“Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read’st black where I read white.” ~ William Blake
“The world is wrong side up. It needs to be turned upside down in order to be right side up. ” ~ Billy Sunday
Until the age of 17, I attended churches and schools affiliated with the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. I was taught that the world was in a state of perpetual war, a cosmic war between God and Satan. This war would continue until Christ’s return to rule the Earth. The crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection three days later, were considered the defining moments of all of history. I was taught (and whole-heartedly believed) that the cross acts as a bridge between human beings and God. As a preteen the popular fundamentalist illustration above solidified this metaphor for me. When I encountered it again on the internet not so long ago, the sheer force of the image and all that it conveyed moved through my body like a thunder-bolt. I was reminded of how completely this image had at one time reflected my entire view of the world.
I am a self-identified political liberal and gay academic focused on cultural visual history. I was raised by self-identified political conservatives who adhered to fundamentalist/evangelical Christian teachings. I have lived on both sides of the American “culture wars” and am convinced more than ever that the political polarization experienced in this country since the 1970′s is reflective of Christian and non-Christian Americans’ great ignorance of the history of their own and each others belief systems. In order to understand certain trends in the culture wars, we have to be aware of what is at stake for those who adhere to a worldview that may be different from our own. This article is a small attempt to provide some basic information for lay people about a worldview that has influenced and continues to affect American culture.
American fundamentalism arose in the early 20th century as a cultural response to what many American Protestants felt was a deep moral and theological drift away from authentic Christianity: the rise of scriptural higher criticism, society’s rejection of a supernatural worldview and other encroaching forms of modernism. Fundamentalism joined other streams of American Protestant Christianity, the evangelicalism of the 19th century Great Awakening and a prophecy focused theology called dispensationalism. These eventually fused into a larger American brand of Christianity- one frequently attached to nationalism. The Cold War and 60′s counter-culture pushed most adherents of this worldview to the political right. Mass movements of cultural revolution (feminist, racial, sexual) were read as signs of the end of a stable society and were frequently pointed to as the precursors to the Second Coming of Christ.
The explosive growth of evangelical television in the 1970′s and the founding of organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority were the agents that transformed this anxious, right-leaning culture into a viable, political force. Suddenly millions of American Christians were united through television. Calls for a national revival and for Christian social activism filled the airwaves and pulpits. This is the cauldron of beliefs out of which the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) controversies of the late 1980′s and early 90′s emerged. Americans who had felt that they had no political voice and who believed that liberal, secular elites had been steering the nation away from God for decades began to experience a sense of power and hope.
It can be argued that the two most important apocalyptic texts to have influenced American fundamentalism (and thus American politics and the culture wars) are totally unknown outside evangelical/fundamentalist circles- indeed they are unknown to many in the new generation of younger Christians.These two texts are The Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and Clarence Larkin’s book of apocalyptic time-maps Dispensational Truth or God’s Plan and Purpose in the Ages (1918). Rev. C. I. Scofield‘s Bible was the one used in our home and in most 20th century America fundamentalist homes . Every verse of the Bible was annotated by Scofield, explaining history as nothing less than the episodic unfolding of God’s plan- from the creation to the apocalypse through a series of “dispensations” or ages. Larkin’s remarkable book illustrating these ideas has gone through dozens of printings and continues to sell. The sweeping destruction of the Two World Wars seemed to vindicate these prophetic readings of the Bible. The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was the prophetic “icing on the cake.” From this date forward, American Christians increasingly adopted the idea that Israel and America were spiritually linked and that Israel had to be defended until the return of Christ.
The 1960′s and 70′s saw a merging of right-wing political thought (McCarthyism, John Birch Society etc.) with this growing sense of apocalypse. John Stormer, a McCarthy sympathizer and Baptist minister warned of the destruction of America by a global conspiracy of communist, anti-Christian powers in his None Dare Call It Treason (1964). Stormer’s contemporary, Hal Lindsey (trained at the dispensationalist Dallas Theological Seminary) published his The Late Great, Planet Earth just six years later. Both books were staples in American fundamentalist households. These two texts (along with those of Scofield and Larkin) sat on my grandparents’ bookshelf and on the bookshelves of many people in our Christian community.
It should be noted that the teaching of this heady brew of prophetic Biblical interpretation and political speculation is highly visual. Since the early 19th century, dispensationalist Christians have relied on incredibly detailed illustrations and apocalyptic timetables (or time-maps) to outline the course of history in line with the visions recorded in the Old Testament books of prophecy (especially Daniel) and the Revelation of St. John in the New Testament. American fundamentalists are not the only Christian denominations to rely on this sort of visual time-table, but it is certainly one of the most pervasive didactic and expository tools used in fundamentalist churches and schools.
In the late 1970′s and early 80′s four films based on interpreting St John’s Book of Revelation in light of current events appeared and circulated at many fundamentalist churches across America. Beginning with A Thief In the Night (1972), the series drew together themes found in the alarmist writings of Stormer and the jeremiads of Lindsey, combining them with the film genres of action, horror and sci-fi. I can still remember being huddled against my mother at age five or six in the large gymnasium that doubled as a place for church potlucks, missionary presentations and youth oriented movie nights, watching the divine drama of the Rapture unfold on screen. It is important to understand that in contemporary America the belief in an immanent physical rapture (ascension) of Christians by God is not an anomaly- see this recent poll by the Pew Trust. This is not a fringe belief!
The third film in this series The Image of the Beast (1980) continued by speculating that the Great Tribulation (the seven year period following the Rapture according to certain fundamentalists) will include such elements as a one world government and rule by the demon-possessed Antichrist who will rely on the power of supercomputers to control the global population. Although these films may now seem laughable for their kitsch value (and many Christians would probably agree) what they represent as artifacts is a common American cultural belief: that the conflict on earth is a reflection of a larger spiritual conflict and that history is tipping toward an apocalyptic series of events that have been prophesied in the Bible . Witness the extraordinary success of Tim LeHaye and Jerry B Jenkin’s 16 volume Left Behind series of novels. It is my belief that a better understanding of fundamentalist theology, history and its connection to the nation’s politics will aid and abet all of us interested in finding a new way to meet the challenges of America’s continuing culture wars. In order to engage, we have to understand.