Resurgent Fundamentalism: Marching Backward into the ‘80s?

by John Scanzoni

Dr. Scanzoni is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

This article appeared in the Ch Christian Century, September 10-17, 1980, pp. 847-849. 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.


Genuine dialogue, leaving open the possibility of mutual change, is by definition unknown to fundamentalists. “We will talk to you, but never actually with you.” It is that incipient sect mentality that has tended to plague evangelicalism, and which has often kept it from building bridges with mainstream Christianity.

Sometimes seemingly disparate events form a highly significant pattern. In December 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeini was imposing his own brand of medieval Islamic fundamentalism on the most westernized of Mideast countries. Then Pope John Paul II stripped Hans Küng of his teaching Post. The well-known Catholic theologian was found in "contempt" of church doctrine by a Vatican department known in earlier times as the Inquisition. In that same month Peking’s "Democracy Wall" was abolished. The one place in China where various forms of political expression had been tolerated is no more. The wall posters have come down, and the vendors of fresh ideas have been squelched.

Finally, there was Harold O. J. Brown, commenting in Christianity Today: "[Francis] Shaeffer asks whether Evangelicalism can tolerate in its fellowship those who are unwilling to condemn abortion on demand; [likewise] the inerrancy group is asking whether it can tolerate within its leadership those who will not affirm inerrancy" ("Assessing the Church of the 1970s: A Decade of Flux?," December 21, 1979). The tenor of Brown’s article is but a variation on the theme found in Tehran, the Vatican and Peking. Their goal? Conformity of thought and action. The means to the goal? The punishment and purging of renegades to keep the fellowship "pure."

Church and Sect

As Brown ponders the future of evangelicalism, he leaves no doubt as to the goal on his mind. He maintains that "the probable consequence of the inerrancy dispute will be a paring away from the evangelical body of some conservatives." Acknowledging that such paring would result in "numerical weakening," he adds that there would be a correspondingly greater "internal strength" which would "probably determine the character of evangelicalism in the 1980s." Indeed it would! And that character would revert to early 1950s fundamentalism!

The earlier evolution of evangelicalism out of fundamentalism and its current atavistic tendencies back toward fundamentalism represent a striking illustration of Ernst Troeltsch’s notions of sect-to-church-to-sect development (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches [Macmillan, 1931]). Recall that Troeltsch described a "church" as a religious organization that seeks to work in and with society in order to leaven it. While it is sometimes at odds with society, the church is not inherently suspicious of it, nor is the church viewed with intrinsic mistrust. Above all, this institution is flexible and open to changes in the larger society. Moreover, it seeks to adapt to and with those changes; and it may sometimes seek to precipitate change.

In contrast, according to Troeltsch, the Sect rejects cooperation with society. It is in constant tension with society, viewing it with suspicion and mistrust. Furthermore, since the sect identifies the church with society, it sees itself in conflict with the church as well. Criticizing the church for having left some earlier pristine state, the sect calls for a return to that state.

Moreover, the sect perceives within itself the constant threat of an insidious "laxist tendency." The prime means of retarding laxity or corruption is to insist on conformity to certain ideas, to purge those who disagree, and thus, with a smaller but "purer" fellowship, to propagate the sect’s viewpoint.

Above all, the sect resists change both in its own religious patterns and in society. Change is in and of itself suspect since it may be, and often is, a modification of ideas considered sacred by the sect. Nevertheless, Troeltsch believed that the sect embodies a stirring appeal that attracts people to its cause. With the prospects of increased growth, "compromises" are made in its ideas and ideals, the "laxist tendency" sets in, and soon a "church" has evolved. In reaction to that development, another sect emerges, and the inevitable developmental process keeps propagating itself.

Widening the Gap

Fundamentalism was a sectlike reaction to mainstream Protestantism -- the "church" -- of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much has been written about how fundamentalists perceived corruption in both church and society. But in Troeltschian fashion, fundamentalism prospered and evolved to the point that during the 1940s and 1950s some of its young men began to earn theological degrees from some of the most prestigious faculties in America and, in some cases, Europe. Thus began the flowering of "evangelicalism," the "laxist tendency." And for some 30 years evangelicals have tried to widen the gap between themselves and fundamentalists. They have wanted to repudiate their roots in at least two ways. One, they have sought to remove the obscurantist image by developing a body of conservative biblical and theological scholarship. Their goal has often been to develop a unique and viable alternative to modern "liberal" scholarship. Second, they have tried to repudiate the charge of "individualistic salvation" by developing a program of "social outreach" that is uniquely evangelical.

According to James Barr, evangelicals have not succeeded in their first goal (Fundamentalism [Westminster, 1977]). While there are excellent and well-stated "conservative positions" with regard to certain biblical issues, there is, no such thing as an "evangelical body of scholarship" which constitutes anything like a rival "school" to mainstream scholarship. (As a footnote to evangelical aspirations in biblical and theological studies, there have been concurrent attempts to establish a "Christian psychology," a "Christian sociology" and so forth. Proponents of this approach take a sectlike stance and assume that the behavioral and social sciences have been hostile to evangelical Christianity. Hence, their objective -- also unattained -- has been to try to establish a body of sociological or psychological thought that is distinctively "evangelical Christian," yet as viable as the mainstream discipline.)

The outcome of the second, or social-outreach, goal is similar. Richard Quebedeaux has written about the "new evangelicals" and their varied and vigorous efforts to pursue social justice with regard to blacks, poor whites, women and others. But we discover that the practical measures taken to alleviate the suffering and injustice are in no way unique to evangelicals. Such means are the common property of concerned Christians everywhere.

A Summons to Retreat

In their continuing quest for relevancy and repudiation of fundamentalist roots, some evangelicals have moved to what is known as a "left-wing" evangelical position. Evangelicals further to the right, such as Brown, view that trend as alarming evidence of an extreme "laxist tendency," and thus they call for the purification described above. The tendency of the sect mentality to revert to pristine states is found in Brown’s observation that early evangelical leaders should have faced the "inerrancy" question 30 years ago instead of leaving it for their heirs to resolve.

But how many evangelicals will heed Brown’s summons to retreat and march backward into the 1980s? Undoubtedly some will; but there are others who are rejecting the call for what it is -- a re-emergence of the fundamentalist sect mentality that has lain beneath the evangelical surface for three decades. As Barr and others describe it, that mind-set is nothing more than sheer arrogance -- the dogma that "we have all the answers which we must disseminate." Genuine dialogue, leaving open the possibility of mutual change, is by definition unknown to fundamentalists. "We will talk to you, but never actually with you." It is that incipient sect mentality that has tended to plague evangelicalism, and which has often kept it from building bridges with mainstream Christianity.

However, evangelicals repudiating sect mentality are seeking to forge links that further common aims of social justice and first-rate scholarship. They want "evangelical" to have an "on to" instead of a "back to" thrust. That thrust is based, on the semantic roots of "evangelical" -- "evangels" who proclaim the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ, and the vital importance of personal commitment to Christ. The sect mentality is considered "excess baggage" that only retards the thrust.

For example, "evangels" specifically recognize that most Christians in fact are not evangelicals. Nevertheless, evangels know that they have far more in common with all Christian believers than they do with nonbelievers. Therefore, they want to enter into genuine dialogue with all Christians, believing that they themselves can learn and change, as well as help other Christians to learn and change.

Evangels want to replace the spirit of sect hostility and conflict (so evident in Brown’s article) with a spirit of cooperation vis-à-vis mainstream Christians. They want to bring whatever insights they have to the common task that faces all Christians of "glorifying God" and of assisting humankind to "enjoy God forever." Evangels recognize that first and foremost the Scriptures describe a God of love and justice, and that all Christians must shape their theology and practice upon these dynamic potter’s wheels. By comparison, all of the rigidity and vitriolic disputes that inevitably pervade a sect-type institution (fundamentalism/evangelicalism) pale into insignificance.

That is the vision "left-wing" evangelicals (evangels) carry with them into the 1980s. Their hope is that it also has long-term implications for the 21st century and beyond. Barr concludes that fundamentalism may survive "for five hundred or a thousand years" (p. 315). Perhaps, but as it backs into the future, let us hope and pray that it will gradually diminish and be replaced by the sort of "sect-free" evangelicalism whose outlines are only now becoming dimly apparent.