08 May 2011

What I'm Reading--Fundamentalism and American Culture

In preparation for the writing of an entry on fundamentalism for an upcoming encyclopedia, I am in the process of reading some scholarly work on the topic.  One of the most influential scholarly works on this topic is Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden.  I figured that Marsden, a very influential historian of American Christianity would be not be a terribly antagonistic source.  Marsden has been a professor of history at both Calvin College and Notre Dame and has published widely. Neither his scholarly credentials nor his Christian profession are really in question.  One of his works is titled The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship,which questions the "lack of a spiritual center" in universities today.  I had previously read a fairly lengthy biography that he published on Jonathan Edwards, and found it quite interesting.

In his preface, Marsden pointed out that he "attempted to assume a stance of detachment and to avoid using history for partisan debate," and that "this study represents a definite point of view and set of interests...This is an essay in distinctly Christian scholarship, an attempt to present a careful, honest, and critical evaluation not far from my own." (ix)  His first edition, published in 1980, largely preceded the impact of the religious right in American politics, but the second edition, published in 2006, included a new section that discussed this development.

Marsden's account is more fair-minded than most caricatures of fundamentalism that are often put forth.  He argues that fundamentalists were not necessarily anti-scientific, nor were they necessarily against culture per se, although some of the later fundamentalists tended to those positions.  The scientific understanding of the intellectual fundamentalists, such as J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary (a thoroughly orthdox thinker), was closely tied to a Baconian and Scottish Common Sense view of science.  In other words, the speculation of Darwin did not hold up to the observational component of science and, therefore, did not qualify as true science.  The theological compromises of modernism were a big problem to the fundamentalists.  The arguments over the supernatural aspects of the Bible and the extent of its own inspiration (was it written by God and innerant or was it written by men and fallible) were the main areas of conflict.  Traditional fundamentalists, which rose from the evangelical, revivalist, and later premillenial traditions of the nineteenth century, believed (in my worldview, rightly) that modernism and Christianity were two completely different belief systems.

Some of the more interesting topics that came up in the book, more from some research interests that I have, were the idea of Americanism and reform.  Some of the conservative fundamentalists were for labor unions, for better wages and better living conditions, and against child labor in the Gilded Age, when social Darwinism and the idea of the survival of the fittest tended to frown on such help for the poor.  Conservative (theologically-speaking) evangelicals only abandoned this concern after the advent of the Social Gospel among modernist/(theologically) liberal ministers that focused only upon social ills at the expense of conversion of the soul.  It was also interesting that fundamentalists were considered less-than-patriotic by some of their liberal counterparts during the Great War for their tendency toward ambivalence about American involvement in the war (before the US actually joined).  Their concern was more involved with the return of Christ, which they expected at any minute.  Fundamentalist patriotism increased greatly during the first Red Scare after the war, and it viewed modernism, Darwinism, and Bolshevism as threats to Christian (i.e. American) civilization.

Marsden's book tended to be fairly unpolemical on either side of the issue, and provided some hypotheses, drawn from writers such as Sandeen and Hofstadter, as to why fundamentalism arose as it did.  He pointed out that one of the misconceptions of the origins of the movement is the idea that uneducated Southerners founded fundamentalism.  Rather, this belief system arose first in the Northern cities, and spread from there.  Los Angeles was one of the earlier hotbeds of fundamentalist activity.  For those interested in the history of fundamentalism, this is a good scholarly introduction to the concept.  However, those who would want a more polemical apologetic may be left a bit disappointed.

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