Jonathan J. Edwards is Instructor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. His book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism, was published in April by Michigan State University Press. In it, Edwards examines fundamentalist politics since the early 20th century, from the early days of separation to the rise of the modern megachurch.
ECM: What prompted you to write a book about fundamentalism? It’s a pretty slippery term.
JJE: This project started out at Northwestern University as a dissertation proposal on the political influence of American megachurches, but I discovered pretty quickly that, in and of themselves, megachurches were not nearly as interesting (or unique) as they seemed at first. What did interest me was a narrative tension that kept popping up in my research between local churches and a constructed “enemy,” variously described in terms of ecumenical federation, superchurch confederacy, a world church, and secular humanism.
As I studied further, it became clear that, while some authors had fixated on some of the more public aspects of this tension (e.g., the Moral Majority vs. secular humanism in the late 1970s), no one had studied its roots and evolution in depth. That became the focus of my eventual dissertation project and ultimately this book. By focusing on how the tension evolved, I’m able to provide more comprehensive (and hopefully more persuasive) explanations for the relationships that exist between the religious beliefs and political demands of Christian conservatives.
As for the word fundamentalism, “slippery” is a pretty good way to describe it. For practical purposes, there are two relevant definitions. On the one hand, fundamentalism refers to a specific movement within Protestant Christianity, which coalesced around a set of inter-church disputes in the early twentieth century. For my work, that definition includes groups who call themselves “fundamentalists,” but it also includes contemporary Christian evangelicals who would reject the label but who are—knowingly or not—party to the same disputes and tensions.
On the other hand, fundamentalism has become a kind of catch-all term for describing movements or orientations that are both politically significant and militantly irrational.
Basically, it’s a word we use to denigrate perspectives and people we don’t like.
Usually this second definition is linked with religion—as when people talk about Islamic fundamentalism—but not always. For example, you’ll see authors who write about market fundamentalism or political fundamentalism. All this is confusing, and that’s part of the reason many authors choose to save themselves the trouble and avoid the term altogether.
Despite the difficulties that the term presents, however, the concept of fundamentalism is important to me for a couple of reasons.
First, it more clearly highlights the stakes for many Christian conservatives who enter into politics. When fundamentalists and evangelicals rally against abortion or same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not primarily about their right to stand on a street corner and preach good news to the unconverted. It’s about their right to authoritatively define the fundamentals of truth and public morality, based on an authoritative interpretation of an authoritative Bible.
The truth-demands of fundamentalism stand in sharp contrast to notions like compromise and pluralism, and that’s a contrast that a term like “evangelical” doesn’t quite capture.
Second, perhaps in part because of its slipperiness, the term can help us to think broadly about the disputes and tensions that each and every one of us have to navigate as we struggle to communicate with, live with, and govern with one another.
As democratic citizens we all have to ask ourselves: What is fundamental? And who decides?
ECM: In a deliberative democracy, compromise is a value, but for hardliners it is often viewed as a character flaw. Many of us think of fundamentalists as people who can’t be reasoned with, which is a problem for democratic politics. But you reassert fundamentalism as a “church movement” first and foremost, representing localism against “superchurch” ecumenism. How does that translate to politics?
JJE: It’s important to understand, as I argue in the book, that fundamentalism is a paradox. Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical—meaning that it’s constructed in and through language. I’m a student of rhetoric and, in this book, I’m not particularly interested in whether fundamentalists “really” represent localism or really speak as an oppressed minority. What’s important is that they say they do, and this paradoxical claim drives and justifies political action.
In the book, “superchurch” is one of the words that speaks to this paradox in fundamentalist rhetoric. There was a big push for Protestant unity in the immediate aftermath of World War I, and many of the early fundamentalist leaders denounced ecumenical organizations like the Federal Council of Churches and the Interchurch World Movement as elements in a “super church confederacy” that would eliminate denominational distinctions and eventually destroy “Bible-believing” churches altogether.
There was a kernel of truth in these arguments; some ecumenical leaders were pushing, for example, to consolidate under-staffed rural churches by merging congregations from different denominations. But this kernel of truth became part of a much larger narrative in which national religious and political leaders were joining together to crush local churches and outlaw fundamentalist belief. This narrative, in turn, has continued in different guises over the past century—linked with apocalyptic fears of communism, secularism, environmentalism, socialism, and so forth.
The flip-side of this narrative, however, was that of churches that resisted. Magazines published anecdotes about local pastors who stood up to ecumenicists and local churches that broke away from their corrupted denominations. Fundamentalist publications began celebrating large, independent churches as islands of local resistance. By the 1960s, pastors like Jerry Falwell had begun arguing that local, “superaggressive” churches could “capture” their communities for Christ, reform local politics to reflect fundamentalist authority, and become media centers for global evangelism. These fundamentalist “superchurches” would eventually provide the foundation for national political organizations like the Moral Majority in the late 1970s.
Of course, even as fundamentalists have become more nationally visible and politically active, the paradox remains. Just a couple of months ago, for example, when Senator Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president at Falwell’s Liberty University, he encouraged Christian conservative voters to think of themselves as both an oppressed minority and an untapped majority. He described the federal government as a monolithic and mischievous force that crushes the dreams of small business owners, the relationships between individuals and doctors, the rights of parents, and the freedom of religious believers. At the same time, he spoke of “millions of courageous conservatives” and “born again Christians” whose votes could restore an idealized constitutionalism and drive the big-government bureaucrats out of the American temple.
Part of my goal in Superchurch is to help us better understand the history and context behind arguments like Cruz’s, so we can develop a better sense of how and why they continue to resonate with so many fundamentalist and evangelical voters.