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Who Is a Fundamentalist?
As promised, I want to followup on newsletter #78’s examination of the strategy being pursued by a segment of the evangelical elite to eliminate complementarianism (male only pastorate) as a community boundary and replace it with anti-fundamentalism.
That newsletter focused heavily on the complementarian aspect. In this one I want to focus on the anti-fundamentalism plank.
What Is Fundamentalism?
Alvin Plantinga famously defined a fundamentalist as some “stupid sumb*tch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine,” highlighting that the term primarily functions as an insult rather than a description.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t actual content of the idea of fundamentalism.
In his strategy for the renewal of the American church, Keller devotes an entire chapter to the decline of evangelicalism which focuses extensively on fundamentalism. He is very negative towards it, and spends a lot of time talking about how aspects of fundamentalism were carried into neo-evangelicalism and need to be purged. He draws on historian George Marsden in defining what fundamentalism is. He describes it as “an over-combative moralism, seasoned with anti-intellectualism, intense individualism, and an uncritical attitude toward traditional culture.” He describes a series of social traits associated with fundamentalism, referring to “ the anti-intellectualism, the marriage to American culture, the sectarianism, the legalism and emphasis on secondary and tertiary doctrines, and the pietism and individualism that rejected the need for social reform or cultural engagement.”
I could critique Keller’s treatment in this chapter, but let’s be honest, these observations are accurate about a significant number of evangelicals. There is a sort of fundamentalist social impulse that is anti-intellectual, overly wedded to Americanism (though of multiples varieties, often not of the kind Keller seems to have in mind), and is very focused on doctrinal purity and pursues that through a general posture of hostility and combativeness. And it is a legitimate problem.
I personally find this fundamentalist approach very off-putting, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Undoubtedly there’s a need for reform in many of these areas. Evangelicalism does need to develop more intellectual resources. That’s a daunting task to say the least, but it is a need. The evangelical church does need to break its over-identification with Americanism, whether that be a religious promotion of a libertarian conception of the marketplace, conflating Christian morality with circa 1965 civil rights era liberalism, or an excessive devotion to the cultural values of Manhattan and other urban centers. (That doesn’t mean becoming anti-American, just not conflating American culture with Christianity).
It’s also the case that it’s very hard to partner with fundamentalists unless you agree with them on almost everything. And it’s true that even if you can partner with them, their style will turn off many people such that their dislike of it will make them dislike you through a kind of guilt by association effect.
Where I differ significantly with Keller is that I think we need to view fundamentalists as our people. Because they are. While it might not be possible or wise to partner with significant tracts of the fundamentalist world, and we shouldn’t reflexively defend their dodgy behavior when it’s people we disagree with criticizing them, we still need to identify with them and have a sense of responsibility to them - to figure out how to provide better leadership, to elevate them, to draw them toward better thinking where they are off base.
Who Is a Fundamentalist?
Defining fundamentalism is one thing. But in terms of how others might actually look to actually implement Keller’s strategy or something similar, there’s the practical matter of who will be labeled a fundamentalist. Who are the fundamentalists who will be separated from and treated as no longer a legitimate part of the movement? (See Brad Vermurlen’s quote about how elites “define legitimacy and membership” in newsletter #58).
I anticipate that whether or not someone is classified as not legitimate will primarily be based on whether they are perceived as a threat to the incumbent evangelical leadership, not which ones of Keller’s “zones” they fall into or whether or not they are a fundamentalist or hyper-conservative properly so-called.
A fundamentalist, practically speaking, will mean anyone who threatens the incumbent power structure from the right.
Note that this is directly aligned with Keller’s description of the evangelical field, which he drew from Vermurlen. He wrote, “All fields are basically hierarchical, with some who have more capital and become gatekeepers of the field and others who are more marginal. Newcomers are never welcome—all other groups will seek to paint them as illegitimate and will seek to define them in ways that will make it difficult for them to acquire influence (capital).”
Defining someone as a fundamentalist, explicitly or implicitly, is one way to “paint them as illegitimate” and “define them in ways that will make it difficult for them to acquire influence.”
This is just the way the world works. There is nothing unique to evangelical elites here. At some level every group operates similarly, or tries to. I don’t think it’s inherently illegitimate so long as it’s done within the boundaries of Christian ethics, as Keller explicitly says we should be careful to do.
We see this in action in the case of James Wood. Wood is a Millennial pastor and theologian. He was very involved in hip-cool urban ministry, helping to start churches in Austin, Texas. He then went to graduate school and got a Ph.D. in theology and now teaches at a Christian college. For a time he was an editor at the high tone, NYC-based religious magazine First Things. His personal style is very moderate and, dare I say it, winsome. He is a very serious person devoid of negative fundamentalist traits. While I don’t know him well, from what I’ve seen, Wood is the model of the next generation leader that the older generation should be looking to build up.
As a follow-up to my three worlds of evangelicalism article, Wood wrote an essay for First Things called, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller.” In it he’s very appreciative of Keller, notes how Keller influenced his own life and ministry, and how he was so much of a fan that he even named his dog Keller. Yet in his view Keller’s ministry approach was more suited to what I labeled the “neutral world” (1994-2014) and was less effective in today’s “negative world.”
Keller himself understandably disagreed with this and explained why he felt differently. However, others were much less charitable and less focused on substance. Wood was subjected to torrent of harsh takes, including from people like David French, who devoted multiple installments of his widely read weekly newsletter to criticizing it. In one of them he wrote:
If I had to put a name on this era of right-wing Christian politics, it would be “The Great Rationalization.” As the right has become more cruel, malicious, and dismissive of character, some Christian thinkers have been willing not just to excuse this transformation but to affirm it as deeply virtuous.
Drill down into any of these rationalizations, and you’ll find the same theme repeated time and again: Desperate times call for desperate measures. Those who don’t understand the present crisis or the necessity of changed tactics are simply not men for the moment.
A good example of the genre was published this week in First Things. The piece is called “How I Evolved on Tim Keller,” and its author, First Things associate editor James Wood, makes all the familiar arguments, though more civilly than most.
In other words, James Wood is basically nothing more than just another fundamentalist. Note to accusations of a sort of Manichean approach, which Keller highlighted among the social marks of fundamentalism. There was more written in this style about Wood over his article as well.
Again, Wood is intellectual, credentialed (Ph.D), experienced as a pastor, moderate in tone, and seriously engaging with the issues of the day. Agree with him on everything or not, he’s the exact kind of younger person that someone hoping for a post-fundamentalist evangelicalism should be looking to build up. But the biggest name and most powerful people in the evangelical world are not doing that.
Wood’s cultural diagnostics are deeply threatening to the incumbent evangelical power structure. So it’s no surprise that he and his ideas are very unwelcome.
As you can probably tell, as with what happened to Josh Butler, I’m very unhappy with the way Wood was treated. But the treatment of Wood should not surprise us. As Keller noted, it is the very nature of competitive fields to operate this way.
Dealing with the Out Group
Now that we’ve talked about what fundamentalism is and who is going to be branded (explicitly or implicitly) a fundamentalist, I want to wrap up by talking about how those people will be marginalized by describing one technique.
That technique is the “cone of silence” approach. The cone of silence is when people with platforms, resources, audiences, etc. adopt a policy of simply not talking about, mentioning, or responding to someone whose influence they hope to suppress or contain.
The problem with attacking someone or critiquing their work is that you draw attention to them. This can actually build up someone you’d rather remain lesser known. The criticisms of Wood, for example, definitely helped spread his article far and wide, making it the #1 web article on First Things last year. The cone of silence strategy seeks to avoid this by refusing to engage with people or their work.
For example, about 6-7 years ago I traveled to Moscow, Idaho and met Doug Wilson. People there told me that “Big Eva” had decided to “quarantine” him. That is, knowing that Wilson was anti-fragile, and thus benefitted from criticisms and attacks, rather than publicly dispute with him, they would simply ignore him and not engage with him at all. I was actually able to see this in action, seeing a Twitter user get gently corrected for posting a criticism of Wilson.
Although Wilson has a very large platform of his own, you rarely see evangelical elites engage with him with these days. I see more criticism of him by secular publications than major evangelical ones.
To be honest, this is a very smart tactic. There’s nothing illegitimate about it. It’s one I’ve made use of myself. And I’ve also been the target of it, such as when I’ve written very positive reviews of certain books, but the authors chose not to tweet or mention them.
I should note that after the initial flurry of critiques, I saw a number of subsequent articles that criticized Wood and his piece without ever referring to them explicitly. People didn’t want to say his name. So even with his article, the tactic seemed to have been applied at some level.
This means that incumbent discourse tends to center around material that is favorable to the positions of the incumbents. This is a heuristic, of course, not a bright line rule. But the tendency is towards engagement with people and positions that reinforce people’s group in the field, and a lack of with engagement upstarts, especially to the right. Often when the criticisms do come, it’s because the critics think someone has done something that they can successfully cancel him for - to take him off the field.
People who are either newcomers or perceived as threats by the various incumbent groups in the evangelical field will thus have to consciously fight very hard to acquire the capital they need to become effective participants in that field.
There is such a thing as fundamentalism, which has many legitimately negative characteristics.
While it isn’t always possible or wise to partner with fundamentalists, we should affirm them as our people and seek to lead them in a better direction.
Practically speaking, people will implicitly or explicitly get labeled a fundamentalist if they are perceived as a threat to incumbent evangelical elites from the right.
People so labeled will frequently be subjected to the cone of silence tactic, meaning they will have to work extra hard to get their message out.
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