These days, the term “fundamentalism” is often associated with a militant form of Islam.
But the original fundamentalist movement was actually Christian. And it was born in the United States a century ago this year.
Protestant fundamentalism is still very much alive. And it has fueled today’s culture war over gender, sexual orientation, science and American religious identity.
Christian fundamentalism has roots in the 19th century, when Protestants were confronted by two challenges to traditional understandings of the Bible.
Throughout the century, scholars increasingly evaluated the Bible as a historical text. In the process they raised questions about its divine origins, given its seeming inconsistencies and errors.
In addition, Charles Darwin’s 1859 book “On the Origin of Species” – which laid out the theory of evolution by natural selection – raised profound questions about the Genesis account of creation.
Many American Protestants easily squared their Christian faith with these ideas. Others were horrified.
Conservative theologians responded by developing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy asserts that the Bible is errorless and factually accurate in everything it says – including about science.
This doctrine became the theological touchstone of fundamentalism. Alongside inerrancy emerged a system of ideas, called apocalyptic or “dispensational premillennialism.”
Adherents of these ideas hold that reading the Bible literally – particularly the Book of Revelation – reveals that history will end soon with a ghastly apocalypse.
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All those who are not true Christians will be slaughtered. In the wake of this violence, Christ will establish God’s millennial kingdom on Earth.
After Woodrow Wilson’s April 1917 declaration of war on Germany, the government mobilized a huge propaganda campaign designed to demonize the Germans as barbarous Huns who threatened Western civilization. Many conservative Protestants traced Germany’s devolution into depravity to its embrace of Darwinism and de-emphasis of the Bible’s divine origins.
Six months after the war’s end, William Bell Riley – pastor of Minneapolis’ First Baptist Church and a well-known speaker on the Bible’s prophecies regarding the end of history – organized and presided over the World’s Conference on Christian Fundamentals in Philadelphia.
Soon, Riley and his newly minted fundamentalists began trying to capture control of major Protestant denominations and eliminate the teaching of Darwinian evolution from American public schools.
The anti-evolution crusade had some success in the South. Five states passed laws banning the theory of evolution from classrooms.
It continued to advance during the 20th century. And it remained remarkably consistent in its central commitments of biblical inerrancy, apocalyptic premillennialism, creationism and patriarchy – the idea that women are to submit to male authority in church and home.
Fundamentalists also embraced political conservatism. This commitment grew more intense as the 20th century progressed.
In the late 1970s, Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell Sr.'s “Moral Majority” sought to make America Christian again by electing “pro-family, pro-life, pro-Bible morality” candidates.
Since the 1980s, the movement has become increasingly sophisticated. Christian Right organizations like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women of America push for laws that reflect the fundamentalist views on everything from abortion to sexual orientation.
By the time Falwell died, in 2007, the Christian Right had become the most important constituency in the Republican Party. It played a crucial role in electing Donald Trump in 2016.