Why do I call it “funda-gelicalism?” Good question. It’s not original to me—I read it somewhere. I know it probably bothers some Christians who identify as evangelicals but do not want to be associated with fundamentalism. I think they feel like the part of the family tree that sort of made it over the wall, went to college, obtained a good paying job, and like having a glass of wine every now and then. I get that.
Likewise, I’m sure there are fundamentalists who don’t like being thrown in with evangelicals. In their minds, evangelicals are closet liberals, just one miss-step away from plunging into hell’s gaping jaws. So, both attitudes would represent sort of the self-conscious aspects of each. In each’s mind, they are substantially different than the “other.” I’m not so sure about that.
And I am aware of the academic and historical discussion regarding the differences and similarities between fundamentalists and evangelicals. George Mardsen’s book on the subject is still one of the best (See here).
I’m tempted to take the old joke about Baptists and Methodists and apply it here: Evangelicals are just fundamentalists who can read. Funny, yes, but we all know evangelicals and fundamentalists who are very educated and intelligent. Is the stereotype accurate then? I will leave that to the reader. My own personal experience growing up in that world, anecdotally, is that it was too often rather accurate.
Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell once put it this way: “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”
As much as I disagree with Jerry Falwell about most things, here I think he is very accurate. One reason I run the two together is because it is not so much a difference theologically, as it is one of sensibility, focus, and temperament. If we were to ask a fundamentalist and an evangelical what they believed about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, baptism, communion, evangelism, eschatology, same-sex marriage, etc., I think we would hear very similar language and a very similar understanding of those areas.
Where I see differences becoming evident is when it comes to questions of relating. How each relates these common understandings to their world, each other, and other faiths, is where fault lines seem to appear. Fundamentalists seem to relate in a more closed, uncompromising, and angry manner. Evangelicals seem to relate in a more open, flexible, and friendly manner.
I think many evangelicals are really fundamentalists, they just don’t know it, or deep down they know it, but are embarrassed by it. Rarely are fundamentalists really evangelicals because they wouldn’t last that long before being found out and expelled from the fundamentalist group—they are “outed” rather quickly. Fundamentalists love “outing” liberals and heretics. It’s what they do.
Thus, I link the two as a way to get some evangelicals to consider who they might really be. I have found fundamentalism to be toxic in so many ways. However, that same toxicity is also present in much of evangelicalism, it is just overlooked or rationalized away because it comes with a friendlier face (Side note: Yes, I am aware there is some toxicity within all faith traditions—there is no Eden—I get that).
I link the two traditions for this reason: Which is more dangerous, the racist neighbor who is loud and proud, or the friendly, quieter neighbor who secretly harbors the same sentiments and beliefs?
Just a thought.