Introducing the New Fundamentalism
Shelby Foote Appreciator, a.k.a. @NoJesuitTricks, a.k.a. Brandon Meeks, wrote a good thread last night on X in reaction to James Wood being branded a “fundamentalist Calvinist” by Russell Moore in his new book. As I pointed out in my review, Moore doesn’t have the gumption to name the people he condemns. Even assuming Wood was mean—we’ll get back to that word later—to Tim Keller, at least he had the courage to name him and engage in forthright, masculine, and precise critique. Moore would never.
Meeks understands that, as with so many other labels and terms, “fundamentalist” is now a hollow concept; its only function is derision. It signals that whoever is on the receiving end of the slur is backward in opinion, but, more directly (now), that he is an enthusiast—he cares too much, and he is too certain. That’s it: certainty, a lack of sufficient openness, is now a high intellectual crime, a dangerous one.
He’s right. The fundamentalist “mood” and “vibe” should be embraced by the new Christian right. This “doggedness of spirit”—a great way to put it—is the only proper posture for the Christian man—at least the masculine one—today.
Here’s the five fundamentals of fundamentalism from Meeks as they, in my view, differ from your grandfather’s fundamentalism. (Meeks, as an Anglican, is focused on his denomination, but the fundamentals are ecumenically applicable, in my view.)
Not just inerrancy, but a mystic inerrancy, we might say. “We don’t just believe that a whale swallowed Jonah, we’d believe he [Jonah] swallowed the whale if the Bible said so!” Amen.
Fundamentalism 1.0 was, paradoxically, too self-conscious. Following the Scopes trial, some fundamentalists expended too much energy trying to make the Bible respectable, to reconcile it with the science. Think Answers in Genesis or the Theistic Evolutionists which, ironically, possess the same energy. Well, the kids today distrust—no, hate—the science. More philosophically, transcendence of the imminent frame requires this kind of disinterest or defiance, if you like.
Fundamentalism 2.0 is explicitly creedal and confessional. Its predecessor was decidedly less so. Historic fidelity is in vogue here. More than that, second wave fundamentalists aren’t just culture warriors; they aren’t just culture conquerors; they aspire to be culture builders—Christian culture builders, hence the Athanasian sea shanties reference. But in the process of defeating the sexual revolution and zillionth wave feminism, they won’t sacrifice theology proper to bolster their case. Remember, we don’t care if the text said Jonah swallowed a whale and spit it out whilst hovering above Ninevah as an act of divine judgment.
The new fundamentalists are tired of the old guard leadership. At least, they are fed up with compromise and complacency. They want qualified men, of course, but also men who dare to command, men deserving of holy orders. “And of course, they must be men.” So, fundamentalism 2.0 is as sexist as the first version; they have that in common, at least.
“We are ecumenical enough to allow everyone to conform to the standards of uniformity.” That’s a wonderful line. I was just re-reading one of Henry Cabot Lodge’s many essays on the Puritans, his forebears. Admittedly, Lodge was a progressive in the vein of his era and his interpretation of the colonial period reflects those priors, but his filial piety is commendable. Waxing eloquent on the “independent spirit of New England,” its most illustrious quality, to his mind, Lodge he correctly captures the “religious liberty” dynamic of the Massachusetts colonists.
“Pilgrim and Puritan alike sought freedom to worship God, but it was freedom for themselves that they might worship God in their own fashion, in this new world, and not a t all freedom of worship for any one who chanced that way with different opinions as to creeds and tenets.”
Perry Miller (Errand into the Wilderness) says the same, recounting an illustrative anecdote wherein Samuel Willard corrected a faction of anabaptists in 1681 who were clamoring for equal and universal suffrage. Willard replied in a pamphlet, “I perceive they are mistaken in the design of our first Planters, whose business was not Toleration… Their business was to settle, and (as much as in them lay) secure Religion to Posterity.”
Meeks the Anglican will not appreciate these Puritan examples of New England supremacy, but they serve to expand the point. From its inception, America has always been pretty fundamentalist. It was not just New England. Check out Dale’s Code in Virginia. For our contemporary purposes, the new fundamentalists have witnessed and experienced the abuses of boundless ecumenism and the egalitarian cult of pluralism—not as fact but as aspiration. There must be limits, historically informed ones, denominationally particular ones. Proper discrimination is a virtue. Particularity is no vice, but the lifeblood of anything worth building or having.
And that applies to the nation as well. The right of exclusion is basic and indispensable. This is not, contra critics, a negation of hospitality, but rather conducive to true hospitality. Universals exist but their expression cannot be universal and the finite being expressing them cannot exist in boundless abstractions. Endless well actually style bickering over the correct interpretation of Augustine is irrelevant. We inevitably arrive at the same conclusion whatever the rationale because we must.
Now, at American Reformer we advocate often for a recovery of the state-centric, pan-Protestant ecumenism of earlier years. This vision should not be confused with a mere Christendom. The rampant non-denominationalism of fundamentalism 1.0 is not worthy of repetition. It proved incapable of sustaining institutions or coalitions. A new American Protestant establishment requires denominational particularity which is to say a perpetuation of distinct traditions. A certain level of cooperation is available there, but cooperation is not the same as smoothing everything over and resorting to the lowest common denominators for the sake of “unity.” That is a pyrrhic victory. For American Protestant Christendom to be restored—whatever that looks like in the future—it will almost certainly require strong Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches, ones that are proudly so. Let a thousand Protestant flowers bloom! Or, at least the orthodox ones. And yet, men must be governed!
One last note on the Meeks thread. Fundamentalism 2.0 is political, which is to say, provisional. It is a necessary approach fitted to the moment. It’s an expression of knowing what time it is. At least, this is what I take Meeks to be saying and insofar as he is saying it, I agree. Under conditions of widespread homogeneity and agreement—something politics should foster as opposed to difference and diversity—a certain kind of liberality is not only acceptable but good. When the country was overwhelmingly English and Protestant, this was easy. There was no sense in quibbling over adiaphora, especially when there were regionally based outlets for expression of the several Protestant denominational ways of life on offer alluded to above. So too, under that arrangement, was toleration, in the proper sense of the word, permissible for non-Protestant dissenters. We don’t have any of those conditions now other than a statistical predominance—remarkable at this late date, if you think about it—which is constantly suppressed by theological gymnastics that functionally elevate inaction and timidity to the status of spiritual gifts.
Here’s the summary of new fundamentalism from Meeks:
“[J]ust plain based.” For the uninitiated, that’s a term of internet art that more or less in this context means untethered from and unconstrained by the predominant semantic, moral, and intellectual pieties of the day designed for your failure. Based is the opposite of cringe. Fundamentalism 2.0 is based.
Fundamentalism 2.0 doesn’t long for a seat at the table, as it were. It wants to build the table and it doesn’t care if the old decrepit carpenters responsible for the preexisting table like it or not.
The reason I highlight this thread is, in part, because it coincides with the latest screeds from everyone’s favorite whipping boy, David French. Basically, French’s job at this point is that of a prison functionary. It is to rat on and generally desecrate his tribe. In return, he gets table scraps, a pat on the head. As Andrew Walker recently pointed out, people like French never, ever wield their pens for defense of their tribe. No reward comes from that. Moreover, this profession has a way of facilitating projection and victimhood pathology to such a degree that he is probably barely conscious of it anymore. That said, he is sometimes still insightful in spite of himself.
In the latest “French Friday” episode at the podcast Holy Post—I cannot help myself but listen to them all with some level of perverse enjoyment—French talked about his sworn enemy, “fundamentalism,” again. (Don’t believe me? Check out the 2019 Time column, “Evangelicals are Support Trump Out of Fear, Not Faith,” for the same result. Its monotonous.) That is to say, it was a typical Friday for David French. The interview is based on French’s column from December, “Why Fundamentalists Love Trump,” which, among other things, praises Tim Alberta’s new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. See Aaron Renn’s interesting finds from that book here. (Naturally, Baptist Global News had to highlight French’s latest because they have nothing better to do than parrot approved pieties.)
Up front, let me say that I am, in this case, for Frenchism. I am for French Fundamentalism. French himself is not for it, but second wave fundamentalist basically are.
French acknowledges his departure from historic definitions of fundamentalism as can be found in George Marsden, for example. He adopts, instead, a quip from Richard Land—no source provided—that fundamentalism is a psychology more than a theology. In other words, to return to Meeks, it is a mood and a vibe, one French finds entirely inappropriate.
As with nearly all of French’s commentary on American Protestantism, his analysis is informed by his own overly psychologized experience. So, because he experienced some very dogmatic people as a kid in the Church of Christ, a dichotomy between certainty and “inquiry” emerges that he, in turn, universalizes. This universalization of experience is obviously suspect. More importantly, it is uninteresting and emotive—he calls Alberta’s book “emotionally resonant.” Everything is introduced and supported by personal anecdote. Very tiring. The new books from Moore and Alberta conform to that model.
The moral metric French applies to demonstrate fundamentalism’s faults is owed entirely to unacknowledged liberal priors. If doctrinal or ecclesiastic certainty precludes infinite inquiry it is per se bad, and so on. Again, boring. To play the liberal for a moment, what’s the limiting principle on that? Cultivating doctrinal doubt is a preeminent virtue for the open society; likely there is no limiting principle on that. Certainty, and even preference, breeds strong gods.
Another element of the fundamentalist vibe, as French defines it, is its solidarity, its desire for thick community, or “shared purpose,” which “makes any form of fundamentalism truly potent.” This, as the alternative to indefinable, heterogenous exists seems preferable. French doesn’t demonstrate why its bad other than that it might lead to Donald Trump, or that MAGA might provide a sense of purpose and belonging for some Americans. Surely, as we will see, the presence of purpose is better than its alternative. But again, and more directly, abusus non tollit usum. It would be sad to learn that someone has no purpose or community outside of their electoral proximity to Trump. But I doubt that is the typical case. More likely, Trump is at least perceived as a mechanism for defense and representation of more basic, deep, and enduring attachments. The person most likely to absolutize instrumental or provisional loyalties is David French.
Returning to the Meeks thread, solidarity and community by nature encourage conformity. French expresses a very liberal anxiety about this too. What is the point of criticizing superficial loyalties and bemoaning atomization if you question, in principle, the propriety of thick communities in the same breath? Barriers to entry and preference for parameters of membership are natural to these arrangements.
Ferocity (or “rage”) is the other distinctive of the fundamentalist vibe. For French, the Trump vote is just a hollow expression of irrational and destructive anger, and maybe some secret prejudices harbored by the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are ferocious and mean. It is their nature. French provides no other explanation other than—this is drawn from his New York Times corpus—that fundamentalists are power-loving bigots. French never meaningfully considers whether fundamentalists have a right to be upset about their losses, the state of the country, or to be assertive about their preferred way of life. That said, French is basically right about, if antagonistic toward, the mood and vibe characterization of fundamentalism. Meeks just does it better.
So Goes Protestantism, So Goes the West
Let me posit a reason why the new fundamentalists are so mean: they recognize the stakes. In other words, they recognize what has been lost and what is still being lost. They aren’t enraptured by sentimentalism. They are clearheaded. The situation is demonstrably dire. French would say it has always been thus, or at least fundamentalists have always thought so. But here we are, alive and well. The sky hasn’t fallen. What’s the big deal, Chicken Little?
This thesis might have retained some traction if French himself hadn’t, say, compromised on gay marriage when the soulless platitudes of reigning dogma (i.e., “religious liberty”) permitted it. The fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1950s weren’t dealing with the mass delusion that sanctions chemical castration of minors, celebrates the full array of sexual licentiousness, teleporting it directly to millions of screens, and condones self-murder.
And yet, we must say, the first generational fundamentalists weren’t wrong in their own day. Decline was obvious. As Aaron Renn has made clear since his viral article came out, even in Positive World, Protestant dominance and corresponding social mores were in decline. It’s just that the full impact of said decline had not yet fully materialized. But, again, they weren’t totally wrong. Full materialization is now felt, which is not to say it can’t get worse. Query, as Al Mohler once rhetorically asked David French, at what point the cultural-moral Rubicon would be crossed on the latter’s view. Goalposts have a way of shifting. In any case, the felt decline is not a figment of fundamentalist imagination.
Emmanuel Todd, a Frenchman, has a new book coming out on this very issue, apparently approaching the situation from a macro perspective. The Defeat of the West is not yet translated into English, but UnHerd posted an interview with Todd, and here’s a nice summation of Todd’s conclusions from the interview.
Todd argues that the erosion of American Protestantism is the (not a) causal factor in the rapid decline of western civilization. The vacuum created by the retreat of Protestant cultural dominance and leadership has been filled by a successor pathology, viz., nihilism.
This seems to be another way of saying that absent the endurance of the historic religion of a people, of a nation, purpose and motivation are in short supply, even at a collective level. It all makes sense given the inescapably spiritual nature of both individuals and society. All societies are religious, in a sense, but few have experimented with codified irreligion as the religion. Which is to say, few societies have attempted an active and self-conscious repudiation of their central cult.
Todd’s analysis seems to be historical and sociological, not theological or moral. He brands his book as a sequel to Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism which most haven’t read but are acquainted colloquially with its main ideas. Todd considers the social accomplishments of the American-led Protestant west, its industrial productivity, unparalleled widespread education, and “collective morality” as key indica of civilizational success. A sense of being chosen or set apart for providential purposes—the attitude now scoffed at by anti-Christian nationalists—was intricate to these accomplishments.
The post-Protestant west has, by contrast, experienced marked intellectual and ethical decline. Neoliberalism, which Todd equates with “mass greed,” facilitated said decline as a sort of steward ideology fueled by the fumes of its predecessor. “There is a powerful nihilistic impulse in the U.S.,” says Todd. “The search for war and violence. This is a lost society without meaning, that provokes or fans conflicts everywhere in the world.” This is “liberal oligarchy,” he adds. And its trajectory is “aggressive.” Forever wars are only one discernable symptom.
Transgenderism is the pinnacle of social decline because it is the first advance of the sexual revolution that straightforwardly relativizes reality and morality. Unlike prior advances like gay marriage, transgenderism does not pretend to rely on normative analogies to accepted ways of life. When its proponents—it’s not clear they exist outside of the amalgam of internet propaganda—bother to construct moral appeals they are limited to amorphous equality. We know, of course, that equality is code for amorality and indiscrimination. It is totalizing and portends the literal collapse of workable social relations. As Camille Paglia astutely notes, androgyny at scale has historically precipitated civilizational deconstruction.
The causal chain of decline, the death of Protestantism, the advent of the Negative World, includes the introduction of anti-Christian scientific theories into public curriculum, to be sure. That is a piece of the puzzle. It is not surprise that French decries fundamentalists and at the same time never tires of invoking the Blaine Amendments for whatever point he is trying to make. French does not want an assertive, self-confident, civilization sustaining American Protestantism. The new fundamentalists do. The difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is not necessarily that the stakes are higher, albeit they are. It is not necessarily that they are more appreciative of, in touch with, and equipped by the historic Protestant tradition and its sources. They are that too. It is not just that they are serious about the integrity of their denominations and churches.
It is that they have barely, if at all, experienced Positive World, were born into neutral world, and are thoroughly conditioned by negative world. It has made them more assertive and shed them of shame. Many of those online anonymous accounts that cause David French and other Big Eva pundits so much grief are veterans of Negative World environments, corporate and government. They have not, in their adult lives, been insulated from the repercussions of western decline, which is to say, the death of American Protestantism. And they recognize that the libertarian fantasy of egalitarian pluralism is an undesirable one-way ratchet, one not particularly favorable to them. Finally, they want life in full. That is public life. Would you expect them to be nice to those who have aided and abetted or, perhaps worse, downplayed the reality they’ve lived through, of the kind that a compliant columnist in legacy media is insulated from? Hardly. Is this all just vibes and moods?
One last thing. It is curious that self-professed evangelicals like French, and Moore, and some of “the Outliers,” cannot see or do not want to see all of this. They capitalize off their sob stories from living in the belly of the beast of American Christianity, but their narcissism precludes them from true perspective. That is, the consideration of undesirable historic alternatives and possible futures. They are truly progressives in this way. A better world is always on the horizon, and it is one of basically liberal premises. Yet, people like Todd, foreigners in everyway to American life, see things as they are.
The same is true of Ayan Hirsi Ali. We can easily discount her recent self-professed conversion to Christianity (also published at UnHerd) under evangelical conversionist metrics. But if we, unlike our critics, think cultural Christianity is good and necessary—which is not to deny the need for true conversions—for the renewal of our nation and culture, then we cannot shun Ali’s adoption of what we could call, on its face, civilizational Christianity. We may have liked to have seen more reference to Christ and his Gospel in Ali’s account of her conversion, but for socio-political purposes, the recognition that the west cannot survive apart from Christianity, especially in the face of its new and mounting enemies, Ali’s position is enough.
Image Credit: Edward Lamson Henry (1841-1919), Sunday Morning (1898).