How did American Christianity become synonymous with fundamentalism?
Well, after The Scopes Trial and death of The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryant, the Fundamentalist movement that had marked the turn of the last century seemed beaten back by the forces of modernity. More moderate voices came to the fore and religion in the popular mind came to be seen as partnering with not battling against sciences both physical and social. For many people of means, the psychiatrist not the priest became the confessor of first resort. Church attendance held its own, but the sermons were less and less about hellfire and brimstone and more about winning friends and influencing people. In the boom years following the Second World War, the popular entertainment became television and the characters that populated the public imagination while God-believing were not necessarily God fearing. Moderate and liberal theologians did interview shows and spoke of the ground of being in the more literate journals of the day.
Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and charismatics had their champions too in the form of Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, and while fun (or funny) to look at, these men did not at that time wield the intellectual power or the political might of a Bryant. There had been an agreement of minds on the right that people of fundamentalist faith should eschew the public arenas and work on the improving of souls and readying the faithful few for the coming of judgment.
And then a curious thing happened.
A stalwart group of conservative Christians, long admired for their faith and perseverance decided to break ranks and take their faith into the streets and the halls of power. African American pastors, not known outside of their communities as radicals, all of a sudden seemed to turn militant over night. Preachers and churches none of the mainstream establishment had heard of were stirring up the blacks. Reverend Martin Luther King was leading bus boycotts and this Nation of Islam fellow, Minister Malcolm Somebody, was calling good people white devils and like a sleeping giant awakened from centuries of slumber, black folk were heeding the calls. And not just black folk. The Boom Babies saw what looked to them like a second American Revolution and joined in too. By the time the Sixties rolled in, there were freedom rides and freedom marches and sit-ins, and lie-ins, and love-ins and every other kind of ins imaginable, all coming out of an altar call that arose from black pulpits all across the nation.
Conservative, moderate and even some liberal ministers felt this seismic shift in the continuum of American History was too much too soon, but others liberal religionists (and some not so liberal) took to the civil rights movement like ducks to water. Their churches had grown soft, their congregants complacent and the call for racial justice seemed to them just what their churches needed to put the spirit back in spiritual practice. So the buses came from the North and the West and from within the borders of the Old Confederacy itself, carrying with people of faith now filled with a new purpose and a revelry that must have been the Holy Ghost itself. Soon among the ranks of the religious scars from an altercation with a sheriff’s deputy out ranked a Doctorate of Divinity from Harvard. “I marched with King,” was the catch phrase of social circuit and even the President of the United States ended one of his most powerful pronouncements with the words “… and we shall overcome.”
The 1960s and 70s were heady times for liberal religion. Fundamentalists had simply given up the field, our first president born in this century stood firm on the separation of church and state. Vatican Two removed centuries of restrictions on the practices of millions of Catholics. Following the Beatles’ lead, interest in eastern religions drew multitudes to expand their ideas about what was and was not holy. Reason and imagination had won and the only work left to do was get “In God we trust” off the money.
Or so we thought.
Turned out that not all Americans felt that way. The Republican Party, tired of losing the house, tired of being portrayed as Archie Bunker, tired of being beaten up over Watergate, tired of being the party of more moderate liberals decided enough was enough. They had seen the success of the Southern Strategy used in the Nixon Campaign and had struck a chord with phrases like The Silent Majority and Law and Order. They could see that among the population there existed a mass of humanity who felt the country had gone too far from the ideal of the Ward and June America of the 1950s. They believed the blacks were all on welfare, the hippies were all throwing bombs everywhere and kidnapping heiresses left and right (mostly right), women were trying to take over the world one burned bra at a time and now the homosexuals were talking about getting married?? The Center could not hold!
Tucked away in the little enclave of Lynchburg (what a name), Virginia was a not so little church with a not so little pastor named Jerry. In scenic Switzerland, an American living abroad was teaching and sending dispatches back home about the evils of abortion. Add to that the Muppet faced ministers of the 700 and PTL clubs. What these men (and Tammy Faye) had in common was an appeal to white, protestant, bible believing, traditional marriage having, welfare cheat hating, God guts and gun owning audience that was ripe for the voting. All that was needed was the right sheriff to ride into town and lead the good townsfolk to the polls and into open revolt against that gang of lawless, godless, desperados known as liberals.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 made that of decades a watershed year, not just because it heralded the beginning of the dismantling of The Great society and The New Deal and an end to a hundred year march of Western Democracy to the left, but also because it was a time when religion went fundamentalist. One of the events that cost Jimmy Carter the presidency was the Hostage Crisis in Iran. Islamic Fundamentalists sent the Shah (our boy) into exile and imposed a theocracy on the nation and for 444 days those fundamentalist held Americans in Iran and Americans here at home hostage. Fundamentalist enemies abroad and fundamentalist allies at home, legitimate religion was defined solely as faith defined by the book. With the White House in their sight, forces of the Economic and religious Right shaped a new narrative for the nation, one of Morning in America.
And while this was going on, where was the liberal church?
Well, some liberal churches and church leaders did speak out, tried to fight the rising tide of anti liberalism. Mostly they did so in the political arena and were often mistaken for making political arguments when they were really making moral ones. If you went by the national media, liberal religion was missing in action or had gone off looking for chakras and crystals. The New Age was the new thing and the only thing media was interested in outside of abortion clinic bombings, preacher scandals, and Anita Bryant.
And let’s face it; American media isn’t exactly well versed in the intricacies of faith. Most reporters would love to never cover religion and most who do cover it are forced to or come out of the Bible Colleges of the Fundamentalist faiths. Easier to cover Jessica Hahn than the underpinnings of the social gospel. Even Dr. King would have been ignored had it not been for Bull Conner and his dogs. Violence reporters get, the seduction of the church, they don’t.
And then came cable.
Pastors on the Right had long appreciated and utilized the church of the airwaves. Indeed, The Old Time Gospel Hour is the show that first brought Jerry Falwell to national attention. Pat Robertson, not content with nine o’clock every weekday morning, was looking for a way to broaden his audience and new found political power. At this same time cable and satellite television exploded in popularity. Hundreds, even thousands, of new channels opened up, just waiting for some enterprising minds to develop programming to fill the space. Trinity Broadcasting was about to go truly global.
With the advent of TBN on basic cable, imitators soon followed. Pretty soon some satellite providers were carrying over a dozen such stations in their basic packages. With The Church Channel, The God Network and The Word, all preaching a personal Jesus, a literal bible, Word of Faith and Prosperity Gospel 24 hours a day, could there be any wonder what was and was not proper religion in the United States?