Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and the Palin/Bryan Factor

A few weeks ago, just when I’d decided I’d had enough of lipstick, pigs, and the feigned outrage of the suddenly feminist Republican Party, I picked up the local newspaper to read: “Dayton invites Sarah Palin to Speak.”

“Ahhhh! She’s everywhere!” I screamed. I’d already glanced through two Newsweek cover stories about her, read a lengthy Time piece, suffered through seemingly endless TV news coverage…and now here she was on the front page of the Dayton Herald.

 (This was, of course, before the financial crisis dramatically re-focused the nation’s attention.)

As I read through the article, I noticed that, for the third time that week, the vice presidential candidate had been compared to none other than William Jennings Bryan.

Local Republican Randall McGinnis told the Herald, “[Dayton] is essentially the Bible Belt. Palin is going to be the candidate of evangelicals, so what better place to speak than on the steps of the Rhea County Courthouse where William Jennings Bryan so eloquently defended evangelical Christianity in 1925?”

McGinnis’ statement was similar to one made by journalist Michael Gerson in the September 29 edition of Newsweek. In an article entitled “Starbucks Does Not Equal Savvy,” Gerson compares Palin’s small-town values and religiously-charged rhetoric to that of Bryan, claiming that “the closest I have ever come to witnessing a Bryan moment was Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention—the triumph of another backwoods, highly-religious populist. Palin praised the honesty and sincerity of small towns; pressed her credentials as a hockey mom, member of the PTA and small-town mayor; and rallied against the ‘Washington elite,’ ‘power brokers’ and (a little closer to home) ‘reporters and commentators.’ If hats had been in style, they would have been thrown.’”

There are more than a few ironies surrounding this comparison. The most obvious are that: 1) William Jennings Bryan was a democrat, 2) Bryan ran for president three times and lost, and 3) Bryan’s defense of the Christian faith during Dayton’s famous Scopes Trial was, by all objective accounts, less than eloquent.

However, my visceral reaction to the Herald News article was negative, not because of these ironies, but because of the use of the term “evangelical.”

McGinnis said something that has become increasingly apparent over the last several weeks: “Palin is the candidate of evangelicals.”

This election has just about convinced me that I must not be an evangelical after all. Polls show that evangelicals overwhelmingly support John McCain and Sarah Palin. I don’t. Whenever a pastor is called on by the media to present the “evangelical position” regarding anything from gay marriage to tax codes to global warming, I find myself passionately disagreeing. The term “evangelical” has taken on an extremely negative connotation for me, even though I grew up with that religious tradition and still identify with it in many ways.

It all came together late last week, when I read this comment by Scot McKnight on his fantastic blog:

"in the 1920s and 1930s many American evangelicals fought the rise of liberal, critical thought and rallied around the term ‘fundamentalism.’ That term referred to a steadfast commitment to some basics that could not be surrendered. At the time, fundamentalism was a decent and useful word. In time, though, the term was worn out by the abusive use of that term by its critics. So, Carl Henry stood up in the 50s and 60s and said something had to be done, and out of his famous book ‘Uneasy Conscience’ arose a new movement: ‘evangelicalism.’ Fundamentalism at the time called it ‘neo-evangelism’ and that was no compliment. But the movement survived the early attempts to smear it….Evangelicalism lasted--until the 80s and 90s—and now the term works the way ‘fundamentalist’ worked: the term today can hardly be used without having to explain yourself.”

So perhaps Sarah Palin is to evangelicalism what William Jennings Bryan was to fundamentalism. Perhaps she represents the last stand of a struggling, increasingly irrelevant movement.

I’m wondering if there are more Christians like me out there, who are tired of being associated with evangelicalism, and who are looking for a new term to describe their religious affiliation.

So here’s the question: Do you think that “evangelicalism” is beginning to take on the same negative connotation as “fundamentalism”? Also, what do you think of the Palin/Bryan comparison?


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Your Spiritual Journey: Send Me a Postcard!

So recently I’ve been bumping into a lot of old friends on what was once a lonely and frightening path away from religious certainty. While most of us share a common starting point, we are often headed in different directions. I’ve talked with some who have given up on faith altogether, others who have shifted allegiance to another religious tradition, and a lot who (like me) are still a little uncertain about which road to take next. We’re an eclectic troupe of misfits, doubters, and explorers…and I’m delighted to have the company.

My hope is that this blog serves as a safe place for fellow travelers to stop and take a breather, to perhaps share a few stories and exchange some traveling tips. As I continue to work on my book and plan for future posts, I’d love to hear from you.

In what ways has your faith changed over the years? What life experiences triggered these changes? Have you encountered any life-changing books or influential people along the way? Have you found a religious denomination or tradition that feels like home? What sort of issues/ideas would you like to see addressed more often on the blog?

If you are a blogger yourself, you may want to take the opportunity to invite us to your site.

If you’re uncomfortable posting your ideas publically, (or if there’s simply not enough room to tell your story), feel free to correspond via the “contact” feature on the blog. I’m more interested in making connections and building relationships than racking up a bunch of comments here.

T.S. Elliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Sometimes I feel like the harder and faster I run away from Christianity, the closer I get to something that resembles the gospel of Jesus.

The other day a friend asked me if I’d “gotten over” my faith crisis, if I was done asking all those obnoxious questions. All I knew to say was, “Well, I certainly hope not.”

Keep exploring, friends!


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A little mindfulness never hurt anyone

Once again Oprah Winfrey has generated a lot of interest (and some controversy) regarding spirituality as she recently launched a worldwide discussion about Eckhart Tolle’s book "A New Earth." 

Folks who know me know I’m a big Oprah fan. I watch the show nearly every day while running on the treadmill in my basement, and I really enjoy her magazine, which I feel has raised the bar intellectually for other popular women’s magazines. I also admire her philanthropy and her ability to speak to women on a wide range of issues, from human trafficking and AIDS relief, to self improvement and introspection, to finding a pair of jeans that look good on your butt. I don't agree with everything she says, of course, but I like her.

I’ve watched the recent shows about Tolle and A New Earth with mild interest. New Age spirituality isn’t really my cup of tea, and ever since I visited India I’ve been a bit skeptical about Eastern religions, as they seem to perpetuate a cultural indifference toward human suffering. However, unlike some, I don’t think Oprah and Tolle are out to take the world for Satan. In fact, I think they might actually have a few good things to say, particularly about mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentionally aware of one’s thoughts and actions in the present moment. In Buddhism, Right Mindfulness is the seventh path from the Noble Eightfold Path. 

Let me be clear. I’m not a Buddhist (or an Oprah follower for that matter); I’m a Christian. However, I’ve always felt that mindfulness is one of those good ideas from which we can all benefit, particularly those of us who tend to be excessively busy, goal-oriented, entitled, and materialistic (which unfortunately includes most Americans). 

I first encountered the idea of mindfulness while reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Here’s what he says about mindfulness: 

“In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment-to know what is going on within and all around us. When Buddha was asked, ‘Sir what do you and your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, we eat.’ The questioner continued, ‘But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.’ Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. When our beautiful child comes up to us to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.” 

I think this is a marvelous idea, one that can compliment (rather than compete with) Christian beliefs and practices. For example: 

- When I practice mindfulness in conversation, I listen to what others are saying rather than worrying about what I’m going to say next. 
- When I practice mindfulness in eating, I savor and enjoy smaller portions instead of absently scarfing down an entire can of Pringles while watching “The Biggest Loser.” 
- When I practice mindfulness in doing housework, I quiet those pesky and prideful thoughts of being “above” cleaning the toilet.
-  When I practice mindfulness while reading Scripture, I am more in tune with how the Holy Spirit is speaking to me at that moment and less concerned about which theological system best explains what I’ve read. 
- When I practice mindfulness while praying, I find myself doubting less and believing more. 
- When I practice mindfulness while serving, I focus on the needs of others rather than what’s next on my “to-do” list. 

I think one of the mistakes Christian fundamentalists make is to assume that other religions or cultural traditions have absolutely nothing to teach us. It’s too bad because, in this new global community, there’s a lot we can learn from one another.


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Can I go to mass if I'm not Catholic?

While driving around LaGrange, Georgia in desperate search of the local Wal Mart,  I found myself in the parking lot of St. Peter’s Catholic Church during its Saturday night mass. The place was packed, and from the outside I could hear the muffled harmonies of a choir. 

It’s hard to explain, but I suddenly felt the urge to go inside. I’m not Catholic or Anglican, but I’ve recently felt a strong pull toward more traditional, liturgical expressions of worship. 

Apparently, I’m not alone. U.S. News & World Report has a great article about what many see is a return to liturgy, ritual, and symbol among young evangelicals.

As we participate in Holy Week, I’m wondering if any of you feel the same way.  What do you think accounts for this renewed interest in tradition-observing the religious calendar, reciting daily prayers and ancient creeds, incorporating symbols into worship, etc. 

I was raised to believe that Christianity was not a religion, but a relationship. In my more seeker-sensitive, “low church” upbringing, religious traditions tended to fall into the “religion” category in my mind. And yet as an adult, I find tremendous comfort and peace in these very religious practices. They make me feel closer to God and more connected to the historic Church. Surrounded by commercialism and consumerism, they represent to me a sort of purity and authenticity that reminds me that I belong to something greater than myself. 

Jason Clark has an interesting view on all of this on his blog.

He writes that “within liturgy there is the invitation to participation, of repeating and enacting something together as community, that reminds us that there are beliefs that we order our lives around, rather than a world that asks us to choose whatever we want to believe.” 

The U.S. News & World Report article also presents some theories as to why young evangelicals are drawn to tradition. 

“People of the postmodern mindset—particularly 20- and 30-somethings—question the hyperindividualism of modern culture. They search for new forms of community but tend to be wary of authority figures and particularly of leaders…The young neotraditionalists also have an almost intuitive attraction to liturgy, ritual, and symbol as forms of knowledge that complement the dominant rational, scientific one.” 

What do you think? Anyone else done any research on this?


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