With the publication of this article on the nexus between Orthodoxy and Protestant fundamentalism in America we are delighted to introduce the author as a new editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue.
“A fundamentalist,” Jerry Falwell famously quipped, “is an evangelical who is angry about something.”
This isn’t a bad definition, either. Scholars have had a lot to say about Protestant fundamentalism over the past several decades, but Falwell’s simple statement remains strikingly relevant, appearing in just about every academic work on the subject since George Marsden’s groundbreaking Fundamentalism and American Culture was first published in 1980. Back then, Marsden was essentially pleading for his fellow scholars to pay attention to fundamentalism, to include it in their analyses of American religion, to not write it off as an oddity. In 2018, many scholars (myself included) would argue that fundamentalism has defined post-World War II American religion more than any other movement. How things change in such a relatively short time!
At this point you might be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with Orthodoxy?” My answer to you is, “More than you think.” I am by no means a theologian. I am not a scholar of the Orthodox Church. I am, however, an Orthodox Christian and a historian who focuses on 20th-century American religion. I study fundamentalists and evangelicals. My purpose in writing for Orthodoxy in Dialogue is to make connections between Orthodoxy and the broader religious culture in the US, a culture dominated almost entirely by evangelicalism.
Falwell distinguished fundamentalists from the rest of the evangelical fold by emphasizing their anger. Today, the defining line between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” has blurred to the point of often becoming indistinguishable. Some still proudly label themselves as fundamentalist, but the movement has now nestled rather comfortably beneath the wide net of evangelicalism, sharing the same beliefs and working toward the same goals. Their evangelicalism is rooted in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, first and foremost. The Bible is literal, it is the rock upon which their entire faith rests. Alongside biblical literalism is the belief in the end times, of the imminent return of Christ to Earth to raise the faithful into heaven and usher in the millennium.
Fundamentalism also places emphasis on being “traditional.” They see their faith as a return to genuine Christianity, to the faith of the Apostles and the early Church. Evangelicalism itself is rooted in this belief, stripping away all the excesses imposed on Christianity over the centuries and going back to the beginning. They use terms like “old-time religion” and proudly base their beliefs on an interpretation of the Bible that eschews liturgy and ritual. Fundamentalism is about certainty, about accepting Christ and knowing He will be back any moment, about being immovable in the face of doubt. The Bible provides all answers; it is here as the one and only guide humanity will ever need.
Their love of tradition pairs perfectly with the conservative social movements and politics that have become intricately intertwined with evangelicalism in the US, yearning for an idealized American past in which everyone believed in God and country. It offers a way to make sense of the often chaotic world around us, to back away from change and to cloak oneself in the comfort of tradition. But fundamentalism is a new faith, born in the earliest decades of the 20th century. It defines its tradition by what it is against, whether that’s modern science or gay marriage or ecumenicism. When inquirers from these churches come to the Orthodox Church, they are seeking out tradition, yet it is a tradition which they are often surprised to find because it looks so radically different from what they have known. Our tradition isn’t cloaked in the American flag, nor is it practiced through conservative political activism preached from the pulpit. Our tradition isn’t about how many children we have or what party we vote for. Orthodoxy doesn’t define itself by what it is against.
In the sincerely held desire for many American Christians who are drawn into Orthodoxy to hark back to the ancient Church and its traditions, American Orthodoxy inadvertently gets remade over and over again into the vision of Orthodoxy that disaffected evangelicals want to see. This does not, of course, mean that Orthodox churches in the US should suddenly shut their doors to potential converts from within the evangelical fold. What priests and parishioners alike should be doing instead is understanding the needs of potential evangelical catechumens, as well as the inextricable draw of a “traditional” Christianity that so often brings them to us.
Those of us who came into Orthodoxy years ago from evangelicalism tend to forget what it feels like to be an inquirer, the belief systems that shaped the way you look at the world and at Christianity in general, and the goals you initially had when you first sought out the Church. We get so used to “being Orthodox” that a visitor fresh from a local Baptist church with a host of questions to ask you about your faith seems almost foreign. The most common phrase heard in these instances is “different.” We’re different. We do things differently. Our Liturgy feels different. Our churches smell different. All of this can be extremely alluring to inquiring evangelicals who might sense within that difference the potential for an immovable, absolutist dedication to “tradition” that feels familiar to them.
What we must remember is that our difference, that thing which draws new inquirers to us, also makes us vulnerable to some of the more unsavory elements within American Christianity today. The extensive coverage Orthodoxy in Dialogue has given to the rise of “alt-Right” and white supremacist ideology seeping into the Church is the most alarming of these trends. Orthodoxy is hardly alone in this problem, but our difference, the appearance of “tradition” we offer, makes us a particularly enticing target, and the longer we wait to explicitly and uncompromisingly denounce these movements as un-Orthodox, the more this problem will fester within parishes throughout the country.
It is easy for Orthodox Christians in the US to sit back and convert-shame. Those who have been Orthodox their whole lives, or at least close to it, have a tendency to blame all the problems within the Church on converts, especially converts from evangelical traditions. Whether you were born Orthodox or not, however, matters little. If you grew up in America, you see the world through distinctly evangelical eyes. It is a belief system deeply engrained in everything we do, from our politics to our popular culture, from our views of race and class to our understanding of the rest of the world beyond our borders. To be an Orthodox Christian in the midst of this is a precarious position indeed, and each of us attempts each day to balance that dichotomy as best we can. But we meet the challenges most effectively not by eschewing “the West” and walling ourselves off as bastions of old-world traditionalism in a sea of heresy. To do that is to become our own unique brand of fundamentalist. Instead, we should be making a concerted effort to understand that the culture in which we all live has been shaped by evangelicalism for generations. It is not something to be ignored, lest we become a church comprised largely of parishes filled with reactionaries seeking refuge from whatever modern evils we fear most.
The Orthodox Church is not fundamentalist. It is not a refutation of anything, it is not built on correcting anyone else’s Christianity. An Orthodox Christian is not, and should never be, simply “angry about something.”
Kari Edwards is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Mississippi and a new editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. She holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Tennessee and an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. Her doctoral studies focus on 20th-century American religious history, with an emphasis on fundamentalism, debates over religion and science, and the role of religion in US politics. Her dissertation will comprise a religious history of the Space Race. Baptized in the Orthodox Church at the age of 17 in 2002, she attends St. Maria of Paris Orthodox Church (OCA) in Cleveland TN with her husband.
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