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A second kind of fundamentalism goes public

September 11, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

For more than 50 years, fundamentalist Christianity -- more or less considered to be the religion of choice for blue-collar believers -- was a subject for study.

As it turns out, I was totally unaware of a different species of fundamentalism that had avoided public attention since its inception in 1935. Its identifying labels are plentiful -- "neo-evangelicals," "elitist fundamentalists," "country club evangelicals," "avant garde fundamentalists," "new chosen evangelicals" and "Jesus plus nothing" believers.

In early August, this second brand burst upon the scene with articles, television commentary and a well-written book, "The Family," authored by Jeff Sharlet. "The Family" is the story of a nascent social movement revealing the origin, membership and ideology of an elitist collection of well-heeled, powerful businessmen, political figures and social leaders who have bonded to share and promote a Jesus-centered plan of reform.

A look at the names that make up the clientele of this "Jesus plus nothing" movement makes it evident that this "family" is not quite the "old-time religion" converts who gave their hard-earned coins to the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggert or Oral Roberts. Moreover, their message is more about the virtues of the powerful and the wealthy as agents of God's plan than on doctrinal purity disputes such as biblical literalism, inerrancy of "The Word" or the certainty of eternal damnation associated with the populist segment of fundamentalism.

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Indeed, almost every feature of this new fundamentalism seems to be an uncomfortable fit with the classic list of the "Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth," first published in 1910. The new breed will not be preaching about "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth" since they prefer the company of the wealthy and the powerful.

A look at the history of "The Family" gives an indication of who they venerate on earth -- next to Jesus. The founder, Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant, selected Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney from the religious sphere and James A. Farrell, president of U.S. Steel, on the secular side, as their ideal types.

These men were leaders, who in company with other "godly men" were the carriers of Vereide's "idea" to others. This trickle-down formula of faith would make up a "ruling class of Christ-committed men bound in a fellowship of the anointed, the chosen key men in a voluntary dictatorship of the divine."

This is very high praise for a typical "Robber Baron" who fought against all anti-trust legislation and New Deal depression correctives.

Ferrell, according to Vereide, "... pointed out that we have had 19 depressions -- five major ones -- and that every one was caused by disobedience to divine laws." The cure, of course, was a return to a "free" market and unfettered power to business interests.

The introduction of this more or less secret politico-religious organization to the world came about primarily because of the unintended notoriety of several members of the "family" who paid more than $900 per month rent for a room at a "family"-owned house on C Street in Washington, D.C. Republican Sen. John Ensign, Republican Gov. Mark Sanford and former Republican Rep. Chip Pickering were involved in activities held unacceptable to a "Jesus-only" organization.

These two expressions of Christian fundamentalism (elitist and populist) are studies in contrast. The populist segment, politically passive until the advent of the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell, will now be politically active until the second coming. The elitist element has been thrust into the limelight against its will and has always preferred a low-key, behind-the-scenes approach to a Christ-centered, theocratic society.

In the end, both segments make up a young, aspiring politico-religious social movement. These typically begin as cults. If successful, they advance to sects with signs of organization. If fortunate, they will become a denomination with some degree of respectability. As such, they will hope for eternal life and lust for wealth and power in competition with secular organizations. The "family" will then resemble "All in The Family."

From a historical perspective, it is hard to see how a theology so completely Jesus-centered and blatantly elitist can be acceptable to the segment with a populist theology, which prefers "a whole book rather than a book full of holes."

           

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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