The Fundamentalists Love My Cousin
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Every now and then during one of the Newcomer’s events we host here at the church a new person will say with a sigh of relief, “I like this place because you practice what you preach; you really live out what you say you stand for.” And I’m quick to say, “wait around a little, …” I’m quick to point out that we’re a bunch of hypocrites here just like every religious community you’ll bump into because every faith community worth its mettle calls its people to be more than they are. Every religious community holds out ideals by which the people measure themselves – ideals that are like the North Star that we can point to but can not reach. In this respect we’re no different. We fail to live up to our ideals just like every one else. What I think Unitarian Universalism does have that perhaps fulfills something of what these newcomers see in us is our commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique.
We say we believe in diversity: racial, economical, and theological; and yet we must regularly look around at one another and ask how we are doing on those counts. We say there is not a litmus test to membership. There is no creed you must subscribe to and neither is there a political or social issue that you must accept before you are accepted. And yet we need to call ourselves on that count from time to time. We say we honor all faith perspectives and encourage one another to find the valuable truths contained within all the world’s religions, and in particular we honor all people who strive to live as their faith or philosophy calls them to live. But sometimes we need to look around and listen to the way we talk to find out if we are perhaps not living up to this ideal, to check if we are perhaps being hypocrites in this regard from time to time. And it is toward this last illustration of the pattern that I have been steering. Now and then I see we are not as respectful of certain other religious perspectives as we claim to be.
Many individual Unitarian Universalists tell a story of breaking away from an old set of beliefs; a rejection that echoes the broader story of Unitarian Universalist history. The pattern for our tradition began by breaking away – rejecting old ideas and practices, casting out useless and worn out creeds – breaking away, then struggling with a new identity based on a minority opinion of conscience, followed by eventually joining together with others in a community based on religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery. This story of how Unitarianism and Universalism began is similar to the story numerous individuals go through to reach our doors today. Many Unitarian Universalist came to this faith after leaving the religion in which they were raised. Of those who fit that experience, most of them by far have left Christian roots behind to join with this community. One impact of this is that Christianity, among all other faith tradition, holds a unique relationship for us. Unitarian Universalists have been accused of secretly (and sometimes not-so-secretly) harboring an anti-Christian sentiment.
For a variety of reason the Fundamentalist Christians carry the greatest portion of this sentiment, it seems. Fundamentalism has been described to me by colleagues and congregants as ignorant, brain-washing, evil, and/or dangerous. Fundamentalism is defined in the dictionary as any movement, though usually a religious movement, characterized by “a return to fundamental principles;” it is also marked by rigid obedience to these principles and typically an “intolerance of other views.” (The American Heritage Dictionary) By this definition, any faith tradition can have a fundamentalist streak within it. Or any political, social, or academic philosophy can take on the ‘fundamentalist’ label provided it is a return to fundamental principles, strict obedience to said principles, and intolerance of other perspectives. Technically, there could be a Unitarian Universalist fundamentalism by this definition. It could happen; and, arguably, has been attempted. There recently was a group calling itself the American Unitarian Conference, which listed as its primary mission a return to Unitarianism as expressed by William Ellery Channing. But that is a tangent from my point which merely was to illustrate that it could happen.
Fundamentalism is not limited to the American phenomenon of Christian Fundamentalism. Our own Dick Antoun has written a book about Fundamentalism, a book I might add that appears as an authoritative source cited on the online encyclopedia, Wikapedia, under the topic of Fundamentalism. Antoun lifts out the parallels among Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Fundamentalisms such as the quest for purity, scriptural inerrancy with selective modernization, and the reverence of a mythic past. It is an excellent comparative guide. This morning I wish, however, to compare not the different forms of Fundamentalism, but one specific form of it compared with our own faith tradition.
Christian Fundamentalism is the brand of Fundamentalism which was the first to adorn itself with that moniker. Other groups that are given the label ‘Fundamentalist’ have rebelled against the tag due to its negative connotation. Fundamentalists are viewed as backward-thinking, ignorant, extremists who are prone to fanaticism. This is an unfair caricature. As one historian writes, “Fundamentalism looked implausible to everyone who stood outside it. But within the movement there were dedicated and intelligent people who provided highly informed arguments for their case.” (Marty, Martin. Modern Religion Vol. 2: 1919 – 1941, p161)
Historically, Fundamentalism is an American Protestant Christian phenomenon from the post-WWI era. As a movement, it started among conservative Evangelicals. The purpose was to reaffirm traditional conservative Christianity and to “defend it against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other “-isms” it regarded as harmful to Christianity.” (Wikapedia: Fundamentalism) Martin Marty, author and religious historian, defines Fundamentalism as a response to modernity.
If you recall Unitarian Universalist history, you may note that Unitarianism and Universalism are both specific Liberal Religious responses to Orthodoxy Christianity. What I’m pointing out now is that Fundamentalism is a specific Orthodox Christian response to Liberal Religion. In one sense Fundamentalism and Unitarian Universalism are doomed to an adversarial relationship as each is the embodiment of what the other exists to refute! Sadly, this mere fact occasionally results is wildly hypocritical statements against fundamentalists from our corner.
Now, I am not suggesting that we have no right to offer critique to the Fundamentalist movement. Indeed I have done so myself from time to time. What I would like to suggest is a thoughtful critique. For that we need to have some understanding of the perspective of a Fundamentalist.
From where I sit, it looks to me like all Fundamentalism offers its people is rules and fear. It asks them to be obedient first and to think about things second. It teaches them that doubt is a weakness of faith. When there is an apparent conflict between Life as it is experienced and Life as it is described in scripture, Fundamentalism demands that its adherents trust scripture first. At least, that is what it looks like from where I’m sitting; which may not tell you very much about Fundamentalism beyond why I am not part of it.
So what is the lure? What does it offer that is so attractive that all these critiques I level against it mean little to nothing for those who call themselves Fundamentalists? One thing it offers is certainty. To have the answers! That is unquestionably a draw for countless believers.
It offers a crystal-clear certainty that cuts through all confusion and anxiety. It offers security and comfort. Life is hard; there are troubles and pitfalls galore. To know with iron-clad conviction that there are bad people out there causing this trouble that will be punished by God’s divine justice is very comforting – especially when you have suffered. And what’s more: to know that there are bad people out there and that you are not one of them is an immense relief – offering a profound security and comfort. The simplicity, the pure simplicity of the message is a powerful draw. But I think the biggest attraction is not the certainty, the simplicity, or the security: it is just belonging. The one thing that matters is that you are a member of the saved and all you had to do was accept the Fundamental beliefs! Nothing else matters. You can be rich or poor, Caucasian or Latina, educated or a high-school drop-out. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you believe; everything else is secondary.
In my reading I stumbled across a cleverly imagined dialogue between a Fundamentalist and Liberal written by Walter Lippmann, a prominent philosopher from the early 1900’s when Fundamentalism was forming. Lippmann worked hard to be objective so as to achieve a better understanding of the dynamics at play. Back at that time the terms for the two sides were Fundamentalist and Modernist. The Modernist begins characteristically saying to the Fundamentalist:
“We can at least discuss it like gentlemen, without heat, without rancor.” The Fundamentalist then would ask: “Has it ever occurred too you that this advice is easier for you to follow than for me?” The Modernist would be put off: “How so?” Then the Fundamentalist would reveal his involvement. “Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which mean anything to your happiness.” It is hard to picture either Modernists or liberals recognizing their own side in that point, but for Lippmann this was an accurate rendering of the circumstance. His Fundamentalist went on, revealing the emotions of at least one side. “Your suggestion that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and commit suicide.” (Marty, Martin. Modern Religion Vol. 2: 1919 – 1941, p162-3)
For a Fundamentalist the stakes are very high. To be true to their faith they need to try to convert you, to save you. It is part of how they live out their faith; it is the logical response to the principles of their faith and the fact of their love for you. As a Unitarian Universalist, to be true to your faith you need to be open and tolerant even of Fundamentalists. There is no way for this to be other than a conflict – if we each strive to be true to our principles. And Unitarian Universalists are always telling everybody to be true to their principles!
From the perspective of the Fundamentalist it is as if you and I are leaning out of the window of a burning building asking if they would kindly come in and have a cup of tea. Or we ask them to simply tolerate our views and leave us alone. What, however, are they to do if they truly love us? What if you saw your sibling, your child, your very dear friend leaning out of the window of a building on fire? Would you not shout in alarm? Would you not scream at them to get out? And if they said to you, “There is no such thing as fire, you’re belief that my building in on fire is not my problem, it is yours; can’t we talk about something else?” while the fire crackles and sputters voraciously around them! That is what it is like for them! And from a Fundamentalist’s perspective, this illustration is not a metaphor, but a fundamental reality.
The world according to Fundamentalism is almost diametrically opposite from the world according to Unitarian Universalism except in a few important regards. One exception is that for both groups it is important to live your life with integrity to your principles. This commonality is largely why we end of on opposite sides of many social and theological issues, but it is a basic commonality nonetheless! Both traditions expect their members to put the faith in action and to live with integrity to the basic principles. Another major trait both groups share is a commitment to love. The basic statement of any brand of Christianity is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This trait in Unitarian Universalism is one simple indication that that we do still today have traces of our Christian heritage. The Fundamentalists and the Unitarian Universalists have different ways of showing that love, but both groups share love’s commitment. And, both groups are populated by regular people who fail to live up to the high principles and the call to love. Both faith traditions are populated by hypocrites.
I trust that for a significant number of us here this morning this topic is not merely academic. I trust that many of us have a dear friend or a relative who is a fundamentalist or at least a conservative evangelical. (If such is not the case, I suggest you may need to get out more.) My hope for each of us is that when we do fall into an adversarial conversation about faith with a fundamentalist friend or cousin that we will remember to be humble and loving. We are allowed to respectfully disagree, but we’re not allowed to be mean. Conversation does not equal conversion. And if it helps, remember they are our brothers and sisters in faith; they love us and only want what is best for us. And I trust the same could be said of what we want for them.
In a world without end
May it be so.