Postcards from the Protestant decline in America

Not only possible, but certain. I see personal attitudes coming from actors on both the “left” and the “right” that I consider contrary to a Christian way of approaching life. And I certainly don’t think Donald Trump is “more Christian” than Hillary Clinton was; in fact, I doubt that Trump is Christian at all.

If you summarize the examples so I don’t have to chase after web links and read whole articles, I will respond. Just hit the high points.

My point is that Church doctrine has no obligation to alter itself in order to please political liberals – or political conservatives for that matter. I think that if Christianity were lived out fully in our society, political parties of both the left and the right would be indignant. Or, put another way, I think that today’s political liberals and political conservatives represent only variations of modernity, and that Christianity is at its heart an anti-modern view of the world. That’s why I like it so much. :smile:

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No; I know I’m not a fundamentalist.

They aren’t “artificial”; they are empirically measurable. One can see the difference between Ken Ham, Henry Morris, Duane Gish, etc. (fundamentalists), and C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, Jonathan Swift, Thomas More, etc. (not fundamentalists). Since my understanding of Christianity follows the latter group, I’m not a fundamentalist.

What “commonalities” do standard traditional Christians such as Lewis, Sayers, More, etc. share with fundamentalists, other than simply being Christian? I have little in common with most fundamentalists, beyond the affirmation of generic Christian doctrines which transcend the fundamentalist / non-fundamentalist distinction.

Question: Which of the following groups would you classify as “fundamentalist”? And why?

Jehovah’s Witnesses
Seventh-Day Adventists

Would that include modern views on human rights? Is Christianity against free speech, freedom of religion, democracy, same rights regardless of skin color, women’s suffrage . . what exactly are you referring to?

I don’t insist that the hypothesis is correct, or even the major factor, but I’m surprised that you can’t follow the scenario.

You may recall a bible quotation “by their fruits ye shall know them”. Surely you can understand the possibility of someone looking at the toxic fruits of one branch of Christianity and concluding that the whole tree is bad. For that to be not to be possible everyone would have to think that there’s no such thing as Christianity, only Catholicism and Calvinism and Mormonism and Pentacostalism and Bogomilism and so on. You can argue whether it’s fair or reasonable or logical for people to reject the whole of Christianity for the deeds of a part, but Christians do the same for Islam and Judaism.

I don’t see should need documentation of the flaws of elements of Christianity - Jonathan Burke ascribed the rise in secularism to “hateful religion”. You didn’t argue that the religion wasn’t hateful, you argued that it was the “hateful religion” that caused the rise in secularism, which appeared to be a tacit agreement to the existence of the “hateful religion”.

But if you need exampled, there is as has been mentioned, Fred Phelps and the WBC. But Fred Phelps is a fringe figure, and probably not a great influence. This bigger issue is the way the Evangelicals (and Conservative Catholics) and the Republican Party have adopted the worse features of each other, turning into conjoined twins. So you have Evangelicals treating Donald Trump as a Priest-King, calling defending his policies spiritual warfare, and claiming that Democratic politicians are demon-possessed. There’s the QAnon deep state paedophile conspiracy nonsense - regardless of who’s pushing it at the moment, that comes out of evangelical culture. There’s support of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee policies, including concentration camps and child stealing. There is talk of not only removing access to abortion but also access to contraception. There are proposed laws that miscarriages should be investigated as potential murders. There’s a proposed law that if a doctor treating an ectopic pregnancy does not implant the embryo in the uterus - needless to say this is not feasible - he is guilty of murder.There’s taking healthcare away from millions of Americans, and trying to take it away from more. There are prosperity gospel preachers like Paula White and Creflo Dollar.

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I understand the examples you are giving, and in many cases I would agree with your reactions, but I’m still having trouble co-ordinating this point of yours with the point I was making in my original comments. I was talking mainly about the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches. Most of these actions, views, and attitudes you are talking about come from non-mainline churches, fundamentalist groups, TVevangelists, etc. The mainline church leaders would raise the same complaint that you are raising against the Christian activity you are deploring. The Episcopalians ordain openly homosexual clergy, for example, including bishops. To treat the Episcopalians and the Southern Baptists as if they had the same attitudes would be very misleading.

I was purporting to explain why the liberalization of mainline Protestantism failed to save the membership numbers from free fall. I argued that people are more likely to respect and stay with a church that has high standards and demands something from them, than a church which has low standards and demands nothing from them, not even basic Christian belief in some cases. I was not concluding from this that everything that more conservative Christians say or do is good; I was merely explaining why their churches are stronger and more durable.

I add that “hateful religion” is in the eye of the beholder in many cases. Also, since people use “hateful” loosely, I’m not sure whether you mean literally “hateful” (i.e., religious believers who are full of hate) or “hateable” (religion that deserves to be hated). The two need not coincide. For example, I have heard sincere Roman Catholic priests refer to homosexuality as a disorder that needs to be helped, but not with hatred for the homosexual person in their voice. But to someone who disagrees with the Roman position, that view might be “hateable”. In such a case, calling the priest’s view “hateful” might lead to a mischaracterization of his attitude or motives.

Regarding Trump, I think that the attraction of evangelicals to him is incongruous, given that he probably isn’t a Christian at all. I’m guessing there is a marriage of convenience; Trump and some conservative evangelicals hate many of the same things, so they are allies in some areas, and the evangelicals are able to hold their noses when they think about the fact that Trump is about a religious as a horse’s rear end.

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Christianity is anti-modern in the sense that it promotes heteronomy rather than autonomy (we aren’t answerable only to ourselves, but to a higher being, God), humility rather than self-assertion, charity rather than acquisitiveness, and the quest for wisdom over the quest for power. It’s also much less concerned with what rights we have than with what duties we have.

Christianity needn’t be against democracy, but it doesn’t require democracy. One could have a good Christian monarchy ruled over by a just king, for example. Christianity isn’t intrinsically against free speech – the university was a creation of Medieval Christian Europe, for example, and John Locke’s impassioned defense of toleration of dissenting views would have been unthinkable in a Muslim or Islamic country. Christianity per se has no opposition to freedom of religion (submission to Christ must be voluntary, or it is of no spiritual value), though human beings being what they are, Christians in power have often succumbed to the temptation to impose faith on entire nations. Christianity also had a much less restrictive attitude toward women than most other ancient religious and cultural traditions, and to the extent that in early years it restricted women, it was reflecting worldwide cultural patterns rather than anything specifically Christian. More generally, the whole set of “rights” that we now praise arose (in a stable, steady, and enduring way, as opposed to sporadically) only in Western Christian culture.

But for a Christian, while rights and freedoms are goods, they aren’t the ultimate goods. Higher than even rights and freedoms are living righteously, and relating to others lovingly, and submitting one’s selfish ego to the will of God. This is a characteristically pre-modern view. Moderns, whether of the Left or of the Right, are anthropocentric and tend to absolutize human rights or freedoms. They differ only over which rights or freedoms are to take priority.

Of course, I’m describing the ideal Christianity, not Christianity as it exists in America today. In defending Christianity as an ideal, I’m not defending its particular current incarnation.

And finally, I’m under no illusion that the ideal Christian society is likely to come into existence. Far more likely is something like Brave New World (if the secular humanist liberals have their way) or something like 1984 (if the more paranoid leaders of either the Left or the Right ever gain full power).

If you want some of the sources of my account of Christianity, you could look at Lewis, Sayers, Jonathan Swift, Thomas More, and Thomas Aquinas. But if Christian writing isn’t to your taste, you can still understand something of my attitude to Right and Left politics from reading Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom was a secular Jew, but his analysis of American education and culture and philosophy is something that a Christian can largely accept.

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I am not talking about them, I am talking about you.

I already went through all the commonalities you share with other fundamentalists, last time we had this discussion. Here’s one worth reminding you of.

“That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars . Apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals , scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles.”, Ehrman, ‘Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth’, p. 231 (2012).

That’s quite apt.

All of them. Although there are non-fundamentalist sub-groups and individuals within them (less so the JWS and SDAs, more so the Mormons and Christadelphians), they are all overwhelmingly fundamentalist. Why? For the reasons I gave when describing fundamentalism the last time we had this discussion.


a militant opposition to modernism, both theologically and culturally, is what distinguishes Protestant fundamentalism from its conservative Protestant cousins”, Peter C. Hill and William Paul Williamson, The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (Guilford Press, 2005), 1.

Yes, the fundamentalists conceive of themselves as opposing modern thought. The irony is that their brand of Christianity is a direct product of modernity. A genuinely anti-modern Christian wouldn’t be a fundamentalist, but would be, e.g., a Christian Platonist or Christian Aristotelian.

That’s not what it says. That’s your view, not the view of the author I quoted. According to that author, you bear one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism. And this is the point; you meet the definition of fundamentalism used by other people. In order to avoid the label, you have to invent your own idiosyncratic definition.

[Post re-written to omit objectionable discussion of personal history]

I wrote:

You replied:

I would now like to ask two follow-up questions:

  1. Do you consider yourself to be a Christadelphian?
  2. If the answer to 1. above is “yes,” then, given that you have just described Christadelphians as “fundamentalist,” would you describe yourself as a fundamentalist?
  1. Yes. I’m still a member of the community, meet with other members of the community (in Taiwan, China, Korea, and England in the last year), and fully identify as a Christadelphian.

  2. No. Remember that I already said about those groups “there are non-fundamentalist sub-groups and individuals within them”. I explicitly said not every member of those groups is a fundamentalist.

I know that. I was correcting the author you quoted, because he is wrong. Not wrong in reporting how fundamentalists conceive of themselves, but wrong in accepting their self-conception as an accurate description of the underlying reality. In reality, fundamentalism is a product of modernity. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any elements originating in pre-modern times (it does), but the particular way it articulates things reeks of modernity. Ken Ham, Duane Gish, Henry Morris, etc. all think about religious truth in a much more modern way than did the Greek Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, or even Luther, Calvin, or Wesley.

What I read about Christadelphians seems like a nice group of folks. Nothing radical or fanatical about them. I would fight for their freedom of religious expression in this country and around the world. And @Jonathan_Burke has always been a fine fellow here at PS.


So, you consider yourself to be part of a “non-fundamentalist sub-group” within Christadelphianism, or to be a “non-fundamentalist individual” within Christadelphianism? If so, then I understand what you mean, in broad terms.

Could you help me (and perhaps others) further, by giving a few examples of doctrines and/or approaches held/taken by most or many Christadelphians that you would call “fundamentalist”, and by giving a few examples of doctrines and/or approaches held by most or many Christadelphians that an untutored observer might think of as fundamentalist, but really aren’t?

I used to spend time (wasted time, in retrospect) debating with JWs, who in many respects match the popular notion of “fundamentalists.” Perhaps in your answer you could make use of similarities/differences between the JWs and the Christadelphians, to make you characterizations plainer to me.

You haven’t provided any evidence that he is wrong, and there is no evidence that he is simply uncritically repeating what fundamentalists have told him. This is the author’s own definition, and it agrees with the definition given by other authors.

As much as you attempt to isolate twentieth century fundamentalists from pre-modern Christians, the fact is they are on a continuity. Against modernism, the fundamentalists preserved much of the theological tradition passed on to them by the pre-moderns, including the simplistic, often heavily literalist, unsophisticated exegesis of the pre-critical era. This is why the fundamentalists shares so many of the same exegetical conclusions as the pre-moderns, such as a 7,000 year plan, a 6,000 year old earth/Young Earth Creationism, an anthropologically and geographically global flood, the immortal soul, going to heaven and hell, belief in witches and demons, exorcism, substitutionary atonement (in particular penal substitution), hostility towards the idea that science should modify exegetical conclusions, to name a few.


The same as with other fundamentalists; here’s a non-exhaustive list.

  1. 7,000 year plan (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  2. 6,000 year old earth (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  3. Young Earth Creationism (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  4. Old Earth Creationism.
  5. Anthropologically and geographically global flood (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  6. General hostility to the idea that science should inform exegesis (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  7. Rejection of evolution.
  8. Antipathy towards scientific or generally scholarly consensus, especially on issues such as anthropogenic climate change (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  9. Antipathy towards modern critical methods of exegesis, in particular the historical critical method (this wasn’t prevalent in our community in its earliest years, it was a later development).
  10. Antipathy towards modernism in general.
  11. Intolerance towards outgroup individuals.
  12. Belief that secular legislation should conform to “Christian values”.

I can’t think of any.

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Thank you. For all the faults and flaws of our community, we’ve typically been on the right side of history.

  1. Strong upholders of freedom of conscience.

  2. Strong upholders of the complete separation of church and state, to the extent that we typically do not vote or participate in politics.

  3. Strong upholders of conscientious objection to military service, to the extent that we have been jailed in various countries for resisting conscription (and even shot in Nazi Germany). The conscientious objection law in Canada was established on the basis of a Christadelphian who served as the test case (see here, which includes information on other examples of Christadelphian conscientious objection).

  4. Strong opponents of anti-Semitism, and upholders of the right of the Jews to return to their land. Our community supported the Zionist movement of the late nineteenth century, warned the British government about the rise of Hitler and what would happen to the Jews, warned Jews within Nazi Germany (“During the Nazi years, this led to at least one German Christadelphian to launch her own personal campaign, going to different Jewish households and urging each to emigrate”, page 202), and were active participants in the Kindertransport movement which helped Jewish children escape Nazi Germany. The history of most Christian groups at this time (especially Protestant groups), is far less savoury, to say the least.

  5. Active participation in social welfare and social justice activities around the world, including orphanages, leper colonies, and schools.


I’m not exactly sure if it’s worth continuing the discussion but when it comes to “what is fundamentalism?” I have found Roger Olson to be helpful. He is a Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at Baylor University and has done a lot of work on cults, evangelicalism, and Arminian theology. Here is an extended section from Roger’s blog:

In The Case for Orthodox Theology he [Edward John Carnell] wrote that “ Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.” (113) (Italics not added) There Carnell distinguished between fundamentalism as a movement and fundamentalism as a mentality . (113) (Italics added) For Carnell, fundamentalism as a movement simply began as a new emphasis among Protestants on the fundamental doctrines of historic, orthodox Christianity. It began as a movement to combat the rise of liberal theology and higher biblical criticism of the Bible in mainline Protestant denominations and their schools. But then it adopted a distinct religious mentality .

Here is how Carnell rightly described the fundamentalist mentality: “The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant, and doctrinaire; it sees principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white; it exempts itself from the limits that original sin places on history; it wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old ones.” (114)

So how do I identify—for myself, my students, and anyone else who cares what I think—a true fundamentalist ? When talking about those churches and individuals who proudly call themselves fundamentalists and speak openly disparagingly about Billy Graham and “neo-evangelicals” and who insist that the KJV of the Bible is the only true Bible in the English language, my job is easy. The problem arises when I encounter people who promote themselves as “evangelicals” but I suspect are really more what Carnell meant by fundamentalists. (And it was not only Carnell who meant this; he was only expressing what most evangelical Christian leaders in 1959 thought.)

Here is what I look for—a critical mass of spiritual-theological “symptoms” that I find common to and almost unique (in terms of emphasis and influence) among a particular tribe of American Protestant Christians.

  1. A tendency to elevate doctrines historically considered “secondary” (non-essentials) to the status of dogmas such that anyone who questions them questions the gospel itself.
  2. A tendency to eschew “Christian fellowship” with fellow evangelical Christians considered doctrinally “impure” along with a tendency to misrepresent them in order to influence others to avoid them.
  3. A tendency to “hunt” for “heresies” among fellow evangelical Christians and to reward fellow fundamentalists who “find” and “expose” them—even where said “heresies” are not truly heresies by any major confessional standards shared among evangelical Protestants.
  4. A tendency to place doctrinal “truth” above ethics such that misrepresenting others’ views in order to exclude or marginalize them, if not get them fired, is considered justified.
  5. A tendency to be obsessed with “liberal theological thinking” that leads to seeing it where it does not exist along with a tendency to be averse to all ambiguity or uncertainty about doctrinal and biblical matters.

Evangelical Christians like to differentiate themselves from fundamentalist Christians, and I think there is a real distinction. However, I’ve have seen secular scholars (like Bart Ehrman) label any NT scholar with conservative opinions and/or confessional commitments to be “fundamentalist”. Even NT Wright has been accused of being an “book-a-year apologist” and compared to a creationist in the field of NT studies.


Of course there is some continuity, as I already granted. But you keep missing the forest for the trees. Your examples show that you think that my distinction between pre-modern and modern is one focused exclusively or primarily on differences in Biblical exegesis and theology. But as I keep trying to tell you (and the examples of Lewis, More, Swift, etc. should have been sufficient to make the point), I have a bigger picture in mind. I’m looking at the bigger picture of Western thought, one which includes not only changes in Christianity over time but also changes in philosophy, art, and other facets of culture.

When I talk about the differences between modern and pre-modern thought, my thought is shaped by the analyses of acute historians of ideas, historians of philosophy, etc. You will find such analyses in the writings of Karl Lowith, Jacob Klein, Allan Bloom, Eric Voegelin, Alasdair MacIntyre, Peter Berger, Theodore Roszak, and others. In the bigger picture of things, the characteristic “modernness” of just about everybody who lives in the modern age – including fundamentalists – looms relatively larger, and the differences (that fundamentalists believe in global floods and special creation) seem relatively smaller.

The typical American fundamentalist thinks of himself as inhabiting the flat, mechanical universe sketched out by Hobbes etc. (created by God to be sure, but devoid of numinous significance), and his notion of religious truth, of how to read religious texts, etc. is just as flat, mechanical, and spiritless. His almost liturgy-free worship (quite often reduced to “three hymns and a sermon” in a boxy building virtually stripped of anything like beauty in its interior furnishings) is all of a piece with this. His stiff and defensive reading of Genesis is light years away from the daring, imaginative readings one can find in, say, the medieval Jewish midrashic literature. The fundamentalist is perfectly suited to live in a drab, commercial, technological society characterized by universal literacy (not very sophisticated literacy, but universal) – he is comfortable in the basically secular atmosphere of modernity, as long as the secular state and society around him leaves him free to worship as he pleases and believe and say what he pleases about God, salvation, the Bible, etc. He doesn’t long for the return of the older, pre-modern organic society with all its cultural subtleties.

The fundamentalist (there are always exceptions, but I’m speaking of the majority) is not of a visionary, mystical, or metaphysical temperament. His life is prosaic, not poetic. He is uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and prefers life on every level to be structured around “right” vs. “wrong” answers. (Hence, more fundamentalists are attracted to engineering than to cosmology, and few of them are professors of poetry or drama or ancient philosophy or comparative religion or comparative literature, because in all these areas, straightforward right and wrong answers are hard to come by;
and when they study the Bible, they are more focused on “proving” that an event was historical, because then they can deal with tractable things like empirical data, and much less interested in the literary or philosophical implications of what they are reading, since it is impossible to deal fruitfully with those questions without adopting a different mindset.) None of this is surprising in a world shaped in all kinds of subtle ways by Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, and Kant.

Now compare modern Christians who are heavily influenced by pre-modern rather than modern thought. Compare Edward Feser, the Thomist-Aristotelian, with Ken Ham. Does Feser sound even remotely like Ham? Compare Dean Inge, the Christian Platonist, with Henry Morris. Does he sound at all like Morris? Lewis writes novels about planetary spirits ruling Mars etc., Merlin being resurrected to fight a plot between scientists and demons to conquer the world, etc. Can one imagine Duane Gish doing so? These Christians (Lewis etc.) live in the modern world, but are not of the modern world. They think in many ways like pre-moderns; they are misfits within modernity.

But Ham etc. fit right in. The whole “evidence that demands a verdict” school of apologetics, which many fundamentalists are so fond of, reeks of the spirit of modernity. (Can one imagine a medieval mystic, or a Russian Orthodox novelist or poet, or Simone Weil, or Charles Williams, writing about the truth of Christianity in such a way?)

Sure, the fundamentalists reject some modern scientific conclusions, but the way they get at life is mechanical, analytical, and non-visionary – just like the way Dawkins, Coyne, Dennett, etc. get at life. There are differences in theology, sure, but the psychology (there must be simple right and wrong answers) is much the same. But a Platonist or Aristotelian thinks entirely differently. And I’m a Platonist, and as such, about equally repelled by Dawkins and by fundamentalism. I reject many of the modern assumptions they share in common.

I think it’s clear to everyone on this site from this, and from other things that I’ve written against Ham etc., that I’m in no way a fundamentalist. If you insist on continuing to call me one, you are simply refusing to pay attention to my own explicit statements.

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