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By In Culture, Politics, Theology

What’s in a Name? Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and the Fickleness of Labels

A good friend of mine in graduate school was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A confessionally Reformed Christian, he admitted to me that he sometimes liked to call himself a fundamentalist just to see how others would respond. Though we were on the same page in so many ways, I personally didn’t think I could go quite that far.

Nevertheless, I was raised in what might well be regarded as the first fundamentalist denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Established in 1936 by John Gresham Machen and others, it grew out of the controversies of the 1920s and ’30s in the former Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Confessional liberals, who elevated personal experience and rationalism above both the Bible and the Westminster Standards, gradually moved into the ascendancy, with the more conservative elements increasingly on the defensive. These trends had already begun in the post-Civil War era, gaining speed around the turn of the 20th century and achieving dominance after the end of the Great War.

As a result, a concerted effort was begun to forge an alliance among confessional Christians in several protestant denominations, culminating in the publication between 1910 and 1915 of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, consisting of 90 essays bound together in several volumes. The 64 authors were a diverse lot, including B. B. Warfield of Princeton Seminary; C. I. Scofield, whose Scofield Reference Bible disseminated dispensationalism far beyond its original home in the Plymouth Brethren; the Rev. William Caven of Knox College, Toronto; the Rev. James Orr of the United Free Church College in Glasgow; Canon G. Osborne Troop of what was then called the Church of England in the Dominion of Canada; and many more besides.

The project was edited by A. C. Dixon, Louis Meyer and Reuben Archer Torrey, a close associate of evangelist Dwight L. Moody, with financial backing coming from oil tycoon Lyman Stewart, who also co-founded the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, later Biola University.

While the term fundamentalism is nowadays almost always used in a negative sense to dismiss a particular group as narrow and ingrown, the original fundamentalist movement was a broad effort to defend the fundamentals of the faith, such as the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible, and the unity of Scripture against the fragmenting onslaughts of historical criticism. Any movement bringing together Anglicans, Episcopalians, Reformed Episcopalians, confessional Presbyterians and dispensationalists can scarcely be labelled narrow and exclusive. In fact, the original fundamentalist movement, like its neo-evangelical successor after the Second World War, would be better characterized by this well-known maxim: “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Over the decades many people were in the habit of describing a congregation or denomination as “fundamental” if it adhered to these fundamentals of the faith shared by all Christians throughout the centuries.

This effort to build a broad coalition of believers from a variety of traditions generally avoided such potentially divisive doctrines as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, free will and the millennial views (Revelation 20). These were judged less significant than the need of the hour, which was to confront head on the growing secularism in the churches. This makes it somewhat ironic that, a century later, the word fundamentalism is associated with a variety of unlikable groups, including outright terrorists.

Then came the evangelicals. After the Scopes trial of 1925, fundamentalism came to be associated with obscurantism, though a few groups jealously held on to the label, including the independent Baptist congregation where my mother came to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in her late teens. Carl F. H. Henry and the Rev. Billy Graham were associated with this new movement, and Christianity Today became its flagship publication. So powerful was this evangelicalism after 1945 that it would eventually come to supplant the rapidly fading mainline protestant denominations four decades later. Evangelicalism as a label had the virtue of plugging into more than one historic movement, including the 18th-century evangelical revivals in the Church of England, the Wesleyan Methodist movement, continental European pietism and, of course, the Reformation of the 16th century. However, its chief defects were its lack of a robust ecclesiology and its emphasis on personal experience, which, while otherwise laudable, would eventually erode the lines between evangelicalism and liberalism, especially after the turn of the 21st century.

Many of us were proud to claim the evangelical label, because of the obvious reference to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (As Gus Portokalos would tell us, evangelion is a Greek word!) However, increasing numbers of Christians are now coming to reject the evangelical label, because of its association with a certain political commitment. Indeed, those still willing to wear the label are troubled that so many of their co-religionists seem to rank political ideology above the obvious ethical implications of their own faith. Whether these are genuine evangelicals or merely “court evangelicals” is subject to dispute. Wherever the truth lies, some high profile Christians have decided they can no longer describe themselves as evangelical.

It is true, of course, that some labels have been discredited through their abuse, making it virtually impossible for right-thinking people to wear them. (How many good and respectable people were sympathetic to national socialism before 1933?) However, I myself have become wary of discarding an otherwise perfectly good label for fear of association with those people, whoever they might be. Given that we are all sinners standing in need of God’s grace, we might do better to look into our own hearts to determine whether we are worthy to be called by the name of Jesus Christ and his gospel of salvation. On our own strength we are not worthy, of course. That is precisely why we flee to Christ to find our true identity. It cannot be found in political parties or ethnic subcultures. It cannot be found in our own desires and aspirations, which, however legitimate they might otherwise be, are always caught up in the cosmic struggle between sin and redemption.

Labelling is a fickle enterprise. People often label others to discredit them. We label ourselves and expect people to respect those labels, which, of course, they may not. Often the labels do not endure for the long term, eventually being replaced by others that will serve for a time but probably not forever. I am personally willing to call myself a fundamentalist in the original sense, an evangelical, a Reformed Christian or even—tongue-in-cheek of course—a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist. But above all I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and it is by his name over all other names that I wish at last to be called, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

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By In Politics

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms

In Part 2 we examined the implications of Kuyperian and liberal pluralisms for ecclesiology, that is, our understanding of the nature and authority of the institutional church. We noted, in particular, that liberalism, following John Locke, is compelled to reduce it to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals.

There are two implications to this liberal move. First, it is incapable of accounting for structural differences among an assortment of communities. State and church are not essentially different from the garden club or the Boy Scouts. Whatever differences appear to the casual observer can be ascribed to the collective wills of the individuals who make them up. Proponents are persuaded that, even if different groups of citizens operate out of divergent comprehensive doctrines, they must be made to look beneath these commitments to what are believed to be the raw data of human experience that bind all persons together. These data are, of course, the constituent individuals themselves.

Every community can be easily understood as a collection of individuals who choose to be part of it for reasons peculiar to each member. There is nothing unusual about this approach, the liberal insists. Michael Ignatieff believes himself justified in asserting that liberal individualism is not peculiarly western or historically conditioned; it is human and universal: “It’s just a fact about us as a species: we frame purposes individually, in ways that other creatures do not.” Therefore if the claims of groups and individuals come into conflict, as they inevitably must, Ignatieff confidently concludes that “individual rights should prevail,” despite the contrary claims of nationalists, socialists and many conservatives of a communitarian bent.

The second implication flows logically from the first. If liberals claim that individualism is simply human and universal, then this implies that their own worldview must be privileged above any that denies this. Liberal tolerance is thus conditioned by a worldview that explicitly denies that it is a worldview, and thus finds no difficulty positioning itself as a supposedly neutral arbiter of the competing claims of the other alternative worldviews.

Yet there are those who object to this sleight of hand. Karl Marx, for one, famously denies that such neutrality is possible and argues that political institutions, like all other human agents, always act in behalf of a particular economic class, even if they claim impartiality. There is, in short, no neutrality in the global class struggle. Liberation theologians in Latin America and elsewhere refer to this lack of neutrality as a “preferential option for the poor,” an oft-used expression that does not sit well with the liberal emphasis on the autonomous freely-choosing individual.

However, one need hardly be a Marxist or a liberation theologian to recognize what is at work here. James Kalb points to what he calls the tyrannical character of liberalism, despite its proponents’ undoubtedly well-intended pleas for tolerance of religious differences. The liberal strategy for tolerance requires that the particular claims of traditional religions be softened to more manageable private lifestyle choices. “Even religion, to be legitimate, must transform itself so that it simply restates established egalitarian, rationalist, consumerist, and careerist values.” Moreover, “No religion can claim superiority over any other religion or over irreligion. Each must understand itself as an optional pursuit, and thus as not a religion at all.” Accordingly, the authoritative claims of church institutions will be tolerated only in so far as these institutions accept the norms of a liberal society. The church can continue to claim authority in some fashion over its members, but it cannot do so in a way that might be interpreted to negate the voluntary principle. No one has to belong to a church, after all, and those denominations emphasizing individual choice and free will tend to fit more comfortably into a society governed by a dominating liberal paradigm.

By contrast, an obviously hierarchical church body with a strong confessional identity may be seen as at least potentially disloyal, as was the case with the Roman Catholic Church in nineteenth-century America. As late as 1960, presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy felt compelled to assure the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he would not be taking orders from the Pope in the conduct of his office. Similarly, in his famous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame, New York Governor Mario Cuomo explicitly stated that his belief in his church’s teachings on abortion was a private belief with no bearing on his pursuit of public policy.

Of course, it would be unwise to state categorically that all professed liberals everywhere necessarily follow a consistent individualist approach to human communities and religious diversity. With some spectacular exceptions, most people are generally better than their ideological visions would make them if they were to follow them consistently. Remaining open to correction by the real world is key here.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny the historic tendency of liberalism in its various permutations to downplay the significance of nonvoluntary community and to individualize and relativize the claims of traditional religious worldviews. We see this in the increasing trend in the western world to reconfigure marriage as a mere private contract between (thus far!) two persons and to deny any intrinsic structure that might negate this contractual status and even to stigmatize those who adhere to a “thicker” understanding of the marriage covenant. We see it too in judicial efforts to redefine the limited personal liberties found in the English Bill of Rights and its successors (to, e.g., freedom of speech) as a more expansive and normless individual autonomy (e.g., freedom of expression) whose only limit is conceived in terms of John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

However, Mill’s harm principle, despite its superficial libertarian flavour, has totalitarian tendencies in so far as it is suspicious of those communities bound by standards unrelated to this principle. Liberalism thus negates the very pluralism it claims to uphold. This suggests that another approach is needed.

Part 4: The Kuyperian Alternative

Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

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By In Politics

Abraham Kuyper and the Pluralist Claims of the Liberal Project, Part 1: Liberalism and Two Kinds of Diversity

Although it can be misleading to seek the meaning of commonly-used words and expressions in their etymological origins, in the case of liberalism, the linguistic connection with liberty is all too obvious. The promise of liberty is an attractive one that holds out the possibility of living our lives as we see fit, free from constraints imposed from without. We simply prefer to have our own way and not to have to defer to the wills of others.

Yet even the most extensive account of liberty must recognize that it needs to be subject to appropriate limits if we are not to descend into a chaotic state of continual conflict, which English philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably labelled a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

Here I propose to compare two approaches to liberty, viz., those of liberalism and of the principled pluralism associated with the heirs of the great Dutch statesman and polymath, Abraham Kuyper. Although each claims to advance liberty, I will argue that the Kuyperian alternative is superior to the liberal because it is based on a more accurate appraisal of human nature, society and the place of community within it.

Arising in the context of an early modern repudiation of ancient, and seemingly outmoded, customs and mores, liberalism proposed to anchor human community in rational principles oriented around the self-interest of sovereign individuals. From Locke to Rawls the liberal project has sought to liberate public life from the particularities of the “thick” accounts of reality rooted in the ancient religious traditions. Why? Because these had apparently proven hopelessly divisive in previous centuries, engendering nearly continual warfare from Luther’s initial efforts at reforming the church 500 years ago to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Better, it was assumed, to anchor political order, not in a highly disputable claim of divine revelation, but in principles capable of being affirmed by all. Such principles would have to be rooted in a rationality whose only underlying assumption would be that individuals pursue their own interests as they themselves understand them.

Liberalism is thus more than just about liberty. Even in its mildest form it assumes that community is rooted in the collective wills of its individual members, thereby privileging the voluntary principle, that is, the belief that human flourishing depends on the free assent of sovereign individuals to their multiple obligations. The liberal project represents an effort to address the central dilemma of human life famously summed up by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the following maxim: “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.”

Our very survival as a species in the face of hostile forces of nature depends on our ability and willingness to co-operate with each other for common purposes. If we do not do so, we are doomed at best to poverty and at worst to death. Nevertheless, in so far as we are interdependent, our individual wills are necessarily constrained by the rules we draw up to facilitate this co-operation. This is the paradox that Rousseau tried to address in his own proposals for political order. Although Rousseau, in his Social Contract, took these ideas in a superficially liberal direction, his recipe has definite totalitarian implications, thereby threatening to crush the very diversity that makes politics necessary and indeed possible.

According to the late British political scientist Sir Bernard Crick, politics is all about the peaceful conciliation of diversity within a particular unit of rule. What is meant by this diversity? Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen identify three basic types: (1) directional or spiritual diversity, viz., the plurality of ultimate beliefs that bind particular communities but are potentially divisive of the larger body politic; (2) contextual diversity, viz., the diversity of customs and mores that come from people living together in local communities that are relatively isolated from each other; and (3) associational diversity, which might better be described as societal pluriformity, viz., the plethora of communal formations characterizing a mature differentiated society. While liberalism represents a longstanding effort to address all three kinds of diversity, for our purposes we shall examine its relationship to numbers one and three, viz., directional diversity and societal pluriformity. Although these two kinds of diversity are logically distinct, any effort to address one inevitably affects the other as well.

An obvious way in which these two types of diversity intersect can be seen in the often vexing church-state issue. If one is an unbeliever, one is unlikely to accord the gathered church a distinct status apart from the state except as a voluntary association of like-minded believers. In denying the authority of the gathered church institution, the political order formed out of this belief will nearly inevitably subordinate it to the political authority of the state, along with a variety of other voluntary associations, such as the Boy Scouts, the local garden club and little league baseball. This, of course, has profound implications for the protection of religious freedom, which is thought to belong only to individuals, and not to the institutions that have shaped them. A liberal worldview privileging individual rights, a particular manifestation of directional diversity, has effectively denied societal pluriformity, or Mouw and Griffioen’s associational diversity.

Crick believes that ordinary politics requires the tolerance of multiple truth claims. While he is undoubtedly empirically correct in his observation, we must be wary of attaching a normative character to this reality because it may effectively mask the extent to which a particular conception of church-state relations is itself rooted in a religiously-based worldview. And, if so, we will need to be prepared to admit that not all pluralisms are created equal.

Part 2: The Church as Voluntary Association

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