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I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans, Zondervan, 2010, 232 pp.

I first encountered Rachel Held Evans when several of her blog posts received dozens of “shares” in my Facebook news feed. She wrote with wit and insight, with a cutting critique and a sense of kindness and grace. That voice has come through again and again, even as her blog has expanded to rock star status. I was eager to read Evolving in Monkey Town to hear more of her voice, because I expected it to be humorous, faithful, inspiring and fun. I made myself save it as a treat for the airplane ride to the Holy Land, and I was not disappointed.

Evans grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, better known as “Monkey Town,” the site of the 1925 Scopes Trial which put Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan in a battle over evolution, faith and fundamentalism. Evans grew up on the losing side of that trial, in a fundamentalist enclave of church and Bible college. The isolation and insularity of that community, however, made her feel like they were on the winning team in all things. That is, until she began to ask questions and express doubts.

Evolving in Monkey Town tells the story of her journey into a different kind of faith. Unlike so many other authors who write about leaving behind fundamentalism, Evans is not bitter. She does not express animosity toward her upbringing, although she does write about the pain of rejection, the frightening wilderness of doubt and the loneliness of the struggle. She maintains grace and humor for her detractors.

Evans’ story feels familiar in many ways. It parallels the stories of so many who have left fundamentalism behind. She talks about being an “evolutionist,” which is not a claim about her understanding of science. She writes:

Just as living organisms are said to evolve over time, so faith evolves, on both a personal and collective level. … I’m an evolutionist because I believe the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions, but to hold them with an open hand. … If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith. (21-22)

The central claim of the book is that doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is what allows faith to survive and grow. Evans works through a familiar list of doubts and questions. Does God really send all non-Christians to hell? What kind of God would condemn people who by “cosmic lottery” were born in a time and place where they didn’t know Jesus? How can you maintain that there is a biblical world view when the Bible is so full of contradictions? If God’s ways are not our ways, why can’t God exercise grace and forgiveness—not angry judgment and casting out of all who are different? Shouldn’t following Jesus inspire us to generosity and compassion, not just certainty about our eternal future?

Evans answers the familiar doubts of those moving beyond fundamentalist faith with humor, openness and room to grow. Her relative youth brings a fresh perspective to these longstanding debates, and her honesty invites us all to explore our relationship to the “false fundamentals” (207) that hold us back. Her writing is accessible to all kinds of readers, and the book is full of engaging stories and beautiful turns of phrase. It would make a great group study for those who are questioning their faith or engaging a path out of fundamentalism, but that is not the limits of its audience. Anyone looking for fresh insights about the path of faith and doubt would find a good companion in Evolving in Monkey Town.

An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, by Erik Reece, Riverhead Books, 2009, 224 pages.

I read this book on the recommendation of a church member currently seeking a new path back to faith after a tragic loss. He said it had spoken to him of a different kind of faith, and I was curious enough to read. Besides, I always love a good spiritual autobiography.

This book was not at all what I expected. There were parts I loved, parts that bored me, parts that intrigued me, parts that moved me, and parts that I found simply amateur and naive. This book is not-quite-equal parts autobiography and American religious history. Reece recounts his religious journey as the son and grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, his grappling with his father’s suicide and his attempts to find a faith beyond fundamentalism. He also traces a line of a particular American faith that runs counter to the Puritan fundamentalism he was raised with, drawing a line from William Byrd to Jefferson to Whitman and Emerson to James and Dewey to Dr. Lynn Margulis. He even finds a way to argue that the Gospel of Thomas is the key to finding a true American gospel.

Here’s what I loved: Reece’s resurrection of and perspective on these great American thinkers and their faith. He points to two key factors among all these American poets and philosophers: their connection to the natural world, and their pragmatism about finding a faith that works to make the world a better place. He made me want to read Emerson and Whitman again, in depth. I agree with his call to panentheism, a faith that sees God at work in everything around us.

Here’s what bored me: Reece offers yet another critique of atonement theology, a harsh critique of Pauline Christianity and fundamentalism. He find Jefferson, Whitman and the Gospel of Thomas scandalous to this Christianity, and argues that the kingdom of God is all around us in this life, not just something we await in the next. Many Christians (and I count myself among them) crossed this bridge a long time ago, and the critique seemed stale. I’ve seen it done much better elsewhere.

Here’s what intrigued me: In addition to creating a desire to reread Emerson and Whitman, Reece introduced me to Dr. Lynn Margulis, and I wrote extensively of my intrigue with her work in another post.

Here’s what moved me: The final chapter brings together all the pieces Reece lays out for an American gospel. He connects naturalism with a new reading of the Genesis creation narrative, which results in a pragmatic demand to build the kingdom of God on earth. He imagines this as an aesthetic experience, where religion is beauty and beauty is religion. It was a beautiful portrait of faith.

Here’s what I found amateur and naive: Reece treats the newly-discovered Gospel of Thomas as proof positive that his version of Christianity is the true faith. Using the argument that the Gospel of Thomas is older than the other gospels, including a huge reliance on the Q hypothesis, Reece draws a distinct line between Pauline Christianity and the faith of Jesus. While Reece’s arguments are plausible, it is his certainty and his need to prove himself in history that I find amateur and naive. Biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to these same studies speak with far less certainty, and put far less personal faith in their conclusions. I want to urge Reece to ground his faith somewhere outside any particular theory of the earliest Gospel or the historical Jesus.

This is where I think Reece’s book got under my skin a bit: he does not realize (or at least does not acknowledge) that there is an entire history of Christianity, even an American Christianity, that already agrees with his conclusions. This fills me with both frustration and pity. Frustration that he did not acknowledge the other stream of American Christianity that is working to build the kingdom of God here and now, that launched the Social Gospel movement and worked for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the quest for civil rights, just to name a few examples. In Reece’s book, my kind of Christianity is frustratingly absent as a significant force in American history.

But I also feel pity, because Reece’s journey is highly personal, and it seems like he has never met a Christian from outside the fundamentalist circles. It is a painful and lonely journey to lose one’s faith community while holding on to faith, and I am sad for him that he had to reinvent his own faith without a community of support. I want to invite him to the United Church of Christ, and tell him that he’s not alone.

In the end, the book is a mixed bag. I recommend it for that last chapter alone, which is hard to grasp without reading the whole, and is so rich with faith and perspective. It moved me, frustrated me, bored me, intrigued me, inspired me.  Most of all, it left me wondering about the church member who recommended it to me. What was his experience? What drew him so strongly to this text? I need to ask him.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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