Fundamentalist Christians have always been a bit mystifying to critically thinking individuals in this country. Many have wondered how, in this scientific age, they can believe the universe is six thousand years old or believe there is a literal war going on between demons and angels. These ideas may be curious or amusing, but in today’s political climate, we have no choice but to understand fundamentalist, evangelical Christians more thoroughly. This group of 70 million Americans continues to wield significant influence in the conservative political arena.
As aformer fundamentalist myself, I will try to shed some light on the mindset we are confronting. This worldview is powerful, authoritarian, and all encompassing. In a previous essay, I addressed the danger of having someone like Sarah Palin, who has a Pentecostal background like mine, in office. (Open Letter to Sarah Palin) For a number of reasons, religious fundamentalism can keep people from being able to uphold the constitution of the United States, which is necessary for public office.But right now, lets look at the traits of this Christian population in general. In my opinion, these attributes are not problematic when private and personal, but when they affect the broader society, we have a valid concern.
Of course, this is not a monolithic group. Christians vary widely in their beliefs and there is a strong Christian left in this country as well. The purpose here is to explain the beliefs and attitudes of most fundamentalists, i.e., Christians who take the Bible as the literal word of God and emphasize the need to be “saved” by believing in the atonement of Christ to avoid hell and go to heaven.
- Christian fundamentalism is a religion of fear. Followers are taught some enormously powerful memes: eternal hell-fire for disbelief, impending “rapture” of true followers of Jesus, a terrifying tribulation for those left behind, and the ongoing dangers of living in a fallen world ruled by Satan and his minions. Fundamentalists also fear their own sinful nature, which they believe requires vigilant control. While many profess certainty about their own salvation and exhibit self-righteousness about their membership in God’s chosen elite, no believer knows for sure and the stakes are life and death. Billy Graham writes, "At the risk of eternal peril, we must not fail to recognize the warning of future judgment in the Book of Revelation. We can still heed the rolling thunder, flee the rising storm and humble ourselves before Almighty God while there is yet time. Jesus warned us of this reality, saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, NKJV)."
- The religion promotes immaturity, teaching constant dependence on God, the Bible, and the church. Becoming a true Christian in this worldview involves being “born-again” instead of growing up. A key teaching is that humans are not capable of running their own lives or taking care of themselves. Because of “original sin,” people are weak, sinful, and well, stupid. Questioning is considered a grave sin while obedience is the highest virtue. With childishness being fostered in the face of enormous threat, believers live with the deepest fear humans have – that of abandonment. The majority of fundamentalists are indoctrinated at a very young age, long before they have the cognitive maturity to evaluate the core doctrines. Many of these teachings, such as hell-fire, are essentially phobia indoctrinations, which do not have to be rational to endure. Sarah Palintells us that when she was "just a child" she dedicated her life to Christ at a summer Bible camp. Knowing her background in the Assembly of God church, it could have been like the movie, Jesus Camp.
- In this system, critical thinking is not just undeveloped, it amounts to being sinful. It is simply wrong to think for yourself. If you do, you are committing the dangerous sin of pride, which was the sin that caused Satan to be cast from heaven. Bible verses frequently quoted are Proverbs 3:5 and 3:7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and do not rely on your own insight. . . Be not wise in your own eyes.” Believers are taught to be disdainful of all human knowledge or wisdom (I Corinthians 1:19-21). True knowledge is said to be revealed by God, not the result of human inquiry. This anti-intellectualism is shown when fundamentalists criticize liberal “elitism.” A politician can be popular by claiming to be born-again (as did George W. Bush), despite any lack of qualifications to lead. Jerry Falwell advised believers to start each day by rejecting self-reliance. Sarah Palin referred to “huge challenges”of health care, energy independence, and national security and said, “I think my opinion is it’s very important for a leader to be humble enough to say I don’t have all the answers. . . . It takes a united nation and it does take godly counsel, and it takes prayer and answers to prayer, and a collective humble heart of a nation seeking God’s hand of protection and his blessings of prosperity.“
- In Christian fundamentalism, there is no hope for the world. Talk of peace raises the objection that only Jesus is the prince of peace and only he can bring peace and justice to the world when he comes back. Until then, humans are destined to war with each other (especially in the Middle East) until Armageddon. The environment is also a lost cause because we are not capable of determining our own future and it is pride that makes us think we can. Believers have an apocalyptic view of the future which will culminate in total destruction of the earth (2 Peter 3:10) and then God will create a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). Evidence of this prevailing belief is the sale of the book series, “Left Behind,” a fictionalized version of the “end times” and read by 65 million Americans. Sarah Palin said she expects Jesus to return in her lifetime. http://www.salon.com/... In this framework, real justice is also not possible and must wait until the “last judgment.” Significantly,Palin recently spent time visiting with Billy Graham and wanted his take on what the Bible says about Israel, Iran and Iraq, a region important to "end times" theology. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Organization is nowfocusing on the return of Jesus Christ. According to Graham, "The modern world is in chaos, and no one has a realistic solution. . . The whole world is crying out for some word of hope, but all we hear is the babble of wishful thinkers and charlatans. . . If we truly fear the ultimate Judge of all mankind, we must turn from our sin and be renewed through faith in Christ." The well-known minister from the Calvary Chapel empire,Chuck Smith, said, "Who and what can save us? Increased knowledge can’t save us. The government can’t save us. Neither can science nor Greenpeace save our planet."
- In this framework, believers are taught not to trust anyone outside their circle. Nonbelievers cannot possibly solve any problems because they are not guided by God. They are also evil because anyone who does not believe as fundamentalists do is necessarily on the side of evil. Jesus said “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). Everything is judged in black and white terms, and “evil-doers” must not go unnoticed or unpunished. People who are not Christian can seem to be doing good but are actually deluded or disguised agents of Satan. The view of the “end times” includes a leader who claims to bring people together and achieve global unity but who is actually the “antichrist.” This charismatic person is expected to gradually take despotic control, and eventually force everyone to follow one world religion (which is not Christianity).
- Following a literal belief in the Bible means living in a parallel universe of magical elements that keeps faithful believers from fully committing to concrete reality in the present world. They believe in supernatural entities of good and evil battling for our souls, consider themselves part of this “spiritual warfare,” and believe they must stay vigilant defending virtue. Satan is considered a real entity, who is “the enemy” working through people in the world. Sarah Palin said, “God strengthens me through the challenges. . . I hold on to that scripture too that says No, what your enemy seeks to destroy you with, no, God’s gonna turn it around for good.” The findings of science are not important and can be a threat to real faith. They consider the Biblical timeline to be the true description of human history, beginning with creation and ending with judgment. Thus, it makes little sense to work for social change or any earthly cause. Environmentalism is actually seen as a form of idolatry. Yet, because Jesus has still not returned, fundamentalists are confused about their role in the present world. They straddle both universes as they also try to enforce Biblical laws in society. They are motivated to push for a more Christian nation so that God will not withdraw his blessing of prosperity, and also to further events leading to the “end times.”
- The religion teaches followers not to rely on their own humane instincts of compassion and fairness, and thus leaves them morally challenged. The belief system requires complete repression of personal intuition in order to accept the Biblical and church teachings, which include draconian laws and much injustice. While the church talks about forgiveness and love, in reality there is a constant underbelly of severe judgment and threat of punishment. Fundamentalists do not mind seeing the “guilty” suffer. Those who don’t convert are on the side of Satan by their own choice, and thus deserving of the most severe consequences. This includes all the Jews who do not accept Jesus when he returns in fiery glory to Jerusalem. “There is no peace, says my God, for the evil-doers” (Isaiah 57:21). Revenge is a big theme in the Bible: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). In this day and age, fundamentalists are aware they are outnumbered and they react with defensive, self-righteous anger, not love.
In summary, fundamentalist Christianity produces followers who are fearful and childlike, lacking faith in themselves or anyone else, and pessimistic about the world. They have learned to be obedient and respect authority if they think it is of God. They are very confused by their multiple realities and severe cognitive dissonance. In my opinion, they are angry on many levels, the primary one being the fact that their religion does not deliver what it promises. Despite believing in the salvation message and denying themselves many “worldly” enjoyments, they are not any happier than anyone else. There just isn’t much fun in fundamentalism. In the broader picture, Jesus still has not returned to set things straight and secular humanists seem to have control of the world. These Christians aren’t getting what they believe they are due. Perhaps that is why they show up at tea-bagger events with such rage.
This is a population ripe for exploitation, a fact not lost on conservatives. By labeling themselves simplistically as “born-again” like George Bush, right-wing politicians have garnered support from voters who need no more information. Sarah Palin was called a “Queen Esther” for America and her qualifications to govern didn’t matter beyond being called by God. By reaching out to people of other cultures and religions, Obama, in contrast, has disturbed fundamentalists who say a true Christian would not acknowledge other paths to God. Adding to the idea of Obama being the antichrist, Glenn Beck said Obama was trying to transform our society into a “global order.” And of course, conservatives calling health care reform a “government takeover” works well to get fundamentalists to oppose it.
The unfortunate truth is that millions of Americans do subscribe to fundamentalist beliefs. Just as significant however, is the fact that many of these fundamentalist beliefs and attitudes linger in our culture in forms we may not easily recognize. There are many millions of other Americans who are also reluctant to employ critical thinking, be aware, and take some responsibility. Who among us wouldn’t like to be spared hard work and have someone magically save us from our planetary woes and from ourselves? But we are all in this together, needing to find solutions to giant problems and pressure our leaders to do what is right. The fundamentalists could do well to remember the compassionate directives of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 25), and all of us can access the humanity in ourselves we so desperately need to help this country.