Fundamentalist Christianity is a relatively new version of an old religion with an American twist.
Kim Davis catapulted to, she says, unwanted fame, by refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples in Rowan County, Kentucky. All the while, she claimed, it had nothing to do with discrimination, but that she was simply following her conscience based on her relationship with God. Fellow fundamentalists rallied beside her, touting her a hero of the faith.
Whether or not they agreed with Davis’ theology, Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, grandstanded with Davis to make a clear statement about their view of gay rights and gay people: They are not welcome to the party, or as members of the theo-topia Cruz and Huckabee want to create.
But don’t take this the wrong way. Ted Cruz said, “The Scripture commands us to love everyone, and that ought to be a standard that applies across the board.” Kim Davis, with her own colorful marriage history, was even sure to state in her get-out-of-jail speech, “To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue.” And their Gandhi-inspired message came wrapped with a bow by one bystander who said, “It’s because of the love of Christ that Kim is not passing out marriage licenses…It’s all about the love of God.”
With so many warm, fuzzy messages and butterfly kisses, how could anyone misconstrue their message of…uh, love? Isn’t that kind of love what Christianity is all about?
From their fundamentalist perspective, yes. It is a convoluted word-puzzle of fear-inspired “grace.” God loves everyone and only wants the best for humankind, so much so that He sent His only son to die for our sins and offers the gift of life freely. And if you don’t accept it AND live according to the fundamentalist version of right-wing politics, you’ll be cast into the fiery lake of hell for all eternity. Why? Because God loves you just. That. Much.
Julia Sweeney does a great bit in her one woman show, Letting Go of God, on how ridiculous the whole message sounds to an outsider, but perfectly normal and rational to those of us who were raised in fundamentalism.
Like many people in the United States, I was raised on the belief that Christian Fundamentalism, and the way in which I was taught it, was THE 2,000-year-old version from Christ himself. From it, we get THE definition of “Biblical marriage,” along with ideologies that more represent life as the Cleaver family than any family situation found in the Bible. There is a reason for that.
Christian fundamentalism is relatively new despite the claim from evangelicals that it, in its American form, has been around since the time of Christ. It has not. Evangelicalism began to first emerge in the 1730s, according to religious historian, David Bebbington, a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland (1993).
Religious scholar, Randal Balmer noted in the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism (2002) that evangelicalism is primarily a North American phenomenon that came from a confluence of pietism, puritanism and Presbyterianism. In the early part of the 20th century, evangelicals divided into two groups: modernists and fundamentalists, according to author Kathy Baldock (2014). The modernists focused on social issues, such as poverty, injustice, equality, and hunger. Fundamentalists focused on repentance, soul-saving and appeasing an angry God. Over time those groups competed for who had the ultimate “truth,” resulting in what we have today: over 41,000 Christian denominations.
For many years, fundamentalism stayed relegated in the South. In 1845, the Southern Baptist Church was founded in Augusta Georgia, for example. But between 1910 and 1970, Southerners began moving West in search of jobs, according to historian Darren Dochuk (2010). By 1969, Dochuk says, “California claimed more southern residents than Arkansas.” It’s no wonder that some of the most popular fundamentalist denominations were founded during the early 1900s in California, including the Church of God in Christ in1907 and the Assemblies of God in 1914. Both of these organizations were born out of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles.
Southerners began building some of the first mega churches in Southern California and found political alibis in politicians such as Ronald Reagan. In the late 1960s, when SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, began to provide sex education to high schools in Anaheim, California, it riled the very powerful and vast force of evangelical parents who discovered they had a voice.
“Love, Christian fellowship, communalism, belief in miracles, experiential faith, the expectation of Christ’s return: these were merely the outlying pillars of the Jesus movement’s faith that circled around the center column of belief in the fundamental importance of evangelism,” according to Dochuk. The fundamentalist message grew stronger, more political and eventually entered mainstream politics, as detailed in the book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Princeton Professor, Kevin Kruse (2015).
Christianity has been an infusion of concepts since its inception. The truth is that we know little more about Jesus than he lived and died, according to historian, Dr. Reza Aslan. Even that is fuzzy. The concept of who Jesus was and what he stood for has morphed over time. Scholar Claudia Setzer noted, “The images of Jesus throughout history are as varied as the people who have embraced him.”
The problem with religion and politics and that belief is a powerful motivator. It makes us feel and see things that are not necessarily reality. Dr. Bruce Hood, a psychologist who specializes in developmental cognitive neuroscience, explains that our brains are hardwired to organize sensory information and establish cause and effect. “This same wiring system, however, leaves us liable to accept less than scientific explanations for the unexplainable, whether it is magic, the notion of a sixth sense or a belief in luck,” he said. “No amount of education is going to counter what a person believes is intuitively correct” (emphasis mine).
Havoc is caused when belief gets confused with truth. Kim Davis and her ilk are convinced they are doing the right thing and that God is on their side. Their “evidence” is based on the way they interpret the Bible, a relatively new interpretation, which has emerged over the last hundred years or so.
Beliefs are not in and of themselves dangerous. Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses is illegal and inconvenient, but her defiance only showcases her ignorance. She embarrasses most of the Christians I know and I’ve read a number of comments from former Huckabee supporters who have parted ways with him.
Where it gets crazy and dangerous is from people like Theodore Shoebat who take their religious zeal to the next level stating, “[Sodomites, atheists, feminists and Muslims] should be told to leave their wicked ways under coercion, and if that does not work, then death and strong suppression is the only solution.”
As much as some fundamentalists want to separate from Shoebat and statements like the ones he’s made, those statements belong to American Christian fundamentalist theology. It is the next step in the process when the Gospel of fear they believe doesn’t create the theocracy they feel they should have.
The “war on Christians” touted in right-wing politics is unsubstantiated. In fact, the New York Times reported that 70.6% of adults in the United States identify as Christian. The perceived “war” is a backlash against fundamentalist theology, which is based on nothing more than a misguided belief that the fundamentalist version of Christianity is the right one. But which version is the “right one” is anybody’s guess.
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