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Monday, 21 May 2007

Evangelicalism: Not simply "Toned down Fundamentalism"

This is the first of four posts that provides an overview of the history & character of Evangelicalism, its historic response to evolution, and why the discussion of evolution matters today.

Being an Evangelical can be embarrassing. After all, the popular impression, fueled somewhat by the media, is that Evangelicals are simply those Christians that are a) political right-wingers and b) anti-intellectual and anti-science. And the media can uncover and recount enough stories and sound bites to reinforce this impression.

Those with just enough understanding of Evangelical history to be dangerous would describe it this way:

  • Fundamentalism is a reactionary Protestant movement born in the early 20th century in the southern US. Its two defining characteristics were anti-evolutionism (with the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925 being the critical event) and anti-communism.
  • After WWII, the Fundamentalists redefined themselves as Evangelicals, toned down their rhetoric, and shifted their message to “being born-again”. However, this “kinder, gentler” Fundamentalism is still right wing and anti-science (and anti-evolution) at heart.

This characterization is wrong at so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to start. I certainly can’t untangle all these knots in a few blog entries. What I would like to address are the incorrect assumptions that 1) Evangelicalism is simply an outgrowth of Fundamentalism, 2) anti-evolutionism is inherent in Evangelicalism because of its characteristics, and 3) from the beginning Evangelicals were uniformly hostile to evolution. This post will deal with the first assumption.

The roots of Anglo-American Evangelicalism lie in the 18th century “Great Awakening”. Starting around 1730 great revivals swept through British and American churches led by evangelists like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. The emphasis of these revivals was personal repentance, Christ’s forgiveness, and conversion to a new life. What Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards preached against was “dead religion”, an outward appearance of religion without true inner repentance.

Although new denominations were formed because of the Great Awakening (eg. Methodists), the revival also affected most protestant churches. People were encouraged to repent and commit their lives to Christ, but were not necessarily encouraged to abandon their denominational allegiance. Thus, unlike many other revolutions in the church and in Christian theology, the key result was not the formation of a new breakaway group of Christians that forged a new path on their own. Rather, these new ideas permeated virtually all protestant denominations. Even today, more than 250 years after the Great Awakening, most protestant denominations have an Evangelical component.

Fundamentalism on the other hand, was born in the early 20th century in the US. Between 1910 and 1915, a prominent group of Evangelicals published “The Fundamentals”, a series of books that outlined foundational doctrines for Christianity. This was meant to be a defense of the Christian faith, and especially of the scriptures, against modern theology and biblical criticism. Although the books themselves were measured in tone, they served as a rallying cry after WWII when conservative Evangelicals voiced militant opposition to modern theology, the cultural changes that modernism endorsed, and modern scientific ideas, particularly evolution. This resulted in schisms in several denominations between poles that were now termed “Liberal” and “Fundamentalist”.

The defining moment of Fundamentalism’s birth was the “Scopes Monkey Trial”. In 1924, a public school teacher named John Scopes was charged in Tennessee with teaching evolution, something that was forbidden by state law. Although the Fundamentalists won the legal war, they were widely ridiculed in the press and wider society, and thus lost the public relations war. This event was influential in the Fundamentalists sharp withdrawal from society. Whereas Evangelicals had always participated in wider culture and had been part of the American establishment, Fundamentalists now separated themselves from what they saw as “an ungodly society”.

Around 1950 the moderate evangelical voice reemerged under the leadership of the likes of Billy Graham. Rather than separating themselves from the wider culture, with a focus only on a defense of the bible, these Evangelicals again emphasized telling the good news of Christ’s kingdom. No longer were they content to sit on the sidelines. If they needed to work with “Liberal churches” to promote the gospel, so be it.

The above is obviously an extremely short summary of Evangelical and Fundamentalist history; many important themes have not even been touched, and some of my statements should probably be more nuanced. However, the key points are these.

  • The birth of Evangelicalism preceded the birth of Fundamentalism by almost 200 years. Thus it is not correct to call it the progeny of Fundamentalism.
  • Whereas Evangelicalism was primarily a positive movement (promoting the gospel), Fundamentalism was primarily a negative movement (against modern biblical interpretation and scientific theories that contradicted the bible). While Evangelicalism wanted to engage the wider culture, Fundamentalism wanted to withdraw from the wider culture.
  • The Evangelical reemergence in the mid-20th century was not simply a maturing or modification of Fundamentalism. Rather, it was a rediscovery of its character prior to the onset of Fundamentalism.

So what can we conclude about the relationship between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and why does it matter? The popular impression that Fundamentalism is either equivalent to, or the root of, Evangelicalism is wrong. However, it is clear that the early 20th century Fundamentalist phase still influences Evangelicalism. In “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, historian Mark Noll refers to this phase as “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism”. I would agree that the influence has been primarily negative. At best, Fundamentalism was an extreme phase from which Evangelicals eventually emerged. At worst, fundamentalism is a cancer from which we are still trying to recover. The recent interest in “Creation Science” by Evangelicals leads me to believe that we have not completely rid ourselves of this disorder.

Recommended Further Reading:


Chris said...

What do you think of Galileo's famous letter to the Grand Duchess as a response to sentiments like the one expressed in the AiG statement?

Steve Martin said...

A lot of the same arguments made by Galileo can be used in response to AIG (eg. conflict between science & scripture is a result of poor biblical interpretation; biblical interpretation of those that have gone before does not necessarily support the "conservative" position). However, I don't think I'd use Galileo’s letter directly in response to AIG - I'd rather get sources that are unarguably Evangelical. In my next post I'll show that the evangelicals in the 19th century / early 20th century were very comfortable with an old earth, and even the opposition to evolution was not unanimous. In future posts (including my “literal or liberal false dichotomy” post), I’ll discuss Augustine’s (and Calvin’s) view of accommodation (again using Evangelicals that are quoting these Theologians). It is this view of scripture that the fundamentalists / YEC have completely lost.