One of Joan’s and my pandemic practices is to read together after dinner each evening. We recently finished After Evangelicalism – The Path to a New Christianity by David Gushee. If you are looking for a primer explaining the differences between fundamental-conservative Christians and moderate-progressive ones, I highly recommend this book. I lived through the “holy wars” at Southern Seminary in the early 1980s and am intimately aware of the issues that compelled moderate-progressive Baptists to form Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Gushee extends the conversation far beyond Four Fragile Freedoms and women in ministry. If you struggle to understand why your Christian friends and family members see things so differently from you, Gushee offers keen insight into biblical interpretation, conservative Christian tethered-ness to a political ideology, and a better path forward (being tethered to Jesus).
In Reclaiming and Re-Forming Baptist Identity (2016), Gene Wilder and I thoroughly outline historic Baptist distinctives left behind by fundamental-conservatives who took over the Southern Baptist Convention. Gene and I were careful to clarify our definitions of terms. The word fundamentalist is often used to identify extremist groups that aggressively resist religious or social change. These groups do whatever they perceive is needed to keep their society attached to a set of “fundamentals.” Anyone or anything that calls these fundamentals into question is seen as a threat to survival. Baptist historian Leon McBeth said this about the group that wrested control of the SBC: “Fundamentalism, in whatever religious group, tends to be unable to tolerate diversity and often seems determined to ‘rule or ruin’ its group.” Those who left and soon formed CBF, believed the opposite: Theological conformity and “Baptists” were not good bedfellows. The convictions CBF believes essential in each person’s faith journey with God are theological diversity, remaining open to Spirit, and being pliable in Creator’s hands.
Clearly, the concerns that compelled folks to leave the SBC in order to form CBF are still with us. Even today fundamentalist mindsets in the U.S. and around the globe have raised their ugly heads in increasingly destructive ways. My purpose here is not to discuss at length how fundamentalism is influencing the church and our country, rather I want to wave a red flag about the dangers of fundamentalism. I do so by sharing content from appendices omitted in the final editing of the book Reclaiming and Re-Forming Baptist Identity. Included here is “My Understanding of Fundamentalism” by Gene Wilder, edited by Terry Maples. Gene’s perspective is instructive and offers insight as churches find their way forward.
The following remarks are my understanding of Fundamentalism. While the statements are influenced by the writings and teachings of others, they are not intended to be academic definitions. Instead, they are my personal conclusions informed by my own experience.
I do not see Fundamentalism as theology but as a mindset found in numerous theologies/religions. Fundamentalism can take root in any religious group. Since Fundamentalism is a mindset and not a theology per se, it can develop on the theological left and on the theological right.
Understandably, the following statements will not be viewed favorably by Fundamentalists; I welcome critique and dialogue with those who think I have maligned their beliefs. In fact, my invitation to critique and dialogue is what defines me as different from Fundamentalists.
1) Fundamentalists believe they alone possess the truth and anyone who articulates a doctrine different from theirs is an enemy of the truth and a purveyor of lies.
2) Fundamentalists believe the truth they express is clear, precise, and not open to interpretation.
3) Fundamentalists believe they cannot coexist or work beside those who hold ideals or doctrines different from theirs. To do so would put truth in jeopardy and lead to eventual corruption.
4) For Fundamentalists, change is considered evil because it creates a slippery slope that leads society to slowly drift from the truth. Therefore, change should be resisted because it threatens preservation of the truth.
5) Because truth is more important than people, those who embrace an ideal or doctrine different from Fundamentalist truth must be silenced, even if they are good, sincere people.
6) In the fight to preserve truth, the end justifies the means, even if the means are considered by others outside Fundamentalism to be insensitive, inhumane, or evil.
7) It is not enough to simply espouse the truth. Fundamentalists must gain control of all entities where the truth they hold could be challenged or maligned.
8) Fundamentalists believe because they possess the truth and work to preserve it, God is on their side and will eventually reward them for their efforts.
To be clear, there are many sincere, conservative Christ-followers who are not fundamentalists. They reject these statements; they do not seek to force their views on others. Admittedly, the above statements are difficult to read, but because I grew up in deep South fundamental-conservatism, I know they ring true. A fundamentalist mindset has taken over much of evangelicalism—as it insists on narrow theological understanding, one-sided political ideology, and leadership that is white and male. I am sad to witness how this ideology continues to inflict damage on Christianity and the Gospel; in many cases this fearful perspective supersedes the Jesus Way, and over time trades faith and Mystery for power.