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fundamentalist distinctives 1

The Wikipedia entry for Independent Baptist has a pretty good (meaning “familiar”) list of distinctives from fundamentalist churches:

  • Music from hymnals sung by choirs
  • Separation/separatism
  • Mission work, revival meetings, and local evangelism
  • Clergy a separate class from laity
  • Married clergy
  • Male-only leadership above a certain level
  • Membership voting (regardless of gender)
  • Exclusive use of the King James Bible
  • An apprentice approach to the professional clergy formalized via a Bible college

I guess I would add to that list the following:

  • Autonomy of the local church
  • Closed leadership meetings (pastor and deacons)
  • Authoritarian leadership style; some notion of “headship” or “covering”
  • Dress and hair codes; far-reaching behavior codes
  • Mostly literal reading of the Bible
  • A preaching style rooted in persuasion rather than making convincing arguments
  • Cessationism
  • No formal confession or creed

These are the fundamentalist Baptist distinctives, more or less; I’ve heard similar lists from people from Nazarene, Church of Christ, or Brethren backgrounds, here gaining an element (like requiring rebaptism or forbidding musical instruments) there losing an element (KJV-only, autonomy of the local church) but mostly keeping the parameters of the subculture intact.

Fundamentalist Baptists tend to be somewhat Landmarkist and ahistorical, seeing themselves as a return to a true Christianity owing nothing to historical Christianity prior to about 1917, although I did hear stories on occasion that rooted the churches I attended somewhere in the English Reformation, with the insistence on personally reading and understanding the Bible if not on interpreting it for one’s self.

We tended to take a tack on Scripture that blended the notions of inerrancy and inspiration with a KJV-only point of view that ended up at a point where we said “the Bible is the Word of God” and meant that “the King James Version of the Bible is the Word of God,” thereby dismissing a lot of questions regarding transmission, textual variants, translation, and interpretation, ended up in a situation where any coherent phrase could be read out of context according to its plain meaning.

We went so far as to have something of a defective Trinity in which the Holy Spirit did nothing but interpret Scripture; we had in a sense a Trinity of “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible.” And we were free to interpret Scripture for ourselves so long as we came to the same conclusions as our preacher.

There are supposedly three or four distinct streams of fundamentalist Baptists; there’s one in the South with centers in Columbia, South Carolina and Pensacola, Florida, and one in the upper Midwest, centered in Chicago and parts of Indiana. Where the others are I can’t imagine. I haven’t been able to find any reliable sources for this claim; the loose associations implied by locally autonomous churches, Bible colleges, and division by shunning make demographic trends hard to spot.

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Eisenhower Christianity

One of the things I think gets overlooked when describing American fundamentalist Christianity between 1925 and 1976 is the rise of a kind of conservative nationalist Christianity that tends toward civil religion; the best term I’ve heard for this is “Eisenhower Christianity,” because it places it in the right period of time and puts a pretty accurate face on it.

This was the period of time when “In God We Trust” became a second national motto and got stamped on currency, when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, when the Cold War became a war against godless Communism, and when American prosperity became the birthright of the righteous.

I don’t know if this was a time when the pre-existing American civil religion began to take on more explicitly Protestant elements, when rising standards of living brought more devout fundamentalist-leaning Protestants into the national discourse on national identity, or what exactly. I suppose it’s possible that increased mobility and homogeneity in mass media in the postwar era made it possible for fundamentalism to leave its various enclaves and participate in the national conversation, too.

Regardless, I have yet to find a good description of Eisenhower Christianity in the press or even in books about American fundamentalism and evangelicalism, but it always seems to be lurking in the background by the time Jimmy Carter arrives on the national scene; after all, it’s really the Eisenhower era the conservatives want to get back to, despite their lip service to the Founding Fathers.

fundamentalism: a history with gaps

One of the great mysteries of the history of modern fundamentalist Christianity is the gap between roughly 1925 (the Scopes Monkey Trial) and 1976 (the election of Jimmy Carter). Most histories of the Religious Right mention these two events and say nothing about the fifty years in between; some mention the rise of Billy Graham and the 1957 New York Crusade, but that’s about it.

It was during this time that my family became Baptists of a particularly fundamentalist stripe.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, but that also came to a head about 1925. As near as I can tell, many churches in our area in rural central Virginia ended up with little to nothing to say, and gradually became places people went to out of habit, but where virtually nothing was said from the pulpit. Or so I understand from our perspective. It’s not like there are any tapes of sermons from these churches from the period. But after the Great Depression and World War II came and went, a cluster of fundamentalists developed around an unschooled former circuit-riding preacher named Elbert Yeatts in the Bedford/Franklin/Botetourt County areas of central Virginia. I don’t have all the names of these preachers, but some of them became active in existing Southern Baptist (SBC) churches in the area and either took the churches in a fundamentalist direction or split off and formed independent Baptist churches.

Around this time as well there were preachers coming into the area who were graduates of Bob Jones University, which had recently moved to South Carolina. It’s a common misconception that BJU is Southern because the school itself is in the South; the school was not historically Southern per se, and the preachers who came into the area from BJU were a mix of men from the South and Midwest.

But that’s more or less how we became Baptists (and by implication fundamentalists), at least from our perspective: churches that had become glorified social clubs were either taken over or split by men who stood in the pulpit and read and interpreted the Bible.

When I pick this up again I’ll try to explain how we turned the corner again and got involved in politics. Hint: it wasn’t as simple as Roe v. Wade.

the parable of the two sheriff badges

A former co-worker was also a former working musician, and several years ago his band ended up on a call list of bands that would play almost anywhere for a fixed fee. They’d get the call, show up and play passably danceable music, get paid, and go home, no questions asked.

One day they showed up for a gig at a place that turned out to be a massive home for people with developmental difficulties. As they were setting up and going through sound check one of the patients approached our humble narrator, pointed to a paper star that had been pinned to his shirt, and said “I’m a sheriff.” Our narrator said something encouraging but noncommittal and the patient wandered off, only to be replaced a few minutes later by another patient, this time wearing a plastic star pinned to his shirt. He said “don’t pay any attention to him; he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m the real sheriff.”

Categories: Parables

fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism 1

June 26, 2010 2 comments

In trying to figure out what has changed at Liberty over the years I’m tempted to put it this way: at some point Jerry Falwell left Fundamentalism for Evangelicalism. That’s simple enough, but it doesn’t really explain anything.

I’m tempted to take Mark Taylor Dalhouse’s definition of fundamentalism as a starting point: in his book An Island in the Lake of Fire he describes Bob-Jones-style fundamentalism as having four main features:

  • Separatism
  • Revivalism
  • Dispensationalism
  • Holiness

The problem of course is that only two of these terms have solid definitions: separatism is primarily a matter of declaring a set of distinctives and officially cutting ties anyone who doesn’t share them; dispensationalism is a way of interpreting the Bible after John Nelson Darby as embodied in the 1917 edition of the Scofield Reference Bible.

Revivalism is a slippery enough term that Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for it. I may try to come back and unpack what this means from different perspectives. Practically it meant that while churches had preachers they often had guest preachers who would come and speak from the pulpit, often for several nights running. This has a lot of implications, both positive and negative. What it meant for us at Liberty was that we didn’t have the same church or chapel speaker all the time, but in a sense anyone who appeared in the pulpit had some sort of implied endorsement from the leadership.

Holiness is even more slippery; it means in practice that a Christian should continue to actively pursue some sort of holy life, seek to avoid sin, etc. It doesn’t, as is sometimes suggested, that a person needed to continue to pursue some sort of sinless life with its associated cultural markers to be saved, but there were always ample effect-suggests-cause pressures to measure up to external standards of behavior.

Unfortunately evangelicalism is even harder to define; for a while I’ve defined it by what I’ve seen in my own life: we became evangelicals by becoming less separatist, so I’ve thought of evangelicalism as fundamentalism without separatism. It’s more complicated than that; fundamentalists, for example, accuse evangelicals of wanting the approval of the outside world and compromising certain essentials, taking e.g. experience as foundational for a worldview, rather than orthodox interpretations of Scripture. The problem with these definitions, of course, is that they describe the relationship between fundamentalism and evangelicalism with fundamentalism as normative and evangelicalism as deviant.

Looking back the other way, evangelicals who are former fundamentalists tend to say fundamentalists are Christians without grace. It’s complicated.

The catchy but not entirely helpful description of an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” If I had to suggest a corresponding definition for fundamentalism, it would be something like “anyone who agrees with John R. Rice,” the late editor of  The Sword of the Lord.

the late LBC days

One of the things that struck me when I spoke to students who had attended Liberty a cycle or two earlier than me (so, say 1980 or 1984 graduates) was how different the school had been just a few years earlier. Jerry had just been easing into his Moral Majority persona, and he had started by traveling with Doug Oldham and a polyester-clad singing group that I think were called the I Love America singers or the I Love America Chorale or something like that. They sounded like the New Christy Minstrels, more or less, but without the drug references.

At this point Jerry was already starting to leave his fundamentalist roots, partly because Fundamentalists are by definition separatist and incapable of making common cause on political issues, and partly because Fundamentalist churches were typically pretty hardcore “no slacks, tracks, or blacks” places, meaning that the music had to be piano and organ (no taped backing tracks, especially with drums or guitars), women had to wear dresses or at least skirts, and of course the churches tended to be all-white, give or take the occasional Asian war bride.

Liberty took most of its cues from the schools that had produced much of its faculty and leadership: Bob Jones University, Tennessee Temple University, and Cedarville College (now Cedarville University): places with pretty lean authority structures and definite cultural markers. I have heard stories, for example, that as late as the early Eighties the guard shack at the main point of entry to the Liberty campus wasn’t just manned, but guards would actually stop the occasional car and check it for denim. Not drugs or alcohol or copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, but jeans and jean jackets.

By the time I arrived in the fall of 1985 the guard shack was still manned, but the guards mostly checked for freshmen out after freshmen curfew.

being a Liberty graduate

The recent Ergun Caner situation has brought me back to thinking about my time at Liberty and what I learned there. I’m really grateful for my time at Liberty, the education that I got there, and the fact that because of Jerry Falwell’s personal and institutional largess I was able to graduate with no debt.

Very roughly speaking, Liberty’s history can be broken into four periods:

  1. 1971-1985 the Lynchburg Baptist College/Liberty Baptist College days
  2. 1985-1999 LBC becomes Liberty University and joins the Southern Baptist Convention
  3. 1999-2005 Jerry Falwell’s last (not to say declining) years
  4. 2005-Present the Jerry Jr years

This is a kind of arbitrary breakdown; in the first period there were the Hotel days, when most of the resident students lived in a hotel across the street from the Allied Arts Building downtown, and the early Liberty Mountain days. It could be argued that Liberty became a very different place as it pursued and achieved accreditation. And of course along the way Jerry went from being fundamentalist to being evangelical and took the school with him.

If you meet the earliest Liberty students they’re very different people from the people I knew when I was there; by the same token I suspect Liberty’s a very different place now than it was twenty years ago when I was there, and populated by very different people.

I love my alma mater for better or worse and I’m grateful for my time there, but as I’m getting older I realize I understand it less and less. It’s entirely possible I never understood it, of course, and just made up stories to fit my experiences.