Exploring Christian Fundamentalism
-- a sermon by Dave Schroeder
-- given at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett
-- August 7th, 2005
One of the things fundamentalist churches are best known for is their tradition of long sermons. In some of those churches it's said that the devil doesn't leave the sanctuary until at least the first hour of preaching is over, so get comfortable and let's get started.
There are times when I'm convinced that the only acceptable form of prejudice for UUs is against Christian fundamentalists. We stress tolerance for all varieties of philosophical and religious exploration from atheists to Zoroastrians. We try, with varying degrees of success, to appreciate diverse political points of view. We're sensitive to the needs of the poor and the oppressed here and around the world. But there's something about those Fundamentalists that really gets to us. It feels like everything we believe, they believe the opposite. Put a UU and a Fundamentalist in the same room for a while, bring up the topic of religion, and like mixing matter and anti-matter you're probably going to have an explosion.
Here at UUCG we've explicitly set ourselves up as a liberal religious oasis in the midst of a fundamentalist desert. We're surrounded by people who think the Bible is without error and people like us are headed straight for Hell. Many of us keep quiet about our beliefs to keep the peace, endure sectarian public prayers as a matter of course, and put up with the tacit assumption that everybody around here shares the same religious perspective. There are millions of them and only a few hundred thousand of us. The greater Atlanta on-line Yellow Pages lists over 5,000 churches. Only eight of them are Unitarian-Universalist. Being a minority isn't easy.
Many of us know of fundamentalism from growing up as fundamentalists, living in the midst of them, or coping with them in the workplace. But still, many of us may not be as familiar with the details as we'd like or may have moved to the South from places where fundamentalism isn't widespread as it is down here. Today I'd like to explore three main things about fundamentalism.
• It's origin and history—where it came from, what it believes, and what makes it unique
• What we can learn from it—what they're doing better than we are, and
• How we can more effectively live as religious liberals in a sea of fundamentalistsORIGINS AND HISTORY
What the heck is fundamentalism, anyway? Where did it come from? Why are they such sticks in the mud? The answer to that question is to look in a mirror. There's a very good reason why UUs and fundamentalists seem like direct opposites. Fundamentalism came into being as an organized system of beliefs in direct response to religious and social liberals, like Unitarians, who applied reason to religion and Universalists, who saw God as a loving parent rather than a hanging judge. German scholars who started analyzing the Bible like any other set of historical documents also played their part, as did Charles Darwin and the evolution revolution he started.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the United States was in the midst of a major transformation. People were moving from farms to cities, non-Protestant immigrants were arriving in large numbers, and universities were applying the tools of science and scholarship to areas that had previously been the sole realm of religion. Many of the mainline Protestant churches were moving away from treating the Bible literally and toward looking at it metaphorically. For example, pastors and congregations became comfortable looking at the days of Creation in Genesis as geologic eons rather than as seven typical twenty-four hour days.
One of the triggers that helped solidify fundamentalists' anger was an address delivered in 1909 by a Unitarian, Charles Eliot, who had served as president of Harvard for forty years. Eliot had transformed Harvard from a small college into a great modern university over four decades. He's also the guy who selected the books included in the famous Harvard Classics. Eliot was a man of science who taught mathematics and chemistry. He was one of the biggest of the big guns of reason and rationality of his day.
The title of his address was "The Future of Religion" and his message really ticked off religious conservatives. Eliot believed the new religion of the future would have only one commandment, love God by serving others. Eliot thought there would be no need for churches in the future, no need for scriptures, no need for sin and redemption, because God's presence would be so overwhelming. The religion of the future would be a social gospel that celebrated secular ideals such as democracy, public education, social reform, and preventive medicine. Eliot saw love of God and neighbor, compassion for the needy and social justice as the core of his new vision. He wanted to build a faith that relied on performing good works rather than pew-sitting piety.
Fundamentalists were appalled. They thought that faith without doctrine was not Christianity, and they circled their wagons to make sure their doctrine stayed pure. They began to withdraw from secular society. They drew lines in the sand, like the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and pushed out any ministers and congregations who didn't pass their litmus tests. They were more widespread in the South but were well represented in other parts of the country, too.
The arrival of World War I let the fundamentalists wrap themselves in the flag. In 1917 the famous evangelist and former baseball player, Billy Sunday, said "Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous." Sunday would often end his sermons by jumping up on top of the pulpit and waving an American flag. After the war American society changed even faster. Urbanization, secularization, technology, and immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe all increased rapidly. Sigmund Freud added his disruptive insights to Darwin's as well. As one writer put it, "…in 1900 one might have talked about religion in polite company but never would have dared mention sex, by the 1920s the opposite was often the case." A symptom of the conservative backlash to all these changes was the rise in the Klan, which saw its peak membership year in 1923.FUNDAMENTALISM TODAY
What about fundamentalism today? What makes it distinctive? Biblical inerrancy is its best known belief, but there are several other important elements. Fundamentalism is a very personal faith, where a one-on-one relationship between believers is central, including the essential notion, based on a mistranslation, that they must be "born again." As the song Blessed Assurance say, "Jesus walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own." Their views on abortion are well known, though they're often in favor of capital punishment, are quite literal in their understanding of Jesus miracles, and don't allow women to be ministers. They tend to have less education than members of mainline denominations like Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians. They're big on Sin and Satan. They tend to be anti-intellectual, anti-science—especially evolution, and anti-homosexual based on various Biblical "proof texts." They tend to be anti-alcohol and sometimes seem like they're against anything, so long as it's fun. They are distrustful of secular society and have only started flexing their muscles politically in the past thirty years, though today they seem to be in charge of national policy.
Along the lines of being anti-alcohol and anti-fun, my brother, a Methodist minister in Grayson, says that the way you can tell the difference between Baptists and a Methodists in a liquor store is that the Methodists will make eye contact.PREMILLENIAL DISPENSATIONALISM
One of the most widespread theological ideas in fundamentalism today has a complicated eleven syllable name: premillennial dispensationalism. The best-selling Left Behind books are based on this belief, along with all the "Rapture" bumper stickers, like "In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned," and my favorite, "In case of Rapture, this car will swerve as my mother-in-law takes the wheel." Dispensationalism got started in England about the same time as Unitarianism got started in the United States, around 1820. It's based on the notion that history is divided up in to periods of time called dispensations. We're now in the next to the last one, before Christ shows up for his thousand-year reign in the final age, which is where the pre-millennial part of the phrase comes from. The justification for the whole idea is drawn from prophesies in the books of Daniel and Revelations and Ezekiel.
Most dispensationalists have a dim view of human nature and believe that human beings will screw things up in every age, including this one. They believe that the Saved will be taken bodily into heaven by the Rapture just before the seven years of tribulations that will occur prior to Jesus' physical return to Earth. They are big on the importance of Israel being resettled by the Jews and think the end won't come until the Jewish Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. That's one reason why fundamentalists tend to be so pro-Israel. Dispensationalists think the Anti-Christ is a political leader, not a religious one, which has reduced anti-Catholic sentiments among fundamentalists. In the old days Protestants, starting with Martin Luther, equated the Anti-Christ with the Pope.
If any of this seems confusing to you, you're not alone. Sometimes I just have to marvel at the creativity of theologians and their ability to use the Bible as a giant Rorschach test where they can project their own needs and desires. Quite a few people just can't handle uncertainty. They want to know that their car will be unmanned and want to be sure that they're going to heaven. Given the insecurities of the modern world, it's easy to see why such beliefs are appealing.
The concept of dispensationalism has been embraced by a wide range of conservatives across many denominations, but there are other distinctions within fundamentalism that tend to result in new denominations, like the Pentecostal and Holiness churches.PENTACOSTALS, CHARISMATICS AND HOLINESS CHURCHES
Pentecostals are named for Pentecost, which according to the book of Acts happened fifty days after Jesus' resurrection when the Holy Spirit descended on the Disciples. Pentecostals tend to share fundamentalist beliefs like the inerrancy of the Bible, but they stress the Spirit over the Word, speak in tongues, and focus on physical healing. One of the biggest differences between Pentecostals and other fundamentalists is that the Pentecostals welcome women as ministers, which is anathema to most Southern Baptists. Charismatics are much like Pentecostals in stressing the power of the Holy Spirit over the words of the Bible, but tend to work within existing churches rather than form new ones. A growing percentage of Catholics, for example, are Charismatics.
The Holiness movement is similar to Pentecostalism, too, and stresses the power of the Spirit to cleanse our carnal natures of sin and make us pure. The Salvation Army is a Holiness group as was Aimee Semple McPherson and her Foursquare Gospel Church. From the beginning it's been an integrated movement with a large number of African-American adherents.FUNDAMENTALIST LEADERS
Billy Graham was a fundamentalist who focused on issues that united, not divided. He brought respectability to fundamentalism. His influence has substantially declined as the power of more conservative leaders has increased. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority is a non-charismatic fundamentalist who helped churches reduce their emphasis on separation from secular culture and got them involved in political action. Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, and Jim Bakker of the PTL Club are all charismatics. Swaggart and Bakker were caught in sexual improprieties, and Bakker was caught in financial chicanery as well. There's a lot of jockeying for power and market share among the fundamentalist movers and shakers and sometimes doctrinal differences translate into political differences, too. For example, when the charismatic Pat Robertson ran for President, Jerry Falwell and his non-charismatic Moral Majority backed Dubya's daddy, an Episcopalian, instead of his fellow fundamentalist.WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM FUNDAMENTALISTS
It's easy to stand up here and criticize fundamentalists, taking potshots at Pentecostals and throwing rocks at charismatics, but the fact of the matter is that there are at least 250 million fundamentalists around the world and more like 250 thousand Unitarian Universalists. We may not agree with their theology but fundamentalists have a lot to teach us about growing churches and reaching out to youth.
My wife Amy and I recently attended Grace Community Fellowship, the mega-church down the road a bit on Ronald Reagan in Snellville, to see what it was like. It had lots of parking, great coffee bars in the entry hall, a professional caliber house band, and a welcoming atmosphere. There wasn't a pulpit and the minister sat on a stool wearing a black t-shirt and jeans and just talked to us without preaching, like Jay Leno doing a monologue on the Tonight Show. Until they started bashing gays we felt quite comfortable. Grace had done a very good job of sending us information about their church when we moved to town, but didn't try to "sell us" on coming when we attended one Sunday. They have a tremendous youth program across all ages and noted that they were committed to infiltrating local high schools and middle schools to reach every student they could. It was incredibly impressive and somewhat scary in its effectiveness. Another mega-church in Duluth, called Perimeter, with over 10,000 members, looks more like a corporate campus than a church. The people running Perimeter think they can do a better job reaching secular people for whom the entire idea of a church is off-putting by not looking like a traditional church. North Point, a mega-church in Alpharetta, has opened a "campus" in Buckhead that looks like an office building just to be more attractive to the "unchurched." Fundamentalist churches tend to have extensive small group ministries as well, keeping people involved.
Beside the obvious, like the great coffee bars, fundamentalist churches just seem to be doing a better job of adapting to modern times than we are. At the heart of the difference is the concept of evangelism—taking joy in sharing the good news about what they believe. I admit, it's easier to push your beliefs when the stakes are high and you think everyone who doesn't believe the same way you do is in for an eternity of torment after they die. What human being, believing the fundamentalist message, would not have the compassion to spare all of us unbelievers that fate? UUs, on the other hand, aren't very good at sharing the good news about what makes us unique. We are often shy about inviting people to come by visit our congregations. People tend to hear about us second or third hand, check out the UUA on the web, and find us on their own. We're just not into evangelism and are thereby one tenth of one percent as large as the conservatives.
Think what it would mean if our denomination was more widely known as a welcoming place for people with religious doubts and questions? Slogans like: "To question is the answer!" could help, but it's taken us a long time to wake up and adopt more modern approaches to growth.
Things are starting to change in our denomination, however. There's a new marketing program launching in San Diego for UU congregations around the theme of diversity called "I believe…" for example. The UUA has put together a newspaper, radio, and television marketing program billing Unitarian Universalism as the "Uncommon Denomination." Small group ministry efforts like our chalice circles are catching on around the country and are helping our congregations retain members we might otherwise lose. We've become more effective at reaching young people by expanding the presence of UU thinking on college campuses and through the YRUU program for Young Religious Unitarian Universalists for ages 14 to 20. These changes will be critical for our future.
One last thing we can learn from fundamentalists. They know how to put their pocketbooks where their prayers are. The bar is set high for fundamentalists' giving, based on the Biblical concept of giving a tithe or 10% to the church. Not everyone hits that goal, of course, but that number is one reason why they've got mega-churches while the largest UU congregation is under 2,000 members. The fundamentalists can teach us that asking for commitment can be a positive for congregations, not a negative. Indeed, not asking our members to be committed, to have their membership in a congregation mean something, is likely to lead to demoralization and decline. Our dedication to social action is a good step in that direction. People come to churches for community and compassion, but they stay with them for commitment and challenge.HOW TO SURVIVE IN A SEA OF FUNDAMENTALISM
To wrap things up I'd like to note a few ideas that may be effective in helping us cope with being liberal islands in the midst of a sea of conservatives and fundamentalists. The first is something we're all very good at--asking questions. Meeting fundamentalists trying to convert us head on, as mentioned earlier, can be explosive because we don't use the same rules of reasoning. Asking questions, however, can plant seeds that may later flower or may at least give them pause long enough to grant that we may not be total infidels. For example, drawing on our Universalist heritage we can say, "I've never understood how an all-loving God could condemn so many people to eternal suffering." Or you could draw upon the more rational, Unitarian tradition and gently guide them to logical contradictions, with questions such as, "If you believe that homosexuality is sinful based on Romans 1:26-27," why don't you follow verses like Mark 10:17-30 that encourage us to sell all we have and give to it to the poor?"
Another approach is to get more familiar with the Bible ourselves so we can more easily handle the fundamentalists quoting of biblical "proof texts." For all that they seem to worship the Word, without the insights of modern analytical Biblical scholarship fundamentalists tend to appreciate the Bible in a very narrow way. Knowing more about the Bible can help us gently raise issues and illustrate that there may be more to a particular set of verses than they might see. The Scholars' Translation of "born again" as "born from above," in John 3:1-5, for example, makes it clear that the writer is talking about traditional baptism, not the fundamentalist interpretation.
If we learn more about fundamentalists and listen with love to the fear and uncertainty that comes through in their hopes for eternity we can at least have a deeper understanding of their mindset and a greater appreciation of what makes us as Unitarian Universalists truly special. Reading from The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong
"One of the most startling developments of the late-20th century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as "fundamentalism." Its manifestations are sometimes shocking. Around the world, Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government. It is only a small minority of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law-abiding are perplexing, because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state. Christian fundamentalists reject the discoveries of biology and physics about the origins of life and insist that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail. Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists both now interpret the Arab-Israeli conflict, which began as defiantly secularist, in an exclusively religious way, fighting and killing to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle."
"This religious resurgence has taken many observers by surprise. In the middle years of the 20th century, it was generally taken for granted that secularism was an irreversible trend and that faith would never again play a major part in world events. It was assumed that as human beings became more rational, they either would have no further need for religion or would be content to confine it to the immediately personal and private areas of their lives. But in the late-1970s, fundamentalists began to rebel against this secular hegemony and started to wrest religion out of its marginal position and back to center stage. In this, at least, they have enjoyed remarkable success. Religion has once again become a force that no government can safely ignore. Fundamentalism is now an essential part of the modern scene and will certainly play an important role in the domestic and international affairs of the future. It is crucial, therefore, that we try to understand what this type of religiosity means, how and for what reasons it has developed, what it can tell us about our culture, and how best we should deal with it." Luke 2:41-52 from The Scholar's Translation Read by Liz Schroeder
Now his parents used to go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover festival. And when he was twelve years old, they went up for the festival as usual. When the festival was over and they were returning home, the young Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parents knowing about it. Assuming that he was in the traveling party, they went a day's journey, and then began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
And after three days it so happened that they found him in the temple area, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who listened to him was astounded at his understanding and his responses.
And when his parents saw him they were overwhelmed. "Child," his mother said to him, "why have you done this to us? Don't you see, your father and I have been worried sick looking for you."
Why were you looking for me?" he said to them. "Didn't you know that I have to be in my Father's house?"
But they did not understand what he was talking about. Then he returned with them to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother took careful note of all these things. And Jesus, precocious as he was, continued to excel in learning and gain respect in the eyes of God and others. John 3:1-5 The King James Version
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him."
Jesus answered and said unto him, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God:"
Nicodemus saith unto him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?"
Jesus answered, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. So is every one that is born of the Spirit."John 3:1-5 The Scholars' Version
A Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Judean leader, came to (Jesus) during the night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you've come as a teacher from God; after all, nobody can perform the miracles you do unless God is with him."
Jesus replied to him, "As God is my witness: No one can experience God's imperial rule without being reborn from above."
Nicodemus says to him, "How can an adult be reborn? Can you re-enter your mother's womb and be born a second time?
Jesus replied, "As God is my witness: No one can enter God's domain without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the human realm is human, but what is born of the spiritual realm is spirit. Don't be surprised that I told you, 'Every one of you must be reborn from above.' The spirit blows every which way, like wind: you hear the sound it makes but you can't tell where it's coming from or where it's headed. That's how it is with everyone reborn of the spirit.