The following is Part 2 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This is an edited version of what began as some messages that I sent to Colonel Doner trying to open up a dialog. I then revised in response to some of his feedback. This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
Dear Colonel Doner,
You waste little time spelling out the main thesis of the book, which is to defend your conversion to postmodernism. You make the assertion that one can never be completely objective in interpreting Scripture because ultimately we place our own subjective interpretation on God’s Word. My first reaction to this is that it goes without saying. Of course, we must interpret the written Word using our own subjective thoughts and ideas. In fact, communication in this world would be impossible without interpreting what others say and write. Yet we do communicate and understand each other to a great degree without being literally inside the heads of fellow travelers in this life. It is possible to define our terms and communicate our ideas clearly to each other. Therefore, it is also possible for God to communicate Truth through the written Word to human beings He made in His own image.
A few paragraphs later, you make the huge leap in asserting that anyone who believes they can know religious truth objectively runs the risk of becoming so hard-set in their fundamentalist beliefs that they are really no different than the Islamic terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center and those anti-abortion terrorists who have shot abortionists and bombed abortion centers.
You then emphasis the thesis of the book, which is repeated again in the last chapter, “I had been born-again, this time as a post-conservative, post-fundamentalist, postmodern Christian.”
What is postmodernism?
For the sake of those who might not understand what this all means, Modernism was a dominant world view in the 19th and 20th centuries whose proponents felt the traditional forms of art, architecture, literature, religious faith, social organization and daily life were becoming outdated.
Postmodernists are those who have gone a step further in the rejection of traditional philosophy begun by the modernists, materialists and existentialists by also rejecting anything that resembles a traditional belief system. Although its roots go back to the 1800s, postmodernism is a philosophy that has emerged as a dominant worldview since the 1960s and is characterized by experimental thought that is not bound by absolutes.
Since postmodernism is a rejection of traditional belief-systems, it can take many forms. It can be seen as a spin-off philosophy from the earlier materialism and determinism proposed by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Marx. It can also be seen as a form of existentialism, as propounded by Søren Kierkegard and Jean Paul Sartre, and essentially is an attitude of liberation from traditional philosophy.
Postmodernism rejects outward reality as meaningless and absurd, preferring the reality of the inward experience.
Postmodernism does not propose a huge problem for those who have at one time rejected modernism and other fallacious worldviews because such people will always have the foundation of rational thought and realism. However, most young postmodernists who have been born since the 1960s don’t know what the word means and are epistemologically unaware that this is their worldview. This does propose a real problem, especially for educators such as myself, because the very nature of postmodernism is anti-reason.
The postmodernist scoffs, as Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and then does not wait for an answer. As in the case of Jesus’ crucifixion, the rejection of a knowable absolute truth results in a militant attack on believers of all stripes. Postmodernism becomes in and of itself an ad hoc religious faith. The very thing that the postmodernist sets out to avoid, he becomes. For a person who has not defected from a prior worldview from which he unconsciously borrows intellectual capital, it can ultimately destroy his ability to function in society.
This will be my main thesis in refuting your book. Ultimately, Christian moral philosophy is the only worldview that is consistently supported by reason, evidence and logic. Morality cannot be derived from any type of faith that originates from this world. It has to come from a transcendent objective truth. Otherwise morality and any resulting system of ethics will be merely one person’s opinion versus another.
Missing the Forest for the Trees
You mention that as one of the results of your political activism, Reagan won the Cold War and presided over one of the greatest economic recoveries in history. Then you wonder how it is possible for people like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry to run for presidential office. Yet every bit of mockery that was thrown at Ronald Reagan was repeated in 2012 toward Palin and Perry. You might remember that when asked during the presidential debates if he believed in Armageddon, Reagan said: “Yes, Armageddon could come the day after tomorrow.” During his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan told Christian groups that he believed in the biblical prophecy of Revelation and that this could be the generation that sees the Second Coming of Jesus.
Since I am a postmillennialist, that is, one who holds to a very different view of Revelation than Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, I agree that this does sound scary coming from an American president. However, it’s generally conceded now, even by some liberals, that Reagan was one of the most successful presidents of the 20th century. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to point to a “fundamentalist” (as you term them) Christian president in our history who was an abject failure as a leader. Even Abraham Lincoln, a president with less than orthodox beliefs, made some startling apocalyptic claims. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln stated that the Civil War was the sword of God’s judgment on the national sin of slavery. He concluded with words of biblical prophecy in Psalm 19:9, “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Many critics of the Christian Right like to paint what has been a common belief in American history – the tenets of orthodox Christianity – as an aberration. This is most often done by taking that obscure term that was originally used as a derogatory term for a narrow band of evangelicalism – “fundamentalism” – and using it to describe what is the dominant religious culture in America. The aim is clear. All conservative evangelical Christians are described as “fundamentalists.” Thus a negative connotation appears when Muslim terrorists and Islamic dictatorships are also described as “religious fundamentalists” and “fundamentalist regimes.”
This distortion appears in the title and cover graphic of your book and is repeated consistently. It’s ironic because in a later chapter you more or less correctly describe how both the evangelical and fundamentalist movements began. But you still misuse the terms for effect. You often use the softer, friendlier term “evangelical” to describe the “good guys” and the term “fundamentalist” or “neo-fundamentalist” to describe every other Christian you don’t agree with.
Definitions: Evangelical and Fundamentalist
“Evangelical” began as a term to describe the 17th century Pietists, Puritans and later the 18th century Methodists, who stressed the need for personal conversion (or being “born again”); had a high regard for biblical authority; and actively preached the Gospel. The evangelical movement is represented by a wide spectrum of leaders such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody. Today, evangelicalism includes a broad swath of conservative Protestantism.
“Fundamentalism” is a much narrower group within the evangelical movement. It is usually understood as a campaign in the 1910s and 1920s against Modernist theology. Fundamentalism got its name from the movement’s distribution of pamphlets that outlined the five “fundamentals.” These were the inspiration of the Bible and the resulting inerrancy of scripture; the virgin birth of Christ; Christ’s atonement for sin on the cross; the bodily resurrection of Christ; the historical reality of Christ’s miracles and Second Coming. Fundamentalism as a reaction to liberalism ironically ends up committing much the same error as liberalism in truncating the Gospel into a limited set of principles and denying many other valid applications of Truth.
I realize that there are such people, but there are not too many Christians today who self-identify as “fundamentalists.” It’s a pejorative term usually combined with other slurs, such as “right-wing, fundamentalist fanatic.” To many, it means simply, “No fun, too much damn and not enough mental.”
Since you are no stranger to the concept of rhetoric as a weapon, I’ll assume that this was done intentionally. Most of the people you term “fundamentalist” or “neo-fundamentalist” – sometimes interchangeably – do not fit the definition of the word. For instance, Pentecostals and Charismatics are not fundamentalists and neither are the Reformed.
Beyond our disagreement on definitions, what concerns me are the repeated statements throughout the book, such as the following:
I define a fundamentalist as anyone who is absolutely certain that they possess the “truth” and have the “correct view”…. When fundamentalists’ fear of losing the world and their way of life is so threatening that violence becomes and option, it’s time for an intervention…. These movements are in my opinion dangerous.
While you make a sympathetic case for not demonizing your opponents, many such statements throughout the book do exactly that. The call for an “intervention” is all the more irresponsible simply because the opposite is true. Uncertainty about personal and societal morality has time and again created totalitarian states. This is true simply because a free society cannot exist for very long without a moral people. In a society where rampant murder, theft, sexual immorality, falsehood and covetousness become the norm, a totalitarian government has to step in and take control.
The “Social Gospel” vs. the “Salvation-only” Gospel
Historically, fundamentalists are those who eschew the “social gospel.” The rift came at the end of the 19th century, when liberal theologians began to doubt that the message of a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus had as much to do with the Gospel message as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing for the poor, healing the sick with natural medicine. Recoiling from this social gospel, a group of conservative evangelicals began to preach a “salvation-only” gospel.
Among churches that emphasized the so-called five fundamentals, “dead orthodoxy” became a term to describe churches that officially held to the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian faith, yet had little fruit to testify to the genuine salvation of their members. To vanquish this error, the evangelical movement (and the fundamentalists a few decades later) began to re-emphasize salvation as an individual experience and the “literal” interpretation of Scripture.
The evangelical and fundamentalist movements were bulwarks against liberal apostasy. However, they did away with most of the public reading of Scripture, creeds and confessions. Liturgical services were abandoned in favor of a less formal, “seeker-friendly” type of evangelical meeting. There is certainly nothing wrong with this. But in abandoning the liturgy, they forgot to teach new church members the core elements of the faith found in the creeds and confessions.
Deemphasizing the public reading of creeds was intentionally good, but it had disastrous consequences. Instead of restoring the evangelical church to its historic orthodox roots, the fundamentalists fell into the same error as the liberals in truncating a huge portion of the Gospel.
Historically, the fundamentalists tended not to foray into politics because such efforts were associated with the liberal social gospel. There were a few notable exceptions to this when the fundamentalist movement began 100 years ago. The perennial presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whom you note in your book, is the most obvious example. It is only a recent phenomenon that traditional fundamentalists, such as Jerry Falwell, began to be involved in political activism.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
At around the time of the 1950s, a Puritan resurgence began to take place in the evangelical movement. Christians began to realize once again that the essential purpose of the Gospel of the Kingdom is to transform the whole world beginning with the spiritual regeneration of individuals. In turn, this builds spiritually strong families and churches. The next step is in reforming the social structures of the culture including politics. The Gospel of the kingdom is not an “either-or” proposition of saving souls and neglecting social concerns or vice versa.
The social gospel preaches the gospel of socialism and statism; the pietistic and Arminian gospel preaches the gospel of withdrawal, retreat, and rapture. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of the kingdom of God (R.J. Rushdoony: Thy Kingdom Come, p. 230. 1970).
The purpose of the Christian Reconstructionist movement was to recover what the Puritans called the “full-orbed Gospel.” The Bible mandates that we preach the Gospel of salvation to the every creature on the earth. The Bible also requires us to be involved in acts of charity to care for the poor, weak and oppressed. Biblical law must also govern the civil state as well as economics, science, the arts, technology, education, and so on. That is the Gospel of the kingdom.
The people who founded America – Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, Deists and a handful of Jews – created the most religiously tolerant nation on earth of its size. The only country in Europe that practiced this degree of toleration at the time was the Netherlands. But unlike the free society of the Netherlands, America remained conservative in its Christian morality even while tolerating a wide variety of religious expression. Early America was libertarian, but not libertine.
This was possible because the dominant worldview was Protestant Christianity and each individual saw himself as self-governing under God. Self-government is the highest from of government. Family government, church government, civil government and contract government between parties cannot exist unless there is a degree of personal restraint. To co-exist in any society, there has to be a common moral denominator in order for people to get along.
Our nation could not have co-existed – as Lincoln pointed out – when half the states were free and the other half slave-holders. We cannot co-exist today when abortion is for some people “a woman’s right” and for the other half it is the killing of an innocent human life. We cannot have homosexual partners “married” in Massachusetts and then deem only one-man-and-one-woman to be a legitimate family unit in the state of Florida.
The postmodernist might think that since we can’t know objective truth, then both sides have to learn to co-exist. In reality, the sociological situation can be compared to the law of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Something has to give.