Three Reasons to Read a New Book on Fundamentalism

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Adam Laats, Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University, is the author of Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2018), which Joel Carpenter calls “a major contribution to the history of Christian higher education and to the understanding of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America.” Dan Williams calls it “essential reading even for those well versed in American evangelical history, because it offers a fresh analysis of the complex ways in which fundamentalist colleges reflected (and shaped) their religious movement’s tenuous balance between the demands of the world and the tenets of faith.”

Here are three reasons I think this is a unique and important project.

1. Laats is an outsider to fundamentalism.

Most who write on the subject have some family or personal history with fundamentalism. Laats does not. And though that could be a drawback, it can also be a virtue.

I was not raised in any sort of fundamentalist or evangelical family. I don’t have happy or bitter memories of evangelical summer camps or college days. There is nothing personal for me about the changing norms of fundamentalism. Certainly some might think an outsider like me just can’t “get it.”

At least of equal danger, though, is that insiders are too close to their own schools to see them in a broader context. As with any family story, family members can tend to overemphasize differences and dissensions that do not appear as important to those without any personal stake. Family members are in danger of coming to the archives prepared to find proof of truths they already know.

The dangers for me have been different. Researching and writing from an outsider’s perspective, I risk missing important subtleties of tone and meaning. Unlike evangelical scholars, I am at risk of overemphasizing the details that loom large in archives but not in real life. I lack the personal connections to aunts or grandparents who lived through the events I’m studying.

Yet even acknowledging these significant limitations, I have confidence in the promise of an outside perspective, if it can be done right. I am not interested in vindicating one faction over another. I have no personal scores to settle or axes to grind. Rather, I am interested in the broader questions raised by this network of schools, questions of interest to everyone, regardless of our backgrounds. I come to this study not out of any personal animus, but rather because of the vital importance of these colleges in American culture and politics. (9)

2. Laats recognizes that on-the-ground fundamentalism might have looked different than celebrity-and-scandal fundamentalism.

Like most people, I’m drawn to the bizarre and the sensational. (See, for example, these posts on the scandalous disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson or the notorious J. Frank Norris, who shot and killed a man in his Baptist church office.) But Laats is right that if we focus on such events, we obscure what it was like within the everyday world of fundamentalism.

For historians no less than for journalists, alumni, and gawker, these sorts of stories tend to get an inordinate share of attention. But it is important to remember that, by and large, conservative evangelical colleges—like most institutions—spend most of their time rolling methodically down much tame tracks. The main questions that occupy most of the school leaders in these pages are not those of sex, rebellion, and impassioned evidences of orthodoxy but rather admissions, finances, and accreditation. Dramatic stories can reveal and illustrate some of the tensions inherent in fundamentalist colleges and universities, but they are, by definition, exceptions to the usual humdrum functioning of such schools. (1–2)

3. Laats reminds us that the definition of fundamentalism is not just a riddle for historians to solve but was an internal debate among fundamentalists themselves.

On the challenge of defining fundamentalism, Laats acknowledges, “There can be no simple answer.”

At its heart, the label is generally used to describe a religious network, an extended family within the wide boundaries of conservative evangelical Protestantism. . .

As a label, “fundamentalism” was coined in the 1920s as part of a struggle for control of American Protestant denominations, especially groups such as the northern Baptists and Presbyterians. Fundamentalists wanted to unite across denominational lines to fight against liberalism. Theologically, fundamentalism has been more of an attitude or an affiliation than a rigidly defined system of belief. Moreover, it has always included more than just explicitly religious or denominational controversy. Conservative politics and cultural attitudes have always played important but imprecise roles in defining evangelicalism.

. . . [O]n the many campuses of the fundamentalist and evangelical school network, the term was used with an inherently slippery circularity. In practice, fundamentalism was defined by itself. Fundamentalism was what fundamentalists did, what fundamentalists believed. When in doubt—as fundamentalists often were—fundamentalists looked to impeccably fundamentalist thinkers and organizations for guidance. If Bob Jones or the Moody Bible Institute (MBI) embraced something, it must be trustworthy. Of course, this circular game led to endless anxiety about the reliability of its referents. Was Bob Jones too obdurate? Had MBI strayed? And what could one do when authorities disagreed? . . .

Disagreements about definitions were not the exception but the rule in fundamentalist and evangelical higher education. Fundamentalist intellectuals often made their cases for one idea or another, but . . . fundamentalist school administrators tended to muddle along in the broad middle, hoping to keep everyone happy as they sorted out their differences. (5–6)

For these reasons and more, Laats’s work is both important and illuminating for the ongoing discussion of American fundamentalism in the twentieth century.

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