Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Church?

Continuing the trend of “fighting back against characterizations they’re actually proud of,” the National Review explains why modern, politicized Christian fundamentalism is not an exclusionary worldview to be feared, but a simple attempt to prevent mean-spirited liberals from ejecting Christianity from the marketplace of ideas.”It’s easy to forget,” moans David French,

…that just a generation or two ago, there was a real question about whether Christian student groups even had a right to meet in public schools or on public university campuses. It’s also easy to forget that America was and is a beacon of religious liberty in the world, and we should never allow the ignorance and prejudices of, among others, the secular Left (especially when manifested through government action) drive religion from the public square.

Well, yes but no. Christians have always had the right to meet but not necessarily the right to claim public funding for their meetings at public schools. It took a series of poorlyreasoned Supreme Court decisions to give them that.

What’s missing here is an understanding that Christianity wasn’t “drive[n] from the public sphere” by obnoxious, hateful liberals bent on suppressing private Christian expression. It was “driven” from the government’s rostra, and denied the government’s imprimatur of approval out of a decent respect for the First Amendment, as any religion would be.

That’s as it should be. The First Amendment doesn’t somehow exempt popular religions, nor does it make exceptions based on America’s long history with Christianity. “Liberals” have never singled Christianity out: they’ve merely asked it to follow the same rules that apply to ever other religion.

But that’s where mainstream Americans and Christian fundamentalists part company, and what makes politicians like Bachmann, Perry, and their modern fundamentalist peers stand out in a crowd. We all grant — and right-wing bogeymen like the ACLU even regularly fight to defend — the right to private worship. But for fundamentalists, that’s not enough. They don’t want private prayer at public schools (which remains legal — how could it be otherwise?). They want school-led prayer at public schools. The “return to the public square” that fundamentalists so modestly seek is nothing so much as a return to state-financed religious dominance of the culture.

Ah. I’m more concerned with acknowledging this threat than with naming it. “Dominionism,” a term popularized by a spate powerful articles detailing the philosophical excesses of one Michele Bachmann, is helpful. So is Andrew Sullivan’s term,  “Christianism” — though unfortunate for its introduction of another fabricated -ism to a world already crowded with them. I’d prefer to stick with fundamentalism.



  1. Just as a point of order – I would suggest you replace ‘fundamentalists’ with ‘evangelicals’. It’s more accurate.

  2. Most fundamentalists are evangelicals but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

    What drives these people is not their fundamentalism (which is more of a theological stance) but their evangelicalism which makes them want to spread their faith, often through any means possible. It’s the latter that triggers ID and prayer in school efforts. ten commandments in court rooms, etc.

    I would say it’s no different than other types of non-religious evangelicism.

  3. Hm. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. But evangelism is about spreading the faith; this kind of fundamentalism seems about spreading Christian secular power, rather than Christian belief. Isn’t that a different animal?

    And it’s cute to say that religious evangelism is no different than secular evangelism; but the Founders disagreed.

    1. I think you misinterpret the motives. If Christianity gains great secular power, what better way to spread the faith? They aren’t driven by theology – they are driven by their desire to recruit.

      What I meant by secular evangelism is that there is also a contrasting secular fundamentalism. A benign example: I am an absolute zealot when it comes to Microsoft Outlook and Gmail. I would say I am a fundamentalist in my strict adherence to both. But I don’t spread the Gospel on Outlook for certain reasons. On the other hand, I preach the Gmail word to anyone who will listen. If a friend has trouble with their email I try to convert them. I have secretly dreamed of crashing my wife’s Yahoo account to force her to switch over. I’m evangelical about it.

      I’m sure you have similar things in your life. You might be a fundamentalist about both gun control and gay mariage – but I suspect you are downright evangelical about the latter and would take a more active role in helping it along.

      Have I made my point?

      1. You can’t spread the Gospel on Outlook because it is wrong. Thunderbird is the only true path to email client paradise.

  4. Do note that evangelism and evangelicalism are two quite different things – the latter is a specific denomination, or perhaps movement is a better word.

    On the other hand, yeah, fundamentalism and evangelicalism are not identical, either. You might place the former as a sub-group of the latter, but even that is a bit of an over-simplification.

    Also, on the third hand (!), I suspect quite a lot of evangelicals would actually disagree with the idea that secular power is a good way to spread the faith – on the contrary, the idea that a gain in secular power leads to a loss of moral authority is pretty strong in especially Calvinist and Puritan Christianity.

    1. Is denomination the right word? I always understood evangelicism to be a sort of methodology or component of a specific faith. Catholicism has a (small) evangelical component – which I believe Pope Benedict has sought to strengthen during his papacy.

      Granted though, it seems some denominations are linked so closely with evangelicism that one cannot exist without the other.

      1. Well, all of Christianity is ‘evangelist’ to some extend, given that all Christians are expected to go out and spread the Good Word as much as possible.

        Evangelicalism is more about a practice that is centered around the Gospel (hence the name, from “evangelion”) and around Jesus as a personal savior. And yeah, you can certainly find that in Catholicism as well, even though it clashes somewhat with the ideas of salvation through works and the teaching authority of the Church.

        In the usual sense, though, evangelicalism as a denomination or movement mostly has its origins in 18th century British Methodism, but really got its modern character in the US partly through the Great Awakening of the 19th century, and partly through a conflict that developed between it and the more ‘hardcore’ fundamentalist movement in the first half of the 20th century.

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