Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalism and Families in the U.S

By Hamilton, Vivian E. | The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on Religious Fundamentalism and Families in the U.S


Hamilton, Vivian E., The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal


The Institute of Bill of Rights Law sponsored this symposium as a forum (1) for exploring the nature and exercise of fundamentalist religion in the U.S., (2) for better understanding fundamentalist families, and (3) for examining the role of the state when religious exercise, family autonomy, and individual rights collide. The group of academics that gathered at the William and Mary School of Law in November 2009 comprised some of the nation's foremost scholars of the First Amendment's religion clauses, family law, and American religious history and culture. Their contributions, first at the symposium and again in this issue, help us to think more deeply about absolutist beliefs in a pluralist society, to better evaluate current conflicts and anticipate others that might loom, and to participate in devising better paths forward.

The essays here pursue three broad themes. The first one is the meaning and import of "fundamentalism" itself - or at least the American version of it. Randall Balmer, Andrew Koppelman, and Frederick Gedicks turn their attention to this question.

Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, provides essential historical and cultural context in Fundamentalism, the First Amendment, and the Rise of the Religious Right} Balmer describes early nineteenth-century evangelical Baptists' enthusiastic support of Thomas Jefferson and of the separation of church and state embodied in the First Amendment. Balmer then explains how American fundamentalism emerged in the early twentieth century as a conservative response to the rise of theological liberalism in mainline Protestant denominations. And he notes the irony of contemporary efforts by the Religious Right (whose own success was, of course, made possible by the "free market of religion" guaranteed by the First Amendment) to collapse the distinction between church and state through efforts including advocacy of prayer in public schools, taxpayer vouchers for religious schools, faith-based initiatives, and religious symbols and monuments in public spaces.

Frederick Gedicks takes a philosophical approach to understanding American fundamentalism in God of Our Fathers, Gods for Ourselves: Fundamentalism and Postmodern Belief1 He begins his analysis with the postmodern condition. The (our) postmodern condition is defined by the absence of "metanarrative"; in other words, the failure of philosophical, scientific, or religious approaches to provide a comprehensive and universally acceptable explanation of life or the world. Gedicks views American religious fundamentalists as having rejected postmodernism and the pluralism it implies. Instead, they believe that they possess the only truth. While religious fundamentalists are not unique in making this sort of claim, Gedicks argues that what distinguishes them is that "they know this truth and the God that guarantees it with such reliability and confidence that they are impelled to structure society around it." American fundamentalism thus embraces the alignment of government with "true religion" - not as a nation that goes so far as to suppresses dissent, but as a Christian nation that tolerates dissenters. Gedicks himself embraces the postmodern condition and implicitly chides fundamentalists not only for their certitude, but also for the hubris inherent in their attempts to imbue American secular society with public religion.

In his essay The Nonproblem of Fundamentalism? Andrew Koppelman shows greater faith than do Bahner and Gedicks in American fundamentalists' commitment to the separation of church and state. Koppelman describes fundamentalism as essentially "a strategy of biblical interpretation." To the extent that there is a connection between fundamentalists and a particular political commitment (i.e., the policies of the conservative right), such a connection is contingent - not inevitable. Koppelman argues against using fundamentalism as a meaningful category when examining issues of public concern. …

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