Much has been written this year in observance of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809 and the publication of his monumental work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Another important date — one which has gone largely unnoticed yet has impacted in its own perverse way the ideas of our modern world — is 1909, the year in which a couple of oil tycoons met and hired theologian A.C. Dixon to produce a series of books called The Fundamentals.
Conceived as a reaction to Darwin and the other voices of modernism, The Fundamentals were a collection of 90 essays by prominent American and British clerics, compiled into 12 volumes and published between 1910 and 1915. They became the intellectual basis of modern fundamentalism.
For the past three decades the political and cultural movement collectively known as the Christian right has been powered in large part by the ideas of fundamentalism. Adherents of these principles generally will tell you that they are following ancient doctrine; in truth, much of their ideology — including the Rapture — is actually quite recent.
“(Fundamentalism) is the intellectual underpinning of a lot of modern social and political ideas,” says Elijah Siegler, assistant professor of religion at the College of Charleston. “George W. Bush was the high-water mark of fundamentalism in American society.”
The fundamentalist movement has had a long and twisting path since it was launched a century ago.
Lyman and Milton Stewart were oil magnates and founders of the Union Oil Co., who took it upon themselves to finance seminaries, missionary work, and the publication of Bible tracts and Christian books. Lyman Stewart’s most ambitious project was the publication of The Fundamentals, which encapsulated a lot of free-floating ideas that had been inhabiting the fringe of American theology for generations.
Fundamentalism was riding high in the decade after publication of Stewart’s tome. It fueled the Red Scare of the 1920s, made war on Catholics and immigrants, and imposed Prohibition on the nation. But Prohibition was a disaster, and the Scopes Monkey Trial was a deep embarrassment to the movement. Fundamentalism withdrew from the mainstream, becoming politically and culturally marginal until it reemerged a half-century later as the Christian right.
A chief characteristic of fundamentalism is its obsession with the End Times and the Second Coming, particularly as it is detailed in a few cryptic passages from Revelation, some of which have left Christians scratching their heads. The apocalypse became the centerpiece of fundamentalist ideology. For the fundamentalist, the end of the world is imminent and nothing else matters.
One consequence of this peculiar world view, Siegler says, is that most fundamentalists disregard environmental warnings and eschew almost all forms of social and political reform. The important thing for the fundamentalist is to get right with God and prepare to be whooshed up in the Rapture. The world and the people in it are not worth saving.
You can understand how this theology would have a deep appeal to political and economic conservatives. In fact, Siegler suggests that the nexus of big business and religion at the launch of the fundamentalist movement is no accident. It has been repeated a number of times in the past century, including in the rise of the Christian right and the emergence of a secretive sect of wealthy and powerful Christian politicians who operate out of a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. In his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, Jeff Sharlet describes how this group worked against FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and supported right-wing dictatorships around the world during the Cold War.
In American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Chris Hedges describes how the Republican Party joined forces with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and other fundamentalist leaders in the 1970s in a bold grab to put traditional Republicans in control of Washington, and put fundamentalist Christians in control of American culture.
Their scheme almost worked. George W. Bush served two terms as president, and GOP leaders spoke just a few years ago of a permanent Republican majority in the Congress. A number of factors contributed to the fact that Democrats now hold the White House and the Congress — not the least of which was the fact that fundamentalists overplayed their hand after the 2004 election and scared a lot of moderates away.
Fundamentalism is in eclipse as a political force today, but it is still alive and well. And like a cancer, it can always return. It is an authoritarian ideology, an intrinsic and intractable enemy of peace and freedom. All freedom-loving people should know its signs and be wary of its dangers.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.