Monday, May 03, 2004

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism: A Primer

Old Post: This is a continuation of the discussion I started below.

I'll admit, I'm not an expert on the evangelical and fundamentalist movements, although I have gone to churches of both varieties. This rather long post gives my insider's view, which tends to be narrower than that of someone who's really studied things. I'd appreciate any thoughts or corrections.

Now that I've broached the subject in my previous post, I ought to go more in-depth. Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are both movements, and like most movements they are ill-defined. While there are leaders in these movements, and organizations within them, there is no hierarchy, no one who really says who's right and who's wrong. You can't divide the movements along denominational lines. There are some denominations in which there are few evangelicals, some in which most members are evangelicals, and some which are evenly divided. It is sometimes fair to describe a local church as evangelical or not, as evangelicals do tend to congregate, but not always. Nor is evangelicalism exclusively Protestant, as there are evangelicals in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Broadly speaking, evangelicals believe that there is a God, that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Bible is His Word to us, that human beings are fallen and sinful and need the forgiveness God offers in Jesus (receiving this forgiveness and dedicating yourself to God is often called salvation--being saved from your sins by God), and that it is our mission to introduce people to him. A more specific list of evangelical beliefs can be found in a statement of faith used by one of the evangelical organizations, such as this one used by MIT's Graduate Christian Fellowship, which is affiliated with Intervarsity, the US chapter of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

From this list, evangelicals believe in:
  • The only true God, the almighty Creator of all things, existing eternally in three persons -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- full of love and glory.
  • The unique divine inspiration, entire trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible.
  • The value and dignity of all people: created in God's image to live in love and holiness, but alienated from God and each other because of our sin and guilt, and justly subject to God's wrath.
  • Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, who lived as a perfect example, who assumed the judgment due sinners by dying in our place, and who was bodily raised from the dead and ascended as Savior and Lord.
  • Justification by God's grace to all who repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
  • The indwelling presence and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all believers a new life and a new calling to obedient service.
  • The unity of all believers in Jesus Christ, manifest in worshiping and witnessing churches, making disciples throughout the world.
  • The victorious reign and future personal return of Jesus Christ, who will judge all people with justice and mercy, giving over the unrepentant to eternal condemnation but receiving the redeemed into eternal life.

Now all of these beliefs are orthodox Christian beliefs, the same as those stated in the creeds and catechisms used by Christians of various denominations for centuries. The only thing really separating evangelicals from the mainstream of orthodox Christian belief (many of the mainstream churches are no longer very orthodox) is a strong emphasis on evangelism, of telling others about Jesus and inviting them to become Christians. It's not as if there's no precedent for evangelism in the Christian church, but it can be argued that it has atrophied over the years when Western countries were predominantly Christian, and witnessing left to professional ministers and missionaries.

That the foundational beliefs of evangelicals are so few allows there to be a wide array of different beliefs among the members, concerning such hotly debated topics as infant baptism, transubstantiation, pre- vs. post- millenialism, free-will vs. predestination, et cetera. In general, evangelicals accept that faithful Christians can have differing beliefs about these things, and are tolerant of these differences.

Fundamentalism is also a movement, but a much smaller one. Most fundamentalists would agree with the statement of faith above, but they'd want it stronger in some areas, and they would add a few points. Fundamentalist beliefs fall under the broad umbrella of evangelicalism, so that you can find evangelicals who would agree with fundamentalists on their doctrinal beliefs. However, fundamentalists can be intolerant of those evangelicals who disagree with those beliefs, not considering them faithful Christians, if they consider them Christians at all. A few of the doctrines in which fundamentalists believe and about which evangelicals disagree:
  1. The inerrancy of Scripture. While evangelicals believe that the Bible is the Word of God, has authority, and should be obeyed, fundamentalists believe that it is also inerrant, without mistake (at least as originally written), and that it should be taken as literally as possible, which leads fundamentalists to reject evolution, which evangelicals may or may not do.
  2. Being born again. This is a phrase used by fundamentalists to describe the conversion experience, where someone prays to God to become a Christian and receives salvation. Evangelicals do not deny the legitimacy of the conversion experience, but many of them consider salvation to be more of a process than a one time step. They tend to use the phrase "born again" to describe this process (the phrase is used by Jesus in John 3), although its association with the narrow fundamentalist definition has discouraged its use among evangelicals.
  3. Pre-millenialism. Here I usually get bogged down in the technical terms, but pre-millenialism refers to one particular view of the book of Revelation and what the Second Coming of Jesus will look like. Both evangelicals and fundamentalists believe in the Second Coming. Fundamentalists have some rather specific beliefs about what it will be like. Some evangelicals agree with these beliefs, some do not. In general, evangelicals feel less certain about the details than fundamentalists, and tend to put less emphasis on Jesus's return.

So what do these evangelicals and fundamentalists believe politically? That varies. Since they both put strong emphasis on the authority of the Bible, they tend to oppose abortion and the homosexual movement. I should clarify about the homosexual movement, as evangelicals tend to be more tolerant towards homosexuals than fundamentalists. Since the Bible teaches that homosexuality is a sin, evangelicals cannot accept it as an alternate lifestyle. However, to them, homosexuality is just one sin among many, and we should love homosexuals while encouraging them to repent. What they oppose specifically is the normalization of homosexuality, of saying that there's nothing wrong with it and there must be something wrong with those who say there is. Thus, while they won't be up in arms about gays in government or the military, they will oppose them having leadership positions within the Church (the same as they would oppose an unrepentant adulterer in a Church leadership position) or redefining marriage to include male-male and female-female couples. There is not complete agreement even on these things in the evangelical movement, however. Fundamentalists tend to take a much stronger line on homosexuality, although they too will say you should hate the sin but love the sinner. (There are some who hate both, much to the shame of both movements.)

On other conservative issues, evangelicals have less agreement. There is no evangelical consensus about the welfare state, immigration, affirmative action, gun-control, the war on terror, etc. They may believe one way or the other, and they may use their religious beliefs to inform their politics, but as disagreement over doctrines are allowed, so are disagreements over politics. Their political beliefs on these matters can be more accurately predicted by other demographic factors than their evangelicalism. In the last evangelical conference I went to, in January 2003, most of the speakers were against the upcoming war in Iraq. The conference was for graduate students and academics, and most of the speakers were foreign visitors, which turned out to be a good indicator of their political positions. The church I attended in Boston was rather ambivalent on the Iraq war, and even a bit ambivalent toward the war in Afghanistan. Sometimes I think the reason evangelicalism is associated with conservatism is because it is strongest in the South, which is strongly conservative as well as strongly evangelical. [Addendum: This leads to significant overlap, obviously.]

Evangelicals believe in the separation of church and state, not because they worry about what would happen to the state if the church had too much influence--for the most part, they think the state would be better off--but because they think that the church suffers when it has too much secular power. Power brings pride, opportunism, and indifference to God, all things to be avoided by the church.

Fundamentalists tend to be more conservative. Partly, this comes from their narrower range of doctrinal beliefs, which leads to narrower political beliefs, but partly it's because they don't believe as strongly in the separation of church and state. Oh, they're not looking to forcefully convert people as some liberals seem to believe, but they see the same benefit to the state from a bit of Christian guidance that the evangelicals do, and they don't see it harming the church to provide it. They also tend to view the Republicans with some suspicion, as they aren't as open to compromise as evangelicals, which is what political parties do.

What does all this tell us? For one, if Democrats weren't so strongly in the grip of the abortion and homosexual lobbies, they'd have a pretty good chance at getting more of the evangelical vote. Maybe then they'd stop demonizing evangelicals, which is what is now driving off what they do have of it. Second, evangelicals have diverse political and doctrinal beliefs, and shouldn't be lumped with fundamentalists, whose beliefs are narrower.

Update: I fixed a few typos, and dealt with Blogger’s mangling of this post. A few stylistic changes to clarify, but nothing substantive.

New Post: I respond to a couple of comments above.

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