Faith: A cudgel called fundamentalism

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor  |  Feb. 12, 2003 at 6:27 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- If you really want to stick it to someone you disapprove of -- say, President George W. Bush -- then call him a fundamentalist. That will do it. It will put him in the same league with Osama bin Laden or the Iranian mullahs.

It would also be theologically false.

It is currently fashionable to clobber Bush, a member of the United Methodist Church, with the fundamentalism cudgel. Left-wing Protestants and Catholics at home and abroad are often inclined to do so.

In the current issue of the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, the Catholic theologian Eugen Drewermann did just that. Being a psychoanalyst as well, he diagnosed Bush's war plans as a symptom of a neurosis and a socio-psychological delusion rooted in the desire to outdo his father in the martial realm.

As far as we know, Drewermann has never had Bush on his couch. On the other hand, we do know that the Vatican has suspended this theologian from his priestly functions, which makes one wonder why one of Europe's most important publications would use this man in its continuous quest to turn its readers against the United States.

Be this as it may -- true fundamentalists would never recognize George W. Bush as one of their own.

Does he -- or do his theological friends -- read the first three books of Genesis as scientific accounts of creation? Of course, they don't; they look at the theological character of the creation narrative, which makes them evangelicals, not fundamentalists.

But then, Bush's detractors would say, where's the difference?

It's huge, says Episcopal theologian Gerald R. McDermott. But to understand this, one has to keep an open mind. For one thing, fundamentalists are not alone in being literalists. "Even most liberal Christians would take certain Biblical statements literally; for example, the statement that God is one and not many."

But the fact is that fundamentalists, of whom there are fewer and fewer in the United States but more and more in the southern cone of the globe, tend to read Scripture more literally, while evangelicals study its genre, literary and historical contexts more carefully.

This places them in many ways closer to the exegetes of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism than fundamentalism, from which they split six decades ago, led by Billy Graham, among others.

I owe the following distinctions primarily to McDermott, one of contemporary Christianity's cleanest thinkers. Fundamentalists and evangelicals differ profoundly in so many areas that to confuse them is utterly irresponsible. Take the following categories:

-- Culture: Fundamentalists question divine presence here. Evangelicals, on the other hand, see God's common grace working through all human culture. It is tainted by sin, McDermott says, but nevertheless reflects God's glory. "Mozart may not have been an orthodox Christian -- or a Christian at all -- but his music is a gift from God."

-- Social action: To fundamentalists, efforts to help the poor were an outgrowth of the liberal theology's social gospel of the 1930s. Until recently, they approved of Christian social action mainly in the shape of struggles against abortion and for religious freedoms. Evangelicals have always been much more vocal in fighting racism and poverty because of the Gospel. In this sense, Bush is distinctly an evangelical.

-- Separatism: for many decades, fundamentalists insisted that they should keep apart from liberal Christians or even conservatives associating with them. Guided by Billy Graham, evangelicals send converts back to mainline churches in order to give these denominations spiritual nurture.

This refusal to separate is one reason why evangelicalism is now probably the most powerful and renewing force within the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist churches, for example. Evangelicals aim to transform culture from within these churches -- and they are succeeding. Unlike fundamentalists, evangelicals engage in dialogue with Protestant and Catholic liberals and work with them toward common and religious goals.

Fundamentalists believe that there is no use talking to liberals, who deny Christ's bodily resurrection, the sinful nature of humanity, the efficacy of atonement and biblical inerrancy. Evangelicals, however, are prepared to talk with liberals in order to persuade them and, as McDermott adds, "perhaps even learn."

Perhaps the most important difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals is this: While both affirm the 16th-century Reformation doctrine, based on Paul, that man is saved by God's grace through faith, fundamentalists focus much more on the law than evangelicals do. In other words, fundamentalists stress: Do this, don't do that!

While McDermott, an evangelical Anglican, admits that this sometimes applies to people of his own persuasion, he insists that evangelicals concentrate really on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

And it is here where the slanderous "fundamentalism" charge against the likes of Bush is the most contemptible. If Bush is a "fundamentalist," then he is in the good company of the most significant personalities in 2,000 years of church history -- from St. Augustine via St. Thomas Aquinas, via Erasmus of Rotterdam, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, all the way to Billy Graham and John Paul II.

Bush's detractors, such as Drewermann, really ought to be more theologically conscious.

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