Thursday, December 02, 2004

American Fundamentalism 

NOTE - before reading this post, remember that I do not wish to deny anyone the right to personally practice any form of any religion that does not infringe on the liberties of others. This post is aimed at a narrow ideology, and not at all Christians or people of faith. It is only the attempted imposition of religion through the state that disturbs me, and this (perhaps alarmist) post is about that.

I just ran across this lovely David Brooks column today:

Thought I'd pass it on since it goes well with an earlier discussion I participated in over at Professor Leiter's place. That discussion focused on fundamentalism and how those who do not know American Fundamentalists and have not lived in their midst insist that they are somehow less, well, fundamentalist than they are.

Brooks has become enamored of one John Stott, apparently a really nice "evangelical Christian" (a term which is fast becoming a euphemism for "fundamentalist" - this is unfortunate as I know a great many reasonable evangelicals but no reasonable fundamentalists).
This is why so many people are so misinformed about evangelical Christians. There is a world of difference between real-life people of faith and the made-for-TV, Elmer Gantry-style blowhards who are selected to represent them. Falwell and Pat Robertson are held up as spokesmen for evangelicals, which is ridiculous. Meanwhile people like John Stott, who are actually important, get ignored.
Basically, it looks like Brooks read a book by Stott, fell in love, and is now appalled that he is not the public face of the "evangelicals" while Falwell, Robertson (and I would add Dobson and many others) parade about like the petulant hypocritical moralists they are.

I am unfamiliar with Stott, so I won't make any assumptions as to his under-the-radar popularity among "evangelicals" - which Brooks asserts is vast. I will say, however, that Brooks is a fool (not that this is surprising) to suppose Stott's pleasantness makes him preferable to the loons that are now the public face of American Fundamentalism (or "evangelicals" if Brooks insists).

Here's the most interesting part:
Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed. As he writes:

"It is not because we are ultra-conservative, or obscurantist, or reactionary or the other horrid things which we are sometimes said to be. It is rather because we love Jesus Christ, and because we are determined, God helping us, to bear witness to his unique glory and absolute sufficiency. In Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ God's revelation is complete; to add any words of our own to his finished work is derogatory to Christ."
There's a word for that last bit, and it's not "evangelical" - it's fundamentalist. To "evangelize" is to teach the gospel. You can do that without believing that the bible must be taken literally and without interpretation. "Fundamentalism" is strict adherence to a very particular reading of a religious text (or, I suppose if you are a fundamentalist, the "true" or "literal" reading of the text).

If we want to be precise about what American Fundamentalists are, we ought to call them American (because they adhere to a reading of the bible with roots in American Protestantism) Fundamentalist (because they adhere to this reading strictly, and often disparage those who do not do so) Evangelical (because they energetically attempt to push this reading on others) Theocrats (because they attempt to do so through the state).

Perhaps Stott is not of the "theocrat" variety, and that is why Brooks finds him so superior to Falwell, et. al. If that's the case, then perhaps Stott is an okay guy afterall. As I said before, I've no desire nor inclination to deny a man his choice of faith (or his choice not to have it).

But if Stott is one who believes the United States should be run on principals of fundamentalism, then why Brooks insists that having a man he describes as like Mr. Rogers but with a "backbone of steel" present American Fundamentalism to the public makes it somehow more acceptable is beyond me.

Perhaps that's not his thesis, since at the end he wraps up the column by saying that politicians ("especially Democrats") must begin their "appealing" to "people of faith" (another very unfortunate euphemism) by "understanding the faith." Clearly he does not understand it, like too many others for whom only the imposition of actual theocracy will force recognition of the fact that American Fundamentalism as it attempts to capture the state diverges from its close Islamic cousin (e.g., the Taliban) only in the book it purports to be absolute truth and the means (though in the case of abortion clinic bombers, even this distinction is blurred) through which it strives for its goal.

I guess someone is going to have to make a Hollywood movie, replete with all the special effects bells and whistles, about what would happen if these people manage to completely tear down the wall between Church and State and rule the U.S. as they would have it ruled (according to their own strict reading of the bible) before people will wake up.

As a civil libertarian, I am finding it harder and harder to defend the right of these people to practice their faith while simultaneously defending my right to be free of it myself, but both are too important to allow either to lapse.

Evangelize all you want, just don't do it through the government of my country.

UPDATE: Both David Wiens and Doug Barnes do their part. Wiens points out that Stott is not the theocrat-type (I tried to clearly leave this possibility open in my post), nor is he American. Good to have the info. I think this only supports my thesis that Brooks (like too many people) fails to understand American Fundamentalism and the potential threat it poses - if he did, he would not suggest that a non-theocrat Englishman like Stott could lead that movement.


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