Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925

By George M. Marsden | Go to book overview

XXIII. Fundamentalism
as a Political Phenomenon

Ever since fundamentalism first appeared on the scene, its opponents had suspected the existence of a sinister political dimension to the movement. In World War I, professors at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago suggested that the premillennialists might be supported by German money. When the war was over and fundamentalist patriotism was no longer in question, there came the more plausible accusation of complicity with business interests. In 1921, the Christian Century still equated premillennialism with fundamentalism, and it opined that business had initiated "a new courtship" with premillennialism. "When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in 'the social gospel,' but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he has found just the thing he has been looking for."1 "It may appear," wrote Kirsopp Lake in The Religion of Yesterday and To‐ morrow ( 1925), "to large financial interests that industrial stability can be safe-guarded by Fundamentalists who can be trusted to teach 'anti-revolutionary' doctrines in politics and economics as in theology."2 Later interpreters suggested similar connections. William McLoughlin in his studies of American revivalism, and Richard Hofstadter in his comments on fundamentalism, both stressed the political leanings of their subjects. Paul A. Carter's "semi-Marxist" interpretation of the Social Gospel written in the 1950s was based on the assumption of business support for fundamentalist conservative politics.3

Since the early 1960s, however, most interpreters have agreed that fundamentalists' deepest interests were more ideological and theological than political. In 1968 Paul Carter published a radical revision of the view he had defended in the 1950s. Referring to fundamentalist political interests, Carter now argued that "in deepest essence this was not what the fundamentalist controversy was about." While acknowledging that political interests were sometimes important to fundamentalists, Carter argued that their principal concerns were simple. They were "defending what the Fundamentalists honestly believed was all that gave meaning to life, 'the faith once delivered to the saints.'"4 In a more detailed study Robert Wenger concurred with Carter that "we cannot adequately explain fundamentalism in terms of social and economic interests." Wenger held that since some fundamentalists could be found on each side of almost every social-political issue, no political stance could be regarded as a test of faithfulness to the movement. Furthermore, he

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