This essay was first published in the Palestine Chronicles 2004 12 01 and is copyright protected.
Not to be published without consent of the author.
This is the second in a series of articles that explores the rise to power of the fundamentalist Christian right within the government of the United States and its affects on perceptions and actions in the Middle. The first article took a general overview of the current American government. This article focuses on the development of and ideas behind American fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism as currently conceived by the media has two common personalities: the solid back to basics, evangelistic body that believes in Christian based values of family, marriage, chastity, biblical literalism and extends into protests against big government, the teaching of science, in particular evolution, in the schools, the loss of prayer in the schools, the perversions of the mass media with its emphasis on sexuality and pornography, and other signs of the moral decay of America. Against this are the fanatic fundamentalists of the Muslim world, those in the Orientalist view of the world who are evil, savage, and unredeemable heathens, not capable of dealing with modernity. The reality from a sociological point of view is somewhat more moderate, with fundamentalism being similarly defined in its societal function in many cultures.
It has been commonly recognized that fundamentalists are not from the ranks of the poverty-stricken and those totally disenfranchised by society and this has been particularly noted of the suicide bombers that now create such fear and insecurity in America and Israel. For the poor, “economic survival is their main priority” and they are “difficult to mobilize politically.” The nineteen people who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre were not from the poor, and fifteen of them were relatively well educated Saudi’s with some knowledge of the world around them. Bin Laden is the obvious rich man’s terrorist, the scion of a wealthy Saudi industrialist. The Palestinians again do not come from poverty, although poverty is definitely present, but are sometimes middle class, white collar, tech workers, women and wives as well as men. They are “unemployed, purposeless, and without a future” and “see Israel as fundamentally hedonistic, materialistic society with lapsed moral and religious values.” Palestine, however, differs from Saudi Arabia in that it is functionally occupied by the Israeli military and is being colonized by Israeli settlers (who themselves are Jewish fundamentalists – more later) under that military protection. Fundamentalists in America are also not those living in poverty but come from similar ranks within society and can be identified with “young, college-educated, middle-class technicians, professionals and business persons” as much as with the workers and urban poor. While there are obvious differences in outcomes, the question being looked at here is what is at the core of fundamentalism, especially in America?
The basic characteristics of fundamentalism are defined in a seminal work on the subject by Martin Riesebrodt titled Pious Passions The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. Riesebrodt does not fully discuss the political ramifications from the rise of two such similar movements in these two disparate societies, but finds similarities that brought them both to the fore.
Fundamentalism’s first characteristic, as discussed above, is that “Adherents come from the lower, middle, and upper classes,” and from various employment positions from the unemployed through to professionals. Their common ground or unity is found in “their self perception, which was based not on economic interests but on common values and ideal ways of life.” It is the “sociomoral integration of individuals in a milieu instead of a socioeconomic integration into a class.” The common ground is found partly in a lay or lower clergy, not with a theological university background, but from “traditional educational institutions, the confessional colleges, Bible schools, and madrasas”. In short, it is not one’s economic position that indicates the tendency towards fundamentalism, but one’s moral values in life.
Another characteristic is the rural heritage of a large proportion of the clerics. The recent electoral map is a reflection of this, with the wide swaths of Republican red through the midwest and southern states, while the outward looking more urban coastal areas were Democratic blue. Along with this heritage is the characteristic of urban migration, with the accompanying hopes for social mobility to the middle class, but also with the destabilizing forces of modern urban society. So as much as fundamentalism arises from common moral values, it is also given impetus from the uncertainty of economic mobility, stability, or success. These latter uncertainties can be spread across many economic levels as insecurity is not confined to any particular level.
Riesebrodt identifies several patterns that cause, within the sociological definition, the “transformation from traditionalism into fundamentalism” in both the United States and Iran and that probably are effective globally.
He identifies the most significant as the “public loss of validity and prestige of traditional values and life conduct ideals” within the cities. In lay terms, as the cities become more and more cosmopolitan and behaviours become less and less restricted in relation to social and moral values, more permissive, and family structures tend to weaken towards the work or social group, the traditional identity can be difficult to maintain. In Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God, the same view is visible. “Hitherto, fundamentalism had been a product of the big northern cities,” with the “South still predominantly agrarian.” In the 1960s and 1970s the south began to modernize and the combination of new arrivals with unsettling liberal views creating “conservative Protestants [that] were as ripe for a fundamentalist movement, as their northern co-religionists had been at the turn of the century, and for all the same reasons.” 
Another factor for Riesebrodt has been the role of the state, and in the time factor discussed in the text - the early Twentieth Century – the government “no longer enforced Sabbath restrictions...prohibited Bible readings…and allowed the teaching of evolutionary theory.” The era of Prohibition was a success for the fundamentalists, temporarily, but the forces of society caused its repeal within a few years, again with the government playing a large role in that decision. Support is again found with Armstrong as she indicates that a “factor that led many traditionalists to become fundamentalists was the rapid expansion of state power in the United States after the Second World War”, again for similarly identified reasons.
In a related vein, Riesebrodt identifies “cultural reproduction and generational conflict” as part of the “transformative processes.” Essentially that means an education with a broader educational point of view, where science is in the fore and other cultures are studied with equanimity, and religion is more or less not considered except as a social construct. Being better educated than their parents, and exposed to the outward looking effects of the cosmopolitan urban environment, a generational gap appears. The mass media, the best cultural reproducer of all (education is not static, but is an active follower) floods the populous via radio, television, cinema, books, papers with millions of seeds of consumer desire based largely on sexuality.
As indicated above, problems with the perception of “threatened expectations of upward social mobility”, in particular with the poor career reception from a traditionalist educational venue, leads them to be “particularly receptive to associations that overcome their alienation and to ideologies that integrate modern and traditionalist elements.” Today that is obvious with televangelism, where large audiences are reached not only at the revivalist meetings but millions globally are able to view the proceedings. The previously identified political characteristic finds “expression in their partial critique of democracy, and even in antidemocratic sentiment, which was frequently directed against Catholics, modern industrialists and unions.” Viewed today, this is seen with the opposing views taken on women’s rights, abortion, gay rights, open marriage definitions, the call for ‘traditional’ education, looming prohibitions on medical technology with embryonic stem cell research, and other genetic scientific disciplines and science in general with the return of Creationist theory in some areas.
Support for this thesis comes from modern theological studies where the “growing awareness of world religions, the teaching of human evolution and, above all, the rise of biblical higher criticism” led the concerns. Immigration of non-Protestant immigrants and the “elitism of professional educators who seemed to scorn the values of traditional Christian families” earned the fundamentalist’s resentment and antagonism.
A sociological examination of fundamentalism indicates the demographic factors involved; a theological examination brings the reader closer to the belief systems of the culture involved. Theological fundamentalism began as a struggle within religions before it emerged into the public arena and originally posited five dogmas: the infallibility of Scripture; the virgin birth of Christ; Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross; his resurrection; and the objective reality of his miracles. The last four are obvious if the first one is accepted – from the infallibility of Scripture developed many internal arguments about the word of the Bible within the church. From there it developed point by counterpoint, tradition against modernity – and keep in mind that modernity here is not given as the Orientalist perception of the clash of civilizations, but in reference to the political, moral, and economic factors of modern city life discussed above – with the Protestants intending “to go back to the ‘fundamentals’ but they did so in a peculiarly modern way.”  Television, political lobbying, the use of print mass media, the stunning success of movies including the recent “The Passion of the Christ”, and most recently the internet, have all served as modern methods of communication to achieve the fundamentalists’ goals.
Billy Graham was probably the first large television ministry, gathering large audiences to be witness to his word, accompanied by ever larger audiences globally, including the seat of ‘evil’, the Soviet Union itself. Graham was in the traditionalist mold, but as more names were added, televangelism became more dynamically fundamentalist with names such as Oral Roberts and Jim and Tammy Fay Baker becoming familiar. The fundamentalists opposition was secular humanism, which “in the words of Tim LeHaye, one of the chief and most prolific fundamentalist ideologues, was “anti-God, anti-moral, anti-self-restraint, and anti-American,” seeing it as “conspiracy of evil forces.” With Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye the evangelical community boldly stepped into the end times prophecies and their strong association with the political right, with the Christian Right reaching its ultimate goal, in a sense, of retaking America through the White House.
So American fundamentalism began before World War I but eventually produced the “massive evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic revivals after World War II, as well as the Christian Right in the 1970’s and 1980s,” reaching the penultimate political control that now looks towards Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East in a peculiar end of times anticipation of Armageddon.
It must be reiterated that there are many factors at work in the White House besides that of the Christian Right, but with George Bush being a ‘born again’ Christian, accompanied by his coterie of fundamentalist appointees to various government offices, and although “Washington representatives of Christian Right organizations are hesitant to acknowledge prophetic motivations behind their groups’ actions…it is hard to believe they do not have a significant impact.” In sum “A sympathetic president, grassroots electoral strength, and ties to influential neo-conservatives have given the Christian Right influence in US foreign policy, providing support for a militant unilateralism and unwavering backing for Israel.” It is to these players that I now turn my attention, the neo-conservatives within the administration, many Jewish or with Jewish ties, creating the sometimes baffling, but temporarily expedient liaison, with the Israel right.
Riesebrodt, Martin Pious Passion The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. (Trans. Don Reneau). University of California Press,Berkely, U.S.A. 1993.
Bucaille, Letitia Growing Up Palestinian Israeli Occupation and the Intifada Generation Princeton University Press, Princeton, U.S.A. 2004.
Huntington, Sammuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs. Summer, 1993 pp. 22-28.
Armstrong, Karen Battle for God Ballantine Books, NY. 2001
Wacker, Grant “The Rise of Fundamentalism” Duke University Divinity School, www.nhc.rtp.nc.us:8080/tserv/twenty/tkeyinfo/fundam.htm.
Oldfield, Dwayne “The evangelical roots of US unilateralism”. www.atimes.com , March 26, 2004.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator who has regularly contributed a series of book reviews to the Palestine Chronicle under the general rubric of the American Empire. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization of the global community by the American government.