Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?

evangelical whining 2

Many people think that Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are two different species of conservative Christianity. However, I plan to show in this post that Evangelicals are inherently fundamentalist and that the only issue is to what degree they are fundamentalist.

Some of the confusion comes from the fact that there are Evangelicals, like the Independent Fundamentalist (IFB) church movement, who proudly wear the Fundamentalist label. Thus, an Evangelical, say in the Evangelical Free Church of America, rightly says, I am NOT like those crazy Fundamentalist Baptists.  They see the extremism in the IFB church movement, condemn it, and by doing so think that they are not a Fundamentalist.

The word fundamentalist was originally used to describe a group of sects, churches, and pastors who took a stand against perceived theological liberalism in the denominations they were a part of. From 1910 to 1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) , published 90 essays that were put into a 12 volume set of books titled, The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. (you can see a complete listing of the essays on Wikipedia)  These essays provided the theological foundation for the modern fundamentalist movement.

The words fundamentalist and fundamentalism can also be used in a generic sense. While almost always used when describing the beliefs of religious sects, fundamentalist beliefs can also be found in politics, science,  economics, and even atheism. The focus of this post is Christian fundamentalism, particularly, Protestant fundamentalism.

There are two components to the fundamentalism found in Evangelicalism:

  • Theological fundamentalism
  • Social fundamentalism

All Evangelicals are theological fundamentalists. What do Evangelicals believe?

  • The Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of the triune God.
  • Salvation is through the merit and work of Jesus Christ.
  • Jesus is the eternal, virgin-born,  sinless, miracle-working Son of God, who came to earth 2,000 years ago to die on the cross for the sins of humankind.
  • Jesus resurrected from the dead three days after being crucified. He later ascended back to heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father.
  • Jesus is the Way, Truth, and the Life and  salvation is gained only through putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ.
  • All non-Christian religions are false and many Christian sects have heretical beliefs.
  • There is a literal heaven, hell, and devil.
  • Saved people go to heaven when they die and non-saved people go to hell when they die.
  • Some day Jesus Christ will return to earth to judge the living and the dead. The heaven and earth will be destroyed and God will make a new heaven and a new earth.

Evangelicals may quibble with one another about the fine points of this or that doctrine, but EVERY Evangelical believes what I have listed above. And it is these beliefs that make them a theological fundamentalist.

While it is true that liberal and progressive theology is making inroads within Evangelicalism, this does not mean that Evangelicalism is becoming less fundamentalist. Liberal/progressive Evangelicals are outliers and, in time, due to the inflexibility of Evangelical theology, they will either leave Evangelicalism and join a liberal/Progressive Christian sect or they will become a bastard child subset within Evangelicalism.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is an Evangelical denomination, and thanks to the resurgence of Calvinism and right-wing politics within the denomination, the SBC is becoming more fundamentalist. While the SBC does have a liberal/progressive wing, the majority of Southern Baptist churches are Evangelical. Rarely do denominations become more conservative once they start down the path of liberalism, but the SBC, over the course of the last few decades, has reversed the liberal slide and is decidedly more conservative today than it was 20 years ago. (many of the founders of the IFB church movement were Southern Baptists who left the SBC in the 1950s-1970’s. Little did they know that the SBC would some day return to its Evangelical roots)

No one would argue that Al Mohler is very different from Fred Phelps, yet theologically they have much in common. And this is my point. At the heart of Evangelicalism is theological fundamentalism.  People wrongly assume that church A is different from church B because their soteriology,  pneumatology, ecclesiology, preaching style,  eschatology, music, etc. is different, from the other. However, when we look closer, we find that both churches, for the most part, have the same doctrinal beliefs and this is why ALL Evangelicals are theological Fundamentalists.

Social fundamentalism focuses on the conduct, lifestyle, and social engagement of the Christian. An Evangelical looks at the rules, standards, and negativity of an IFB church that proudly claims the Fundamentalist moniker and  says, SEE I am NOT a Fundamentalist…I don’t believe in legalism. I believe in grace and I leave it to God to change how a person lives.

This sounds good, doesn’t it? However, when you start to poke around a bit, you will find that almost every Evangelical is a social fundamentalist, the only difference between Evangelicals is to what degree they are.  This can be quickly proved by asking the person who thinks he is a non-fundamentalist Evangelical a few questions. Questions like:

  • Can a practicing homosexual be a Christian?
  • Can a homosexual man be a deacon or pastor in your church?
  • Can a same-sex couple work in the nursery together?
  • Do think it is OK for unmarried heterosexuals to engage in sexual activity?
  • Can a cohabiting heterosexual couple be a member of your church?
  • Do you think it is morally right for a woman to wear a skimpy outfit to church?
  • Is it ever right to have an abortion?
  • Do you think smoking marijuana is OK?
  • Do you think it OK for your pastor to smoke cigars and drink at the local bar?
  • Is it OK for someone, in the privacy of their home to become inebriated?

By asking theses questions (and a number of other ones) you will quickly find out that the non-fundamentalist Evangelical is a social fundamentalist after all.  They may jeer and laugh at the crazy, extreme rules and standards of the IFB church member, but, they too, have their own set of non-negotiable social standards. They, like their IFB brethren, are a social fundamentalist.

I am sure some Evangelical will be sure to argue that their social fundamentalism, like their theological fundamentalism, comes straight from the Bible. Of course, EVERY Evangelicals thinks their beliefs come straight from the Bible. The IFB pastor has a proof-text for everything he preaches against, as does the I am NOT a fundamentalist Evangelical pastor. Both believe the Bible is truth, an inspired, inerrant, supernatural text. The only difference between them is their interpretation of the Bible.

Here in the US, we have the perfect fundamentalist storm of religious fundamentalism, economic fundamentalism, science fundamentalism, and political fundamentalism.The US is rapidly becoming an embarrassment as fundamentalists demand their brand of Christianity be given special treatment, creationism be taught in the public schools, the Federal government be destroyed, and their interpretation of the Bible enacted a law.  These Evangelicals are not harmless, and if not challenged at every turn, they will become the Evangelical version of the Taliban. (and I recognize that some Evangelicals are against political and social activism) History is clear, when any religious group gains the power of the state, freedom is diminished and people die.

While I can applaud any move leftward within Evangelicalism, the only sure way to end the destructive influence of Evangelicalism is to starve it politically, socially, and economically. I am not so naïve as to believe that Evangelicalism will ever go completely away, but it can be weakened in such a way that it no longer has any influence.

I want to make it clear that my focus is on the leaders and the Evangelical sects. There are many Evangelical church members who are kind, decent, loving people. Many of them are generational Evangelicals, attending the same church their parents and grandparents did. I hope, through publicizing the narrow, often hateful, theological and social pronouncements of Evangelical leaders and talking heads, and the continued inability of these leaders to keep their fly zipped up and their hands off the money, that the Evangelical in the pew will get their nose out of the hymnbook or turn their eyes from the overhead and pay attention to what is really going on in Evangelicalism. I hope they will stand up, exit stage right, and take their checkbook with them.  When this happens we will begin to hear Evangelicalism struggling for breath.

On a completely different front, liberal/ progressive Christian scholars, writers, and bloggers (along with former Christians like myself)  need to step up their frontal assault on the misplaced authority Evangelicals give to the Bible. We need more writers like Bart Ehrman who are willing to write on a popular level about the errancy and fallibility of the Bible. I firmly think that when an Evangelical can be disabused of their literalism and belief that the Bible is an inerrant, infallible text, they will be more likely to realize that Evangelicalism is a house of cards.

Remember, if it walks, acts, and talks like a fundamentalist…it is a fundamentalist. Evangelicals can protest all they want that I am mischaracterizing them, but as I have shown in this post, their theological beliefs and social beliefs clearly show they are fundamentalist. If they don’t like the label, I suggest they change their beliefs and distance themselves from Evangelicalism. One need not become an atheist/agnostic if they leave Evangelicalism. While I was not able to do so, many former-Evangelicals find great value and peace in liberal/progressive Christianity. Others find the same in non-Christian religions or universalism. If it is God you want, there are plenty of places to find him/her/it.

Notes

Starting with this post, I am changing how I use the word fundamentalist/fundamentalism. When referring to groups like the IFB church movement I will capitalize Fundamentalist/Fundamentalism. Outside of this use, I will not capitalize fundamentalist/fundamentalism.

I know countless fundamentalist bloggers and writers who attack big F Fundamentalism, totally missing that they are attacking members of their own family.  These fundamentalists think if they distance themselves from the extremism of the big F Fundamentalists that they are no longer fundamentalist. However, their beliefs clearly show that they are still quite fundamentalist. (this is particularly true of those who are Evangelical Calvinists)

Comments (21)

  1. Becky Rogers Wiren

    Excellent. I was thinking along these lines when it came to my good, hard working, decent lesbian relatives. They actually are quite good people, and aside from homosexuality, exhibit very desirable traits…could I say, even reminiscent of the fruits of the spirit? Love, joy, etc. Oh not perfect of course. But the ONLY thing that could be attacked about them (from Fundie POV) would be what they do in the privacy of their homes. They are the kind of people we asked to be guardians of our children if we died while they were under 18. But the fundamentalist/Fundies would be only interested in what they do in private. Gee, nosy much? On a related note, I noticed that for years the American marriage was having trouble, lots of divorces etc. But when LGBT stood up for their rights, then all of the sudden THIS was the cause of the deterioration of marriage. Tsk, tsk.

    For me, it was realizing the Bible is NOT perfect. I do think it is possible to maintain a belief in Christ/Christianity, but admittedly, it is hard. Which is why I don’t use the phrase “liberal Christian” much.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing this, Becky.

      I think a person can find much to like and admire in the life of Jesus and certain aspects of Christianity. I know people who focus on the Sermon on the Mount, and even I, as an atheist, think many of the words attributed to Jesus have great value. Who can argue with blessed are the peacemakers or turn the other cheek?

      Reply
  2. MichaelL65

    I have had this discussion many times with my Evangelical friends. I term them Fundamentalists to their face. They become rather indignant as they argue, “I am not a Fundamentalist! I am a Conservative Christian! I am not like them!”

    Oh really? Do you believe the Bible is the word of God? Do you believe it is inspired and God breathed? Do you believe it is inerrant in the original manuscripts? You see, that one sentence has become the so called Conservative Evangelicals “out clause”. If one were to actually read the doctrinal statements of most Evangelical church denominations that attempt to distance themselves from Fundamentalism, they would find this: “We believe the Bible is inerrant as to the original manuscripts.” In actual fact, this means nothing in relation to Fundamentalism. They actually believe the same shit!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Michael,

      You bring up a great point and I am going to write a post on it tomorrow.

      Thanks!!

      Bruce

      Reply
      1. MichaelL65

        I can’t wait to read it Bruce!

        Reply
  3. Van Johnston

    I think you left the most distinguishing element of evangelicals off of your ‘what do evangelicals believe’ list. Evangelicals believe they have a duty/obligation to fulfill the great commission and evangelize, don’t they? Isn’t that why they are called evangelical after all?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks, Van.

      Yes, evangelism would be a good addition to the list.

      Reply
  4. sgl

    how would you fit the amish/mennonites in your categories? theologically, they’re very conservative and fundamentalist, and yet, maybe due to their belief in “separate yourself from the world” (rather than evangelize the world), they seem to get by peaceably with the rest of the world? (or maybe they’re just so small they don’t make much waves and everyone overlooks them. or maybe due to their peace testimony, they aren’t a threat.)

    (since they’re tiny, not sure it’s a huge issue, but just curious, as it may shed light on the critical distinctions of exactly which dogmas are the root of the problem.)

    Reply
    1. cm

      Hi there! menno/amish are not a monolith and by no means tiny. May I recommend browsing http://www.mennoworld.org/ for a deeper understanding of the variety of beliefs within anabaptist churches, they publish articles that represent the range of anabaptist beliefs, from the churches who have ordained lgbt ministers, to the current trends in old order amish.
      I am an accidental (Jesus Radical type)anabaptist myself, sort of stumbled into a group of very progressive mennonites in my area and found that it was the closest match to what i believe.

      Reply
  5. ... Zoe ~

    A few years after leaving my conservative evangelical experience I realized it was the same as fundamentalism.

    Reply
  6. Josh

    I was recently told by a liberal Christian that “if you scratch an atheist you will find a fundamentalist.” I couldn’t really argue the point, because when I was a Christian I really felt that it should be taken seriously, so I guess I was a fundamentalist. It was adressing the doctrine honestly and taking it seriously that caused me to become an atheist.

    Their argument was if I had never taken all that infallible-Word-of-God stuff seriously then I never would have become an atheist. It’s an aggravating way to lose a debate, because I cannot understand how taking God less seriously could have been an option. It’s wierd.
    -Josh

    Reply
  7. Lana

    I think the evangelicals will be weakened because of the bigotry. It may take a few generations though.

    Reply
  8. Rachel

    Doesn’t every belief system have “fundamentals” – core beliefs that characterize it? Isn’t saying that Evangelicals are fundamentalist kind of like saying “they believe what they believe?” How does this make them different from, say, a Catholic or Orthodox believer? Is the point that different brands of Evangelicals are less different than they would like to think? Are less conservative brands tainted by the excesses of more conservative ones? Just wondering.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think have to view Evangelicalism against the backdrop of exclusivism. While all religions have things they believe, not all of them say, unless you believe what we believe, you are going to hell.

      The main point of this post is to juxtapose Christian fundamentalism and Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals want to THINK they are different, but they are not. The only difference is the degree of fundamentalism. Evangelicals run from the word fundamentalist but they are just running from their shadow. :)

      Reply
      1. Rachel

        I guess the idea that Evangelicals share the fundamentals of “Fundamentalists” doesn’t make me that uncomfortable. I think that application could make a big difference. But then my tattooed, earring wearing pastor would make most big “F” fundies pretty uncomfortable. And while he (a Vineyard pastor) still teaches eternal destiny he doesn’t teach that we need to know what that is for other people. “Kingdom theology” tries to put a different spin on the same basic concepts. I’m still struggling with some of the bottom line ideas, though – and wary of how easily the whole thing can go in such extreme directions.

        Reply
        1. davewarnock

          Vineyard churches very much teach the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. The more modern churches among evangelicals like to warm up old fundamentalist doctrines and make them more palatable for modern (younger) tastes. But it’s just the same old ideas in new clothes. A Vineyard pastor (unless he is really off the rails of their movement) would very much believe that only someone who claims Jesus as savior would be destined for heaven- all others would be destined for hell. While that would not be talked about from the pulpit much, it would still be a core value of the church’s doctrine. So that’s the exclusivity that Bruce was talking about- and it is one of the aspects that makes fundamentalism so dangerous. The Vineyard movement sprang from Calvary Chapel in California; when John Wimber wanted to embrace the supernatural more than Chuck Smith was comfortable with. But Wimber and Smith both held very fundamentalist ideas about Christian doctrine and practice.

          Reply
  9. Rachel

    Never seen a countdown clock on comments. Makes me a little nervous, for some reason!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      That is how much time you have left to edit your comment. :) That is unless I don’t like your comment, then it vaporizes. :)

      Reply
  10. pyrolon

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this one. I was confirmed in Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (didn’t take 2 years later I was an atheist) It was quite a liberal church and certainly not fundamentalist at all as they now ordain homosexuals have always been more or less pro-choice, non-literal etc.. (Maybe I’m reading too much into the “Evangelical” part of their name?) Even some of the theological fundamentalist points you’ve mentioned such as hell (separation from God). I’ve always taken Evangelical to mean someone who spreads the message of the gospel, not a specific set of beliefs (besides the whole Jesus saga). There is certainly a full spectrum of fundamentalism out there, but I’m not sure you can really pin it on being evangelical.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      The ELCA would not be considered an Evangelical church, at least for the sake of this discussion, and they are generally considered a mainline, liberal denomination. The churches I have in mind are churches associated with the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Assembly of God, Church of the Nazarene, Orthodox Presbyterian Church,Presbyterian Church of America, Christian Union, Church of Christ, General Association of Regular Baptists, Charismatic/Pentecostal, Holiness churches, countless churches associated with Baptist fellowship groups, Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and countless independent churches, to name a few.

      I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

      Reply
  11. Mark

    The conservative resurgence began decades ago in the Southern Baptist Convention yet the doctrinal strife shows no sign of abating. Now it is over Calvinism. What will be the next purification issue after the SBC becomes Calvinist? Whether women can be bosses in the secular world? Or birth control? All this in the interest of purifying doctrine?

    Reply

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