Will the real fundamentalists please stand up?
July 27 2001 by Mark Wingfield , A News Analysis

Will the real fundamentalists please stand up? | Friday, July 27, 2001

Friday, July 27, 2001

Will the real fundamentalists please stand up?

By Mark Wingfield A News Analysis DALLAS, Texas - Say the word "fundamentalist" in Baptist circles, and most people immediately think of the far right wing of the faith. But there's a growing use of the term to characterize attitudes and actions on the left as well - and sometimes even in the middle.

In a July mailing to members of Texas Baptists Committed, Executive Director David Currie used the term "fundamentalists of the left" to describe those he perceives to be advocating that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) change course and become open to homosexual practice.

The CBF "will not grow unless it is a traditional Baptist organization and not led by fundamentalists of the left," Currie wrote. "Baptists are conservative, Bible-believing, Jesus-following people, and CBF must reflect that as well as the Baptist General Convention of Texas."

Currie isn't alone among Texans in using the "fundamentalists of the left" label in expressing frustration over business conducted at the CBF general assembly in Atlanta last month.

Robert Prince, pastor of First Baptist Church of Vernon, said he left a CBF debate over the homosexuality issue and said to his wife, "I found out today there is a fundamentalism of the left."

What he experienced there, he said, was the most direct evidence of this brand of fundamentalism he's seen. "Some of those present were interested in affirming the gay lifestyle. They inferred that those who condemn homosexual practices are on a par with those who affirmed slavery and racism in the Old South."

That's a line of reasoning Prince and many other Texans attending the debate didn't agree with. They perceive homosexuality to be unlike race in its determination.

Yet those who see homosexuality as having a purely biological root leave no room for debate with those who disagree, Prince said. "The militancy and the passion among those who affirmed the gay lifestyle made me think of fundamentalism."

Cecil Sherman, a former Texas pastor and the CBF's first chief administrator, said he's long been convinced there's a fundamentalism of the left. He saw it early on in discussions among moderate Baptists who felt they had been disenfranchised from the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists of the right.

In those early days, some demanded that CBF should have its own set of mandatory beliefs, including, for example, full affirmation of women in ministry. Sherman recalls asking: "What would make that different than the fundamentalists who are requiring that I have certain things in place to be part of the SBC? I can't see that you're different from them except agenda."

Although CBF largely has avoided demands that its affiliated churches share any rigid doctrine, tensions still exist on such matters.

Sherman sees these tensions most exposed "at the edge of CBF, on the women's issue and homosexuality issue."

On these issues, there are people who "are willing to tear up the organization for the sake of their issue," he said. And that reminds him of what moderate Baptists thought they were fleeing in the SBC.

"Fundamentalists were ready to tear up the SBC if they couldn't control it. Fundamentalists of the left are willing to tear up CBF if they can't control it."

Within the world of moderate Baptists, most all of whom would shun the term "fundamentalist" to describe themselves in any way, there are differing opinions on who is most like the right-wing fundamentalists they jointly disdain.

So-called centrists see those to the left of them sometimes acting as fundamentalists. Progressives on the most open-minded side of Baptist life sometimes see centrists as acting like fundamentalists in demanding that no one rock the boat.

Fundamentalism can be a condition that afflicts not only the right and the left, but also the center, said Walter Shurden, professor of Christianity and director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University.

Not only that, Shurden said, there's a fundamentalism "of those who claim not to be on the right or the left or in the center."

Fundamentalism is "not so much an ideology as it is an attitude, an attitude of intolerance, incivility and narrowness," Shurden said. "It is an attitude that says, 'We have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and we are going to impose it on you and control the system so that you will have to knuckle under to it.'

"It is an attitude that cuts off microphones, rudely terminates debate, stacks committees and centralizes power in order to control. It is not restricted to the right or the left."

For his part, Shurden doesn't see much of a true left anywhere in Baptist life. Those who talk of a "fundamentalism of the left" are "fundamentalist, centrist and conservative Baptists" who use the term in attempts to keep control, "to isolate, denigrate and demonize those who do not agree with them, especially on issues of women in ministry and homosexuality," he said.

Likewise, Frank Tupper, a veteran Southern Baptist theology professor now teaching at Wake Forest University, said he sees talk of a fundamentalism of the left as an attempt by some within CBF to do "the same things to persons with whom they disagree as the fundamentalists who demonized the moderates in the SBC."

"The apocalyptic rhetoric that open discussion leads to death is an old line from SBC losers who want CBF to perpetuate the old SBC," Tupper said. "That's not a new way to be Baptist."

So, will the real fundamentalists please stand up?

"Historically, fundamentalism referred to those 20th century American Protestants who reacted negatively to science and acted militantly against any reading of the Bible other than a wooden literal reading," noted Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn.

"Today, fundamentalism is a description applied to militant extremists who demand that others embrace their way or hit the highway," he added. "In addition to American fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism flourishes in Israel and Muslim fundamentalism infects Arab nations such as Iran."

Besides promoting opposing agendas, fundamentalists of the right and left often use different appeals to make their case, added Keith and Helen Jean Parks, veteran Baptist missionaries now living in Richardson.

"The left usually bases theirs on knowledge, education, pseudo-intellectualism and sophistication," the Parkses said. "The right bases theirs more on a few doctrinal issues, on an aggressive verbal evangelism and a claim to a narrow view of biblical truth."

In one sense, two extremes of any religion may become opposite sides of the same coin, said Randall Balmer, a noted Christian sociologist and professor of American religion at Columbia University.

He saw this a few years ago, he said, while working on a network TV documentary on creationism. "The people defending evolutionary theory were no less fundamentalist than the creationists."

The most common characteristic shared by fundamentalists of the right and left is "a lack of self-critical capacity," said Balmer, who is completing a new encyclopedia of evangelicalism to be published next year.

"Fundamentalists both right and left tend to view their cause as right and justified and harbor very little or no doubt about that conviction. ... That's the characteristic that strikes me again and again, the absence of the ability to be self-critical."

Sherman recalled a conversation he had years ago with Adrian Rogers, who he considers to be one of the SBC's prime fundamentalist leaders. Sherman quoted Oliver Cromwell to ask, "Pray thee, has it occurred to you that you might be wrong?"

He now asks the same question of some to his left as well.

The end result, according to Prince, is that fundamentalism of any stripe destroys institutions and cooperative efforts by demanding rigid conformity to doctrine.

Fundamentalists "are passionate about issues that historically have been secondary concerns in the community of faith," he said. "SBC fundamentalists didn't care how many churches left as long as they had a doctrinally pure body. CBF fundamentalists of the left feel the same way. They couldn't care less that they would lose every church in Texas if they affirmed homosexual practices."

In the old SBC, Prince said, missions was the glue that held things together. "In a sense, fundamentalists in the SBC and CBF try to make other things the glue."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Wingfield is managing editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas.)

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7/27/2001 12:00:00 AM by Mark Wingfield , A News Analysis | with 0 comments
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