Sept. 11 ended the age of Christian fundamentalism. But Christian fundamentalists will only burrow deeper.
Be assured that Christian fundamentalism will not disappear. Fundamentalists will burrow deeper into seminary caves, broadcast programs and operate from denominational agencies at the outposts of culture. They will issue holy war pronouncements. They will preach about culture’s collapse and proclaim salvation through correct doctrine. They will threaten to withhold their vote in national elections.
But as a wellspring of political power, the 20-plus year run of fundamentalism as a reactive shaper of American culture is over.
Americans will no longer tolerate extremism in the name of God. Christian fundamentalists will be seen as no different from Islamic, Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists. Religious extremists will become radioactive.
Like fascism in the 1940s, communism in the 1950s and liberalism in the 1980s, fundamentalism has joined the hall of infamy. It is the first dirty word of the 21st century, regardless of its religious attachment.
Shrewd Christian fundamentalists will abandon the term, as the Southern Baptist Convention president did when he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November that he preferred the term evangelical to fundamentalist.
Others will disengage from political involvement.
Pat Robertson smartly recognized culture’s sea change and retreated from politics a few weeks before Christmas, saying he “would rather be active in spiritual ministry than engage in political activity.”
After leading the Christian Coalition for 12 years, Robertson’s course reversal followed self-inflicted burns from a firestorm created when he and Jerry Falwell blamed certain Americans for the terrorist attacks. Robertson and Falwell had said homosexuals and abortionists caused God to lift his protective hand.
Seventy-three percent of Americans rejected their theological perspective, according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Even 63 percent of evangelicals disagreed with them.
The same poll found that 59 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Muslim-Americans, compared to 45 percent in March.
This dramatic shift of opinion about Islamic faith is but another road marker that our culture is more tolerant of other expressions of faith.
President Bush certainly deserves some credit for upswing in religious tolerance and the demise of Christian political fundamentalism.
Bush spoke early against intolerance toward Islamic believers, acknowledged the positive teachings of Islam and invited Muslim leaders to the White House.
In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Bush said the teachings of Islam were “good and peaceful.” He added that the war against terrorism was a “fight for all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.”
Bush’s practice of religious tolerance and widespread interfaith services sparked a backlash among Christian fundamentalists. Chuck Colson, Franklin Graham and others criticized Islam and those who spoke favorably of it. Some fundamentalists refused to participate in interfaith prayer meetings. One leader claimed Bush might “lose this coming election for betraying the evangelical side of the Republican Party,” according to the Washington Post.
Such a threat is surely hollow. The widespread disdain of fundamentalism plus Bush’s ability to appeal directly to conservative religionists in the pew box frees him from the fundamentalist clerics that helped elect him.
His message of pluralism, progress, tolerance and freedom plows under the fundamentalist message which demonizes those values. Bush’s bully pulpit weighs more than all the fundamentalist pulpits combined.
As the New Year unfolds, fundamentalists will do little but complain bitterly over coffee and quietly slip away from high-charged, dogmatic ideology. Pastors will preach more about spiritual issues than cultural ones.
With many of the religious right organizations in financial difficulty and under aged leadership, the movement’s core cannot withstand the erosion of support and the shift in priorities.
What will replace Christian fundamentalism is unknown. Christian liberalism has shown modest appreciation for the pragmatic and family-centered commitment American Christians want. Moderates are too committed to pleasing everyone to offer a self-defined, compelling agenda.
What is clear is that one era has ended and another era is being birthed.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.