Will the Fundamentalists Win? A Question Revisited

The Riverside Church of New York City
Readings: Acts 5: 34-39 Galatians 1:6-9

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 no boundaries.

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 to grieve.

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 writing.

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 serve Him.

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 fade.

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 cooperatively.

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.”