The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IX

In the last episode I provided a skip through history from the Reformation to the birth of fundamentalism in the early 20th century. Let’s pick up the story in the 1920s.

I dug the passage below out of one of my antique college textbooks. It’s long, but (I think) relevant to our current political situation. The author (eminent historian John Garraty) is discussing post-World War I America.

The war-born tensions and hostilities of the twenties also found expression in other ways, most of them related to an older rift in American society — the conflict between the city and the farm. By 1920 the United States had become predominantly urban. To the scattered millions who still tilled the soil, the new city-oriented culture seemed sinful, overly materialistic, and unhealthy, but there was no denying its power and compelling fascination. Made even more aware of the appeal of the city by such modern improvements as radio and the automobile, farmers coveted the comfort and excitement of city life at the same time that they condemned them. They fulminated against the metropolis, yet watched enviously as their sons and neighbors drifted off to taste its pleasures.

Out of this ambivalence developed some strange social phenomena, all exacerbated by the backlash of wartime emotions. The unifying element in all was intolerance; rural society, at once attracted and repelled by the city, responded by rigidly proclaiming the superiority of its own ways, as much to protect itself against temptation as to denounce urban life. Change, omnipresent in the postwar world, must be desperately resisted, even at the cost of the individualism and freedom that farmers had cherished since the time of Jefferson.

One expression of this intolerance of modern urban values was the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in certain Protestant sects, especially the Baptists and Presbyterians. Fundamentalists insisted on taking every word of the Bible literally. They rejected the theory of evolution, indeed the whole mass of scientific knowledge about the origins of man and the universe that had been discovered during the 19th century. As we have seen, educated persons had been able to resolve the apparent contradictions between Darwin’s theory and religious teachings easily enough, but in rural backwaters, especially in the southern and border states, this was never the case. Partly, fundamentalism resulted from simple ignorance; where educational standards were low and culture relatively static, old ideas remained unchallenged. Urban sophisticates tended to dismiss the fundamentalists as crude boors and hayseed fanatics, but, in such surroundings, the persistence of old-fashioned ideas was understandable enough. The power of reason, so obvious to men living in a technologically advanced society, seemed much less obvious to a backward agricultural population. Even prosperous farmers, in close contact with the capricious, elemental power of nature, tended to have more respect for the force of divine providence than cityfolk.

What made crusaders of the fundamentalists, however, was their resentment of modern urban culture which had passed them by, and the emotional currents of the age. Although in some cases they did harass liberal ministers, their religious attitudes had little public significance; their efforts to impose their views on public education were another matter. The teaching of evolution must be prohibited, they insisted. Throughout the early twenties they campaigned vigorously for laws banning all mention of Darwin’s theory in textbooks and classrooms.

Their greatest asset in this unfortunate crusade was William Jennings Bryan. Age had not improved the “Peerless Leader.” Never a profound thinker, after leaving Wilson’s cabinet in 1915 he devoted much time to religious and moral issues without applying himself conscientiously to the study of these difficult questions. He went about charging that “they” — meaning the mass of educated Americans — had “taken the Lord away from the schools” and denouncing the expenditure of public money to undermine Christian principles. Bryan toured the country offering $100 to anyone who would admit that he was descended from an ape; his immense popularity in rural areas assured him a wide audience, and no one came forward to take his money. [John A. Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 702-703]

You’ve probably guessed that What Happened Next was the Scopes trial of 1925. There are detailed accounts of the trial all over the web, so I’m not going to provide one here. The significance of the Scopes trial is that fundies were nationally humiliated, and modernists thought they had won. The modernists, it turns out, were wrong. Historian Gary Wills documents that the teaching of evolution “quietly crept out” of biology textbooks throughout the remainder of the 1920s, and the creeping continued through the 1930s and after, and there was no real attempt to put it back until the 1960s.

It was not Scopes that put evolution in the schools, but Sputnik. The Soviet space satellite caused a widespread fear that Russians taught science more efficiently than Americans. American experts, who thought they had “settled” Bryan, finally took a look at what Americans were actually being taught; and what they were being taught about the origin of mankind more often assumed the Genesis account than Darwin’s. [Gary Wills, Under God: Religion and American Politics (Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 113]

However, when I took high school biology ca. 1966, my teacher was too intimidated to say the word evolution in class. Instead, she quietly slipped some of us (if she knew our parents and knew they wouldn’t flip out about it) copies of a book about evolution by Isaac Asimov. So much for Sputnik.

There was something else about the passage from the old textbook that struck me. John Garraty wrote about “an older rift in American society — the conflict between the city and the farm.” This rang alarm bells. I was reminded of “Soldiers of Christ: Inside America’s Most Powerful Megachurch” by Jeff Sharlit in the May 2005 issue of Harper’s.

It is not so much the large populations, with their uneasy mix of sinner and saved, that make Christian conservatives leery of urban areas. Even downtown Colorado Springs, presumably as godly as any big town in America, struck the New Lifers I met as unclean. Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtown’s neat little grid of cafes and ethnic joints. Stick to Academy, they’d tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries–P.F. Chang’s, California PizzaKitchen, et al.–that bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is “confusing.” Part of their antipathy is literally biblical: the Hebrew Bible is the scripture of a provincial desert people, suspicious of the cosmopolitan powers that threatened to destroy them, and fundamentalists read the New Testament as a catalogue of urban ills–sophistication, cynicism, lust–so deadly that one would be better off putting out one’s own eye than partaking in their alleged pleasures. …

…As contemporary fundamentalism has become an exurban movement, it has reframed the question of theodicy–if God is good, then why does He allow suffering?–as a matter of geography. Some places are simply more blessed than others. Cities equal more fallen souls equal more demons equal more temptation, which, of course, leads to more fallen souls. The threats that suffuse urban centers have forced Christian conservatives to flee–to Cobb County, Georgia, to Colorado Springs. Hounded by the sins they see as rampant in the cities (homosexuality, atheistic schoolteaching, ungodly imagery), they imagine themselves to be outcasts in their own land. They are the “persecuted church”–just as Jesus promised, and just as their cell-group leaders teach them. This exurban exile is not an escape to easy living, to barbecue and lawn care. “We [Christians] have lost every major city in North America,” Pastor Ted writes in his 1995 book Primary Purpose, but he believes they can be reclaimed through prayer–“violent, confrontive prayer.” He encourages believers to obtain maps of cities and to identify “power points” that “strengthen the demonic activities.” He suggests especially popular bars, as well as “cult-type” churches. “Sometimes,” he writes, “particular government buildings … are power points.” The exurban position is one of strategic retreat, where believers are to “plant” their churches as strategic outposts encircling the enemy.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Remember the Karen Armstrong quote from the last Wisdom of Doubt post —

Typically, fundamentalists have proceeded on a fairly common program. Very often they begin by retreating from mainstream society and creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life. Examples would include the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York City or [Christians at] Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden’s camps.

In these enclaves, fundamentalist communities often plan, as it were, a counteroffensive, where they seek to convert the mainstream society back to a more godly way of life. Some of them may resort to violence. Why? Because every fundamentalist movement that I’ve studied–in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–is rooted in a profound fear. They are convinced, even here in the United States, that modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out religion in some way or is destructive to faith.

Fundamentalism isn’t religion. It’s social pathology expressing itself as religion. In Part V I touched on the fact that right-wing Christianity has become remarkably disconnected from anything resembling standard Christian doctrine. The movement is being manipulated by money and by political power, and its followers seem to be getting most of their “theology” from popular culture — the Left Behind books come to mind. Certainly the Presbyterians who published The Fundamentals back in 1910 had serious theological intentions, but the fundamentalist movement has morphed into something much sicker and much uglier since. As John Garraty wrote, the unifying element is intolerance. As Karen Armstrong says, it is rooted in a profound fear.

After Scopes, fundamentalists seethed with humiliation and resentment. Back in Part VII I quoted Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962)

Their heightened sense of isolation and impotence helped to bring many of the dwindling but still numerically significant fundamentalists into the ranks of a fanatical right-wing opposition to the New Deal. The fundamentalism of the cross was now supplemented by a fundamentalism of the flag. Since the 1930’s, fundamentalism has been a significant component in the extreme right in American politics, whose cast of thought often shows strong fundamentalist filiations. …

… The fundamentalist mind … is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes trifling degrees of difference: liberals support measures that are for all practical purposes socialistic, and socialism is nothing more than a variant of Communism, which, as everyone knows, is atheism. … [T]he secularized fundamentalist mind begins with a definition of that which is absolutely right, and looks upon politics as an arena in which that right must be realized. … It is not concerned with the realities of power — with the fact, say, that the Soviets have the bomb — but with the spiritual battle with the Communist, preferably the domestic Communist, whose reality does not consist in what he does, or even in the fact that he exists, but who represents, rather, an archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match.

We who are Not Them — religious and non-religious alike — are the enemy. We are the “archetypal opponent in a spiritual wrestling match.” They will never tolerate us. This conflict is not about discrete issues like abortion, but so much more.

The point I hope to get across is that the fundies — not religion — are a threat to liberalism, to democracy, to science, to education, to modernity, and even to religion. It’s not clear to me what’s to be done about them, other than keep an eye on them and counter their nonsense with education. And we need to educate the talking heads on mass media that these whackjobs shouldn’t be allowed to speak for Christianity.

Also: Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, 1942-2007.

15 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part IX

  1. Please remember, when you speak of Presbyterians, there are two
    branches. PCUSA, the mainline group, and PCA, the fundamentalist group. Never the twain shall meet.

  2. A very good piece. But it strikes me that rarely has so much attention been given so few. Christian right may be ascendant in some GOP quarters . some quarters of the White House comes to mind. But overall, this is a very big country and it always surprises me the way the left raises up these fundamentalists as some kind of dark, powerful force ready to destroy the enlightenment.

    There are many forces attacking rational thought – the evangelicals are only one. How to counter where they are the strongest – education especially – should occupy the energies of those who wish to see rationalism applied to all facets of American life.

  3. Nice Post; the whole WOD series has taught me a lot. One theme that is central to the fundamentalists creed is that the USA is a ‘Christian Country’. I pissed my brother off big-time when I challenged ths statement, and asked that he show me in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, any Amendment, or Supreme Court Decision where it is established as a legal principle that this is a Christian Country.

    Second, the fundies devoutly think that the founding fathers were fundi Christians who INTENDED this to be a Christian Country, that it was sooo obvious a notion that they failed to codify the concept, and liberals have robbed the country of the blessing intended by GOD and the founding fathers. Look up quotes by the founding fathers; I favor Jefferson, because he took the ‘fundies’ of his time on – head on. Most are familiar with the quote in the Jefferson Monument, “For I have sworn upon the alter of God, eternal hostility to every form of Tyrany over the Mind of Man”, but don’t know that in context, the ‘tyrany’ he is speaking of is religion.

    Sadly, no politician will challenge the statement, and point out that no religion or religious philosophy has greater stature in the eyes of the law than any other, regardless of it’s popularity. The responsability for challenging the phony claim falls to liberals like me who respect the concept of freedom of religion.

    I absolutely believe in the right of fundies and all to practice their religion. I aoppose their efforts to impose ther faith on society. That’s the issue

  4. How much of fundamentalism is religion and how much is business? The part about where to eat in Colorado Springs where the locals say to eat at the mega stores enforces what I have come to believe. And that is that corporations have tapped into this rural fundamentalism. They feed it and profit from it.

  5. Rick Moran: The Wisdom of Doubt series is specifically about religion; I’m not trying to take on the insanity of the entire human species. Yet.

  6. Some really great points raised in the comments also, e.g. regarding the unholy marriage of commerce and conservative religion in this country, and the distinction between being “anti-religion” and “anti-religious fascism.”

    On a related note, I’m not sure why Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s short life makes me so sad. Perhaps because it’s a classic example of how fundamentalism dupes women into humiliating themselves. I’ll have to think on that one a bit more.

  7. Re the distinction between “anti-religion” and “anti-religious fascism.” — yes, an important point. You’ve probably noticed I am pro-religion myself, and one of the reasons I embarked on the WOD series is to defend religion.

    The occasional cleric who has stuck his neck out to criticize the fundies — John Shelby Spong, who wrote a book about defending Christianity from the fundies awhile back, comes to mind — gets publicly crucified (so to speak) by the fundies as enemies of Jesus. And I tend to agree with Spong that it’s the fundies who represent the real threat to Christianity. Thanks to the fundies, Christianity is becoming the religion of the superstitious and uneducated, and is increasingly irrelevant to people who actually think about things. But it didn’t have to be this way.

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  9. Maha, this is a wonderful series. Thank you for it.

    I think Karen Armstrong was terribly insightful about the fatal flaw in fundamentalism in her book about The History of Religion.

    To make such human, historical phenomena as Christain ‘Family Values’, ‘Islam’, or ‘the Holy Land’ the focus of religious devotion is a new form of idolatry.

  10. Maha,

    is there anywhere that you can post links to the entire series of Wisdom of Doubt blogs?

    I have ostensibly intelligent members of my immediate family that are capable of persuasion by intellectually inclined rhetoric.

    I’ve referenced I – III at the Bill Maher site (the wild west compared to here with posts ranging from the high-minded and intellectual to outright vulgar) and blogged orthogonally to the series.

    I’ve always maintained that when we attempt to speak the unspeakable, know the unknowable and imagine the unimaginable then that is the point at which we start to get into trouble and begin to incubate nascent fundamentalism.

    For several years now I have mused at what happens in Christianity when faith is insufficient for the faithful. Once that line gets crossed there can be an unfortunate series of events that can and typically does occur.

    You have been so careful to point out that you speak of Christianity because you are more familiar with it. I was inculcated into Christianity but feel no need to indulge in nonsensical relativism that takes insult at analysis of Christian doctrine vs. Christian practce by justifying one wrong with another…pointing at Muslim extremism and suggesting hatred or bigotry because equal time is not given to Muslim hypocrisy.

    It is disheartening to observe how such a fear has been instilled that would have people abandoning Christian ideals, trying to justify the abandonment then lashing out at anything that shines the light on this behavior.

    I sincerely hope that cooler heads will prevail and maybe hotter ones will enlist….no, seriously, wait…bad analogy. Perhaps “see the light” or “be faithful to the spirit of Christ’s teachings rather than dodging the more difficult and challenging aspects of what he taught” would be more appropriate. I’ve had enough of the brand of Christianity that excises the new testament from the bible.

    DISCLAIMER: I abhor Muslim fundamentalism as well.

    The disclaimer may satisfy some but not all, but it is heartfelt nevertheless. I feel silly having to make it though.

    Please post a set of links to the entire series or point me to where I might find I thoroughly enjoyed the first few and would like to share the subsequent ones.

  11. “Part of their antipathy is literally biblical: the Hebrew Bible is the scripture of a provincial desert people, suspicious of the cosmopolitan powers that threatened to destroy them, and fundamentalists read the New Testament as a catalogue of urban ills—sophistication, cynicism, lust—so deadly that one would be better off putting out one’s own eye than partaking in their alleged pleasures. …”

    The GOP played this tune quite effectively, and cast many as irritating Volvo-driving, latte sipping, fancy pants know-it-alls….telling normal people what to do. Never mind that Volvos are not nearly so expensive as the Mercedes driven by the ruling elite. Nobody chronicles the success of this strategy better than Geoffrey Nunberg a linguist at UC Berkeley in his book “Talking Right.”

    The new testament is problematic for fundamentalists but alas, there is safety in numbers. I am hard pressed to understand why fundamentalists don’t just leave Jesus out of their prescriptions for society since, after all, his teachings seem to be so often missing from their prescriptions for secular society.

    My father headed an ecumenical council in a medium-sized Florida town that had a goal of uniting those of all faiths in a variety of initiatives that resonated and were in line with the tenets of all religions. I think the idea was wonderful and recognized community as a concept that transcended religious affiliation. Most Christian denominations participated including Catholics. Even the Jews counted themselves in. There is no discernable, organized Islamic presence in the town. However, it fell short due to the refusal of the more fundamentalist denominations to participate.

    The arise of mega-churches is another more recent phenomenon that bears this out. A close family member was married in one ( a PCA church in Birmingham, AL). I recall quite well noting in amazement to my brother-in-law, a Methodist minister, at how many secular services were available to members of the mega-church — school, gym, social clubs etc. Those people don’t need to rub elbows with anyone outside that tightknit community of the faithful though they do have to live next to them. But by now they might have a real estate and construction service capable ot populating entire neigborhoods and shutting out the faithless.

    I remarked to my bro-in-law at how Jesus himself went down to the well and hung out with prostitutes. He concurred and shared my amazement.

    My how things have changed in Christendom in 2000 years. Man’s creation of God in his own image is not exactly a new thing, is it?

    Sharlits quote brings back old memories from my time in Atlanta, a veritable Sodom to the residents of Cobb county, GA.

    “The threats that suffuse urban centers have forced Christian conservatives to flee–to Cobb County, Georgia, to Colorado Springs. Hounded by the sins they see as rampant in the cities (homosexuality, atheistic schoolteaching, ungodly imagery), they imagine themselves to be outcasts in their own land.”

    I want to be careful here. There are some great people in Cobb county and it has a bit of diversity, but not enough that the county ever passed legislation that agreed to connect to Marta the regional transportation authority, while other surrounding counties readily accepted this much-needed service on account of the needs of residents to be whisked to their downtown Atlanta jobs, high above the stalled traffic on Interstate 75.

    It was no secret and commonly accepted that there was widespread fear of connection to a predominantly black downtown Atlanta, an urban area with higher crime rate. Nobody disputed this.

    Sorry, I rant, but I think you have nailed it with your conclusion that this insularity and sequestering of the faithful is fear-based. Thus, the intersection which many believe exists with ethnophobia should not be surprising.

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