|CONNECTING THE DOTS: Fundamentalism's Revisionist History by Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell|
Evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants have their own version of American history as well as of human history and the cosmos, facts and science to the contrary not withstanding. Both are being pushed zealously by the political religious right, and most Americans are unaware of the strange ideology that motivates their efforts. Here is the back story.
The founders of the New England colonies were non-conformist Protestants escaping the religious and civil tyranny exercised by the combined dominance of the British crown and the Anglican Church. It is sad to note how quickly they established their own brand of religious intolerance once they were in control on these shores. These Puritan dissenters closely adhered to scripture but were "benign literalists" in that they used a very wide variety of interpretive styles while assuming the scriptures' essential truth. They did not, however, believe in the "literal inerrancy" of the scriptures in which every word and phrase had to be accepted as the inspired and literal truth. That doctrine came much later, and the story of its development is central to our current dramatic political and religious divisions.
The framers of the U. S. Constitution, 150 years after the first colonies were established, had seen quite enough of religious entanglement and domination in government. They still smarted from the historic religious persecution and from fines and confiscation of their own property in old England, and they were frustrated by government favors and support of dominant religious groups in New England and Virginia. Hence, they specifically and intentionally made the first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution a guarantee of the separation of government and religion. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, there is a "wall of separation between church and state." In addition, the letter of George Washington to the synagogue in Newport, RI (1780), and James Madison's message on the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty (1785) make their insistence on the separation of religion and government very clear.
The colonial founders can be seen as evangelical Protestants seeking to establish a Christian nation, but the founders of the nation most assuredly were not. Evangelical claims to the contrary are pure fiction.
Evangelical Protestantism continued to be culturally dominant for another century before it came apart at the seams. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species was published in England in 1859 but was not initially broadly noticed in America. The nation's focus was on the chaos created by the Fugitive Slave Law, the fracturing of the country over slavery and abolition, and the eventual Civil War. Darwin's theory was noted in academic faculties of biology and theology, in most cases with fascinated openness, but it went largely unnoticed in popular culture. In the decades following the war, however, evolution became a major issue.
Clearly, the Genesis story of creation in six days, a generally assumed historical account, could not be taken literally if evolution was accepted. Biology was liberated; theology, however, was plunged into controversy. Some religious leaders embraced Darwin's theory and saw that it opened a new theological perspective on the earth's origins and on any understanding of the Creator. In 1885 Henry Ward Beecher, probably the most notable preacher of his day, published Evolution and Religion, in which he extolled the new theory and declared it entirely compatible with religion.
Others reacted with alarm. In their eyes, if one cannot accept the literal and historical truth of the Genesis story it calls the truth of the entire Bible into question. It appeared to be a slippery slope to unbelief, and the more the literalists defended the Bible against evolution, the louder they proclaimed its literal inerrancy. In 1909, 300,000 copies of Fundamentals, a book written by notable leaders were sent to churches nationwide. In it one of the five fundamental doctrines which a Christian must believe was that the scriptures are "entirely inerrant." The separation of the two theological perspectives, one embracing evolution as liberating for theology and the other rejecting it as false and atheistic, has continued to the present.
The origin of today's fundamentalist church bodies and their phalanx of non-profit advocacy organizations can be traced to that late 19th and early 20th century controversy. But, one particular branch has led the attack on the teaching of evolution: millennialists. The members of millennialist church groups anxiously and eagerly await the second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven at the end of history when the dead will be raised and God's Reign established. They reason, quite rightly, that if people stop believing in a miraculous six day creation, why would they continue to believe in a miraculous, apocalyptic end to history through divine intervention and Christ's return? The more that fundamentalists insisted on scriptural inerrancy and its historical accuracy, the more they came to embrace the prophecy of the apocalypse. Another of the five Fundamentals was Jesus' "bodily return to rule and to judge."
In addition, if these events, so graphically described in the Bible, are rejected, then the rigid, male-dominant "divine order" of family and society would also be in jeopardy. What was and is at stake for fundamentalists theologically is their biblical literalism and their peculiar dogmas of a six day creation, male dominance and the divine social order, and the redemption of the righteous at Jesus' return. What is at stake personally is their children's faith in those dogmas.
So, they attack and seek to undermine the public schools where their children are taught the full spectrum of biology, including evolution, as well as a view of human history, U. S. history and democratic society that fundamentalists reject. They advocate, rather, for vouchers for children to attend non-public schools or be home schooled using curricula that reflect their own contrary views. They also have succeeded in promoting charter schools in many of which these ideological versions of creation, history and social order are taught.
So, why are these science denying, history contorting fundamentalists so seemingly successful? They have entered an unholy alliance with political conservatives who also resist every sign of movement toward a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation which honors its commitment to equality. It is hard to imagine conservative high rollers knocking on doors in a political campaign, much less ascribing to the fundamentalist's theology. But, the religious fundamentalists don't mind those efforts at all; it's their modus operandi.
Together the two have advocated their false history of a Christian America as a rationale for their ideology. They correctly see the First Amendment's separation of church and state as a huge impediment to that claim, so they deny its clear meaning. Fundamentalist celebrity historian, David Barton, has made a career of misquoting Jefferson. His books have been condemned by academic historians and withdrawn by publishers, so contrived are his assertions. The religious right has also attempted to resurrect the 19th Century doctrine of America's "manifest destiny" from the dust bin of history in the form of "American exceptionalism." It is new terminology with which to justify their latter day xenophobic, hyper nationalism.
This religious-political right-wing coalition has attracted many people who resist and/or are frightened by society's rapid change and who affirm some or all of their literalist religion. Sufficient political power has been gained in some states and in Congress that they are now proceeding to enact their regressive views, impose them on the rest of us, and have us pay for them with our taxes. Their policies are resulting in the undermining of public education, rolling back hard-won rights for women and minorities, and seeking privileged treatment for themselves and their financial backers. Their agenda constitutes a frontal assault on historic values of our nation, and particularly on the First Amendment.
But, there is good news: rigid dogmatism can and usually does eventually collapse of its own self-evident hollowness. We should nudge the process along by unmasking its falsehoods.
Rev. Dr. Rollin O. Russell
Hillsborough, North Carolina