The Rise And Fall of 20th Century Fundamentalism

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The Rise And Fall of 20th Century Fundamentalism

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Fundamentalism is always reactionary, always combative, always fearful, and often militant.  The term originated with American Protestantism and gained momentum in the early 20th Century, but may now be aptly applied to a variety of religions and politics.  According to Merriam-Webster fundamentalism is “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” The late 19th Century and early 20th Century witnessed the coalescing of the five previous centuries of rapid philosophical and scientific enlightenment.  Fundamentalism was, and is, a reaction to these threats of cultural change.  Mass communications and fear of change in the early 20th Century gave rise to organized fundamentalism – first in elements of American Protestant religion, then spreading to elements of Catholicism, Islam, and politics.  Today we find that many people have managed to assimilate cultural change.  A new generation has risen with acceptance of technological change.  The fundamentalist movement of the 20th century is in decline.

Religion:

In the case of religion the ‘strict and literal adherence’ refers to sacred texts.  Most of these ‘sacred texts’ were written before the era of human intellectual enlightenment.  Examples are the Bible, Koran, and Torah.  These texts are universally accepted as very thoughtful and well written, and represent the wisdom of their age.  Modern philosophical enlightenment, historiography, and scientific advances discredit literal interpretations of these annals of religion.  (Many scholars of today use the term “modernity.’  This seems foolish to this writer – ‘modernity’ suggests we have reached the final pinnacle of human thought.  Future historians will have a different tag for the era in which we now live).

An early example of fundamental religious resistance to scientific knowledge is found in the case of Copernicus and Galileo.  Both scientists postulated that the earth was not the center of the solar system, let alone center of God’s Universe.  Because the theology of the time was based on an Earth Centered Universe – Copernicus and Galileo were both labeled heretics.  Over time science prevailed, and people of faith merely adjusted their theology to new realities.

Charles Darwin hypothesized natural selection as the vehicle of evolution.  Darwin first presented his ideas around 150 years ago.  While science has repeatedly affirmed the basic concepts of evolution, the idea is threatening to some people of faith – faith in the literal Genesis of ancient lore.  Darwin’s theories gave fundamentalist Protestants a common enemy to rally against.

At the same time Darwin was introducing the concept of evolution, Sigmund Freud gave birth to the science of psychology – a science that would mature all the way to adolescence in the 20th Century.   The science of psychology is viewed by some fundamentalists as a contradiction to traditional religious understanding of human behavior.

The term ‘Big Bang’ was coined about sixty years ago – again people of literal faith felt threatened.  Scientific attempts to understand the origins of our Universe and of humanity directly threaten literal interpretations of Genesis.  Science itself became the rallying point of fundamentalist religions.

To be clear, many people of faith find no conflict with science or history.  A mere understanding of sacred texts as books of theology, and often as allegory, alleviates any problem.  But the idea of allegory leaves room for individual interpretation – a frightening concept for those who seek certainty in a chaotic world. (My son edits my writing – and he feels compelled to clarify a point, “… There are some of us that venture to find something in the text that is beyond allegory – something that we hold as Truth and that has authority – but we are not fundamentalist …There are men and women of faith that recognize the Bible as the inspired word of God and they are not afraid of change and they do not promote fear and hate.”  My son recommends this internet site.  My son and I may not agree on the difference between Truth and Faith.  I see the problem as the difference between knowledge and belief).

When oil became a driver of industry, Western economics and culture were introduced to the Middle East.  The social changes of that region prompted the organized rise of Islamic Fundamentalism – culminating in the attack on the United States in 2001.  Osama Bin Laden is the premier example of militant fundamentalism.

Politics:

The American Colonies declared their independence from England in 1776.  They fought the good fight and emerged with a codified Constitution.  This great western experiment in liberalism, noteworthy because of the guarantee of individual rights over States rights, set the stage for social change beyond any government concept in history.  As with the sacred texts of religion, the United States Constitution is ‘universally accepted as very thoughtful and well written, and represent the wisdom of their age.’

The ‘age’ of the American Constitution was one of agrarian society.  Most people lived in rural America.  The political climate was emerging from a totalitarian monarchy, and a long history of totalitarian religion.  The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the rights of individuals, both political and religious, – and wrote a Constitution, including a Bill of Rights, to protect the citizen class.

The Constitution of the United State defines three branches of government designed to check each other – to balance the end result.  The Founding Fathers recognized that change was inherent in human progress and designed a government to moderate any form of fanaticism.  Change would come, but it would come with thoughtfulness and purpose.  Change would neither be erratic and unpredictable nor stifled by fear.

The 19th Century saw the rise of the machine – the Industrial Revolution.  The population shifted from agrarian to urban.  The Industrial Revolution spawned the rise of technology.  Technology changed medicine, transportation, education, industrial production, farming, warfare, and the home kitchen.  Science became King.  Conflict was inevitable – between the citizen class and big business, between local and State governments, between competing religions, between individuals, between individuals and their government, and between religion and government.

President T. R. Roosevelt was one of the first to recognize discrepancies of equality  in an industrialized society.  Roosevelt recognized the need for Government to play a more active role in defense of the citizen class.  The 20th Century was born with government intervention in an increasingly urbanized society.  The 20th Century introduced humanity to the concept or World War – twice.  Advances in industry and technology created weapons of war beyond the imagination of ancient Rome or of Attila the Hun.  “Weapons of Mass Destruction” became a common term in human lexicon.  “The right to bear arms…” has taken a new meaning.

The close proximity of humans in an urban society forced change in rights of education, privacy, home protection, health care, and wealth and poverty.  The concept of equality in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness has forced an urban society to look closely at itself.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the mid 19th Century scared most of the white folks in the South.  We saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a fundamentalist militant religion-based organization fighting the fear of change. The United States Supreme Court failed in their duty in 1896 – ruling ‘equal but separate’ as legitimate fundamental rights.

Other examples of political and cultural change in the 20th Century:

  • After President T. R. Roosevelt’s intervention in the coal mine strikes of 1901 American Labor Unions gained strength – leading to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
  • Women were granted the right to vote in 1920.  Susan B. Anthony would later be honored with a caricature on a silver dollar.
  • 1954 saw Brown v. Board of Education change the dynamics of racial integration in American education.  Change again prompted irrational fear and it would be another eleven years before the Civil Rights Act was signed.
  • Public Schools were teaching evolution in science classes.
  • In 1966 the Supreme Court identified ‘Privacy‘ as an inherent right granted by the Constitution.  This declaration led directly to the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision on the right of a woman to have an abortion.
  • Social Security became a reality in 1936.  Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ added Medicare (national health care for the elderly) in 1967.
  • The Roman Catholic Church held the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.  Vast changes in the presentation of Mass created conflict around the world.
  • The Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement magnified the idea of organized civil disobedience.
  • The U. S. Supreme court banned the reading of the Bible and school organized prayer in public schools.
  • Harvey Milk was elected to public office in San Francisco as the first openly gay person to win an election. The gay rights movement began.

The Rise of Fundamentalism:

Change was happening faster than the population was able to assimilate.  The 20th Century saw more change in culture, government, business, and generally in human interaction than any other time in recorded history.  Unable to assimilate the new ideas, and fearful of what they could not control, religious and political fundamentalists united against the common enemy of uncertainty.

Early Christian fundamentalism maintained a doctrine of separation – adherents were to remain separate from those who had not been born again.  The political arena was viewed as corrupt and thus separate from religion.  Most fundamentalists believe in the prophecy of millennialism – the idea that Jesus will return and rule the world for a thousand years of perfect peace.  The premillennialists believe there is no point in trying to reform the world because it is doomed until Jesus returns.  Postmillenialists believe that spiritual reform will set the stage for the return of Jesus.  Premillenialists are generally politically passive.  Postmillenialists are generally political activists.

Electronic communications led to a different sort of leader – both in politics and religion.  John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan mastered the politics of mass communications.  Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Oral Roberts mastered the theology of mass communications.  In 1979 Jerry Falwell and the Republican Party formed an unholy alliance – fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist politics.  Falwell labeled his organization the Moral Majority.  The rise of fundamentalism had reached a peak.  The Republican Party embraced the new alliance as a means to win elections.

Falwell was an evangelical fundamentalist.  The evangelicals of the Christian right differed from the ‘charismatics.’  Charismatic Christians led by Pat Robertson, officially organized as ‘The Christian Coalition’,  believed in speaking in tongues and faith healing.  The evangelicals divided into two main philosophical categories – liberal and conservative.  A common theme emerged from the Christian conservative political movement in the United States – the idea that the United States was ordained by God – thus nationalism became a prominent and powerful spiritual rallying point.

At the same time that Falwell and Robertson were organizing Christians for political gain in the United States Islamic Fundamentalists were organizing in the middle east.  The Shah of Iran fell to an Islamic revolt in 1978-79.  Osama Bin Laden joined the Afghans in their struggle against the Soviet Union.  When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan Bin Laden turned his attention to organizing Al Quaeda – a militant Islamic fundamentalist movement to fight their ‘jihad’, or holy war.  Some scholars will argue this point – reserving fundamentalism as a purely Christian ideal.  Bin Laden rejects the fundamentalist label as just another western ideology being imposed on Islam.  We hold with the definition in the first paragraph of this post – and thus apply fundamentalism wherever the shoe fits.  We also hold that Islamic Fundamentalism and Christian Fundamentalism are rooted in the same psychological phenomenon – fear of change and a sense of being out of control.  We do not, however, elevate all Fundamentalist psychology to the level of xenophobia.

The Fall of 20th Century Fundamentalism:

Time itself will heal the wound of fundamentalism to human psyche; the healing process is now in full force.  Time provides new generations, new people raised in a culture unaware of the preceding changes.  What seemed a threat to the older generation is accepted as facts of life for younger people. Older people have managed to assimilate the cultural change and are no longer influenced by fear.

It has been thirty years since Falwell and the Republicans joined forces.  The alliance was inherently unholy because the Republican Party had no intention of fulfilling their end of the bargain.  The Republican Party, like an unfaithful lover, stole away into the night and robbed the Christian people of their financial wealth.  Under the leadership of Bush/Cheney American civil liberties were eroded.  The invasion of foreign countries became the doctrine of Republicans.  Torture regained legitimacy.  The Republican Party turned a blind eye to the corruption of financial markets.  The Republican Party violated the environment by ignoring the law of the land.  Restrictions were imposed on health care and education for poverty stricken children.  The concept of “Right to Life” lost moral integrity with the war-mongers in the White House.  Like an unfaithful lover, The Republican Party returned home in the early light of dawn with bouquets of roses – denying stem cell research, denying Global Warming, and punishing immigrants.  Trinkets to appease their religious fundamentalist spouse.

The marriage of opposing forces to fight a common enemy has a limited life.

Osama Bin Laden put a huge fat exclamation point on the consequences of fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism is essentially this: My way or the highway.  Do as I say or I will kill you in the name of my God.  The Republican Party, in control of the United States at the time of the 911 attacks – followed this dictate of self righteousness.  Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s have died at the hands of a deranged America.

Like Bin Laden, some of the extreme right will rise up with violence – desperate to refuel their movement.  But time has formed a scab over the wound to this country, and to the world community.  There will be more violence – there will be those who feel so threatened they must take matters into their own hands.  And they know nothing of certainty other than violence.

A new generation of Americans has emerged as the guiding light of the 21st Century.  The embrace of science and the humanities is emerging as the dominant political and religious force.  Open minded discourse is replacing the rants of imminent disaster.  Concern for our fellow man is taking precedence over concern for Corporate America.  Addressing issues of poverty and health care are regaining momentum.  Respect for our environment, for our home on the planet Earth, is gaining strength.  We are emerging from the dark shadows of fear.

Fundamentalism has not been defeated.  Fundamentalism is like the HIV virus, with proper treatment it can be subdued – but never completely eradicated.  Rush Limbaugh, Shawn Hannity, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and Dick Cheney rail on as individual viral cells – searching for their future inroad to power.  Like the HIV virus – they never quit.
Fundamentalism is like a fungus – it pops up occasionally and is difficult to predict.  The fungus will grow as long as the environment supports it.  With exposure to the light of wisdom and knowledge the fungus of fear and ignorance will collapse.
Fundamentalism is as seasonal as the weather. The difference between weather and climate is time.
Weather happens this week, climate happens this century.  The United States has a calm and temperate climate of liberalism, with storms of fundamentalism occasionally raging across the plains.  The Constitutional design by the Founding Fathers purposefully minimizes storm damage.
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There Are 4 Responses So Far. »

  1. Well researched and written.

    Instead of truth and faith, I like to use the idea of truth and perceptions.

    All any of us have is our perceptions. Many people confuse their perceptions with truth.

    Truth in my mind is the “stuff” of God and scientists are now closer to the truth than religion has ever come.

    To my way of thinking science and the secular world have advanced humanity more than religion ever will.

  2. Hello,

    Where is the evidence for the fall of 20th century fundamentalism, other than we are now in a new century? With more than half of Americans disbelieving evolution and the Muslim holy wars in full force (and I agree both beliefs fit the category), I sadly see no hope that fundamentalism is dying out.

    I enjoyed the article, but I would like some more detailed information on the ‘fall’ aspect. Without that, this strikes me more like a case of wishful thinking and speculation than anything grounded in actual fact.

  3. We need only look at the past two national elections – and the rise of Barack Obama. Our ship has changed course and the fear that drives fundamentalism has lost it’s grip on the American psyche.

  4. We need only look at the past two national elections – and the rise of Barack Obama. Our ship has changed course and the fear that drives fundamentalism has lost it’s grip on the American psyche.

    National polls show significant declines in Republican Party identification. Christian fundamentalism has lost numbers – fewer people are identifying themselves as “Christians.” This is sad because there is nothing inherently wrong with Christianity – but a literal interpretation of the Bible is as flawed as Osama Bin Laden.

    In any case – we are seeing a rebirth of good responsible government.

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