Christianity culture

Why “I’m Not a Fundamentalist” Isn’t Enough

We can either really learn the lessons of the Religious Right, or we can repeat the errors of the past on a different side.

Let me briefly describe a trend I see in the post-Trump evangelical world.

Having been liberated from the Boomer delusion that Christianity equals right-wing politics, many of us younger evangelicals are trying to right the ship when it comes what we believe really matters to God. We sense that our parents often answered this question in a moralistic, nationalistic, individualistic, and materialistic way. Naturally, we want to fix this in our own lives. So we start to question our theological, political, and social assumptions, and carefully examine them for any trace of these toxins.

In the process of doing this, we adjust our intuitions at a very granular level. We don’t recoil from non-virgins. We don’t immediately fly into refutation mode when we find out our fellow church member is a registered Democrat. We don’t act like prudes when it comes to profanity. On the other hand, we do speak up when someone cracks a racist joke. We do register our concern when someone talks as if the Christian life can be reduced to a white wedding a nuclear family. We call out unkindness or stinginess.

All the while we are conscious of this shift between evangelical generations. We are trying to be more like Jesus and less like talk radio. We are trying to be Christians more than conservatives. We explain ourselves by pointing out that the gospel has been subject to cultural captivity, and that many in our theological family tree have been guilty of propping up ideas, institutions, and systems that looked more like political action committees or country clubs than like the church. We disown the “culture war” of previous generations and insist that the kingdom of Christ does not depend on whether you only see PG-13 movies. We are more hospitable and empathetic with non-Christians, we emphasize shared imago Dei far more than opposing worldviews, and we don’t let Christian subcultures or legalistic codes dictate who or how we love.

In this process, though, the pendulum swings all the way in the opposite direction. In our new consciousness, we tend to err on the side of deference when it comes to ethics that threaten to put us at odds with our neighbors. Open arms become shrugs. We become very quick to call out we think of as right-wing sin, like racism, and we convince ourselves that to do this effectively we need to take a break from talking about divorce. We start to find more in common with unbelievers who share our loathing of the Republican party than with other Christians who perhaps don’t. We identify ourselves mostly as “Not fundamentalists” rather than as Bible-believers. We agree to disagree about nudity and sex onscreen but join Twitter shame threads against people who don’t tip well.

I don’t think this is the balance Jesus would have us know.

I worry often that young, post-Trump evangelicals are not really learning the lessons of the Religious Right, but merely substituting one error for another. Can we really say that this dynamic offers a correction to the culture warrior mentality that we want so dearly to leave behind? Or is the threat now that we will simply accept the economy of culture war but switch sides, always punching Right and toward the local church as a way of apologizing for our tribe and making sure people know, in the words of Michael Corleone, “That’s my family. It’s not me.”

It’s not enough to say that the Bible transcends our politics and cultural divides. We have to believe it, and we have to believe that it applies just as equally for “authentic” 30 year olds working the Tinder scene in Brooklyn as it does for our grandparents who sit in front of Fox News every evening bemoaning the world. Becoming the opposite of a fundamentalist is a very low bar to clear for Christians. I know in our culture right now believers feel that not being a fundamentalist is the most important thing they can do if want more than the Religious Right for their church. But that’s not true. The trouble with pendulums is that anybody can reach up and grab them. They are not immovable, as Paul commanded the Corinthians to be. They are not like a tree planted by the water, as the Psalmist said of the one who meditated on the Word day and night. A pendulum does nothing but swing. Surely, beloved, that’s not what we are called to.

Aren’t we called to holiness? Aren’t we called to flee from both body-crushing racism and body-dishonoring immorality? Aren’t we called to guard our lips from both unkindness and vulgarity? Aren’t we called away from both legalism and antinomianism, from both fear of the world and love of the world?

I think so. I think what it takes is an open Bible and an open church. This year I have, by the grace of God, been more consistent in my yearly Bible reading plan than ever before. I have noticed so many things in Scripture that I hadn’t noticed in a lifetime of being raised in the church. Every time I think that a cultural sin of evangelicals might be chalked up to biblical silence on something, the Bible smacks me in the face with a verse or narrative that I just never gave time to in 30 years of living in evangelicalism. The problem is not a deficiency of Scripture but a deficiency of my reading it.

The whole Bible really does speak to the whole Christian life. Regaining the lost balance that I fear we’re losing takes the whole Bible, and it takes willingness to live spiritually alongside other believers who may be erring on the opposite side of us. Generational sins stay generational sins, I suspect, because generations don’t talk to each other, don’t repent to each other, and don’t worship together. I get nervous every time I walk into a church and it’s 90% people under 40 or 90% people over 40. Don’t we have much to learn from each other? Isn’t one of the most pernicious lies that Screwtape passed on to Wormwood the lie that no other time was as special and pressing as this one? How else are we going to disarm generational myths except generationally?

I hope and pray I’ll be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I believe Christ is happy to see the emerging generation of evangelicals refuse to fall into the same patterns of sin as what we saw before us. But there are patterns ahead of us too that beckon us to fall in just as our parents were beckoned. We don’t have to.

By Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

1 reply on “Why “I’m Not a Fundamentalist” Isn’t Enough”

My boomer mother once told me about how back in the 70s she got involved in the charismatic movement and thought she was so much more Christian than her parents. “Boy I was dumb” she said. Millennials are not the first generation to fall into this.


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