The Wisdom of Doubt, Part X

The last Wisdom of Doubt post mentioned the Scopes trial. According to today’s New York Post Pope Benedict XVI says that evolution and God do mix.

Pope Benedict XVI says the theory of evolution is backed by strong scientific proof – but the theory does not answer life’s “great philosophical question.”

Benedict told 400 priests at a two-hour event that he’s puzzled by the current debate in the United States and his native Germany over creationism and evolution.

Debaters wrongly present the two sides “as if they were alternatives that are exclusive – whoever believes in the creator could not believe in evolution, and whoever asserts belief in evolution would have to disbelieve in God,” the pontiff said.

“This contrast is an absurdity, because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being.”

The Pope has no credibility with American fundamentalists, of course, but I would like to see them go on record that the Pope is against God.

There’s a pretty good history of fundamentalism online here. I call your attention in particular to part 4 and part 5. Parts 4 and 5 take you from antebellum revivalism to the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. The essay, by Yefim Galkine, corroborates my own research, so I trust he’s done careful work. Here Galkin begins in the mid 19th century:

Two challenges stood out above others as posing singular threats to American Christianity. The first was the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin, which constituted not only a direct challenge not only to the biblical account of creation, but also to traditional Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. An even more serious threat was came in the form of historical criticism of the Bible. This approach challenged the inspiration and credibility of the entire corpus of the scripture, the bedrock foundation of evangelical Christianity. Many Protestants managed to adjust to the changes by creating theories of “theistic evolution,” and interpreted “days” in Genesis as “ages.” However, most evangelicals chose to ignore the modernist ideas and to declare that they could not possibly be true, no matter what. They became ultra-conservatives, and this led directly to the emergence of the fundamentalism movement.

When the twentieth century brought about the Great War, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Christian fundamentalism received another aspect it needed to survive: religious nationalism. Fundamentalist preachers declared that Satan himself was directing the German war effort, and hinted strongly that it was part of the same process that began with the development of biblical criticism in German universities. Modernism, they asserted, turned Germany into a godless nation, and it would do the same thing to America. Of course, when Russia became Communist in 1917, and the Red Scare began, their movement received a very powerful boost, which it needed to become a dominant force.

Dwight Lyman Moody [1837-1899] was the first leader of the anti-modernist revival, which gave birth to the fundamentalist movement. Dwight Moody did not believe that America was getting any better, or that the era of the millenium was coming any time soon, which was the belief of Charles Finney, and other earlier revivalists. This view was known as postmillenialism, because the Second Coming of Christ would occur after the millenium. Instead, Moody believed that the only real hope for Christians lay in Christ’s coming back to personally inaugurate the millenium–that is, that the Second Coming would be premillenial. This doctrine holds that careful attention to biblical prophecies can yield clues as to exactly when the Second Coming will occur. In all versions, the relevant “signs of the times” are bad news–political anarchy, earthquakes, plagues, etc. As a result, premillennialism fared better in bad times because it offers its followers a shining ray of hope in an otherwise dismal situation. It has also acted as a brake on reform movements, since it regards such efforts as little better than fruitless attempts to thwart God’s plan for human history. Another idea that became part of the theology of the fundamentalist movement was dispensationalism. According to this idea, human history was divided into a series of distinct eras (“dispensations”) in God’s dealing with humanity. The triggering action for the beginning of the last dispensation will be “the Rapture,” at which point the faithful Christians will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” while the rest of humanity will be forced to face an unprecedented series of calamities known as “the tribulation”. The main protagonist of the tribulation will be the Antichrist, who will seek total control by requiring every person to wear a number (probably 666, “the mark of the beast”). The tribulation period will end with the Second Coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon, to be followed by the millenium, the Final Judgement, and an eternity of bliss for the redeemed and agonizing punishment for the wicked. One of the most important aspects of dispensationalism is its insistence on biblical inerrancy. The Scripture must be absolutely reliable an all aspects, if it is to provide a precise blueprint for the future. Closely related to this was the encouragement of separatism from all sorts of error. To be fit to ride the Rapturing cloud, one must identify those whose doctrine is impure and “come out from among them”. This became one of the most important aspects of the Fundamentalist movement.

If you thought the Rapture and the horror-film “666” stuff has been prominent in Christianity for centuries — not really. Try “century.” As in one.

Cataloging the entire fundamentalist movement and what it has been up to for the past century or so is a bit more than I want to go into on a blog post. For details I suggest Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. I understand American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America by Chris Hedges is very good.

And if you do nothing else today, be sure to see Max Blumenthal’s “Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour.” Be afraid.

As a movement, fundamentalism has had its ups and downs. After the humiliation of the Scopes trial fundies stayed out of sight for a time. In the 1930s they forged ties with right-wing political factions that opposed the New Deal. The paranoia of the McCarthy era emboldened them. Then came the school prayer Supreme Court decisions, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1960s counterculture, women’s lib, and Roe v. Wade. Right-wing paranoia went off the charts.

And did I mention Brown v. Board of Education? Back in the days of court-ordered school desegregation, all manner of white Christians who used to be just fine with public schools — parochial schools were for Catholics, you know — suddenly decided that their children needed a conservative Christian education. By some coincidence, the new Christian day schools were all white.

Many credit Ronald Reagan with forging a coalition between the Christian Right and the political Right, but in fact many of those ties had been forged back in the 1930s. What happened in the 1980s was that the Christian Right became more visible. It had already been visible, for many years, across much of the South and Midwest, especially in small towns and rural areas. But in the 1970s and 1980s the Powers That Be in the Republican Party must’ve recognized what a resource the Christian Right could be. The Christian Right soon seemed to be swimming in money, and its leaders became mass media celebrities. And their version of Christianity became the de facto established church of America, at least as far as mass media was concerned.

This leads us back to the original stimulus for writing this series, which is the way our culture has come to reward and admire absolutist, black-and-white thinking. This is the hallmark of fundamentalist thinking. Has thirty years of mass media exposure to fundie moral and dogmatic absolutism infected the broader, more secular American public? Or does it just seem that way because the Right much more then the Left determines what is shown on mass media?

I had promised to make this post about biblical literalism, but I realized I needed to do a little more of a wrap up on the fundies. Next post, I promise.

11 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Doubt, Part X

  1. For a history on the development of Rapture theology, I would read Barbara Rossing’s book The Rapture Exposed. Rossing notes this theology originated with Anglican minister John Newton Darby in the early 19th century, and migrated from England to the United States in the 19th century. It is less than 200 years old. I second your recommendation of the books from Chris Hedges and Michelle Goldberg. I would also recommend along with these books Rabbi James Rudin’s The Baptizing of America. Randall Balmer has an excellent study on the origins of the Christian Right in his book Thy Kingdom Come. Balmer notes Jerry Falwell and his political allies turned to politics when they felt the Carter administration was threatening the tax exemptions they had for operating their all-white Christian schools.

  2. I was raised to be a fundie but I managed to escape when they weren’t looking. I watched the Blumenthal video and I recognize everything they talk about.

    One thing I noticed is that the fundies pick and choose what parts of the Bible are “literal” and what parts are “allegorical” or “prophecy.”

    They are anti-science but they sure don’t mind the benefits of modern technology. Many of them are college educated, and they do some real mental contortions to harmonize their beliefs to undeniable reality.

    Here’s an example: Evolution is false, and the world is only 6,000 years old. The reason that there are fossils (and fossil fuels) is that when God created the world 6,000 years ago, he made it a trillion years old.

  3. The Pope has no credibility with American fundamentalists, of course, but I would like to see them go on record that the Pope is against God.

    old news.

    Ian “my daughter goes to Bob Jones University” Paisley used to have a longer explanation about the whole antichrist thing on the BJU website, but all that was taken down a bit ago because BJU is trying to improve its image.

    I understand they still teach it at the school.

  4. BJU — Catholic hatred isn’t limited to Bob Jones University. It has been a mainstay of much evangelicalism since the 18th century. Where I grew up little children were taught to hate Catholics. Being Lutheran, I was left out of that, but I can tell you stories. My point, though, is that these days (unlike the early 19th century, when from time to time they would form mobs and torch Catholic churches) they keep the anti-Catholic rhetoric out of public view.

  5. But the anti Catholic attitudes are still there, just undercover. I was also raised Lutheran (an Episcopalian mother and father from a lapsed Catholic family). My Lutheran minister used to rail against the Pope and the “Romans” in general from the pulpit. My teenaged self thought he was weird. All this 45 years ago.

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  7. “reward and admire absolutist, black-and-white thinking.”

    Sounds Manichean to me. Absolute Good battling Pure Evil.

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