Sunday, March 09, 2008

America's Secular Political Fundamentalism

Today, the term fundamentalist is used primarily as a substance free pejorative. Essentially, the word is used by someone meaning to describe a religious person that they find objectionable. The word really has no substantive meaning.

That was not always the case. Over the years, the meaning of the word has evolved. In the period of time from roughly the 1920's into the early 1980's, the word had a discernible meaning that identified a particular brand of American Christianity.

Many of the things that fundamentalists believe are common to all forms of historic Christianity -- the authoritativeness of Scripture, that Jesus was the Son of God and died for sins, the resurrection of Jesus, and so forth. Of the characteristics that differentiated fundamentalism in the 20th century from other forms of American Protestantism, the most significant was an obsessive interest in "separation." Fundamentalists took the Scriptural injunction to "come out from among them [i.e., the world] and be ye separate" as a begin and end all statement of the nature of Christian living, and it almost turned the movement into a sort of Protestant monasticism, though without walls. Of course, Christians were enjoined to avoid all forms of "worldliness." In addition, fundamentalists emphasized what is sometimes termed "second degree separation." That is to say, it was not enough merely to avoid worldliness one's self. One must also avoid close relationships with others who might lead them into worldliness.

All of this is very much like today's public political culture, as exemplified recently, and these are only the most recent examples, by supposed controversies surrounding presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. Sen. McCain has been endorsed by a televangelist named John Hagee who has said some rather intemperate things about Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, Sen. Obama has received an unsolicited endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-semitic remarks.

All right thinking people would consider some of the statements made by Messrs. Hagee and Farrakhan to be somewhere along a line between nutty and despicable. However, no one with as much as half a brain considers either of the presidential candidates to adhere to any of those disreputable views. Yet, even though no one seriously thinks that either Sen. McCain or Sen. Obama is guilty of holding nefarious views, commentators and partisan hacks line up to speak to the necessity of them repudiating their endorsements, and those commentators and hacks chalk up any hesitancy to so repudiate as some sort of evidence of moral or political weakness or pandering on the part of the candidates.

Secondary separation. And nonsense.

Of course, there have been rare important occasions when the rejection of a supporter held larger significance -- the rejection by the late William F. Buckley of the support of Birchers is a notable and laudable example. But much of this is posturing that diminishes our political culture and distracts from genuine issues of policy and character.

One wishes that we would stipulate that an endorsement or campaign donation in no way implies or suggests full agreement by the recipient with everything the supporter has said and done. Really, that should be the end of the matter.

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