Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Face of Christian Fundamentalism


...the closest thing to a political principle that most fundamentalists seemed to share was a profession of individualism that paralleled their theological dictum that the individual was the basic unit in the work of salvation.
George Marsden

The movement promises to followers what many never had: a stable home and family, a loving community, fixed moral standards, financial and personal success and an abolition of uncertainty and doubt. It offers a religious vision that will make fragmented, lost individuals whole. It provides moral clarity. I also promises to exterminate, in one final, apocalyptic battle, the forces many of these people blame for their despair.
Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006)

...Constantinian Christianity in America places such a strong emphasis on personal conversion, individual piety, and philanthropic service and has lost its fervor for the suspicion of worldly authorities and for doing justice in the service of the most vulnerable among us, which are central to the faith.
Cornel West, Democracy Matters (2004)

In the context of almost a decade of two unjust wars (see this for historical criteria since the 4th century...before then, ALL Christians were pacifists) in the Middle East launched by the Christian commander-in-chief of the strongest military in the history of the planet and this week's prayer vigil called "The Response" hosted by Rick Perry, another Christian-Governor-of-Texas-who-wants-to-be-President-but-has-not-officially-declared, we pause to consider what exactly defines Christian Fundamentalism (as opposed to progressive, prophetic, liberal, irenic brands of faith) and why it is cause for concern.

As we consistently post, not all Christians are the same, but there is a big divide between Fundamentalists (who come in a variety of styles themselves) and the rest of us. In fact, Chris Hedges' Truthdig column this week claims that this is the real danger that our society faces and it is something that transcends religion: "the widespread mental habit of fundamentalism." According to Hedges, it's not even just Christians, nor is it just religious folks: it's a whole culture of church leaders, media entertainers, political experts, scientists and anti-religious philosophers. We'll let Hedges and others tease out what the other Fundamentalists look like. Here is our list of the 5 most important indicators of what 21st century Christian Fundamentalism looks like.

1. A Rigorous Resistance to Nuance, Doubt and Complexity

The world is always black and white for Fundamentalists. Evil is easy to find and uproot. The quest for certainty is stronger than ever. Truth is easily delivered because the Bible is both error-free and self-evident. Fundamentalists never interpret the Bible, they read it--plainly, simply and clearly--under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and/or their favorite pastor-hero. Marriage is always between a man and a woman because that's "what the Bible clearly says." But when we read critically and carefully, things do not look so clear:



And it just gets more and more complex from there: from war to poverty to abortion to women to slavery and on and on and on.

Here's Hedges from this week's column:

This fundamentalist ideology, because it is contradictory and filled with myth, is immune to critiques based on reason, fact and logic. This is part of its appeal. It obliterates doubt, nuance, intellectual and scientific rigor and moral conscience. All has been predicted or decided. Life is reduced to following a simple black-and-white road map. The contradictions in these belief systems—for example the championing of the “rights of the unborn” while calling for wider use of the death penalty or the damning of Muslim terrorists while promoting pre-emptive war, which delivers more death and misery in the Middle East than any jihadist organization—inoculate followers from rational discourse. Life becomes a crusade.

2. An Emphasis on an Interior and Future Salvation

The supernatural significance of Jesus' death is important to ALL Christians. For Fundamentalists, the cross, since that very first Good Friday and Easter, gives everyone in the world the turn-or-burn decision to either accept it or reject it. The consequences for rejecting it (for any reason whatsoever) is eternal punishment in hell after death. Fundamentalists call it "good news" because they are granted a relationship with God and get to go to heaven when they die. Everyone else is wrong...and damned. One way to understand this is to look at it through the perspective the two most popular American Christians from the 20th century. The Fundamentalist version of the Christian gospel was embraced by Billy Graham:

But the most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel?...The central issues of our time aren't economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ's forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.

But Martin Luther King interpreted the cross very differently, mystically and socio-politically rooted in this world, as he led oppressed and marginalized people out of second-class citizenship and poverty:

The cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way which comes only through suffering.

3. A Claim of Political Neutrality

John Howard Yoder's 1972 classic The Politics of Jesus exposed all the ways that Christians have subtly emasculated the political Jesus of the Gospels. His "6-fold claim of Jesus’ irrelevence" ultimately had the impact "to set the authority of Jesus aside.” But what hovers behind all this Fundamentalist resistance to "politics" is what Ched Myers calls an "ideological bargain Christian theology has struck with secular capitalism:" In his Binding The Strongman (1988), a profound commentary on the Gospel of Mark, he writes that this apolitical mentality from church leadership "has conceded authority over the public sphere to the state in hopes of retaining a modicum of authority over the private sphere."

Since the early 20th century (what church historian George Marsden calls "The Great Reversal"), Fundamentalist Christian pastors, especially in mostly white suburbs, have steered away from controversial political subjects which has mostly had the effect of baptizing the status quo. Fundamentalist churches focus on the poor and marginalized through philanthropic giving, a form of paternalistic charity that makes solidarity with the vulnerable a difficult position to attain. This mentality leads to what Hedges (in American Fascists) calls "a disastrous disengagement with the larger, more complicated systems and imbalances that fuels poverty and injustice."

The claim of political neutrality is actually what Marsden calls "political ambivalence," an inconsistent and incoherent picking-and-choosing of political issues, often framed in "biblical" or "moral" terms to secure them from "politics" (compare/contrast this with this).

4. A Consistent Placement of Blame on Convenient Scapegoats

It was the commies and secular humanists during the Cold War era and now it is the gays/lesbians, Muslims (without differentiating between brands), big government and nonbelievers. Surely, everyone is sinful, but the real threats come from particularly sinful folks outside the confines of the church. Fundamentalists "prove" that gay rights advocates threaten the "sanctity of marriage" by giving examples of the "perversion" and "promiscuity" of some gays and lesbians (the American Family Association is sponsoring a boycott of Home Depot for supporting "the gay agenda"...the AFA is also a featured sponsor of Perry's Response) and they "prove" that Muslims are inherently violent by providing a few verses (out of context) from the Koran.

5. A Belief in the Coming Apocalypse

The belief in the Rapture goes hand in hand with refusal to engage in peace and justice efforts within economic and socio-political structures. If God is coming to rescue his followers from all the evil of this world then there's no real reason to spend a lot of time and effort on transforming the world's systems. The real work is getting people saved so that God rescues them too.

The first Christian disciples, however, thought much more holistically about a future hope, as biblical scholar N.T. Wright clarifies:

...the Gospels thus demonstrate a close integration with the genuine early Christian hope, which is precisely not the hope for heaven in the sense of a blissful disembodied life after death in which creation is abandoned to its fate, but rather the hope, as in Ephesians 1, Romans 8 and Revelation 21, for the renewal and final coming together of heaven and earth, the consummation precisely of God's project to be savingly present in an ultimate public world. And the point of the Gospels is that with the public career of Jesus, and with his death and resurrection, this whole project was decisively inaugurated, never to be abandoned.

Conclusion: Our Concerns

In 1921, at the origins of the Christian Fundamentalism in the United States, the progressive Christian magazine The Christian Century communicated a vital concern that still holds true today:

When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in "the social gospel," but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he has found just the thing he has been looking for.

This unveils the real horror of Christian Fundamentalism: it does not reflect the Jesus of the Gospels who turned the tables on those Roman and Jewish elites who powermongered the other 99% of 1st century Palestine. Jesus equated love of God with love of neighbor and continued the prophetic Jewish strand of calling God's People to live simply and share their possessions while confronting the powers-that-be.

A faith that mirrors the Jesus of the Gospels is humble and transparent, willing to be vulnerable about struggles and weaknesses and questions/doubts about the Bible and everything else there is. It is a here-and-now way of life that engages with both symptoms and systems of evil (addiction, abuse, apathy individually and collectively, personally and policy). This faith refuses to scapegoat our neighbors, strangers and enemies because Jesus' death on the cross exposed the idiocy of the scapegoating mechanism. And finally, authentic Christian faith resists the temptation to discount the nonviolent struggle against injustice by claiming that God will do all the work in the future (either the Rapture or Heaven).

Today, Christian Fundamentalism thrives in the American suburbs largely because it is an easy-to-understand message about eternal salvation and personal piety while demonizing those very different from themselves. It gives meaning, fulfillment and a sense of community through inspirational sermons, emotion-driven worship music and "small groups" of men and women who have similiar interests and convictions. It strives for the status quo, harkening back to a mythical era when America was a Christian nation. No doubt, we will keep praying for America and the rest of the world. But we'll be sitting out Governor Perry's Response.

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