Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?

whining evangelical

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, such as the Independent Fundamentalist (IFB) church movement, who proudly wear the Fundamentalist label. Thus, an Evangelical – say someone who is a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church of America – rightly says, I am NOT like those crazy fundamentalist Baptists.  They see the extremism of the IFB church movement, condemn it, and by doing so think that they are not 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 of which they were a part. From 1910 to 1915, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), published 90 essays that were published in 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, the 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, a hell, and a 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 heavens and earth will be destroyed and God will make a new heaven and a new earth.

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

While it is true that liberal and progressive theology are 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-1970s. Little did they know that the SBC would one day return to its Evangelical roots.

Many people would argue that Al Mohler is very different from the late 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 of differences between their soteriology,  pneumatology, ecclesiology, preaching style, eschatology, music, etc However, when we look closer, we find that both churches, for the most part, have the same doctrinal beliefs. 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 being the degree of fundamentalism.  This can be quickly demonstrated by asking  those who think they are  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 alcohol at the local bar?
  • Is it OK for someone, in the privacy of their home, to become inebriated?

By asking these questions, and a number of  similar ones, you will quickly  discover that the non-fundamentalist Evangelical is a social fundamentalist after all. While the latter may jeer and laugh at the crazy, extreme rules and standards of the IFB church, they too have their own set of non-negotiable social standards. They, like their IFB brethren, are  social fundamentalists.

I am sure some Evangelicals will argue that their social fundamentalism, like their theological fundamentalism, comes straight from the Bible. Of course, ALL 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 harnessed for the good of Christianity, and their interpretation of the Bible enacted as law.  These Evangelicals are not harmless, and if not challenged at every turn, they will become the Evangelical version of the Taliban. I recognize that some Evangelicals are against political and social activism, but they are few in number. 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 Evangelical Christianity 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 to such a degree that it no longer has any influence.

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, by 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 Evangelicals in the pew will get their noses out of the hymnbook or turn their eyes from the overhead and pay attention to what is really going on within Evangelicalism. I hope they will stand up, exit stage right, and take their checkbooks 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 Evangelical 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 Evangelicals 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 unfairly tarring them with the fundamentalist brush, but as I have shown in this post, their theological 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. They need not become atheist/agnostic if they leave Evangelicalism.  Even though 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

I know a number of 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 Fundamentalism 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.

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13 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    I agree, it’s a matter of degree. I was brought up with fundamentalist beliefs but not necessarily all the social trappings that people typically associate with fundamentalists. It was more like Focus on the Family thinking, which is pretty conservative, more so than I remember when I read it now.

    Reply
    1. Becky Wiren

      I think Focus on the Family has moved farther to the right over the years. But then, the entire Right, politics and religion, is and has been moving farther right for decades.

      Reply
      1. Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

        Focus has moved to the right. Twenty five years ago they were much more reasonable and mainstream. Now they’re just another fear mongering right wing organization.

        Reply
  2. Pingback: Christian Fundamentalists and Conservative Evangelicals | Flee from Christian Fundamentalism

  3. Melody

    Amen 🙂 Yes, I was raised like that. Not that fundamentalism was even wrong. Isn’t Jesus our fundament, our rock and salvation? Shouldn’t we stand firm on that foundation? Anyway enough with the rhetoric 😉

    My dad left this church before he went to the one where he met my mom and the one I was also raised in. He felt that he had really been freed from the law and from legalism, but our church had loads of unwritten rules and he was a pretty strict guy himself. Both for himself and us as a family. So yeah, that is rather ironic. His preaching about not being under the law didn’t ring as true for us as it did for him. He’d been part of a more Calvinist church and so he wasn’t sure of his salvation; in this new church he was, which was, understandably, a very big deal for him. To finally know for sure instead of always being in doubt must have been quite liberating for him but that didn’t mean that there weren’t any rules and everything was grace.

    Reply
    1. Karen the rock whisperer

      I attended an Evangelical church for a couple of years, but never really understood their theology. I was raised Catholic, and while I left the Catholic church, my issues with it did not include what I was taught about salvation. Even while I attended the Evangelical church, I mostly believed that having been baptized, doing my best to follow Jesus’ path, and apologizing to God and making amends for my transgressions was adequate for salvation. Salvation was a path, a path that I had chosen and continued to choose.

      I would not have done well at all in a Calvinistic church. As it was, I left the Evangelical church when I finally found out that they believed the bible was literally true; how silly was that? I had enough science background to know that those Old Testament stories were myths! And given how much the Evangelical church sermons fed my (then undiagnosed) depression, a Calvinist environment might have been all I needed to push me completely over the edge.

      My theology has changed; I’m an atheist humanist. But in many ways, I’m still on that path I learned as a Catholic growing up. Following Jesus has been replaced with advocating for social justice; apologizing for my transgressions is done directly to the injured party. And the “salvation” part will be the ability to look back with few regrets. This quote, often attributed to Marcus Aurelius, pretty much defines my theology now:

      “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        Calvinism fuels doubt. A Christian can never know for sure if they are one of the elect. That’s why some people find my story so troubling. They fear ending up like Bruce Gerencser. ??

        Reply
        1. Tim Kaufman

          Bruce…is the “C” on the hat for Cincinnati or Chicago?

          Reply
          1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

            Cincinnati. I am a Reds and Bengals fan.

      2. Melody

        There are many people in Calvinist churches that struggle their entire life with their (hopes of) salvation and some become depressed and its theology definitely doesn’t help if you already are depressed. Then there are also the ones who become more passive or indifferent about it. If it’s completely out of your own hands and neither your good deeds nor your belief can alter it and make even the slightest difference, that is a pretty logical response. It’s also very unfair: they have to follow God as best as they can but it may not matter s**t whereas the most horrible people on earth who are of the elect get a ticket anyway (and usually a deathbed conversion of some sort). I went to a Calvinist highschool, even though our church was of a different flavor, because it was the ‘best,’ i.e. most Christian, school around. Some of my father’s relatives still struggle with their salvation on occassion: his sister gets really upset once a year or so and calls my dad to hear him say that God does love her and she doesn’t have to be afraid of hell.

        It is one of the things that helped me to deconvert. Whether or not these atheists went to hell or not, they were not afraid of it, whereas I saw (and was myself) many Christians who were supposed to be sure of their spot in heaven, very afraid of hell. What was the point of going to heaven if you still spent your life on earth being afraid of going to hell? If even very devout Christians had a hard time being completely sure of their salvation then why didn’t God give them that feeling of surety or security that they so desperately longed for?

        Reply
  4. Daniel Wilcox

    Very true points.

    Your lucid article reminds me of a wry joke going around 20 years ago:

    What is an Evangelical?

    The frustrated, educated son of a Fundamentalist;-)

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Evangelicals are Fundamentalists | Burnt at the stake

  6. Pingback: Are Christian Fundamentalists Driving Our Country into the Dark Ages? | Flee from Christian Fundamentalism

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