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Lecture 23: The New Religious Right

May 21, 1999



[e]vents have taken religious studies by surprise…. No one foresaw the recent revivals of traditional religious forms…. [N]o one foretold the resurgence of Islam…. Habituated as we are to Catholic bishops supporting reactionary forces in South America, who was ready to interpret their radical politics in other parts of that continent? The civil war conducted in Lebanon in the rival names of Catholicism and Islam was not on the syllabus of courses in religious change, any more than was the terrorism always threatening to turn the strife of Irish Catholic and Protestants into civil war…. [T]he explicitly Catholic uprising in Poland, which evokes deep Western admiration, was as unpredicted as the rise of the fundamentalist churches in America.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas 1982


Fundamental assumption of secularization theory: conditions of modern life undermine religious belief, practice & institutions.


Fundamental issue: "whether religion is optional, something some individuals and some cultures do and others don’t, or compulsory, something like politics or economics that some individuals and some cultures are more interested in than others but that none can avoid" (Robert Bellah, "Introduction" to Religion and America: Spirituality in a Secular Age (1983) edited by Mary Douglas and Steven M. Tipton )


In religious studies, we are far from even a minimal consensus on issue of secularization.


The term, "fundamentalism," derives from a series of publications called "The Fundamentals" (1910-1915).


 Five definitions or approaches:
  1. subjective: what the term, "fundamentalism," means to believers or movement participants;
  2. sociohistorical: focus is on public action and social consequences with an eye to the historical meanings & political content of fundamentalism;
  3. analytical: theoretical interest in fundamentalism as a kind of anti-modernism marked by a "value-oriented dedifferentiation" (Lechner in Swatos, Jr., ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society 1998: 197);
  4. broadly: fundamentalism as a revolt against modernity; &,
  5. global: fundamentalism as "a modern form of politicized religion by which self-styled ‘true believers’ resist the marginalization of religion in their respective societies" (Appleby in Wuthnow, ed., Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion 1998: 280).


George Marsden, "Preachers of Paradox" attributes scholarly surprise at resurgence of religious right to neglect of history of evangelicalism & to lack of appreciation of complexities of various evangelical traditions.


Fundamentalism consists of a variety of traditions: some intellectualized, others highly emotional; some elitist, others not; some oriented to public affairs, others more privatized & withdrawn from world.


American fundamentalism emerged in the late 19th century stressing literal interpretation & complete accuracy of Bible.


Distinctiveness: militant stance against modern theology & secular humanism.


Fundamentalism linked w/ turn of century Holiness & Pentecostal traditions. All three traditions developed as Protestant religious-moral consensus dissipated at turn of century.


Theology of "dispensational premillenialism"

"Dispensationalism" divides history into several periods.

"Premillinialism" posits seven dispensations from the Innocence in Eden to the Kingdom of God in the millennium.

"Millenialism": thousand-year reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-10).

Upshot: Dispensationalism fosters separatism reinforcing withdrawal from public life seen as corrupt.

Major point: it is, however, misleading to mark fundamentalist-evangelical traditions "as generally private."

Marsden stresses affinity fundamentalists have for technology.


Paradoxes of fundamentalism:
  1. uncivil argumentativeness & accommodating attitudes necessary for influence & evangelizing effectively;
  2. otherworldly & privatisitic orientation & a patriotism bordering on jingoism & interest in the moral and political well-being of the nation;
  3. individualism & strong, often authoritarian communities;
  4. emphasis on subjective religious experience & its rationalistic bent when it comes to how we know things;
  5. anti-intellectualism & emphasis on education God’s service.


Major point: Fundamentalism "is filled with more ambiguity & paradox than most of its proponents, or its opponents, realize."
What is "modernity" against which fundamentalists are revolting?


Bellah sketches the presuppositions of modern ideology as follows:

Positivism: requires "a methodology that would be as close to the assumed objectivism of natural science as possible. In psychology this meant the use of experiments; in economics and sociology it meant the quantification of data an its statistical manipulation wherever possible."

Reductionism: "the tendency to the complex in terms of the simple and to find behind complex cultural forms [e.g., religion] biological, psychological, or sociological drives, needs, and interests."

Relativism: "assumes that matters of morality and religion, being explicable by particular constellations psychological and sociological conditions, cannot be judged as true or false, valid or invalid, but will vary with persons, cultures, and societies."

Determinism: "assumes that human actions can be explained in terms of ‘variables’ that will account for them" (Bellah et al. The Good Society 1991: 162).


For social science, in these regards embodying the very ethos of modernity, there is no cosmos, that is, no whole relative to which human action makes sense. There is, of course, no God, or any other ‘ultimate’ reality, but there is no nature either in the traditional sense of a creation or expression of transcendent reality. Similarly no social relationship can have any sacramental quality. No social form can reflect or be infused with a divine or cosmological significance. Rather every social relationship can be explained in terms of its social or psychological utility. Finally, though the social scientist says a lot about the ‘self,’ he [or she] has nothing to say about the soul. The very notion of soul entails a divine or cosmological context that is missing in modern thought. To put the contrast in another way, the traditionally religious view found the world intrinsically meaningful. The drama of personal and social existence was lived out in the context of continual cosmic and spiritual meaning. The modern view finds the world intrinsically meaningless, endowed with meaning only by individual actors, and the societies they construct, for their own ends.

(Bellah, "Biblical Religions and Social Science" in The National Institute for Campus Ministries Journal, Summer 1981, Vol. 6, No. 3:10-11).