Week 4: Fundamentalism and Modern Life

  • Sutton, Matthew Avery. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2014.

Matthew Sutton offers a revision of the standard narrative regarding twentieth-century fundamentalism in his text American Apocalypse. He argues that fundamentalism has a much higher rate of continuity rather than discontinuity. He achieves this by downplaying the significance of the Scopes Trial, emphasizing the impact of both World Wars, and highlighting the resilient nature of the movement. The image of fundamentalism from Sutton’s text is that of a religiously and politically significant apocalyptic movement.

The overall importance of “occupying” until Jesus’s return prompted a connection to Tweed and his theory on religion. Tweed dwells on the notion of sacroscapes or a way of seeing the world in a sacred light. Fundamentalism presents us with a sacroscape that becomes largely politicized in the numerous wars (world and otherwise) that ascribes very literal people, places and events to sacred texts. The most enduring example from Sutton’s text is the labelling of Benito Mussolini as the Antichrist. Even when these interpretations were faulty or incorrect (WWII did not usher in the Apocalypse) the fundamentalists were able to reapply and their sacroscape in new and engaging ways. It never changed. The sacroscape was always following the same biblical revelations and interpretations, it was the application that shifted as the twentieth century marched along.

An important theme that Sutton touches on is the importance attached to the fundamentalist – modernist debate. This controversy “was also about power and control of churches, property, and resources” [107]. While the debate appeared to be about theology, it also represented an important distribution of power and authority within the United States. This need for power and authority was further exemplified in the labels of “patriotic” and “unpatriotic” during war time. Fundamentalists expanded their authority within the general public by labelling the liberal protestants as unpatriotic or subversive to the United States. In many ways, the fundamentalist movement structured their rhetoric and activities to maintain power.  This power enabled them to remain in politically influential positions to support their agenda. Sutton reminds us that their agenda largely reflected the agenda of the white middle class.

The scope of Sutton’s analysis of the fundamentalist-turned-evangelical movement is located firmly within the public sphere. As they are constantly looking for signs of the end times, the world events remained squarely in their view. However, by focusing on the sphere, the reader is left with an extremely limited notion of what fundamentalism was like within the home and in private settings. In large part, this methodological decision narrows the historical actors and the various roles that can be or could be explored. Instead, Sutton focuses on the leading figures in the movement, both politically and religiously. What is left wanting is how this movement, always focused on the Apocalypse and Jesus’ return, affected family dynamics and the day to day life of its adherents. A more grassroots analysis would provide a richer context to the narrative.

Finally, I am left to wondering about the role of sacred texts in religion. For a movement who relies so heavily on the Bible and its teachings, I was surprised to see little discussion of the Bible itself. Higher Criticism is addressed in the first half of his text as well as a brief discussion of African American evangelical’s interpretation of certain verses, yet I am left wanting more. How did biblical interpretations differ between fundamentalists and to what extent did new translations of the Bible effect the movement? Perhaps Thuesen’s text, In Discordance with Scripture will provide some answers the place of new Bible translations in twentieth-century America.

Week 4: Fundamentalism and Modern Life

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