Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Pure Fundamentalism, Guaranteed: Part Two | 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). Below is the second half of Tim’s interview with rightingamerica.

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.

You make much of the point in the book about the difference between “churchly conservatives,” on the one hand, and fundamentalists on the other. Can you summarize that difference, and why it matters?

“Churchly” is a sort of shorthand name I give to a much older and fundamentally-communal way of being a Christian. Ask a churchly person how they know they have an authentic faith and they’ll say “because I’m an active and sincere member of my church.” For them, church and tradition, creeds and sacraments are central to their faith.

I contrast a churchly orientation with the evangelical orientation (fundamentalists are evangelical in this sense). For evangelicals an authentic faith means, first and foremost, a radically-individualistic “personal relationship with God.” Most conservative evangelicals (but not all) say that church attendance is important, but this only because they think it is helpful to their individual faith—not because it is an essential part of it. Nor do they believe or do something simply because it is what past tradition has always taught; they must be personally persuaded that it is helpful or effective or true.

I make a big deal of this for a few reasons. First, it challenges the unhelpful definitional habits in our field of equating “evangelical” with “conservative.” In fact, for most of its history, the evangelical orientation has been a liberalizing force—whether during the Great Awakening, among nineteenth century sects, or even someone like D. L. Moody. (This is not to minimize the real damage it did to non-Christian faiths, only to say that it was not seeking to maintain the churchly status quo.) Even today, the notion of “spiritual but not religious” faith of someone like Oprah Winfrey partakes in an evangelical orientation.

The “churchly” category also helps us get away from trying to define evangelicalism with traditional doctrinal categories. Doctrine has never been a rallying point for evangelicals. At best, it has been a problem to solve; more often, it has just been ignored. That’s why evangelical “theology” is so disjointed and self-contradictory. Evangelicals are not stupid; rather they just don’t care about systematic theologies. Contrasting it with churchly conservatives who do care about doctrine for its own sake, helps us see this.

Finally, the “churchly” category helps us to better historicize evangelicalism and Protestantism. It helps us situate the birth of evangelicalism in the (primarily British) Enlightenment, and tempers overreaching definitions of Protestantism as religious individualism.

One of the most brilliant parts of Guaranteed Pure has to do with your discussion of the creation of “the fundamentals” as the rallying point for the movement. What’s weird here — but not talked about by fundamentalists themselves — is that not only are “the fundamentals” not rooted in creeds or church history, but there is not agreement among fundamentalists as to what constitutes “the fundamentals.” Could you say something about this?

This gets at one of my big pet peeves. Too many historians of American Protestantism act as if there is this united thing called Protestantism that broke away from Catholicism. But that’s not what happened. Instead, many independent reform movements broke away from the Roman Church around the same time, in different places and under different circumstances. There was no unity between these groups (Lutherans and Calvinists could not broker a cooperative arrangement, and that’s not even including Baptists or Anabaptists or Anglicans.) So what exactly is there about “Protestantism” to conserve? Apart from rejecting the Roman Catholic church, there’s nothing holding Protestant sects together. Thus the later impulse to reject denominations – to simply be a “Society of Friends” or “Christians” — ironically resulted in additional denominations.

All that’s background to The Fundamentals project. This publication was not conserving what was; rather it was attempting to create something that did not yet exist.

What was new about The Fundamentals were the techniques they used to that end. They didn’t rally around a charismatic leader or get a bunch of trained theologians into a room to hash it out. Instead, a small coterie of ministers, evangelists and businessmen—appointed by no one other than the oilman who was funding the project—decided they would formulate the “essentials” of conservative Protestantism.

They created it as one creates a mosaic. Although the project organizers recruited some reputable scholars, it was the organizers, not the authors, who chose the topics. They assembled these bits of and pieces into a whole that few of the participants would have created, or even signed on to, had they been asked. More than this, there were major disagreements among the organizers, contradictions between individual essays, and nothing approaching consensus in the movement that arose in the 1920s. The only thing that everyone agreed on, it seems, was that they didn’t like Biblical higher criticism.

Thus, the major accomplishment of The Fundamentals was to model a set of techniques, borrowed from modern business, to create (and quietly recreate when necessary) a system that appeared coherent (if one did not look closely. What the Protestant essentials entailed changed based on the situation. These same techniques are still used today.

In the book you make the provocative and insightful observation that, in the fusion of capitalism and evangelicalism, “conservative evangelicals [have] effectively hobbled their ability to offer systematic critiques of capitalism.” But in Bill’s review he wonders if your book actually suggests a more radical conclusion. Borrowing from The Communist Manifesto, he posed the following question: “Has evangelical Christianity in the United States simply melted into the capitalist ether, leaving in its place an unholy religious consumerism that is much more about niche brands and market shares than it is about anything faintly recognizable as the Gospel?” How would you respond to this question?

I love this question and agree (mostly) with the basic premise. Without consumer capitalism, the conservative evangelical movement as it operates in the United States today—that network of institutions and celebrity leaders, those assertions about who God is, how God interacts with humanity, how believers engage their faith—all that wouldn’t exist. The religious ecosystem that is evangelicalism and the cultural system it fosters doesn’t hold together without it. Show me a conservative evangelical who rejects the premises of modern consumer capitalism and I’ll show you a person on their way out.

Where I’d stop short is in calling evangelicalism an “unholy” or an “inauthentic” form of Christianity. And I do that because making such evaluative statements is not my business as a historian. To be clear, it certainly is not a form of Christianity I personally have any interest in. I also think it is entirely different animal from the Protestantism that existed in the United States before the Civil War. And post-Trump there’s little evidence that it really promotes the “gospel of love” adherents think it does.

But I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that, because of all this, it therefore this isn’t “real” Christianity. That’s really a fundamentalist move: no different from saying that because liberal Christianity accepts evolution and questions the historicity of biblical miracles and rejects biblical inerrancy and holds a different theory of atonement, it therefore is an entirely different, non-Christian faith. It isn’t.

Also, that claim makes it sound like there is a “real” Christianity “out there,” independent of historical context. I don’t think there is. Religion is culture in the same way that water is hydrogen and oxygen. It is a particular cultural formation that is both unique, but also inextricably entwined with other arenas of human experience.

Could you say a little about your next project?

Yes, my current project tackles the other side of this story—Protestant liberals—in a more systematic way. If what I (and other recent scholars) have claimed about fundamentalism is true, then we need to rework the ways we talk about liberals as well. What were the core differences between fundamentalists and liberals? Why did they have a falling out in the early twentieth century? What were liberals saying about fundamentalists in their correspondence? How were they understanding self and society and ways of knowing and how were they applying it to their religious beliefs and practices? How did they relate to modern capitalism?