Fundamentalism on Trial How Twelve Claims of the Christian Right Fail under Strict Secular Scrutiny
THE EMINENT University of Chicago historian Daniel Boorstin identified American humanism as the defining characteristic of the nation, which is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the entirely secular US Constitution. The real menace to the United States, Boorstin contended, is the emphasis on our differences, including religious opinion and practice, rather than a focus on our shared values and common beliefs.
For the past hundred years Christian fundamentalism has been dedicated to the goal of transforming the United States into a theocracy by implementing policies and laws that advance a so-called biblical worldview, while simultaneously limiting the freedoms and rights of other citizens who don’t share it. This worldview consists of definitive positions on a series of major political and social issues that supposedly derive from the Bible when, in fact, almost none do. Moreover, fundamentalist theocratic-political dogmas are antithetical to the cardinal values of American humanism: freedom, community, tolerance, science, reason, and democracy.
Fundamentalism begins with the foundational postulate of scriptural inerrancy or literal biblical truth, which is based on the hypothesis of verbal inspiration (in 2 Timothy 3:16, scripture is said to be “God-breathed”). The problem for fundamentalists occurs when scripture partially or completely contradicts their preconceived political views. To solve this difficulty they invoke a highly flexible criterion of biblical interpretation, maintaining through textual selectivity and textual omission that scripture must be “properly understood.” These tactics are applied in concert to identify or cherry pick verses that support predetermined fundamentalist positions, while rejecting passages that contravene favored views.
Obviously, this interpretive strategy violates the sacred fundamentalist axiom of scriptural inerrancy and thus constitutes blatant biblical dishonesty. This is the greatest fundamentalist vulnerability, and humanists must be prepared and willing to attack it, pointing out the egregious inconsistency between the assumption of absolute scriptural truth and the techniques of textual selectivity and omission.
What follows is a review of a dozen sociopolitical or cultural issues on which fundamentalists claim they have determined the biblically correct positions. Three critical questions are addressed in bringing them to trial: Do the fundamentalist positions derive from scripture? Are the positions consistent with historical or scientific fact? And, are the positions endorsed by a majority of Americans, or are they minority views?
The purpose of documenting fundamentalist or conservative Christian positions that are either unbiblical, historically incorrect, unscientific, or unconstitutional (or some combination thereof) is to expose the weakness and/or immorality in them. It isn’t sufficient for humanists just to propose an alternative perspective. With President Donald J. Trump’s embrace of the conservative Christian agenda, humanists must resist and expose Christian positions that impede the potential and wellbeing of any human being.
Christian fundamentalism emerged early in the twentieth century in a series of twelve booklets titled The Fundamentals. Scholars debate whether “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are synonymous terms in Christianity, but most agree that fundamentalism is one form of evangelicalism, along with Pentecostalism, and other charismatic strains of Christianity. During the past fifty years in particular, fundamentalist Christians have become increasingly vocal and politically committed to the goal of imposing their theocratic, socially conservative views on all Americans, and thus are rightly characterized as members of the religious right.
The fundamentalist impulse is basically reactionary, almost always in opposition to social progress. Fundamentalists seek security in traditional modes of belief and behavior and proclaim the Bible to be without error, completely accurate, and a source of stability and certitude to those who follow it to the letter.
The following summaries comprise a catalogue of fundamentalists’ obsessions that are the anchor sites for their twenty-first century political theology. Listed in alphabetical order, each concludes with a verdict based on scripture, history, constitutionality, or science.
ABORTION. Fundamentalists say that outlawing all abortion in the United States is their highest priority. They assert the Bible supports their position, a claim which is unequivocally false. Abortion opponents cite four verses that refer to the developing fetus in the womb, but in truth none condemn or prohibit abortion. Nor did God or his chief spokesmen, Moses, Jesus, or Paul. In fact, God is history’s greatest abortionist. He has murdered hundreds of millions of unborn children beginning with the Noachian Deluge and continuing to the present day. In summary, there is no biblical justification for the fundamentalists’ relentless assault on women’s reproductive rights. Furthermore, Americans support legal abortion by a 70 percent to 25 percent margin.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because scripture refutes anti-abortion zealotry.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Fundamentalists are strong proponents of capital punishment. They regularly invoke the dictum of an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth, and a life for a life. However, God’s word expands the application of the death penalty to cover a total of sixty violations. Criminals deserving execution include: adulterers, astrologers, blasphemers, false prophets, homosexuals, idolaters, mediums, parent cursers, perjurers, rebellious sons, Sabbath breakers, sorceresses, unbelievers, and unchaste daughters. Why don’t the fundamentalist devotees of biblical truth demand that these sinners be executed as scripture requires? This is just one more example of convenient dismissal of biblical mandates that are regarded as laughable by almost all Americans. Finally, it should be emphasized that both Jesus and Paul endorsed Old Testament law.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because scripture requires execution for sixty violations.
CHRISTIAN NATION. For the past two hundred years, Christian activists have been trying to revise Thomas Jefferson to promote the false idea that America was founded as a Christian nation whose laws are based on the Bible. For example, in the 1860s an organization of Christian ministers attempted to expand the preamble of the US Constitution to include “as the Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures and Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior and Lord of all.” The greatest success occurred in the 1950s when a coalition of Christian businessmen collaborated with the Eisenhower administration to have “In God We Trust” recognized as the national motto and “under God” inserted in the pledge of allegiance. The most recent efforts by pseudo-historian David Barton to recognize the United States as a Christian nation have failed.
Concerning the claim that our laws are grounded in scripture, it’s ironic that fundamentalists want to ban Sharia law as “foreign law,” but embrace the Bible as a source of judicial precepts, even though it was compiled in Palestine and surrounding territories two thousand years ago. Clearly, biblical law is foreign law too
VERDICT: Historically dishonest—because documentation and scholarship contradict the claims.
CREATIONISM IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Fundamentalists are unyielding proponents of biblical creationism as the scriptural alternative to ungodly evolution. They advocate disingenuous legislative strategies devised to infuse the Bible story into public school science classes, such as equal treatment, academic freedom, and “theistic science.” They cite efforts to teach sound science as anti-Christian bias and the promotion of atheism. While fundamentalists and other Christian conservatives are perfectly willing to misrepresent and distort science in their efforts to inculcate biblical nonsense, the facts remain. Plus, Americans oppose teaching creationism in public schools by a 60 to 35 percent margin.
VERDICT: Scientifically dishonest—all evidence refutes the Genesis story of creation—and unconstitutional.
DEATH WITH DIGNITY. Fundamentalists constantly proclaim their unbiblical belief that life begins at conception and ends with natural death. Hence, they oppose all legislation that would put end-of-life decisions in the hands of patients, doctors, and their families. Previously called “voluntary euthanasia” or “physician-assisted suicide,” current language is death with dignity, the right to die, or medical aid in dying. Fundamentalists are motivated by anxiety associated with impending demise, but promote the idea that suicide, or unnatural death, is against God’s will. Regarding the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” the Bible makes clear that murder is prohibited but allows for capital punishment and other forms of “lawful” killing. Finally, seven out of ten Americans think that the law should allow for end-of-life decisions to be made by individuals and their families, not by theocratic officials.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because there is no scriptural justification for “natural death.”
DECALOGUE DISPLAYS. Fundamentalists continue to fight to display their cherished Ten Commandments in public venues, especially classrooms, courthouses, and state capitols. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause; government has no business telling citizens which god to worship or imposing religious rules on them. But such public postings likely wouldn’t pass muster with fundamentalists if they read the full text of the edicts. For example, children are to be punished for the transgressions of their parents, slavery is endorsed, and a man’s wife is classified as property along with his livestock. Most importantly, violators of the first nine commandments must be executed according to God’s law.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because the required punishments are never listed along with the full text of the commands. Unconstitutional—because the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion.
FREE ENTERPRISE. Fundamentalists argue that society will function optimally if free enterprise principles are implemented and government regulations are minimized or eliminated. They enthusiastically advocate economic competition and the accumulation of personal wealth. In contrast, Jesus promulgated an austere doctrine of selflessness, eschewing material possessions and ignoring daily needs. He said that an absolute requirement for salvation is to give up all earthly attachments. Moreover, the first model Christian community was explicitly communistic in conception.
VERDICT: Biblical dishonesty—because Jesus’s unambiguous teachings are disregarded.
MARRIAGE EQUALITY. No current sociopolitical issue angers conservative fundamentalists more than same-sex marriage. They condemn the concept of marriage equality that is embodied in the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, which they assert is unconstitutional. The fundamentalist claim that the Bible prohibits homosexual marriage has been discredited, for example, by Rev. Larry Bethune of the University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. Contrary to fundamentalist propaganda, Americans support same-sex marriage by a 60 to 35 percent margin.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—although some ambiguity exists. (See below.)
PUBLIC PRAYER. Fundamentalists emphasize their right and duty to promote and participate in public prayer activities. For example, they are enthusiastic supporters of government leaders holding prayer breakfasts and fully support the National Day of Prayer. These events clearly violate Jesus’s command that his followers should not make a public spectacle of prayer. He stressed that prayer is a personal matter that should be conducted in private.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because Jesus’s unequivocal teaching is rejected.
SCHOOL CHOICE. Since the late 1970s conservative Christians have been doggedly pursuing their goal of funneling money away from public education in the United States. Currently, 90 percent of K-12 children attend public schools, with the others enrolled in Catholic schools, Christian academies, elite prep schools, military academies, and other denominational schools. Some are also home schooled. Numerous schemes have been implemented to foster “school choice” that gives taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to parents of children who want to send them to private institutions, often religious. These voucher programs have no basis in scripture and have been rejected by voters in more than two-dozen initiatives and referenda by a 65 to 35 percent average margin.
VERDICT: Unconstitutional—because the basic principle of separation of church and state is violated.
SEXUAL ORIENTATION. Fundamentalists vehemently condemn the “gay lifestyle,” which they assert is a choice. They don’t want LGBT people to adopt children, teach in the public schools, serve in the military, occupy sensitive government positions, or be legally protected from discrimination. However, they disregard the Bible verses that mandate execution for homosexuals, including lesbians. Also, fundamentalists demand exemption from public accommodation laws through passage of what they label religious liberty or freedom of conscience legislation, which would allow them to discriminate against LGBT citizens and anyone else they regard as sinners. Of course, Jesus said his adherents should love neighbors and enemies alike and he never denounced homosexuality.
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because scripture requires execution of homosexuals.
SWORN OATHS. Fundamentalists are committed to participation in political ceremonies that involve swearing on the Bible to fulfill the duties of public office, always concluding with “so help me God.” These ostentatious events violate Jesus’s specific prohibition against swearing: “But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne.”
VERDICT: Biblically dishonest—because Jesus’s clear teaching is rejected.
Not included in this roster of unbiblical positions are traditional fundamentalist concerns, such as imbibing alcohol or drugs, gambling, and pornography. This is because the twelve issues summarized above have taken precedence in the fundamentalist theopolitical agenda. On the truly bizarre front, previous proposals to ban Halloween, Harry Potter, Pokémon, Teletubbies, and Transcendental Meditation are no longer advanced.
A majority of the political positions summarized above are legitimately described as unbiblical because they disregard scriptural mandates, including most prominently Jesus’s unequivocal teachings. However, the evaluation of marriage equality isn’t definitive, because scripture is ambivalent on this topic. Three fundamentalist positions are contradicted by historical evidence or constitutional principle, and one is refuted by science, yet firmly based in scripture. Finally, most fundamentalist viewpoints are rejected by the majority of Americans.
Data from a 2016 NARAL Pro-Choice America report, for example, indicate that more than one half of US senators, representatives, and governors oppose abortion rights, while about one third are supporters. This is just the reverse of the opinions of the American people, who support legal abortion by almost three to one and have done so for the past decade. State legislatures are even more extreme, as indicated by their passing more than fifty anti-abortion laws in 2015 alone.
Fundamentalists’ political dishonesty concerning abortion results in a perversion of American democracy that is predicated on their untruthful claims. These are the medically false assertions that abortion causes sterility, cancer, and mental illness, and the biblically false declaration that scripture prohibits abortion and that God loves fetuses and children. These deceitful claims are promoted in Jesus’s name to achieve the political goal of outlawing and criminalizing abortion in the United States.
In addition to limiting access to abortion and contraception, fundamentalists have also achieved disproportionate legislative influence on same-sex marriage and LGBT discrimination, taxpayer funding for private schools, and biblical creationism. They have manipulated the US political system by deceiving their fellow Americans.
Fundamentalists’s behavior reveals a disregard for God’s word, the Holy Bible. Fundamentalist truth is not biblical truth or Christian truth, and it is certainly not American truth. Biblical dishonesty is the Achilles’ heel of fundamentalism. Humanists have a responsibility to expose and actively oppose fundamentalists to prevent them from imposing their unscientific, unconstitutional, and unpopular doctrines on everybody else. The fact is that Christian fundamentalism is a continuing threat to the civil liberties of all Americans.