designation of “fundamentalist” was any evangelical Protestant who strongly affirmed traditional gospel teachings. The term was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, a conservative leader of the Northern Baptist Convention. Laws intended this term for those who were willing to stand up and “to do battle royal” for the traditional biblical and gospel message, as opposed to modernism and higher criticism. The term soon caught on. Those who adopted it for themselves saw it as positive description of Christians who insisted on holding to the basics—as in sports, one might emphasize the importance of “the fundamentals.”

The recent Great War was one factor that helped shape the movement as it had precipitated among many a sense that American culture was losing its moorings. Not only were theological liberals becoming dominant in every major northern Protestant denomination, but also older Victorian mores were giving way to those of the Jazz Age. In that setting, a “fundamentalist” came to be a popular term: not only for any Protestant willing to defend the Bible and other essentials of evangelical faith, but additionally for those Bible-believers fighting to defend the Christian heritage of American culture. The latter cause became most famously represented in William Jennings Bryan’s campaign to ban the teaching of biological evolution in public schools. Bryan’s larger concern was that naturalistic evolutionary social teachings were undermining the nation’s morality.

In this broad 1920s’ meaning as “militantly conservative evangelical,” fundamentalism included people from a wide variety of Protestant traditions. Most major northern denominations—including Baptist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Congregationalist—had fundamentalist parties. Baptists and Presbyterians experienced the most protracted intradenominational controversies as fundamentalists tried unsuccessfully to drive modernists from their pulpits and seminaries. In the South, most Protestants would have accepted the designation as “fundamentalist,” even though the predominance of conservative evangelicals meant there were few denominational controversies. A fair number of African-American Protestants, as a recent study has shown, used “fundamentalist” either as a self-designation or alternatively as a term to designate those whom they thought were too conservative. “Fundamentalist” in that broad usage of the time meant something like “anyone who strongly holds to old-time gospel teachings,” as opposed to modern teachings that would conflict with that biblicist gospel.

While the broad use of “fundamentalist” in the 1920s meant any strongly conservative Protestant, the subgroup that most enthusiastically embraced the term were dispensationalists who followed the teachings found in the Scofield Reference Bible. This group, which had been emerging since the days of Dwight L. Moody in the late 1800s, was building a distinct fundamentalist movement. Bible institutes—such as Moody Bible Institute or The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now, Biola University), or colleges such as Bob Jones or Wheaton in Illinois—became strategic institutions for training and sending out evangelists and missionaries. Billy Sunday became the best known of a host of evangelists who criss-crossed the country promoting such gospel teaching. Premillennial prophecy conferences, Bible conferences and camps, and eventually radio ministries deepened commitments and furthered the teachings. Since the dispensational premil­lennial movement was built largely on independent or parachurch ministries, it operated largely independently from, even sometimes within, major denominations. Eventually, by the 1930s and 1940s, after denominational fundamentalists had failed in efforts to exclude modernists from the major churches, dispensationalists became leading advocates of ecclesiastical separatism.

By the 1950s, dispensationalist separatists were taking over the term “fundamentalist” for their own movement, in part because a good many other conservative evangelicals were becoming uncomfortable with the term. Ever since the 1920s, critics of fundamentalism had been castigating it for its anti-intellectual tendencies. During the 1940s, the “new evangelical” movement emerged with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 and Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947. That movement suddenly gained prominence in 1949 with the advent of Billy Graham as a super-star evangelist. Graham tempered some of his fundamentalist heritage in favor of a new evangelical outlook. As Graham broadened his ministry and cooperated with mainline Protestant denominations, more strictly separatist dispensational fundamentalists disowned him. That led to a fairly clear distinction between the mostly dispensationalist strict separatists who proudly held to the term “fundamentalist” and broader “evangelicals.” From about the 1950s through the 1980s, one could say with at least some accuracy that “an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.” One might also at that time have been tempted to say “a fundamentalist is someone who likes Bob Jones”—except that fundamentalists were divided into fiefdoms that were often fighting among themselves. Still, the groups that used the term as a self-designation were almost entirely various strictly separatist dispensationalist premillennialists.

By the late 1970s, however, a new phase of fundamentalism—as a political-religious movement—was beginning to emerge.  Prior to that, separatist dispensational fundamentalists often had political messages and agendas, warning especially against Communism. Yet they typically also taught, in contrast to the liberal social gospel or the civil rights movements, that churches should avoid direct political involvement. That began to change in the later 1970s.  Beginning in 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter identified as being “born again,” the news media began to talk about evangelicals as a potential voting bloc. That was possible because most Southern “born-again” Christians still voted Democrat and Carter could cut into a bit of the Northern evangelical Republican loyalties. However, strictly conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals who were most interested in political mobilization soon became unhappy with Carter’s Democratic Party agenda, especially in promoting more progressive views of family, gender, and sexuality. That led to the organization of the Moral Majority under the leadership of Jerry Falwell and other avowed fundamentalists. It also fit with the Republican “Southern strategy” and helped turn many conservative, white Southern Christians into solid Republicans, thereby contributing to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. For the first time since before the Civil War, it was possible to build a nationwide coalition of white political conservatives. Conservative evangelicals, including some who would call themselves “fundamentalists” and many who would be just “evangelical” or “born again,” made up an important bloc in that coalition. Militant opposition to the progressive Democratic agenda fueled what became known as the “culture wars” and has remained a major dimension of American politics ever since.

“Fundamentalists” such as Falwell played prominent roles in building this new militant religious-political coalition, but its constituency included a wider variety of conservative evangelicals who were like-minded in their social-political views. In continuity with the fundamentalism of the 1920s, one of the emphases most effective in mobilizing the movement was to build on the popular perception that the United States had been a Christian nation but had turned from that heritage. In the new political mobilization, that theme was closely wedded to even more widely popular patriotism, militarism, and nationalism, resulting in ardent Christian nationalism. Now, unlike the 1920s when anti-evolution was the only national political program, a much broader and more emotionally charged agenda for restoring Christian America became a major appeal to evangelical Christians who have been alarmed by recent cultural changes.

Political militancy became a theme in dispensational premillennialism as well. From 1995 to 2006, the Left Behind series of novels by militant cultural warriors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins sold over sixty million copies. One might suppose that ardent dispensationalists who preach that Christ will return within the next few years would care little about long-term political issues. But in the Left Behind series, political battles are at the center of the end-time events themselves. The heroes are people left behind when the saints are caught up in the air in the Secret Rapture, who are later converted to Christianity when they realize what has happened. Their adventures are those of a brave band of Christians fighting the political intrigues of the antichrist and the menacing world government. Although many readers of the series were not dispensational premillennialists themselves, they would be drawn in by the stories of Christian heroes and heroines fighting political battles that were recognizably extensions of those of their own time.

In the meantime, the political turn of much of the American fundamentalism helped precipitate an academic development that would soon have a notable impact on the American scene. In the 1980s and 1990s, Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby oversaw a major scholarly study called “The Fundamentalism Project.” Defining “fundamentalism” to include any anti-modernist religious movement, they showed in a series of major publications that such “fundamentalists” could be found in just about every world religion. As modernity reshaped societies and threatened traditional religious practices and mores, militantly reactionary groups rose to defend the old ways. These movements often had political agendas. Among some of them, unlike what was typical of American fundamentalism, their militancy included literal violence as part of their insurgency. The most conspicuous examples of such violent movements took place within radical Islam, which was becoming a major world force during the 1990s. Even though Islamic jihadists did not appreciate having the American term applied to them, they were often being referred as “Islamic fundamentalists.”

That usage came to have a major impact on American fundamentalism after the events of 9/11. Suddenly the most common usage of “fundamentalist” was to refer to the Islamic radicals who were perceived as the number one enemy of the United States. “Fundamentalist” thus took on more than ever the general meaning of “religious extremist.” That created a problem for many Americans who up to that time had proudly used “fundamentalist” as a self-designation. The term now might be off-putting for evangelism or for building a political coalition, and it needed a lot of explanation. Within a decade many institutions, such as Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Bob Jones University, were no longer employing the term—at least not publicly. Strikingly, the Bob Jones website at present does not use the term “fundamentalist” in describing itself or in recounting the history of the institution.

The use of the term “fundamentalist” for Islamic extremists reinforced the broader negative implications of the term. Ever since the 1920s, critics such as H. L. Mencken have used the term to mean “anti-intellectual bigot.” Secularists have continued using the designation to dismiss any sort of traditionalist Christian belief. Meanwhile, more open-minded Christians often used it as a term of opprobrium to designate those who are more conservative than themselves. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga in his Warranted Christian Belief offers some careful reflections regarding the negative connotations of the term:

On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disappropriation, rather like “son of a b*tch,” more exactly “sonovab*tch,” or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) “sumb*btch.”

Plantinga goes on to observe that such dismissive uses of the term most often target religious conservatives, so that “fundamentalist” means “considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.” After making some more fine distinctions, Plantinga concludes: “The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like “stupid sumb*tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.”[2]

As Plantinga’s broad first designation suggests, “fundamentalist” is now often used to characterize anyone who is a closed-minded militant. For instance, a number of twenty-first-century observers have characterized “the new atheists”—such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennet—as secular “fundamentalists” in that they are closed-minded and shrill in defending their exclusivist scientific naturalism, which may in fact have lost ground in recent decades. Or in a recent volume, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, authors Gary Saul Morson and Gary Sharpiro argue that “fundamentalisms” are everywhere in our twenty-first-century world. While these authors give secondary attention to religious militants, they argue that the most pervasive and alarming examples of rampant “fundamentalism” today are in politics and economics, where typically one absolute closed-minded dogmatism is answered by another. The internet reinforces the convictions of true believers on each side, and there is no possibility of dialogue or of finding any common ground. Tribalism prevails.

Given such generalizations and negative connotations of the term “fundamentalist,” it is a wonder that any of the heirs to the American religious movement still use it. A few still keep the name, as does the Independent Fundamental Baptists, which are mostly “King James Version Only” and estimated to include some six thousand congregations. Others have dropped the name: for example, in 2017 the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International became the Baptist Fellowship International while still affirming their fundamentalist heritage. Even though the steep decline of the term as a self-designation makes the strict heirs to fundamentalism difficult to identify, there are quite a few American religious organizations that are functionally fundamentalist in continuity with the twentieth-century movement. That is, they are ecclesiastically separatist evangelical Christians who militantly preserve very conservative versions of evangelical faith, including the inerrancy of the Bible, literal interpretations when possible, young earth creationism, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, his literal second coming, the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in conversion and sanctification, and strict traditionalist Christian mores. Due to the largely pejorative connotations of the term, it may be best not to try to designate which of the ministries that have a fundamentalist heritage are still truly “fundamentalist” today.

Another fundamental legacy in addition to its separatist heritage is a conservative ecclesiastical reform movement within major denominations. In the 1920s, this was one of the most prominent manifestations of fundamentalism. While the conservative parties lost in those early struggles, later in the twentieth century similar conflicts arose within the Southern Baptist Convention, where the conservatives often won control. Those controversies are still ongoing. Because of its negative connotations, “fundamentalist” is not the best term to designate the Southern Baptist conservatives. But that party continues to display fundamentalist-like militancy in its attempts to purge the denomination of its progressive elements. One major difference as compared with the 1920s’ struggles, however, is that the Southern Baptist conflicts have been closely tied with the ongoing culture wars that directly involve American party politics. Even though opposition to moderately liberal theologies remains a major concern, passions seem to run the highest concerning the culture war issues especially regarding gender, sexuality, and progressive “social justice.”                

That brings us back to what has been the most momentous transformation of the conservative evangelical heritage in America in the past forty years: uncompromising dogmatic militancy among conservative white evangelicals now is often most intense regarding issues shaped by partisan national political party allegiances. Again, putting aside the question of whether to call this politicized militancy “fundamentalist,” this new political militancy represents a striking reshaping of the old fundamentalist heritage. A half century ago, the fundamentalist heritage was most notable for its emphases on biblicist old-time gospel doctrinal purity, evangelism to rescue the perishing, lives of cultural and strict behavioural separatism, and emphasis on the overriding “blessed hope” of the imminent return of Christ to set up his millennial kingdom. Political programs were like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Fundamentalist and most other conservative evangelical churches often made a point of staying out of politics. Today, while a faithful remnant preserves such stances, more often it seems that the emphases on preserving pure doctrine and strict moral standards have been overshadowed by partisan political concerns. Party politics has also countered much of the separatism of the older fundamentalist movement and drawn its heirs into close alliances with one part of the polarized national mainstream. The old divide between fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals has faded as many from various denominational and doctrinal traditions have become close allies in common political concerns.

If one should ask how this political turn during the past half century has influenced American conservative evangelicalism as a whole, one concern should be the degree to which it has fostered tendencies to interpret the Bible through the lens of current partisan political loyalties. That is, of course, a danger on the Left as much as the Right. In today’s polarized America, it is tempting to let partisan politics shape one’s Christianity more than Christianity shapes one’s political choices. As a rule of thumb, if Christians find that their views on social, political, and economic issues almost entirely match those of either secular or pragmatic political party, then it is time to reexamine their principles. Still, since this essay concerns fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, I am here pointing out how that phenomenon of letting political loyalties take priority has been prominent among Republican white evangelical conservatives in recent years. One could make a similar argument, mutatis mutandis, for how the outlooks of more progressive evangelicals have been too much shaped by Democratic Party loyalties.

Many of the social attitudes that have been prominent in the political mobilization of conservative white evangelicals in recent decades have been longstanding parts of their predominantly old-stock British or northern European ethnic communities. While evangelical churches have long flourished in such communities, they usually only temper rather than transform many of the social outlooks and assumptions of their members. That can be seen in the fact that the political behavior and concerns of white evangelicals in such communities do not differ substantially from those of their unchurched white neighbours, aside from a few issues. The reason for this is that evangelical religion depends on voluntary adherence. That has been one of its great strengths, allowing it to put down deep grass roots in America in contrast to Old World state churches that have been languishing.

Being voluntary also means that it is almost impossible to be prophetic regarding attitudes the community holds dear. If people do not like a preacher’s social-political views, they will get rid of the preacher or find another church. Converts to Christianity will therefore retain most of their preexisting
social-political outlooks. That is nothing entirely new in the history of Christianity. Converts from every tribe and nation have retained many, even if not all, of their cultural assumptions and loyalties. Still, the American case includes an unusual feature. The United States has a Protestant heritage that has contributed partially, even if imperfectly, to shaping the culture. That has led, especially in many older predominantly Protestant communities, to conflation of the national and cultural heritage with Christianity.

Ardent patriotism celebrating the virtual equation of God and country is the clearest example. This Protestant background has also made it easy for many people to view others of their cultural assumptions as essentially Christian. The idea of restoring American’s Christian heritage has been one of the most compelling themes in politically mobilizing the Christian Right in recent decades. So, for many white evangelicals, that “Christian” heritage includes a number of traits that are more parts of the white American cultural heritage than they are derived from biblical principles. For instance, the rugged individualism bred on the frontier has long helped foster distrust of central government. Such attitudes are still especially strong in the regions of the old Confederacy, but they also have many Northern counterparts where they go back to Jacksonianism or to the American Revolution itself.

Evangelical religion has also put down deep roots in such areas, so the conflation of Christianity and these cultural attitudes is not surprising. Perhaps the clearest example is ardent opposition to most limitations on gun ownership, including even assault weapons. Such attitudes would seem difficult to justify from Scripture. Yet the motto of “God and guns” remains compelling and helps solidify political stances that would generally minimize government regulations. A recent example has been opposition to mask-wearing and vaccinations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is hard to think of any principle in biblical ethics that would justify opposing regulations that would help protect one’s neighbors from a dangerous contagious disease. Yet don’t-tread-on-me individualism, distrust of government, and suspicion of elite experts have been integral to the cultural heritage of many in old stock white ethnic communities. So white evangelicals, despite their gospel teachings rather than because of them, have been one of the groups most likely to oppose such community health measures.

The Donald Trump era of fusing of evangelical religion, politics, and cultural prejudices in many white evangelical communities has most notoriously led to the yoking of the religion to a leader whose lifestyle, character, and integrity were about as far from the old fundamentalist ideals as is imaginable. But political militancy has often come to overshadow militancy in promoting true doctrine and personal purity. For many, it seems to have led to an unquestioned loyalty. Granted, Trump promised to advance some genuine Christian concerns. Yet much of his popularity among white evangelicals seems also to have been fueled by his appeals to individualism and suspicion of big government, racial and cultural prejudices, and longstanding cultural resentments in the communities where white evangelicals flourish. Fealty to Trump seemed to blind many to everything else. Trump, who did not hide his preoccupation with his own success and popularity, frequently declared things “true” or “false” on the basis of whether or not they benefited him, regardless of the facts involved. So, Christians who had come to reverence his word had to put aside their usual commitments about bearing false witness. For example, after Trump lost the 2020 election, white evangelicals were among those most likely to believe his claim that he had won in a landslide, even though there was no court-worthy evidence to support that claim. Radio host Eric Metaxas went so far as to say of overturning the election results, “I’d be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty.”[3] Others made similar claims. Some militant Christians were even among those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2020, to try to disrupt Congress in its certification of the presidential election.

Whether or not such political militancy can be seen as a new variant of “fundamentalism,” it has had the effect of drastically changing the public image of American evangelicalism. The term “evangelical” has come to take on for many outsiders almost as negative a set of connotations as has the term “fundamentalist.” These tendencies are likely one reason this movement has been losing young people in recent years. Many thoughtful observers from within the evangelical tradition have been wondering whether they can still use that name.

Fundamentalism, like revivalist evangelicalism before it, always had a numerically dominant populist side. Early Reformed leaders, such as J. Gresham Machen, worried about such tendencies but reluctantly accepted the “fundamentalist” label in the larger efforts to counter theological liberalism. And at mid-century, the “new evangelicalism,” designed in part by Harold John Ockenga (a former student of Machen), had as one of its principal goals the tempering of fundamentalist populism with carefully developed principles drawn from sound scholarship and the deeper Christian theological heritage.

The theological seminaries associated with these movements, together with many associated ministries, Christian colleges and universities, and Christian presses have remained dedicated to strengthening the theological and thoughtfully principled base of American evangelicalism. Alliances with educated British evangelicals have played an important role as well. In many ways, that movement to deepen evangelical thought has succeeded. In past half century, there has been something of a renaissance of traditionalist Christian scholarship, not only in theology and biblical studies, but also in philosophy and almost every other intellectual discipline. Yet, given the populist and market-driven nature of the numerically dominant parts of American evangelicalism, it may seem as though such thoughtful efforts have been of little consequence. If one lumps together all of American evangelicalism—or all of white American evangelicalism (which is what the politically oriented pollsters do)—then it may seem as though there is an insurmountable evangelical mind/body problem. For instance, health and wealth Pentecostal megachurch ministries, to cite just one major set of movements, have far larger numerical influence than all the seminaries and related ministries grounded in the more thoughtful and deeply grounded theologies.

Such tendencies should not, however, lead us to give up entirely on the popular forms of evangelicalism. One way to think positively about what has been happening is that the massive populist ministries, anti-intellectual tendencies, and fundamentalist-like absolutisms of American evangelicalism continue to provide fertile ground for deeper renewal. Very often, people who are brought into the faith through more popular ministries find richer understandings of the faith in older theological teachings, such as the Reformed. That is one reason why traditionalist Reformed ministries have been growing in the twenty-first century, even if they remain a relatively small percentage of the whole of American evangelicalism. As Richard Lovelace argued in his classic Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (1979), if there is to be evangelical renewal, the various parts of the body of Christ need one another.

Although the past decade has seen some decline in the number of Americans who identify as “evangelical,” especially among young people,[5] if we think of fundamentalism in its original 1920 sense, then it has been in some ways a story of remarkable success. During the early years when “fundamentalist” meant Bible-believing Christians who resisted liberal theologies, it was commonplace for mainstream observers to predict that the movement would die away as rural culture faded and science-based education advanced. Yet, even though the early fundamentalists lost in their campaigns to purge liberalism from the major Northern denominations, they were not the ones who died away. By the last decades of the twentieth century, it was the mainline theologically inclusive Protestant denominations that experienced sharp declines in membership. In the meantime, those who continued to preach something like the old-time gospel were thriving.

Even though populist and anti-intellectual appeals have had much to do with that success, theological renewal movements played a supporting role. In the 1920s, one of the reasons why critics of fundamentalism were so confident that modernist outlooks would prevail was because they were convinced that traditional gospel beliefs could not be sustained intellectually in the modern scientific world. Yet, after a century of substantial biblical theological, philosophical, and other scholarship, it now seems that traditionalist Bible-based theologies are intellectually defensible.

Finally, on the positive side, it is important to recognize that a century after the rise of American fundamentalism, evangelicalism has become primarily a global phenomenon. Some of the earliest manifestations of fundamentalist/modernist conflicts were on the mission fields. Now in the majority world, it is clearly the more traditionalist gospel emphases that have been widely embraced and spread remarkably, beyond almost any predictions. Those phenomena are especially helpful for putting the present state of American evangelicalism in perspective. Whatever one might think of the recent political turn within many American white evangelical communities, this can be seen as a drop in the bucket if one is looking at global evangelicalism as a whole. At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that parts of world evangelicalism have some of the same sorts of populist tendencies that have long been part of American evangelicalism. The health and wealth gospel is the clearest example. Still, we should view the popular spread of gospel-based Christianity throughout the world as mostly a positive work of the Holy Spirit, even as we may hope that, among many other good things, it helps open the way for versions of that gospel message more deeply grounded in more substantial heritages of biblical and theological interpretation.

George Marsden is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His works include Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1980; 3rd ed., 2021). He is also co-editor with Mark Noll and David Bebbington of The Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Eerdmans, 2019).

  • George Marsden

1. Daniel R. Bare, Black Fundamentalists: Conservative Christianity and Racial Identity in the Segregation Era (New York: New York University Press, 2021).
2. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 245.
3. Mark Winfield, “Meet the Trump Truthers: Jenna Ellis and Eric Metaxas,” Baptist News, December 10, 2020, https://baptistnews.com.
4. Numerous such examples can be found in John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), and on his blogs The Way of Improvement Goes Home and Current, where he documents, sometimes on a daily basis, such evangelical support for Trump throughout and since his presidency.
5. Whether the decline has been steep or modest is a matter of some dispute, seeming to depend on how pollsters ask their questions. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/08/rapid-decline-­white-evangelical-america/.
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