Monty Knight: Evangelical or Fundamentalist?

When one reads or hears the media’s use of the word “evangelical” these days, referring to particular forms of Protestant Christian political posturing, is it more precisely a reference to Protestant Christian “fundamentalism”? The latter term has become chronically confused with the former, but they mean something quite different.

The English word “evangelical” is a transliteration of a similar sounding Greek word in the Christian New Testament meaning “gospel.” As in Mark 1: 15 where Jesus is quoted saying “. . . believe the gospel.” Anyone, then, who believes the gospel is an “evangelical” Christian. And what is the gospel? Perhaps the most familiar answer is found in John 3: 16-17, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

“Fundamentalism” is not a Bible word. Among Protestant Christians, it first appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in reaction to modern science-- the theory of evolution in particular--and the development of a more critical study of the scriptures, supplementary to traditional confessional and devotional practice. Such so-called “higher criticism” included increased knowledge of the biblical languages and further ancient Near Eastern archaeological discoveries.

If the 1925 Scopes Trial may seem a relic, fundamentalist politicians today continue to try to turn biology into religion classes in our public schools despite the vigilant efforts of concerned educators who explain that the Bible isn’t a science book any more than the empirical method that is science has anything to do with morality and/or spirituality. Both make important truth claims—religion and science—but in quite different ways. And one can be as arrogantly ignorant of one as of the other.

Fundamentalists claim to interpret the Bible literally. Except such “literal” interpreting is highly selective. If fundamentalists may ignore numerous biblical prohibitions against usury while emphasizing the apparent inferior status of women in scripture, they commonly promote economic theory and practice that contradicts almost everything Jesus is believed to have ever said on the subject and just as persistently avoid Jesus’ wholesale denouncing of violence. The ambiguous thing about the Bible is that you can get it to support almost anything, even slavery, depending on what you’re looking for.

Whether hiding behind an evangelical label or not, fundamentalist political priorities today have morphed into an obsession with women’s health choices and the tragedy of abortion and the complexity of anyone’s primary sexual orientation, subjects which the Bible doesn’t address anywhere close to how fundamentalists would claim.

To think of abortion as “tragic” is, after all, what the classic definition of the term means. Since truly tragic circumstances are when none of our available options can be construed as in any way “good.”

With respect to human sexuality, the Bible can certainly be interpreted as addressing the important matter of sexual ethics, even as understood today: “Thou shalt not exploit, nor allow thyself to be exploited.” Since the Bible is not a science book, it does not, however, speak to a modern understanding of human sexual orientation any more than it provides a modern understanding of cosmology.

Protestant Christian Fundamentalism has also produced “dispensationalism,” popularized in America by the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible, by Hal Lindsey’s sensational 1970 The Late Great Planet Earth and the 1995 hyper-successful series of Left Behind novels and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Dispensationalism promotes the pro-modern-Israel political extremism represented by the recent symbolic moving of our nation’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.