How the religious right won: Birth of the fundamentalists, in our modern times

As a historical phenomenon, fundamentalism is wholly modern. Its victories have come from decades of organizing

Topics: Books, Religion, Jerry Falwell, Religious Right, Editor's Picks, ,

How the religious right won: Birth of the fundamentalists, in our modern timesJerry Falwell (Credit: AP/Steve Helber)

Fundamentalism is a paradox. Its partisans—of any faith—call for the return to an imagined arcadia in which God’s voice boomed plainly from scripture. Yet as a historical phenomenon, fundamentalism is wholly modern. It is a set of reactions against the aftershocks of the Enlightenment and the evolution of global capitalism: the breach between faith and reason, the rise of the secular public square, and the collapse of traditional social hierarchies and ways of life. Creatures of modernity, fundamentalists have happily availed themselves of modern technology. Fundamentalists ranging from separatist Baptist preachers to Al Qaeda propagandists have demonstrated a genius for employing the latest media and political (or military) weaponry to spread their message and accomplish their aims. To fundamentalists, history, too, is a technology: a trove of data to be strategically deployed.

Nowhere have the uses of history been clearer than in the clashes between conservative and progressive evangelicals for control of their denominations throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the Southern Baptist Convention, many conservatives would have objected to the “fundamentalist” label as a Yankee epithet, a synonym for a barefoot bumpkin sorely lacking in southern grace. But if their self-perception was not fundamentalist, many of their goals and tactics were. The decisive battles over the meaning and role of the Bible in modern society did not, primarily, unfold in the form of dueling proof texts or Sunday pulpit ripostes, but in skirmishes for control of the machinery of intellectual authority: seminaries, missions boards, denominational presses, and authorized church history. The personal magnetism of gurus was not sufficient to stanch the secularist tide. Just as thousands of volunteers at Billy Graham’s crusades worked to settle new converts into local churches before their enthusiasm could evaporate, conservative activists knew that the fervor wandering sages left in their wake would fizzle unless channeled into institutions and sustained by an infrastructure built to teach and train future generations.



Southern Baptist conservatives considered themselves the “silent majority” in their denomination. They were confident in a groundswell of support if they could mobilize laypeople for the cause. In 1969 Paul Pressler, a seventh-generation Texas Baptist, graduate of Princeton, and prominent Houston lawyer, complained to an ally, M. O. Owens: “We are in the majority but losing because we have not spent the time necessary to organize and assert ourselves. . . . With cohesive action by trained individuals who are committed to Biblical truth, we could move into influencing the Sunday School Board in the publication of their materials, in helping select editors for our state Baptist papers, and generally provide the type of sound Christian leadership which we should have in every phase of the Southern Baptist Convention and in our state and local conventions and associations.” While Pressler mobilized Baptists in Houston around the cause of Christian education, Owens was organizing the Fellowship of Conservative Baptists in his home state of North Carolina.

Years earlier, conservatives had begun to build an alternative system of higher education to compensate for the drift of the denomination’s seminaries away from biblical inerrancy. They wanted nothing more than to reverse the policy of careful accommodation that had brought so many conservative Bible schools and seminaries into line with the expectations of secular academia, and to root out those scholars who applied the term inerrancy to their own pliant interpretation of the Bible, rather than to scripture’s “literal” meaning. Pressler disdained accrediting agencies, which he believed were “controlled by the liberal northeastern schools.” He advocated firing tenured professors so that the agencies would withdraw accreditation, seeing as “the only reason our seminaries have their accredidation [sic] with the accreditting [sic] agency is so a few liberal graduate students could attend some northeast liberal Divinity Schools.”

If the mainstream intelligentsia, the guardians of intellectual authority, had abandoned the faith, then the true believers in the pews must wake up and redirect the church and surrounding culture. The new conservative schools reflected a populist backlash against the perceived elitism of the denomination’s main seminaries. A Jacksonville, Florida, pastor founded Luther Rice Seminary in 1962 specifically to aid local clergy who were unable to enroll in seminary full time. Conservatives seeking to build “a School of the Prophets” in the Deep South founded Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisiana in 1971 (the school later moved to Little Rock, and eventually to the Memphis area). That same year Jerry Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College (now Liberty University) in Lynchburg, Virginia, and W. A. Criswell founded his eponymous Bible Institute. Criswell, a former SBC president, pastored First Baptist Church in Dallas, the largest Southern Baptist church in the country (where Billy Graham was nominally a member for fifty-five years). When he announced his “vision” for the school in 1969, Criswell emphasized the need to provide Bible training for Sunday school teachers and the “many Southern Baptist pastors who had not had the opportunity to finish college or even to begin.” His mission statement sounded like a noble call to democratize knowledge, but Criswell’s desire to exclude was just as strong as his inclusive spirit. He wanted to reclaim Southern Baptist education from the ivory-tower elites and wave the banner of “the common man” as cover for his capture of intellectual inquiry.

A string of smaller but crucial conservative organizations appeared throughout the 1970s. In 1973, a group of Baptists incensed at the liberal sentiments evident in some of the denomination’s agencies—particularly the socially concerned Christian Life Commission—organized as the Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship. They sponsored a Baptist Literature Board to offer curricula stressing biblical inerrancy as an alternative to the more moderate publications of the Sunday School Board. Despite the reports from moderate “spies” who attended these organizations’ early meetings, most moderates failed to foresee the conservative grab for power at the 1979 convention. Sociologist Nancy Ammerman has suggested that moderates failed to build a coalition because in the past, fundamentalist agitation within the convention was disorganized—a few fire-breathers shooting off empty threats against the evils of Darwinism and drink. Moreover, moderates did not move to protect their control of the convention’s agencies and boards because they were loath to admit that their denomination concentrated power in the hands of hierarchical leaders or bureaucrats. “They had lived for nearly 150 years with a myth of democracy….They assumed that consensus would emerge from their common efforts to discern the will of God.”

The conservative leaders had no illusions about how power worked in the SBC. Their strategy was simple: elect one of their own as president of the convention for ten consecutive years, during which time all crucial denominational positions would come due for renomination, allowing conservatives to gradually populate all SBC boards, agencies, and trusteeships with their allies. They borrowed tactics from secular political parties, occupying skyboxes at the 1979 convention in Houston’s Astrodome where their leaders could coordinate backroom dealings and voting procedures. That year they elected Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, as president of the SBC—the first in an unbroken series of conservative presidents that continues today. The conservative plan extended beyond theology and church life to national politics. Ed McAteer, a Southern Baptist layman and wealthy sales executive who helped found the Moral Majority, used his experience as a former field director for the Conservative Caucus, a nominally secular organization founded in 1974, to ally the SBC with the emerging New Right coalition. Rogers, who prior to his election was known as a captivating preacher rather than a political activist, signaled his new ambitions in a high-profile sermon at the April 1980 “Washington for Jesus” rally on the National Mall. “The scream of the great American eagle has become but the twitter of a frightened sparrow,” he warned the crowd of 200,000. “America must be born again or join the graveyard of nations.”

Political spectacles were not a practical way to reach the average lay-person, but print media could do the job. For many evangelicals—especially Southern Baptists, who considered themselves set apart from the rest of American Protestantism and delighted in the cocoon of SBC institutions that sustained them from cradle to grave—the church newspaper remained a pillar of enlightenment and counsel. “Editors carry weight in SBC life,” James Walker, who worked for the Arkansas convention, wrote to Don Harbuck, a prominent moderate in the state. “They speak to the issue before it hits the floor [at the national convention] and some people accept editorials as the ‘voice of God.’” Their writers were more mission-minded now than ever before. The founding of Christianity Today presaged the rise of a conscious school of evangelical journalism grounded in the idea that a Christian journalist should not only report news of concern to his church, but discern the truth of all world events through an all-encompassing Christian worldview. Baylor University, the oldest Southern Baptist university (and one of the few that escaped conservative control), offered a dedicated program in Christian journalism as early as the 1960s. Similar curricula sprouted at other schools. Pat Robertson, who had built his own television empire, founded Regent University in 1978 out of an express desire to boost evangelical influence in the media. From its earliest years, the university’s curriculum stressed television and print journalism.

When conservatives began purging the SBC’s agencies and boards of all opposition, the Baptist Press editors did their best to cover every stratagem— much to their subjects’ displeasure. “SBC Journalism: Besieged!” long-time Baptist Press director Wilmer C. Fields titled his account of the “brazen, shameless attempt by fundamentalists to intimidate, bully and undermine Southern Baptist journalists and their publications.” Fields argued that the campaign to co-opt church media was not merely another political tactic, but a threat to the core of Baptist identity. “Our forefathers wisely protected and cherished free access to full information,” he wrote. “That structural freedom is linked to freedom of access to God, to an open Bible, to a divine right to private judgment in spiritual matters. . . . The state newspapers have been major channels for this ebb and flow of the Baptist mind and spirit. They are a vital part of the ‘jugular’ system [that Paul] Pressler and his political party set out to take over and dominate a decade ago.” Fields’s conservative opponents would have most likely agreed. Their primary aim was, after all, to reclaim the Baptist mind and spirit for their cause, to refashion Southern Baptist identity around inerrancy and the culture wars. Obstreperous editors were only a mild inconvenience. Conservative leaders forced many—including Fields himself—to resign or retire.

History Is Written by the Victors

This battle over denominational identity and heritage was not unique to the Southern Baptist Convention. Nazarene scholar Timothy Smith, responding in the Christian Century to Harold Lindsell’s accusations, argued that Wesleyans, Lutherans, and Calvinists who questioned inerrancy were not caving in to modern biblical scholarship but drawing “upon the writings of the Reformers themselves to affirm our conviction that the meanings, not the words, of biblical passages are authoritative, and that understanding these meanings requires close and critical study of the texts, rather than incantation of supposedly inerrant words.” A young Assemblies of God scholar, observing “the tentacles of inerrancy” that strangled faculty at his church’s educational institutions, noted “that the inerrancy position has never been officially adopted by the General Council and made part of the ‘Statement of Fundamental Truths’”—but this had not stopped church leaders from insisting on inerrancy as a litmus test for true servants of the Assemblies of God. When Concordia Seminary faculty were forced to submit to questioning about their beliefs during the controversy in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), both conservatives and their opponents described the interrogation as a chance to show “how Lutheran we really are and what it means to be Lutheran.” In churches riven by the debate over biblical authority in the 1970s and 1980s, both sides claimed authority through a selective reading of their shared tradition.

Historically, Southern Baptists have opposed the idea of creeds: formal statements of doctrine to which all members of a church must subscribe. Every Baptist is expected to articulate his beliefs for himself. The principle of “soul liberty” or “soul competency” means that each believer is accountable to no one but God. Few principles, however, are absolute in reality. Early Baptists approved confessions that reflected consensus and set boundaries for acceptable beliefs, although they did not recite them in worship. Southern Baptists, alarmed by Darwinism’s challenge to traditional interpretations of the Bible, adopted a “Faith and Message” in 1925 declaring their belief that God created man “as recorded in Genesis.” The convention elaborated on this statement in 1963 after seminary professor Ralph Elliott roiled Southern Baptists by advocating a nonliteral reading of the creation story in his book The Message of Genesis. The SBC emphasized the “proper balance between academic freedom and academic responsibility” in Christian education, but reiterated the fallible nature of any doctrinal statement, the possibility for future revision, and the importance of soul competency.

Conservatives began to suspect that the historic Baptist resistance to creeds provided cover for heterodox interpretation of essential doctrines. They pushed for traditionalist revisions and more rigorous enforcement of statements of faith at the denomination’s seminaries and colleges, and even agitated for emendation of the Baptist Faith and Message. Creeds, far from threatening the Baptist way, were the only way to preserve it. “To warn the inhabitants of the building of what is going on under the foundation is not to declare that every room in the building must be decorated exactly alike,” wrote M. O. Owens. He lamented the theological promiscuity that went on in the guise of “soul competency”: “Tragically, we are using that cliché [‘Nobody tells a Baptist what to believe’] and concept to exalt a humanistic view of the competency of the soul, so that it would become far more definitive and important than the doctrine of the primacy and supremacy of Scripture.”

Moderates were furious, and accused the “creedalists” of betraying the church’s founders. As early as 1969, partly in response to the publication of W. A. Criswell’s inerrantist screed “Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True,” a small number of progressive students and professors affirmed a different strain of their heritage by founding the E. Y. Mullins Fellowship. They named the group for a turn-of-the-century theologian who helped the church grapple with modern biblical criticism and ushered in an age of relatively liberal scholarship. When reporters inquired, the fellowship named “the nature of biblical authority” as first among “the most pressing of issues facing us,” along with academic freedom at the church’s seminaries and publishing house, and the denomination’s “minimal constructive response” to social problems like race conflict, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Samuel Hill, a progressive Southern Baptist historian who had recently published a fierce critique of Southern fundamentalism called “Southern Churches in Crisis” (1966), addressed the group’s charter meeting. Members of the fellowship believed history was on their side, if only they could convince fellow believers that the “historic Baptist principle of the freedom of the individual to interpret the Bible for himself”—as well as the progressive, even mainline tilt of the SBC intelligentsia since the 1920s—was the narrative that should win out.

By the late 1970s, things were not going their way. Increasingly marginalized in denominational leadership in the years that followed, moderates branded themselves as “loyalists” and the “traditional mainstream,” lamenting their church’s drift into the embrace of ultraconservative activists like Jerry Falwell and the Christian Reconstructionist movement. “No where in Baptist History, do I see the ‘BRETHREN’ our ‘FOREFATHERS’ ADVOCATING that Baptist churches of like faith and order sign a decree….The way I believe all Baptists believe is that the only ‘CREED’ that Southern Baptists could adopt, if they would adopt one ‘WOULD BE THE NEW TESTAMENT,’” wrote a reader to the Baptist Press in 1977.

Moderates were particularly disturbed by one enthusiasm they noticed among some conservative Southern Baptists: a zeal for Reformed theology. A small but influential cadre of conservative leaders promoted a view of biblical inerrancy that originated in Reformed scholasticism and nineteenth-century Presbyterian and Baptist scholarship, a Calvinist understanding of salvation, and a plan for engagement in politics that contravened classic Baptist conceptions of the division of church and state (not to mention the old southern doctrine of the “spirituality of the church,” which had long discouraged clergy from speaking out on “worldly” matters like slavery and Jim Crow). They traced the long roots (going back at least to the Revolution-era Baptist leader Isaac Backus) of their concern that state-sponsored secularization of American public life, such as the Supreme Court’s decision to ban scripture and prayer from public schools, did not reflect the Founders’ intentions but rather threatened free exercise of religion. “What we demand is religious liberty, not mere toleration,” wrote conservative leader Richard Land.Conservatives also argued—correctly—that in the nineteenth century the dominant theology of many Baptists was far more Reformed than it later became. Therefore, they reasoned, it was the conservatives who were “traditionalist,” who defended “original” Baptist identity.

Moreover, they believed that the only intellectually robust defense of inerrancy lay in the Reformed tradition’s philosophical rationalism—a point that irritated conservatives in the more pietistic, revivalist wing of the SBC. Those conservative Baptists who doubted the authority of Calvin and his successors were “not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared,” said Albert Mohler, who came of age in the early days of the controversy and went on to serve as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the 1980s and 1990s, Reformed theology began to enjoy a renaissance among conservative Southern Baptists, particularly young pastors—because, Mohler said, it was the only intellectual system that could stand up to modern American culture. “If you’re a young Southern Baptist and you’ve been swimming against the tide of secularism…you’re going to have to have a structure of thought that’s more comprehensive than merely a deck of cards with all the right doctrines.” Like the neo-evangelicals who refashioned Reformed presuppositionalism and inerrancy for wide consumption decades earlier, Mohler believed his theology provided a worldview sturdy enough to withstand the perils of modern thought.

The conservatives won their crusade for a new Faith and Message in 2000. The revision added a more authoritarian preamble, calling for Baptists to accept “accountability to each other under the Word of God.” In early drafts, the editors excised all mention of “soul competency” and “priesthood of believers,” but after criticism from the convention, they restored these phrases in the document’s preamble just before publication. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message stressed a more Reformed theology of salvation, emphasized God-given gender roles (the justification that conservatives in 1984 used to pass a resolution against the ordination of women), and included more explicit condemnation of social “vices” like homosexuality. By this time, many moderates had abandoned the SBC altogether.

The Southern Baptist conservatives won control of their church in two ways. They conquered the institutions of intellectual authority, and they used those institutions to propagate a new narrative of Southern Baptist history and identity. They portrayed their faction as a holy remnant reclaiming the God-given right to govern. Despite the denomination’s long record of accommodating a range of theological opinions and forms of Baptist identity—what some Southern Baptist scholars have called the “Grand Compromise”—they insisted that only those members who shared their confidence in the inerrant Bible still belonged (leaders who favored Reformed theology could not be quite so uncompromising about that).

Just as John Howard Yoder had protested Francis Schaeffer’s account of history and politics, moderate Baptists flailed against the conservative juggernaut. Neither succeeded in halting the conservatives’ rise to cultural and institutional power, but in their fight they made the vital point that the Christian Right—in the unyielding and absolutist form that the movement had taken by the late 1980s—was not synonymous with American evangelicalism. Instead, the Christian Right was the product of a long struggle within evangelicalism, in which leaders with very different opinions and priorities vied to convince believers of their true duties to God and to their fellow man. In a religious tradition in which no single authority had ever reigned for long, in which sola scriptura had released a cascade of quarrels and no faction could resist issuing a creed, a declaration, a “call,” or a list of “fundamentals” to define itself against its kin, Schaeffer, Falwell, and other self-appointed spokesmen of the Christian Right appeared, to casual observers, to reflect some kind of consensus. One must not underestimate the power in this illusion of solidarity—but one should not take it for reality, either.

Excerpted from “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism” by Molly Worthen with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Oxford University Press

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