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Will the Fundamentalists Win?
A Question Revisited
Acts 5: 34-39
On May 21, 1922, from the pulpit of the First
Presbyterian Church here in New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who
later became the founding minister of this great Riverside Church of New
York City, posed the question, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" As an
eyewitness to a mean-spirited divisiveness reeking havoc in American churches,
Fosdick issued a clarion call for tolerance. Remembering ancient controversy
about the resurrection of Jesus and the intention of some people to silence
all with whom they disagreed, Fosdick praised the counsel of a Jewish
leader named Gamaliel. "Let it be," Gamaliel advised, "Wait and see what
happens," he said, speaking of the resurrection, "If the resurrection
and the message about it are merely the results of human ingenuity, the
whole movement will falter and ultimately fail. However, if the resurrection
movement is, indeed, an initiative of God, no one will be able to stop
it and all who try will find themselves opposing God." Fosdick pleaded
for such care-filled, appreciative-of-truth tolerance among his contemporaries.
That historic Fosdick sermon on the fate of fundamentalism was delivered
in a context heavily populated by self-designated protectors of truth
who were seeking to cleanse their churches of all persons deemed to possess
a progressive or liberal mindset. Of course, those qualities of thought-"progressive"
or "liberal"-were considered suspect, if not dangerous, largely because
they represented disagreement with beliefs that fundamentalists had elevated
to the status of the essence of Christianity.
Today, 82 years later, the situation is as much the same as it is dramatically
different. Now, it is clear, fundamentalism is not just a tempest in an
ecclesiastical tea pot but a powerful phenomenon in most of the major
religions of the world. Entire religious traditions like Islam and Christianity
are being redefined by the strident voices and often violent actions of
extremists who stand far to the right of their historic centers. Today
fundamentalism is dividing mosques, temples, synagogues, and gurdwaras
even as churches; splintering relationships among families, friends, communities
and nations. So rabid, rancid and rancorous are the divisive tactics utilized
by contemporary fundamentalists that their frequent character assassinations
based on charges of heresy in the past now seem almost insipid when set
alongside explosive onslaughts of physical violence intended to destroy
certain institutions and whole societies judged to be evil.
So, you see, the question is an important one-will the fundamentalists
win? A deep line of division runs like the life-threatening San Andreas
Fault through the body of American Christianity. The differences that
define the divide are real and deep, not surface or superficial issues
easily resolved by adjustments in semantics or rituals. Let there be no
mistake in understanding, at stake in the divides of the present moment
are nothing less than the vitality of democracy and the integrity of Christianity
within this nation. Harry Emerson Fosdick's earlier question posed in
a service of worship merits reconsideration in this service of worship.
Will the fundamentalists win?
My immediate response to that question is "Yes. Yes, very likely, the
fundamentalists will win for a while." The fear that pervades our nation
breeds a preference for certainty and security that serves as a welcome
mat for fundamentalist thought and strategies. Our society's lack of concern
for the loss of liberty coupled with the public's expansive love affair
with simplicity stand as gold-gilded invitations for fundamentalism to
assume a strong and influential position in our midst. Religious fundamentalism
well may prevail as a major force in our society for a while.
But - but! - long term, fundamentalism will weaken in strength and fade
in influence. I speak this morning specifically about the fundamentalism
that I know best, the fundamentalism in our spiritual tradition - Christian
fundamentalism - though the principles involved in these remarks know
Incidentally, this critique of fundamentalism is for me as personal
and practical as it is theoretical and institutional. Not only do I know
fundamentalism intellectually, I know fundamentalism experientially. I
grew up among fundamentalists. I did not have to study the methodology
of fundamentalism to know the power of its punch and the consequences
of its victories; I have felt the power of its punch in blows to my gut
and I have seen the success of its attacks and the devastation left in
the wake of its missions among friends and institutions for whom I continue
Christian fundamentalism will not be defeated by the strategic, targeted
opposition of people like us so much as, eventually, it will self-destruct.
Fundamentalism carries within its very nature the seeds of its own demise.
Allow me, please, to be specific - to cite six specific reasons that fundamentalism
promises to prove self-defeating. There are more, of course, but here
is the beginning of a contemporary answer to Dr. Fosdick's still-relevant
question about fundamentalism and a foundation for looking critically
at the nature of our own religious convictions as well.
First, fundamentalism's preoccupation with reason and prioritization
of propositions offer little help to persons whose needs are profoundly
relational and whose calls for help are deeply emotional. I have stood
beside parents shocked and stricken by grief over the death of a child
and listened with disgust and dismay as a devotee of fundamentalism explained
a doctrine of providence intended to assure the hurting parents that God
simply needed their child more than they did. I have done follow-up counseling
with people broad-sided by professional termination, disoriented by betrayal,
and angered by religious rifts in their families who reached out for help
only to receive, not a word indicative of empathy or hope, but only a
fundamentalist lecture on the necessity of combating the immorality involved
in such events and the importance of embracing orthodoxy. Listen, you
know and I know that the great hurts of our lives find little solace,
comfort, or eradication in a religion preoccupied with propositions-call
them "theses" or "doctrines." Thinking, feeling individuals are wary of
a religion devoid either of sympathy or a sense of humor and certainly
feel negatively about a religion devoid of both.
Second, a religion of exclusion will become a peripheral interest among
people appreciative of a religiously pluralistic society and eager personally
to experience a community of faith. Immediately I can hear the anticipated
quick retort: "We must not adjust the particularities of our religious
beliefs and practices to conform to the characteristics of our culture."
I agree. But no compromising adjustment to our faith is required; only
a deepened understanding of the welcome and inclusion that pulsate at
the center of the gospel and faithfulness to that inclusive welcome in
our worship and ministry.
Shortly after I assumed leadership of The Interfaith Alliance, Joan
Brown Campbell told me a story that has inspired and instructed me. Joan
and Bill Moyers attended a Clinton-Administration-sponsored White House
Conference exploring the possibility of life on the planet Mars. During
the intriguing discussions of that meeting, one of the scientists present
declared without equivocation that in the biosphere independence means
death. In other words, for life to be a reality, this scholar argued,
interdependence is an absolute necessity. Another scientist stated the
matter more bluntly, "Either the future will be ecumenical or there will
be no future." Altering those words only minimally, I would contend that
either the future will be interfaith in nature or there will be no future
of the quality that we know in the present.
Most people of conscious are aware that the imperative for inter-religious
cooperation resides not in the closeness of our geographical proximity,
but in the depths of our faith-full integrity. We are compelled to reach
out to each other despite our differences not because of the smallness
of the global village in which we live, but because of the largeness of
the faith that lives within us. What kind of religion opposes such cooperation?
Third, a fundamentalist religion that pursues narrower and narrower
definitions of truth eventually erodes trust among its constituency. Almost
paranoid about the possibility of the smallest modicum of disagreement
on even a minor point of doctrine, fundamentalists begin to question each
other - "Are you sure you are with us? Do you really believe all of this
without question?" A strict fundamentalist mentality assures a steadily
declining number of true believers until, finally, only one trusted source
of religious authority remains; and that one is whoever is speaking or
Spiritually sensitive people know that something is wrong with a religion
in which a more profound personal belief in God moves people farther away
from each other and an emphasis on the unconditional love of God inspires
critical disdain for those who are different. Not much of an attraction
is a religion in which belief is a source of division rather than reconciliation.
Fourth, a fundamentalist religion of arrogant absolutism claiming to
answer every question with certainty loses its credibility in a world
of ambiguity and before reverent recognition of the mystery at the center
of holiness. As long as all goes well, fundamentalism can endow people
with a sense of superiority, empower people to pass judgments that should
reside only in the prerogative of God, and enliven people with a mentality
of militancy toward all who have not seen the light in which they walk.
But, in a time of crisis, fundamentalists are left with unanswerable questions
for which they must find answers or feel guilty and gnawing needs for
help that must be repressed or displaced by embracing a sense of duty.
The sheer weight of such religion finally wears people out; it is a heavy
burden, not a source of comfort, strength or freedom.
Fifth, fundamentalism religiofies politics and politicizes religion
to an extent that erases any distinction between politics and religion,
threatens the eradication of religious liberty, and compromises the essence
of democracy. Having presided over a shotgun wedding uniting religion
and politics, fundamentalism now considers as a one-faith union its ideological
call for political correctness and the biblical call for personal righteousness.
The rich diversity of view points that strengthen a democracy are viewed
by fundamentalists as a sign of moral poverty. Fundamentalism turns the
kind of civil discourse between competing points of view so essential
to democracy into strident shouting matches laced with patronizing condemnations
based on absolute delineations between good and evil.
In Fosdick's day, fundamentalism was fueled by a demand for correctness
in basic theological beliefs: the infallibility of the Bible, the historicity
of miracles, the subsitutionary doctrine of atonement, and a realistic
expectation of the second coming of Jesus. But things have changed. Political
power now rivals theological correctness as a prime concern in fundamentalism.
Unfaithful to its own insistence on the priority of biblical truth, fundamentalism
now evaluates religious authenticity on the basis of a person's position
related to select social-political issues. If the frightened-to-the-point-of-panic
jailer described in the New Testament epistles today posed the urgent
question to fundamentalists that he hurled at the apostle Paul in the
first century, "What must I do to be saved?" I have a feeling that the
response would not be "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" but "oppose abortion,
condemn gay marriage, support vouchers for financing private education,
and affirm posting the Ten Commandments in public places."
Given the objective of total triumph for its particular beliefs and
values-call it religious imperialism, dominionism or triumphalism-serious
questions arise as to whether or not true religious fundamentalism can
affirm the respect for pluralism, the guarantee of basic civil rights,
and the assurance of religious freedom for all people so integral to democracy.
Signs of the freedom-threatening nature of fundamentalism's governmental
goal are readily apparent among revisionists of American history who assert
the constitutionality of freedom for their religion for everybody and
deny freedom from religion for anybody, ideologues who argue for a majoritarian
approach to rethinking the viability of an established national religion,
activists who use the machinery of government to legislate their sectarian
values, and militarists who embrace violence, if necessary, to impose
their religious principles upon persons and institutions.
I am reminded of E. Stanley Jones' observation that the Crusaders conquered
Jerusalem only to find that Christ was not there because they had lost
(Christ) through the very spirit and methods by which they thought to
Sixth, fundamentalism sooner or later turns on God, seeking to erase
mystery, to find an endorsement for partisanship, and to secure a blessing
for raw aggression by reshaping God in its own image and, thus, making
God small enough to manage for its own purposes. Elie Wiesel has penned
a haunting description of a fanatic religious fundamentalist who finally
grows uncomfortable with God. "He turns divine beauty into human ugliness,"
Wiesel observes, "He usurps God's place in Creation. He takes himself
for God. Like God he strives to make every man in his own image, but smaller.
He wants everyone to resemble him yet remain smaller, humble and humiliated,
bowed before his throne. Convinced that he is the sole possessor of the
meaning of life, he gags or kills the Other in order not to be challenged
in his quest. And finally, the religious fanatic sees God not as his judge
and king, but as his prisoner."
When fundamentalism turns on God, most people see its true identity,
that which the writer of Galatians called a "different gospel." The seeds
of demise reside in the essential nature of fundamentalism.
So, what is the future of fundamentalism? Fundamentalism may persist
as a dominant ideology for a while, but it will fade as a strong religion.
In time Christianity will once again be defined not by extremists shouting
from a distant periphery and glorying in angry divisions but by those
who have found at its center the God who wears a smile not a scowl, engages
creation playfully rather than terrorizes people emotionally, and calls
all people to a faith that leads to liberation not oppression, adoration
not cynicism, affirmation not condemnation, inclusion not exclusion, and
grace that is greater than law.
Yes, I think that sooner or later fundamentalism will fail to win peoples'
hearts and minds and thus fail to win the day. But let me be clear, we
should not, we can not, indeed, we must not passively sit by and wait
for that day. Too much is at stake. Let us with inflamed intellect and
reasoned emotion ensure that people know Christianity as a religion with
inclusive love at its center, open arms as its posture, encouragement
as its demeanor, grace and justice as its goals for persons and societies,
and a welcome to all people as its first spoken word. Let us meet thinly-veiled
attempts to transform democracy into a form of theocracy in which a few
people decide among themselves who will be Theo with smart, active civic
participation that exemplifies the partnership between piety and civility
that works for freedom and justice for everybody. Let us move beyond tolerance
to engage each other with mutual respect in search of learning and cooperation.
Let us show fundamentalists that we will respect their identity, protect
their freedom and support their rights, but that we will not allow them
to demonize us, erode our freedom and disrespect our rights.
In 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick declared, "I do not believe for one moment
that the Fundamentalists are going to succeed." Yet, fundamentalism seems
more alive and sick today than it was when Fosdick spoke 82 years ago.
Will fundamentalism win? What is the answer to that question now? I repeat.
Though fundamentalism may win for a while, ultimately it will weaken and
That being said, I must observe that the demise of fundamentalism will
not necessarily be a cause for ecstatic jubilation. Even when winning
and losing are important, sometimes winning cannot be celebrated because
of the losses that have preceded the victory. Standing amid the devastation
inflicted by fundamentalism, praying over divisions in religion that look
just like other major divisions in the nation, we will lament the fact
that, in crucial times, people of faith were not able to show the world
a true portrait of the positive and healing power of religion. We will
grieve with families that have been divided by those within them who valued
the correctness of their propositions and politics more than their fellowship
with other persons.
To be totally candid with you, I do not like the win/lose terminology
in this sermon. In the end, fundamentalism will defeat itself more than
be defeated by people like us. I long for a world in which winning and
losing are not nearly as important to any body as is a realization of
every body-all of us in our glorious diversity-walking together and working
The spirit in which I offer to God and to this congregation a sermon
that involves images of winning and losing is best articulated by an old
hermit in Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Report to Graeco, the story of a young
truth-seeker who traveled to a monastic community off the coast of Greece
to visit with the hermits there in attempt to discover their way to God.
One day the young man talked with an elderly hermit who had lived alone
for 40 years, the man whose mindset I seek to embrace and to commend to
others. "Tell me father," the young man said, "Do you struggle with the
devil?" "Oh, no my son," the old man responded, "My flesh is too old for
that. I struggle now with God." In astonishment the young man exclaimed,
"With God, father? Do you hope to win?" "Oh, no, my son," the aged hermit
replied, (In all of my struggles with God) "I hope to lose."
Author of over
twenty books, including Faith and Politics, Dr. Gaddy is president of
Alliance, serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster
(Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana, and is a member of the World Economic
Forum's Council of 100 Leaders.
Copyright © by the author
All Rights Reserved
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