Are We All Just Fred Phelps Fundamentalists?
What is Fred Phelps’ one virtue? Honesty, according to Matthew Paul Turner writing for The Daily Beast:
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.
A needed word.
We could reduce fundamentalism down to two kinds, one that centers on essential beliefs of the Christian Church and the other consisting of real or projected personality traits. Of course, sometimes we have hybrids so which kind they are is determine by which features are predominant.
The tragic thing about equating fundamentalism with a set of personality traits is that we lose focus on the basics of the Christian faith. So I think it serves the Gospel to come out and say we are fundamentalists, that is if we are. And the almost always followed question, at least the one I get while participating as an activist, is what does mean by the term “fundamentalist”? Now we have a chance to share.
But we should also note is that there are so many different political, social, and theological positions Fundamentalists can take that to emphasize the basics leads to showing people that fundamentalists are not a monolith.
Everything Turner says needs to be handled with a significant grain of salt. He used to be the editor for CCM magazine, during which time his views were much different…along with his representation of his childhood and life in church. He is not unlike Tony Jones, in that his one mission in his writing seems to be caricature and slander of Reformed Christians.
What’s most interesting is that Turner is here doing exactly what he has condemned for so long: Building an artificial orthodoxy then labeling those outside of it as heretics. It’s amazing how ones’s values of “generous orthodoxy” can shapeshift.
In broad strokes, I generally agree with you concerning the vernacular use of “fundamentalist”. However, I think there’s one important aspect that you’ve missed.
“Fundamentalist” is currently freighted with the concepts of “rigid dogma”, “absolute moral certitude”, and “complete intolerance of perceived breeches of orthodoxy”.
“Fundamentalists” question the legitimacy of the faith of those who don’t subscribe to their conservative beliefs. They are not open to challenges to orthodoxy. They are more concerned with correct doctrine than with pastoral care.
When you add this filter, then it’s clear why Pope Francis or Billy Graham are less likely to be viewed as fundamentalists than John Piper or Mark Driscoll.
Right on cue, we have another example of the willful carelessness to caricature someone in order to paint them a fundamentalist.
Piper isn’t concerned with pastoral care? Really? As someone who was a member of his church for 5 years, I’d *strongly* disagree with that straw man.
I didn’t said “unconcerned”, I said less concerned with pastoral care than correct dogma. Judging from his public persona, I think that’s a fair assessment….crusading for complementarianism, crusading against homosexuality, warning of the judgement of God against our unholy nation (and claiming natural disasters are an expression of God’s wrath), etc…
Be careful judging the hearts of others. You can’t separate correct doctrine and pastoral care, especially not when we’re talking about the fundamentals of the gospel. When it comes to the essentials that one must believe for salvation, you’re right–fundamentalists do question the legitimacy of the faith of those who disagree. When it comes to those practices that characterize those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” we are not open to challenges. Nor should we be, if we love others and value their souls. If we value pastoral care, we must value sound doctrine.
I don’t wholly disagree with you. If we can’t agree on the fundamentals of the faith, we are not practicing the same religion.
However, those I would consider fundamentalists often broaden “the fundamentals of the faith” beyond the creeds and inappropriately elevate secondary issues to matters of primacy.
Last week’s episode with World Vision was a vibrant example of the corrosive effects of graphing orthodoxy too tightly. A “correct understanding” of sexual ethics is no more or less required for salvation than a “correct understanding” of the sanctity of life or of baptism. Elevating the sinfulness of covenant gay relationships to a non-disputable status caused great division and harm. It did nothing to advance the kingdom.
Great breakdown here. I like that you are giving some analysis of popular news source. One news source I really like is Atlantic Monthly. However, sometimes I run across generalizations about evangelicals that I would like to break down and analyze, but don’t have time to. Thanks for taking the time to write this.
I particularly enjoy this: “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.”
Thanks for this.
Thanks for this article. I think The Daily Beast is using Turner as link-bait. This is a shame. They should be using him to delve further into the theology of the topics.
Your third definition is close, but flawed.
A good operating definition of “Fundamentalist” is someone who is more concerned with doctrinal purity than humanity. They claim to have all the answers, claim to speak for God, and have no perception of the difference between their opinion on culture and God’s will according to scripture.
Synonyms include “Pharisee” and “Hypocrite”.
Look for the folks obsessed with which Bible translation you’re carrying, or how long a girl’s skirt is, Or the folks who point to any random cultural trend they dislike and state that “this is a sign of the end times”.
Basically, look for the folks that are driving everyone under 50 away from your church.
As a gay man who grew up in Christian fundamentalism’s self-proclaimed “Fortress of Faith,” Bob Jones University, and as an Anglican (read Episcopalian) Christian convert whose theology can best be described as orthodox, I appreciated Turner’s article. Neither the Apostle’s Creed nor the Nicene Creed, those ancient ecumenical statements of belief, mentions anything about a believer’s sexuality at all. So, the current preoccupation among evangelicals with making sexual orientation or gender identity a litmus test for “true belief” or, even worse, orthodoxy, is indeed a fundamentalist one.
The fundamentalists of my youth were absolutely obsessed with extra-Biblical, supra-credal litmus tests for “true belief” and “testimony.” Dress codes, conduct rules, music “standards,” and many other checklists for supposed spirituality were the incessant metrics of belief at BJU. I was taught to question the “salvation” of even my Christian relatives, if they did not worship at a BJU-approved church. This mentality was sadly echoed across evangelical America last week when World Vision embraced the fact that several of the denominations who support its work have found a Biblical way forward in recognizing their LGBT+ members. The gay Christian phenomenon is here to stay, and we will continue to cry out to our Abba for a place at His table where we are turned away.
So-called Biblical inerrancy is likewise not mentioned in these creeds, and it has never been a pre-supposition of the wider Church. Let’s face it, we still don’t agree throughout Christendom on a canon of Scripture, and what canons there are didn’t truly emerge in any of the branches of Christendom before the second half of the second millenium A.D. It’s preposterous and myopic to make such claims, and almost exclusively a twentieth-century American phenomenon in the history of Christ’s Church in the world. Holding scripture in high regard, reading it prayerfully and thoughtfully, together in community, is something that most all Christians around the world do regardless of their denominational affiliations or their personal politics.
Fundamentalism in the United States, fraught as it always has been with its political ideology and ambitions, does not represent and never has represented orthodoxy, regardless its many claims to the contrary. It may, perhaps, represent an orthodoxy, but it would be entirely unrecognizable to that long litany of early Church fathers you quote above.
The example of Jesus is very clear in Scripture. His harshest and, in fact, only words of judgment were not reserved for the sexual and gender minorities with whom he was so familiar. Nor were they given to the woman caught in the act of committing adultery, or the Samaritan woman whose serial marriages He enumerated. No, the great “woe” passages in Matthew’s gospel, the chidings for public sinners were always directed at the hardline religious dogmatists who prioritized their ideology over the very clear commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And this is where Pope Francis I differs so very widely from his recent predecessors on the one hand and from American evangelicals on the other. The Holy Father of Rome has gone out of his way to reach out in humility and love to American charismatic Pentecostals apologizing for the divisions that exist and calling for true Christian unity. He has embraced LGBT+ folks and even atheists, maybe not as fully as some of us would like, but in love and without judgement.
So, no, fundamentalism is not synonymous with orthodoxy. Fundamentalism has replaced the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of believers with a pat moralism and convenient checklists for gauging one’s “Christlikeness.” (Those checklists often intersect with a middle class white Protestant ethos, and that’s no coincidence). Fundamentalism has overtaken the mission of the Church in much of Protestant America to be light and salt in the world. The effect of that takeover will be a devastating loss of communicants in our churches over the coming decades, unless somehow the Light of Christ can break through the darkness of self-importance and holier-than-thou Phariseeism. It’s time for Christians to embrace one another in love, despite our differences, and stop trying to usurp the Holy Spirit’s work in other people’s lives.
the affirming alternative for LGBT+ alumni and students of Bob Jones University
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