To the editors:
Dan Liberty’s piece (25 March ’88) on Fundamentalists Anonymous contained much useful analysis of the fundamentalist phenomenon, but it was marred by the common attempt to define a theological perspective in terms of its stylistic by-products. Fundies follow a cluster of theological beliefs–ironically, often the opposite of their reputation–and these beliefs must be understood before they get typified as bullying parents and tight-clustered communities.
Scripture is central to understanding fundamentalism. Not–as they fondly believe–that their theology comes directly out of the Bible. Rather fundies put their whole theology into the scripture, so that their critics are viewed as fighting the Bible rather than the doctrine. Those who say that Beatrice inspired the Divine Comedy don’t mean that she dictated it word for word; fundies, however, interpret “All Scripture is inspired by God . . .” to mean that God dictated it word for word. If you disagree, the fundie regards you as disagreeing with the Bible, not with him.
Similarly, the same man can read “Thou shalt not lie with a man as you would with a woman,” as requiring governmental laws against homosexuality, and injunctions to feed the hungry as forbidding governmental action to feed the hungry (since the injunction was addressed to the individual Christian). Those who disagree in either case are rejecting biblical rules for government.
Having rejected several scholarly translations from the original tongues into modern English, many fundies embraced the “Living Bible” paraphrase. It puts their theology into the Bible for them.
Fundies also fragment the Bible. On the face of it, the Bible consists of various accounts of public history, private visions, letters, etc., gathered together. When the orthodox Protestant reads 1 Corinthians, he reads a part of a long correspondence between Paul and some of his converts. It illumines the Christian lifestyle, but it is someone else’s mail. When the fundie reads 1 Corinthians 7:13, however, he reads a direct message from God to 20th century Christians. Each separate verse is the word of God, whether Paul says it is his own idea or an anonymous editor says it is the advice King Lemuel got from his mother. Fundies avoid context as scrupulously as, and much more successfully than, they avoid sin.
The fragmentation feeds the peculiar fundie relationship with literalism. They claim to take Scripture literally, and some of it they do. The same person who regards Revelation as future history, however, can read “Israel” as “the U.S.A.” and interpret a passage on feeding the poor as ordering “the bread of scripture” to be preached to the unbeliever. When every verse is an uncontexted sliver of message, the question of what is literal and what figurative serves the convenience of the interpreter rather than the pattern of the passage.
Fundamentalism is regarded as the extreme of Protestantism, but it rejects two of the major tenets of the Reformation. Salvation by faith alone is replaced by a set of moralistic works (or, more often, abstentions). The freedom of the individual conscience is replaced by the dictates of the denominational or congregational popelet.
Fundamentalists and religious Liberals accuse each other of baptizing an essentially secular morality. Both are correct. Fundies identify Christianity with the old, rural, conservative morality which regards sex as the domain of morality, respectability as virtue, and property as an extension of the person. Many feel that a good Christian must be a patriot, some that he must be a segregationist.
(Here, however, the theology of fundamentalism continually threatens the culture of fundamentalism. Fundies do read their Bibles, and that reading converts some of them into active Christians. A thousand have rejected segregation because it was unbiblical for every one who rejected it because it was unconstitutional. Sojourners Fellowship and Habitat for Humanity are only two of the organizations which fundies have founded to serve the real needs of the poor in the world.)
Does this theological position lead to the problems cited in the article? To some extent. (Though Ruth Schilling was victim of an ordinary invalid-bully, who didn’t even participate in the fundie Church that Ruth attended.) Certainly where that theology is rare it isolates those kids, and where it is dominant it isolates the doubter. The subtle shift from “Believe in God . . .” to “Believe that . . .” leads into a vicious circle where thought becomes a sin. Emphasis on individual verses and the assumption of infallibility in interpretations can give parental bullies the threat of hellfire along with the threat of a whipping.
Generally, however, Liberty hasn’t made the case that fundies mistreat kids worse, or even differently, than their neighbors of other persuasions.