Since my first introduction to Phelps and his God-ordained hate, we’ve witnessed the lengths he was willing to go to spread his version of the gospel, a message that always focused on God’s disgust for humanity and his soon-arriving damnation…But therein might lie the one, dare I say, redeeming quality of Phelps: that he was always upfront about his beliefs, intentionally wearing his fundamentalism proudly—like a badge of honor—and without a filter.
According to Turner, though Phelps is dead, his “fundamentalist” God lives on. Turner knew it first-hand in an only-so-restrained form in the churches of his youth, and now he detects it hidden in a milder, sound-bite friendly form in the teachings of others:
Is Christian fundamentalism dead in America? I don’t think so. Among this country’s wide and varied Christianities, fundamentalism is very much alive; it’s just harder to recognize. Rather than being fanatical, loud, and obnoxious, today’s fundamentalism masquerades under wide smiles, hipster garb, flowery poetic language, and synth-pop beats…
And here’s where we run up with the problem: Turner’s use of the word “fundamentalist.” Whenever I see the term used in common parlance, especially in media outlets like The Daily Beast, I’m always wary due to the fact that there seems to be some slippage in terminology.
To my count, there are about three ways you can use the term. Originally, the term simply referred to those on the conservative side of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy in Evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s-1930s. These believers were the ones who affirmed things like the Incarnation, Christ’s atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the Resurrection, and Virginal conception of Christ–you know, the “Fundamentals.” Then, it picked up a sort of sociological use associated with the landmark study of “fundamentalisms” conducted by Martin Marty, broadening its reference to a certain set of behaviors, modes of religious belief that can be applied across religions.
But, here’s the thing, there is a third use of the term. And actually, on my reckoning it’s by far the most common one. I’ll call it the “Plantingan” use, after Alvin Plantinga who gives a helpful lexical analysis:
“..we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ’son of a b#tch’, more exactly ’sonovab#tch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ’sumb#tch.’ When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumb#tch, would you feel obligated first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use); it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ’stupid sumb#tch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumb#tch’?) than ’sumb#tch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ’stupid sumb#tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’” –Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 244-245
It’s this third use of the term that seems to either dominate, or blend into the two others that Turner seems to invoke at the same time. But as Plantinga notes, depending on who uses the term, ‘fundamentalist’ can mean anything from Phelpsian/compound-out-in-Montana types to someone simply holding classic, Nicene Christianity.
Is Francis Phelps-lite?
Who seems to qualify as a “fundamentalist” in sheep’s clothing according to Turner? Well, there are the soft, easy-to-ding targets like Mark Driscoll (who doesn’t have something to say about him?), John Piper (way too Calvinistic), and, of course, Rick Warren, (because prototypical mega-evangelical?).
Though even in their worst moments Driscoll, Warren, and Piper are nothing like Phelps, are the tenets of their theologies—hell, inerrant scriptures, a coming apocalypse—really that different from what Phelps believed? Is a person’s fundamentalism defined by their approach or by the message they adhere to?
So, “hell, inerrant scriptures, a coming apocalypse,” more classic views on same-sex marriage, and some sort of traditionalism in gender issues lands you into Phelps-lite land. My initial reaction is that if you just switch out “inerrant” for infallible, by Turner’s standards, most of the historic Christian church and, factoring in the rather conservative faith of Majority-world Christians, probably the majority of the current Christian church, stand condemned as variations on a Phelpsian theme. Can that really be what he’s saying?
While apparently noting the complexity to be appreciated, for Turner there’s still a fundamental divide that must be faced:
The lines of fundamentalism are blurrier today than what they once were. Most of today’s conservative evangelicals don’t seem all that angry; they don’t spend much time boasting about things like hell or promoting their assumptions about America’s coming doom or theologizing their cases against homosexuality, and they rarely carry their doctrines around on signs. But when push comes to shove or a vote comes to the ballot booth, is their God all that different from Fred’s God?
I take it that’s a “yes”? And this is where I start thinking of names that, when judged by that those doctrinal standards, could stand accused of being Turnerite Fundamentalists, devotees of lesser god. I mean, right off the bat, there goes most of the great theological and moral lights of the Church (Ireneaus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Francis, Ockham, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Theresa…). Going by a four-out-of-five rule, we could probably add a range of figures like Billy Graham, John Stott, Tim Keller, Scot McKnight, Thomas Oden, N.T. Wright, and even C.S. Lewis. Are they all just Phelps-lite?
Or, to put a finer point on it, what about the current Rolling Stone-cover gracing, darling that even regular religion critics are slow to criticize? What about Pope Francis? I mean, he is the pontiff of Rome, so you know he holds forms of all of those doctrines, and even more. Is his leper-kissing, foot-washing, average Catholic calling, selfie-taking, child-hugging, grace-offering, poverty-championing, humility, gold-robe-rejecting act all just a cover for his Fundamentalist God? Is that really the grid we’re supposed to work with?
Forgive me if I can’t help but sense the slightest hint of chronological snobbery in the dichotomy we have here. Those doctrines Turner holds up as the cornerstone of an ugly God (final judgment, apocalyptic Second Coming) have instead figured into the broader picture of a fundamentally gracious God revealed in Scripture as enshrined in our most Ancient and ecumenical Creeds (Apostles, Nicene). In their summaries of Scripture, we read of God who loves his Image-bearing but rebellious creatures enough to live, die, and rise again for our redemption, and will return make all things new, part of which does include an righteous end to evil that currently deforms everything good.
If that’s the case, that’s not a deformed fundamentalism we’re talking about–that’s Apostolic Christianity.
I don’t want to ignore the role Turner’s own story clearly plays here, or the sad reality he’s speaking of. And yet, I can’t help but note this as an example of the care that needs to be taken when we move to quickly write others off as “fundamentalists”, or even liberals, or heretics. Speaking to my own wing of the family, I can think of conservatives who are a little quick to apply the “heretic” card to their Trinitarian, supernaturalist, resurrection-affirming counterparts with whom they disagree on important, but less central issues. If we’re not careful, we can fall into the trap of so polarizing ourselves against the tribe we disagree with, we can’t even bring ourselves to admit we worship the same Savior. And that’s just sad.