Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fundamentalism today

This entry is a bit clunky, I wanted to connect the previous blog on the origins of modern fundamentalism to where we are today. Many of the sentences in this one could be expanded to full articles. Many lack subtlety. Hopefully I’ve laid out the general idea without any inaccuracies. Next time I’ll return to the roots of liberal Christianity that led to the fundamentalist backlash.

After the Scopes Monkey Trial, Christianity faded from public debate. In presidential campaigns, no one cared about much about the religion of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover or Roosevelt. They did not mention it. The McCarthy era was somewhat of an exception, but the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance was more about anti-Communism than pro-Christianity. Then Eisenhower started inviting Billy Graham to the White House. In 1964, the evangelicals supported the conservative agenda of Barry Goldwater.

In 1962 prayer in school, led by any school employee, was declared unconstitutional. Vatican II also occurred that year, a move toward a more liberal Catholicism. A turning point was Roe v Wade in 1973. Leaders of the various Christian sects realized that as divided denominations, they could not hope to fight these broad secular changes. The use of the term “Christian” in a broader sense came into popular use. Jimmy Carter’s Christianity was an issue in the 1976 campaign and Reagan’s conservative social agenda even more so.

Also during the 1960’s a quieter movement was going on to study the roots of these changes and find ways to show that Christianity was still the answer. Francis Schaeffer started the L’Abri Institute in Switzerland and wrote extensively on the topic. He said;

 “If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.”

In his documentary series, available on YouTube, How ThenShall We Live, he carried this theme through the history of Western civilization. He applies it first to the Roman’s then other cultures throughout history. He uses oversimplified analysis of those cultures to say how and why they collapsed and intersperses it with the history of Christianity, claiming it carried this absolute moral system with it despite the pressures of those cultures. He never considers how we could question and study any particular proposal for a moral absolute and decide if it is indeed good. He never really even discusses what “good” is. He just says we need a standard, picks the Christian one, and says that is good.

Although he was deeply troubled by the Roe v Wade decision, Schaeffer did not advocate government takeover or any kind of theocracy. On the other hand, the conspiratorial nature of the documentary can’t be missed. In Episode 6, a strange man with a fake moustache is pouring something in the municipal drinking water. Michelle Bachmann watched this while in college and referred to it later in life when she ran for office on a dominionist platform. This is far removed from the open discussions Schaeffer once had at the L’Abri community. He always set himself apart from the wicked world, but he welcomed anyone in to discuss his philosophy.

Bachmann, and others are of course politicians. It is always hard to know what a politician truly believes and what they are saying they believe to gain power. Reagan courted them with his social agenda and George W Bush demonstrated the strength of the evangelical vote in 2000. Many more followed after that.

The Reagan presidency began with a dramatic rescue of American hostages from their embassy in Iran. For many Americans, this was the beginning of awareness of the Muslim world. The term “fundamentalist” was being applied to Islamic leaders with political ties who were advocating for laws derived directly out of the Koran. We sent arms in as Iran and Iraq fought, then we imposed sanctions on Iraq resulting in disease and the deaths of 100’s of thousands of children. The threat of nuclear and chemical attacks were used as official justification, but knowledge of Sharia law was ever present.

Then 9/11 happened.

It heightened the religious tensions and opened a door for Christians. In a 2002 National Security Strategy, George W. Bush stated that America’s “clear responsibility to history” is to “rid the world of evil.” Exactly what he meant by evil is obvious and at the same time obscure. He couldn’t explicitly claim a religious agenda because it would not be constitutional, and for that matter, would not line up with the teachings of a prophet in sandals who never sought political power. With the passing of the Patriot Act, the legal definition of “good” came into serious conflict with what it had meant for hundreds of years.

The other effect of 9/11 was a reaction by non-religious. Many realized they underestimated the potential consequences of religious zealotry. Books and articles discussing the problems and dangers increased. Secular groups have also been on the rise. The Scopes Monkey Trail has been replaced by debates about Intelligent Design. Prayer in government events is being discussed again. Hopefully these discussions have better results this time around.

First in the series

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