Minutes of Monthly Meeting

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February 9, 1997

Location: Alumni Hall, University of Dayton

Meeting Topic: Protestant Fundamentalism and Politics in America

Speaker: Prof. Bill Trollinger, Department of History, University of Dayton

Hosts: Bert Buby and Connie Breen

PRESENT: Connie Breen and Lou Ryterband, Cochairs; Arthur Auster, Jane Brown, Larry Briskin, Bert Buby, Agnes Hannahs, Jack Hickey, Edith Holsinger, Jack Kelley, Jerry Kotler, Joe Lawrence, Arch McMillan, Barry Mersman, Julie Phillips, Ken Rosenzweig, Robin Smith, Henry Wise Stick, Bill Trollinger, Lou Vera, Dieter Walk, Suzie Walk, Marianne Weisman, Murray Weisman, William Youngkin, Frederick Zollman.

Connie called the meeting to order at about 8:00 PM, and delivered the devotional prayer. Suzi then discussed the plans for the Open Meeting of the Dialogue on April 6. The meeting will feature David Dolan, a CBS News correspondent from Jerusalem who will speak on "Bias in Middle East Reporting." Several Dayton community organizations are supporting this event. Jack Kelley then delivered an informational report which included the following. On Sunday, February 23, there will be a booksigning at the Dayton Country Club in which Father Buby will sign his books on Mary. Jack also informed the group about a Christian-Jewish Relations Website which he heard about in an E-mail from Allan Brockway of St. Petersburg, Florida. The website can be accessed at "http://www.jcrelations.com". It contains a glossary of terms, Jewish-Christian relations events, communications, and articles. There was some discussion of how our minutes could be linked up to the website. Jack also updated the group on his work on combating anti-Jewish bias in Christian Passion Plays. Jack is interested in attending an upcoming conference on the Holocaust at Eckerd College which will cost $1,000 for Jack to attend.

Ken then introduced the meeting speaker, Bill Trollinger. Bill is in his first year on the faculty of the history department at the University of Dayton. He grew up in Denver, Colorado, and received a BA degree from Bethel College in Minnesota in 1977. He later received MA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife and two twin 14-year-old daughters. His wife is a professor of special education at Bluffton College. Prior to his appointment at UD, Bill taught for four years at College of the Ozarks and eight years at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. His research specialty is history of American religion, especially American Fundamentalism. Bill has written a couple of books and has numerous other publications. He just had an article published on the religious right in the November 20 issue of Christian Century.

At the beginning of his talk, Bill provide some additional personal biographical information. He grew up in a very conservative Protestant home in Denver. He met his future wife in high school. She came from an even more conservative rock-ribbed Republican Protestant family. As fundamentalists, they considered Bill's family and the church they attended to be too liberal. Later, at the University of Wisconsin, Bill decided to study Protestant Fundamentalism. At that time, most academics viewed Protestant Fundamentalism as dead or dying. This did not fit with Bill's experience that Protestant Fundamentalism was alive and well in the US, and the tension between these two viewpoints motivated Bill to pursue the topic. We are aware of Fundamentalism in this country primarily because of the Religious Right, but Fundamentalism is now understood as a global phenomenon: it is not just American and not just Protestant. Although there is Catholic Fundamentalism and Jewish Fundamentalism, Bill's focus is on the American Protestant variety.

According to the Fundamentalism Project, Fundamentalists actively oppose modernity, secularism, and religious relativism. There are four primary characteristics of what might be referred to as generic Fundamentalism:

  1. Fundamentalists actively try to change the culture in which they live.
  2. They are active in using modern communications methodology to spread their message (in this respect, their opposition to modernity is selective).
  3. They ground their faith in literal reading of sacred texts.
  4. They establish clear boundaries between themselves and outsiders.
Bill stated two objectives for his presentation:
  1. To explore what it means to be a Protestant Fundamentalist.
  2. To discuss what drives Protestant Fundamentalists to get involved in politics.
Bill said that Protestant Fundamentalism emerged after World War I as a subgroup of Protestant Evangelicals. Fundamentalists have these beliefs in common with Evangelicals:
  1. Deity of Jesus Christ
  2. Scripture as final authority
  3. The need for a conversion experience
  4. The need to share the Gospel with other people.
What distinguishes Fundamentalists from Evangelicals is a militant anti-modernity. Fundamentalism was a reaction to the liberal theology of the early twentieth century. There are three key components of Fundamentalist ideology:
  1. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible; the Bible is considered to be the word of God (both Hebrew and Christian texts); the Bible must be read literally (this was a reaction against Biblical criticism practiced by liberal Protestant denominations).
  2. Dispensational Premillennialism: This a system of prophecies based on a literal reading of certain ancient religious texts, such as Daniel and Revelation; according to this belief, history is divided into seven eras; Christ's era is in a future age; the present era is called the Church Age; this age is marked by growing apostacy in the institutional Protestant church and growing moral decay; these factors in turn point to the return of Christ; this mode of thinking is tied up with the field of eschatology--predictions of the end of times; one prediction is that there will be a great battle between the forces of good and evil, known as the Battle of Armageddon; at this point Jerry asked about the predicted dates for these events and Bill replied that the more sophisticated Fundamentalists do not precisely predict dates but hold out that the dates are imminent; Larry pointed out that the implication of these beliefs is that political reform is not desirable and Bill agreed.
  3. Political conservatism: Fundamentalists question why humans should engage in political reform and feel liberal Protestants have placed too much emphasis on good works; Fundamentalists view the state in a negative sense: it should protect us from foreign enemies, and it should hold back the forces of immorality.
History of American Fundamentalism

The World Christian Fundamentalists Association was organized in 1919. In the 1920's Fundamentalists engaged in numerous crusades focused on such issues as: eliminating liberals from the schools and churches, pushing for a credal test for teachers and other officials, and elimination of the teaching of evolution from the schools. An important event during this era was the Scopes trial in which Fundamentalists won the case but came off looking bad.

Over the years, many observers have assumed that Fundamentalism died in the 1920's, but Bill does not agree. Fundamentalists moved to the "grass roots; they formed bible institutes and radio stations to spread their message. In the 1920's and 1930's, Fundamentalists became more conservative politically, partly in reaction to the Bolshevik revolution; they saw the Soviets as creating an atheistic government that was trying to stamp out democracy and create a welfare state; in the 1930's Fundamentalists felt they had confirmation, in the form of the Franklin Roosevelt administration (New Deal) which created a welfare state, that Communist influence had spread to the US. The final factor that cemented Fundamentalist's political conservatism was the Cold War which Fundamentalists saw as a struggle between God and Satan. Arthur asked about Fundamentalists' feeling about Al Smith (Democratic nominee for president in 1928 who was Catholic). Bill replied that Fundamentalists generally opposed Al Smith in 1928 as well as Jack Kennedy in 1960. At this point, Bill stated his belief that recent attempted alliances between conservative Catholics and Protestant Fundamentalists are misleading since Fundamentalists have never given up their belief that Catholics are not true Christians.

Bill stated that in spite of their political conservatism, Fundamentalists were not active politically; voting rates were low; most Fundamentalists felt comfortable in the US which they viewed as a Christian nation, and thus felt little motivation to vote; they focused their energies on building churches and "saving souls." This huge constituency remained dormant politically, but everything changed in the 1960's and 1970's. During this time, Fundamentalists began to feel like strangers in their own land. This was caused partly by political movements of this time, civil rights, antiwar, feminism, gay rights, as well as what Fundamentalists saw as generalized moral decay. Fundamentalists also perceived that the Supreme Court had ceased to be a Godly court. In addition to the Roe vs. Wade decision allowing abortion, in 1963, the Court banned prayer in public schools. In response to these changes, two groups pushed for political activism among Fundamentalists:

  1. Televangelists: people such as Swaggart and Bakker began to emphasize political issues on their TV programs.
  2. Republican activists: people such as Richard Viguerie, an important Republican strategist, saw the opportunity to get votes from this untapped constituency.
The Moral Majority movement was created in 1979 by Jerry Falwell. It focused on education, lobbying, and the election of "Christ-centered" candidates. The Moral Majority developed a direct-mail list; it was actually an organization of preachers; its primary goal was to put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Ronald Reagan was a strange focus for Moral Majority efforts; Fundamentalists were generally against movies; they were anti divorce (Reagan was divorced); Reagan's own church attendance was sporadic at best, and the intensity of his religious convictions was unclear; also, Reagan was reported in 1979 to have given less than one percent of his income to charity. All of this was irrelevant to Fundamentalists; they loved his politics. One issue on which they agreed with him was his opposition to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. However, generally the Moral Majority could not get Reagan to move on their agenda and the organization folded in 1986. This ushered in a down period for Fundamentalists. In 1987, there were the televangelist scandals. In 1988, Pat Robertson's run for the Republican nomination for president was a failure. However, the religious right was not dead, although it did not at this time have a "grass roots" political organization.

In 1989, Ralph Reed organized the Christian Coalition. This is a grass roots organization which was created church by church and includes ½ to 1 ½ million members; it is active at the local level, putting up candidates for school boards and other offices. It is also important at the national level, supporting the Jesse Helms candidacy for the Senate in 1990 and the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. In 1994, the Christian Coalition played an important role in the Republican sweep of Congress; in 1996, the damage to Republican congressional control was limited by the Christian Coalition. Ralph Reed is an extremely effective leader; he spins the news better than anyone. The religious right has become ensconced in the Republican Party; any predictions that the Party is going to split are too dogmatic; the party will learn how to be accessible to the religious right.

In conclusion, Bill stated that the religious right will not go away. It is supported by a whole network of organizations, including Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family. Opposing the religious right will require taking it on directly, issue by issue; the focus of these opposing arguments must be that religious right positions are not in accord with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Discussion Period

Someone asked whether any of these efforts to oppose the religious right have been successful. Bill replied that a 1993 interfaith conference developed some arguments countering Fundamentalism; however, he was not optimistic for the success of these efforts; anti-religious right arguments must be made on Biblical grounds. Edith wondered whether moderate Republicans will leave the party as Fundamentalist influence grows. Bill replied that he did not think the religious right would totally take over the Republican Party; rather it would remain as an influential minority that must be paid attention to.

Dieter said he perceived a recent broadening of the base of the religious right; there was a greater focus on moral issues that are of general concern and more inclusive. Bill replied that Ralph Reed may be willing to accept a broadened base, but the majority of Fundamentalist are not willing to broaden the base. Dieter commented that Fundamentalists have provided active support for Israel. Bill agreed that Fundamentalists tend to be strong Zionists because of their Dispensational Premillennialism; however, it is important to recognize that Fundamentalists see Jews as condemned to Hell and some Jews as supporting the antichrist. Arthur asked Bill to expand on the concept of the antichrist and discuss whether the Jews are the antichrist. Bill noted prevailing beliefs of Fundamentalists that the antichrist will rule the world prior to the second coming of Christ; also some Fundamentalists claim the antichrist is a Jew. Also some have seen Mussolini, Stalin, Sadam Hussein, or Henry Kissinger as the antichrist; of course, the Pope was traditionally viewed as the antichrist. Jerry mentioned the issue of the recently discovered Jewish background of the new Secretary of State, Madelyn Albright.

Bill stated that in the 1930's, the important Fundamentalist leader, William Bell Riley, became viciously anti-Semitic. There has always been an ambivalence of Fundamentalists toward Jews because of their tradition of millenialist prophecy. Someone commented in defense of Fundamentalists, that Pat Robertson gutted a Boeing 747 airplane in order to fly needed goods to impoverished countries. The commenter noted that Bill is lumping together good and bad Fundamentalists. A lot of Fundamentalists do wonderful things. Bill replied that some Fundamentalists engage in private charity and some give nothing to charity. However, Fundamentalists consistently oppose government aid to the poor. He noted that there are both anti-Semitic fundamentalists and anti-anti-Semtic fundamentalists. Suzi complained that Bill was "broadbrushing" Fundamentalism; not all Fundamentalists fit this severe pattern. Bill replied that the standard definition of Fundamentalism states that the belief in Biblical inerrancy is central; of course, it is impossible not to "broadbrush" somewhat in a short presentation on this complex topic. However, there is no opening in the Fundamentalist community to religious relativism; Bill did not say that Fundamentalists hate Catholics; however, Fundamentalists have a serious problem with the Pope and the role of Mary in Catholic theology. Bill stated that, in fact, it is a strength of Fundamentalism that it draws firm boundaries.

Arthur asked about the line between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Bill replied that the difference comes down to attitudes; Fundamentalists are more strident in their opposition to moral decay; however, the line is blurry; examples that may help one distinguish the two groups are as follows: Billy Graham is an Evangelical and Jerry Falwell is a Fundamentalist. A lady who is a Quaker said that Quakers open themselves to the spirit; they do not feel the word is as important since they pray in silence. Bill Rain stated that Charismatics also open themselves to the Holy Spirit. Bill Trollinger replied that Fundamentalists tend to be more rationalistic and are suspicious of such openings to the spirit.

Bill stated that his family has a lot of Fundamentalists, and he generally gets along well with them. Larry Briskin noted that a lot of Black churches engage in a significant amount of political activities and political fund raising. At what point do such churches (including Fundamentalist churches) cross the line such that they lose their church tax exemption? Bill replied that liberals should not whine about this issue of political action through churches. Instead, they should organized to combat Fundamentalism. Someone commented on Orwell's book, 1984; he maintained that separation of church and state is a perversion of the establishment clause of the Constitution. Bill's response was that separation of church and state is a contested issue. Jefferson and Madison advocated a high wall between church and state. Bill commented that Fundamentalists reacted to the perceived ungodliness of secular schools by creating their own Christian schools; textbooks used in these schools generally claim that the Founders of the nation were all Christians; in fact, this is not true.

Edith asked what is a Charismatic religion. Bill replied that such religions emphasize emotionalism and openness to the Holy Spirit; for example some Charismatics practice "speaking in tongues." Lou questioned what is an Evangelical. He though it was more than a Fundamentalist. Bill replied that Evangelicals were the larger group. They emphasize orthodox theology and personal religious experience; Fundamentalists go farther by being militantly anti-modern. Someone asked about Billy Graham's attitudes toward other religions; Bill replied that in his early crusades, Graham allowed Catholic priests and mainline Protestants to be on the platform.

Someone asked what the country would be like with a Fundamentalist president. Bill replied that he tends to avoid this topic. Jerry Kotler quoted Elie Wiesel who said "You should run from anyone who claims to know the truth, because you are in the presence of evil." Bill Rain stated his opinion of the difference between absolutists and empiricists: absolutists know the truth and empiricists think they know the truth.

Arthur asked who is the final arbiter of religious authority. Bill Trollinger commented on his impressions after just one year at the University of Dayton which is a Catholic institution. Catholics are concerned about who writes the rules of religious authority. For Fundamentalists, in theory, the reader of the text is the final arbiter; thus Fundamentalist churches are ostensibly democratic; in fact, the minister in Fundamentalist churches makes authoritative interpretations for the congregation.

Jerry Kotler said he resonated with the idea of millennialism. He noted that the Frankist movement in the 17th Century held the view that things had to get worse before they became better; Jerry has observed many comparisons between Jewish orthodox Fundamentalism and Christian Fundamentalism; however, Jewish orthodox Fundamentalists have less of a problem with textual interpretation than do Christian Fundamentalists. Jerry can see a lot of positive features in Jewish orthodoxy and asked Bill if he could see positive features in Protestant Fundamentalism. Bill replied that the emphasis on community is a positive feature of Protestant Fundamentalism. People in Fundamentalist communities generally take care of each other; they are very aware of God and take the Bible seriously. As a leftist, Bill's great hope is that when Fundamentalists read the Gospels, they will move more to the leftist position that people in need should be helped. Bill noted that he is not one of the ex-Fundamentalists who attempt to expose the excesses of Fundamentalists. Some of Bill's friends who are in this category say that Bill is too generous with Fundamentalists.

Someone made the case that the nation's founders were Christians. Bill replied that although the founders were formally Christians, many were deists. Such Christians would not qualify as Christians by any Fundamentalist conception of Christianity. Prof. Julie Phillips commented that people desiring to answer the challenge of Fundamentalism should respond better to Fundamentalist letters and articles printed in the newspaper.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:00 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary
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