Insiders Look at Fundamentalism

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 18, 1981, pp. 1195-1197. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


There is an intensity in the power struggle in reactionary Protestantism and the dilemmas of leadership within that faction. The many groups within this struggle are competing for a finite cohort of American prospects, a certain number of millions who make up the outer limits of their market potential.

A new book, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon: The Resurgence of Conservative Christianity (Doubleday-Galilee, 269 pp., $13.95), reveals the intensity of the power struggle in reactionary Protestantism and the dilemmas of leadership within that faction. Authors Ed Dobson and Ed Hindson, professors at Liberty Baptist College in Virginia, base their reasonably balanced effort to define and locate fundamentalism on a wide reading of secondary sources and present a convenient summary as well as a campaign document.

Definitions first. Fundamentalism, "the religious phenomenon of the twentieth century," is made up of "the militant and faithful defenders of biblical orthodoxy." It is "really traditional and conservative Christian orthodoxy." Also, "Fundamentalism is the spiritual and intellectual descendant of the nonconformist Free Church movement," which is "a very definite strain within the history of Christianity," and displays "a definite set of basic principles held in common opposition to main-line Christianity."

This historical case is full of problems. Certainly Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant mainline Christians would not yield to a 20th century innovation a patent on "biblical" or ‘traditional and conservative" orthodoxy. Nor would they let pass unnoticed the fact that no two of the 19 exemplars cited by Dobson and Hindson in fundamentalism’s "definite strain" would have accepted each other as fully orthodox. To make that point I must list the antecedents they cite: Marcionites, Montanists, Novatians, Donatists, Paulicians, Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, Hussites, Savonarolans, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Baptists, Pietists, Methodists, Brethren, Plymouth Brethren, Quakers, Disciples.

What common view of the Second Coming, what central theory of the atonement, what view of the sacraments, what grounding for scriptural authority unites these groups? Of course, none does. The authors, therefore, have to pick one of these 19 as being the most orthodox, localist and Free. Being Baptists, they choose the Baptists, of whom, they say, there are 25 million in 100 countries and more than 100 (often competing) jurisdictions and bodies. "The bulk of today’s Fundamentalists are certainly Baptists, but the majority of Baptists are not necessarily Fundamentalists." That formula leaves us with somewhere between 12.5 million and 25 million true fundamentalists in the whole world. As Dobson and Hind-son make clear, they are fighting over their share of the conservative-minded market on Protestant soil.

Their main American rival is the much larger cluster of evangelicals who, in the views of Dobson and Hindson, seem to have had their chance and blown it. Usually they are sneering and dismissive about evangelicals. But they would also like to woo the more "militant and faithful" into the fundamentalist camp. And they must admit that on paper and purely cognitively, so far as the content of fundamental doctrines is concerned, most evangelicals have these "right."

Like the American Negroes who adopted the word "black" from the enemy and flung it back, or the feminists who accept "witch" and "bitch" as badges of honor, Dobson and Hindson are in a mood and movement that take fundamentalism back as a banner for pride and boasting and wave it in the faces of the, in their view, waning evangelicals. "In dealing with the issue of ecumenical evangelism [Billy Graham style], two terms became the watchwords of fundamentalism: ‘compromise’ and ‘apostasy.’" While they accuse some accusers of making "unfounded" attacks on Graham, the authors delight in reprinting one nine-point and two ten-point attacks on him without bothering to sort out the "unfounded" points.

The authors cite fundamentalists Charles J. Woodbridge, "Dr. Smith," John R. Rice and William E. Ashbrook. Because he worked with non-fundamentalists, Graham was "the greatest divider of the Church of Christ in the twentieth century." He was friendly with Roman Catholics and infidels and critical of the fundamentalists who converted him. He sought the "company and favors of men who hate the gospel he preaches."

As with Graham, so with Ockenga and Carl Henry and the whole moderate evangelical movement. The breach is clear. If fundamentalism’s "definite strain" is nonconformity, "the atmosphere of New Evangelicalism is generally that of conformity to society," whether in theology, philosophy or practice. Style is all.

Ask an Evangelical whether or not he believes there are flames in hell, and after a thirty-minute philosophical recitation on the theological implications of eternal retribution in light of the implicit goodness of God, you will still not know what he really believes. Ask a Fundamentalist whether he believes there are really flames in hell and he will simply say, "Yes, and hot ones too!" [p. 172.]

Evangelicals hold "weak commitments and positions," are guilty of "ethereal theorizing," are "soft" on Catholicism, adrift. "Content to puff on their theological pipes, they seem to be embarrassed to admit any association at all with their Bible-toting cousins from the right." They "walk down the center line of the religious marketplace," and are "guilty of stroking one another’s intellectual egos." They like "understanding and tolerance" and are guilty of a "lack of separatism." They are also guilty, therefore, of provoking fundamentalists (like Dobson and Hindson and hyper-fundamentalists to their right) to stridency. No wonder "the evangelical ship is . . . breaking up at sea."

Dobson and Hindson are quite capable of being self-critical about fundamentalism, and they present one five-page, ten-point passage about fundamentalism’s "little capacity for self-criticism," its resistance to change, "overdependence on dynamic leadership," "excessive worry over labels and associations," absolutism, authoritarianism and exclusivism. But they blame most of these on the hyper-fundamentalists to their right.

Historic fundamentalists would find them compromising, adapting, walking center lines and warning on one of the two main marks -- the other being biblical inerrancy -- of fundamentalism. In their history they give two and a half pages to a peculiar view of the Second Coming, "dispensational premillennialism," which they admit overpowered the opposition in the earlier scramble for fundamentalist control.

But in the mere 18-line reference to the Second Coming in their doctrinal portion, they make it clear that on this particular fundamental they do not want to divide the movement by witnessing clearly, faithfully and militantly to what their fathers insisted was "biblical orthodoxy.""... this doctrine is the most debated and divergent of all the fundamentals (one may choose among premillennial, postmillennial, amillennial, pretribulational, midtribulational, posttribulational, partial rapture, and other views)..." So fundamentalism is also to be taken à la carte, cafeteria style!

If this faction mutes the premillennial debate, it has not yielded so readily on another movement that like evangelicalism and fundamentalism could easily be called "the religious phenomenon of the twentieth century" -- Pentecostalism. ‘While the public lumps the three movements together, these authors know their history: "The earliest and most extreme opposition to the Pentecostal Movement came from both the Fundamentalist and Holiness groups, who broke formally in 1928 because Pentecostals promoted "fanatical and unscriptural emphases." Unfortunately, evangelicals have been "more accepting of the Pentecostal denominations." Admitting that fundamentalists could learn about love from Pentecostals, they conclude that "Fundamentalists, as a group, violently reject the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement. . . ." But do they leave the door open for future compromise? They do admit that Pentecostalism is based "upon an evangelical doctrinal foundation." As of now, "Most Fundamentalists would not accept the Charismatic Movement as a legitimate representation of Fundamentalism."

An irony pervades this book. While the authors attack the evangelicals who broke with fundamentalism in 1947, they find themselves under attack from hyper-fundamentalist, rigorist separationists who see them seeking respectability and political power -- in short, being exactly where the neoevangelicals were in 1947. Not to acknowledge this attack would be to fail to stake out the turf for their faction. To overacknowledge it is to show that fundamentalism, simple biblical orthodoxy, is as split up as evangelicalism and other contemporary competitors.

The authors choose the middle way and let evangelist David Sproul and historian George Dollar represent the attackers. They even reproduce a nine-point attack on their wing by the (non- Southern Baptist) South Carolina Baptist Fellowship. Those in that wing emphasize numbers, the SCBF charges, above faithfulness, are obsessed with bigness, use celebrities to draw a crowd, employ worldly music, destroy small fundamentalist programs for the sake of their "Super-church" and electronic empires, share platforms with nonfundamentalists, say "Whatever will get a crowd I will do it," and then call the "biblical fundamentalist" a "nit-picker."

The authors’ response sounds like evangelicalism of 1947-1981: "While we appreciate the concern of the extreme Fundamentalists over keeping the Church on the right track, we must not allow them to categorize and label everyone to death. The real fundamentalist majority must lead the movement in the 1980s and thereby prevent the tendency to react to the extreme right." Not a word about orthodoxy or biblical truth; only words about tactics and power.

While having to recognize all the factions, Dobson and Hindson insist that in 1980, "to the surprise of . . . the Evangelicals . . . [fragmented Fundamentalism] did unite and exerted a political influence that shocked the entire nation." They openly admit (pp. 143-44) that politics, not a basic doctrinal impetus, united this once-doctrinal movement.

Politics is the basic issue here. As for the leadership dilemma mentioned above, all these’ groups are competing for a finite cohort of American prospects, a certain number of millions who make up the outer limits of their market potential. To "go soft" on hyper-fundamentalism on one hand or evangelicalism on the other is to remove from prospective converts the reasons to join this brand of fundamentalist movement. But to go too hard on them is to lose political power and to see a potential coalition fall apart.

Dobson and Hindson and their kin and kind have the right instincts, or have astutely read the signs of the times. They have seen the power of fundamentalist minorities, like the Gush Emunim and the tiny orthodox parties in Israel. the Paisleyites in Northern Ireland, the ayatollahs in Iran. Given the right set of circumstances, they can wield majority power. But America is so rich in diversity that there are limits to the numbers of those who will join revanchist and tribal groups. Those who seek power, in the present American circumstances, have to compromise, walk center lines, turn moderate. Not thus to turn is to lose political potential. To turn too suddenly is to lose the rationale for ties to a "definite strain" of fundamentalist rootage. Take cheer, in any case. Dobson and Hindson have a parting flourish of reassurance. "Fundamentalists are not interested in controlling America." They only want to call us back to moral sanity: "We want to see freedom preserved so that the work of the Gospel may go on unhindered in the generations ahead."