In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I outlined eight statements that describe a fundamentalist mindset and offer different perspectives that shape the theology of our congregations. In this final installment, I clarify terms and give specific illustrations of the dangers associated with a fundamentalist mindset.
Unpacking Important Terms in Context
Before considering the toxic impact of fundamentalism, allow me to clarify context and terms. The tendency to absolutize conservatism and liberalism (categories that framed the SBC’s so called “Battle for the Bible”) is, according to Bill Hull, “a twentieth-century innovation.” He says, “For 1,900 years the disciples of Jesus Christ never understood or identified themselves as conservatives or liberals, yet, almost overnight, these code words have become the most crucial way to signal one’s religious stance” (Conservativism and Liberalism in the Christian Faith). These terms didn’t show up in SBC publications from 1965-1982. So, why the sudden shift? The emphasis seems to be inspired by the political arena.
Take a look at how the terms conservative and liberal have been used historically. Hull contends, “certain features of both movements surely commend themselves to us. If conservatism originally meant a concern for stable, orderly society rooted in the most enduring traditions humanity had been able to develop, then who among us is not a conservative? But if liberalism originally meant a concern for human rights that would free the individual to develop his or her maximum potential, then who among us is not also a liberal? These two movements did not arise in opposition to each other; rather, each arose in opposition to the excesses of the other. Liberalism was not a protest against conservatism but against a reactionary medieval authoritarianism, dogmatism, and obscurantism that all of us would oppose. Likewise, conservatism was not a protest against true liberalism but against a reckless radicalism that all of us would abhor.”
I trace this history because of our tendency to the term conservative and liberal pejoratively, and if we are honest, we confess we have some of both in us. For the purpose of this article, it’s important to note conservatism and fundamentalism are not the same.
Conservatism comes from a root word that refers to weapons or armor and connotes that which protects from change or destruction. Webster states it this way, conservativism is a point of view that advocates preservation of the established order and views proposals for change critically and usually with distrust. Conservatism is a particular orientation to the past and does not produce an ideology that insists on “rein or ruin.”
Liberalism comes from a root meaning to grow, and so implies a process of development that reflects, according to Webster, a commitment to progress not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional or established norms.” Liberalism is a particular orientation to the future.
I love the way Jim Walls describes how we need both conservative and liberal ideas in The (Un)Common Good:
The best big conservative idea is personal responsibility. It focuses on the choices individuals make that determine the direction of their lives, families, communities, nations, and even the world…Doing the right thing, the moral thing, the ethical thing in personal decision making is key not only for individual well-being, but also…for the common good.
The best liberal idea is social responsibility. Being responsible for oneself and even one’s family isn’t enough. There is also our “neighbor,” and even other neighbors we don’t think of as such (as in the Good Samaritan). Compassion is an essential social virtue and should not be confused with political systems.
We can see from these definitions that conservative and liberalism are simply two different approaches to change, and the continuum between them is vast. We benefit from the healthy interaction between them – in churches and society at large. As someone astutely acknowledged, we need both a “conservative” wing and “liberal” wing in order to fly.
By contrast, Webster defines fundamentalism as: 1) a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching; adherence to such beliefs, and 2) a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a basic set of principles. We tip over to fundamentalism when we make a hard turn and insist upon a rigid, inflexible mindset that has little interest in working for the common good.
Describing This Dangerous Mindset
When I say a fundamentalist mindset is dangerous, I am not talking about conservative or liberal categories outlined above. As an educator, I see the necessity of embracing both conservative and liberal while acknowledging the dangers associated with a fundamentalist mindset.
1. With a fundamentalist mindset, self-critique is considered a sign of disobedience or heresy. Unfortunately, if you show capacity to analyze or critique yourself, you will likely draw serious opposition from folks in your own group. For example, recall how quickly the fundamentalist leaders of the SBC threw perceived moderates under the bus when their (fundamentalist) theology, motives, and practices were challenged.
Today, we see this inability to self-critique playing out in politics. State party leaders are censuring U.S. senators (in their own party) who voted to convict the former president of inciting insurrection. Can we reach any other conclusion than a rigid mindset demanded partisanship over fidelity to a congressman/congresswoman’s oath as a juror in a trial? It takes a rigid and dangerous mindset to demand partisanship that says, “we didn’t send you to vote your convictions.”
In scripture, we’ve read about prophets who were rejected because as insiders they articulated truth that exposed groups and individuals out of alignment with God’s ideal. Is it any wonder prophets and Jesus were killed by the very groups they lived amongst? It is much less personal, therefore much easier, to accuse others (“othering”) than to judge yourself. Many of us prefer to live in a state of denial rather than do hard, painful inner work and self-critique.
2. Here’s the real danger: the certitude essential for embracing a fundamentalist mindset leaves little room for God to work in one’s life. I thought about this when I saw evangelical leaders calling for prayer meetings right before the presidential election. In each case, I wondered why they were praying and seeking God’s direction when they already (assumed they) knew (in their fundamentalist posture) what God wanted. We did not hear “Show us the way, O God” because they already (thought they) knew the answer before praying. Rigid boundaries limit how deeply one can grow spiritually. If you are “right” and you already “possess truth,” it’s much easier to impose your (limited and lacking in humility) understandings on others, i.e., the end justifies the means – no matter how cruel, harsh, or unloving the means. This, my friends, is the dangerous and slippery slope of fundamentalism!
Stories to Illustrate the Dangers
The world is filled with many, many examples of what I’m describing as a dangerous mindset. Here are two:
- I feel certain a fundamentalist mindset inspired Dylann Roof to embrace white supremacy, enter Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and after sitting amongst people engaged in Bible study, cold-heartedly kill nine human beings. Roof’s indoctrination planted within him a misshapen understanding his life mattered more than someone else’s life, that the color of his skin made him superior, and that someone with more epidermal melanin was somehow a threat to his existence. Somewhere along the line Roof’s understanding took a hard, rigid, and hateful turn that had little interest in doing what is good, right, and godly.
- A fundamentalist mindset blinds people to truth. Lies and crazy conspiracy theories prompted radicals to storm the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Distorted fear convinced men and women someone was hurting them and they must respond or “lose” their country. Those who fear losing cultural dominance and their white privilege lash out and demand adherence to their ideology and beliefs. In this case, people claiming to be Christians used violence and force to block the certification of the presidential election, violated the Capitol building itself, and caused deaths.
As illustrated by these two stories, a fundamentalism mindset focuses on “what God hates” instead of embodying God’s unconditional love for all. This mindset naturally leads to dualistic thinking (us vs. them). This is dangerous because it encourages folks to impose their will because “our side is right.” Efforts to destroy the enemy are permitted; Jesus’ command to love your enemy is ignored. As disciples of Jesus whose top priorities are loving God and neighbor, we must reject fundamentalist mindsets that lead to unholy places we do not want to go. In my humble opinion, this dangerous mindset is not compatible with the Gospel.