Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Pure Fundamentalism, Guaranteed: Part One | Righting America

by Tim Gloege and William Trollinger

In the “Suggested Readings” section of Righting America (313-316) we note that “in the twenty-first century, the study of American fundamentalism has really come into its own, with a surfeit of outstanding works, many of which pay close attention to economics and politics.” One of the very best of these books is Timothy Gloege’s Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (2015). In this post and the next we feature Tim’s interview with Righting America, which includes discussion of the book’s main arguments and their implications, and which should induce readers to read the book for themselves! (See also Bill’s glowing review of Guaranteed Pure.)

Tim Gloege is a historian and independent scholar based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his Ph.D. in United States History from the University of Notre Dame in 2007. His first book, Guaranteed Pure, was published by the University of North Carolina Press. Most recently, he contributed an essay to The Business Turn in American Religious History (edited by Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem, and John Corrigan). Thanks to a grant from the Louisville Institute, he is researching a second book on Protestant liberals in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. You can follow Tim on Twitter @timgloege.

How did you end up writing on this topic? Why fundamentalism, and why Moody Bible Institute?

I started writing on fundamentalism while working on a MA degree as an attempt to understand my personal background. (I was raised in this milieu, though I found myself increasingly out of step with it.) When I started a history Ph.D. at Notre Dame I thought I was done with fundamentalism. But I got sucked back into the topic while reading for my comprehensive exams. I realized there was an untold story about the intersection of fundamentalism and consumer capitalism, and that I was in a good position to tell it.

Using the Moody Bible Institute (MBI) to tell this story was an obvious choice. A key figure in its history was Henry Parsons Crowell, who helped modernize MBI in the early 1900s, and who is known to business historians as President of Quaker Oats and one of the pioneers of modern marketing techniques. And as I continued to research, I stumbled upon faith healers, labor uprisings, and corporate barons. What more could you ask for?

What do you mean when you say in your introduction that, in fundamentalism, conservative evangelical leaders created a “new form of ‘old-time religion’ that was not only compatible with modern consumer capitalism but also uniquely dependent on it”?

One of the major findings of the book is that fundamentalism’s reputation as “traditional” is itself a fundamentalist invention. And they created this impression by using modern promotional techniques, developed in the 1880s, that corporations have been using ever since. But it wasn’t just specific techniques. The ways that they understood self and society were also taken from modern capitalism. Unlike other forms of Christianity, they treated believers and potential converts as modern consumers (rather than citizens or family members). Saving faith was a product to be acquired, not a pilgrimage, as the Puritan John Bunyan imagined it. All that to say that conservative evangelicalism—what we think of as “old time religion” today—is radically dependent upon modern consumer capitalism in a way that other forms of Christianity are not.

In our work on young Earth creationism we have been struck by how many creationists have backgrounds in engineering (including, at Answers in Genesis, the ubiquitous Bodie Hodge). This is no surprise to you, given that, in Guaranteed Pure, you make the point that there is a strong connection between business, law, and engineering and conservative evangelicalism. Why is this the case, and how does this relate to the fundamentalist rejection of Darwinism?

Many historians have tried to explain the differences between fundamentalists and liberals as the difference between old and new, “anti-modern” and “modern.” But a number of scholars (myself included) think this obscures more than it reveals. It suggests, for example, that people can live independent of their social and cultural context, which of course goes against the core insight of the historical profession.

So how do we explain the difference? My reading of the evidence suggests that there are two fundamentally different “modernities” at work. One of these, the one in which fundamentalism is rooted, is also foundational to modern business, our legal system, engineering, and medicine. The other is rooted in post-Darwinian science.

Take our understanding of “the self” and its relationship to society. Our political, economic, and legal systems presume an Enlightenment understanding of the self as a rational, autonomous, decision-making individual. We are who we are (and do what we do) because of the choices we make. Societies are simple aggregates of individuals, nothing more. A scientific understanding of humanity starts at a different place. The self is, at root, a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and environment. Individual choices are always encumbered, constrained, and shaped by many factors beyond an individual’s control. Societies and social systems are more than the sum of their parts; each has their own logic that affect those who are enmeshed in it.

You can map most major political debates to these different understandings of the self: poverty, drug abuse, racism, sexism, LGBTQ rights, and so on. Evangelicalism’s intrinsic individualism aligns them on the Enlightenment side of these debates.

The second major distinction has to do with how knowledge is created: the process or method of investigation. Once again, law, business, and especially engineering cluster together. They focus on reaching a specific goal and using whatever method is best for getting you there. The other approach, common in academic research, focuses on creating and executing a specific method of investigation and then accepting whatever results that method produces. The first method works great if you are an engineer wanting to build a bridge or increase battery life. It is great for a defense attorney trying to muster the best defense for a client or a doctor treating a specific disease. The other approach is best for open-ended investigation. It’s the method we historians use and it regularly produces surprising and unexpected results.

Where things go wrong is when the engineering/legal approach is applied to an unsuitable scientific or historical question. This explains why so many fundamentalist projects go so terribly wrong, since this is the only valid mode of knowledge creation they recognize. Creation science isn’t trying to discover the origins of life. It’s trying to prove what they think they already know: that God created all species directly and the human race out of the dust of the earth. They are not discovering truth, they are solving a problem. Nor are fundamentalists trying to discover the complex history of the ancient biblical text; rather they are proving that God inspired an inerrant text. They are not investigating whether America was founded as a Christian nation, but proving that the founders were all “orthodox” Christians who saw the world as they do today.

And it’s not just fundamentalists who are guilty of this. Oil companies try to disprove global warming. Secular libertarians try to prove free markets fix everything and government “interference” makes everything worse. Drug companies try to prove that their multibillion dollar drug is safe and effective. Intentionally or not, all are making the same basic mistake.