Topic 8

Topic 8: Fragmentation
Modernism, Fundamentalism, & Other Alternatives in American Religion


INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE & CULTURAL FRAGMENTATION: All traditional religions, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, faced controversies over new ideas from scholars in science and the humanities, posing disturbing questions about religious authority and polarizing people of faith into modernist and fundamentalists camps.

Marty: chap. 14 ("Crises in the Protestant  Empire") sketches the four tests of American Protestantism between 1870 and 1920 - the challenges of evolution, biblical criticism, economic dogma of laissez-faire, and urban, industrial society.

Porterfield: #5  ("American Fundamentalism: The Ideal of Femininity") is an essay on the issue of gender in the development of  American Fundamentalism in both the 19th and 20th centuries.
Moore, chap. 7 ("Science and the Battle for the Souls of Children") is another essay on the theme of the challenge of ideas to religious culture in American history from the Enlightenment to the present.

Porterfield: # 27 (Scofield Reference Bible) and #28 (Machen's Christianity and Liberalism) [also online -
 Machen], are documents relevant  to the intellectual challenge, as are the online documents: Pius X ,
 SullivanMathews, Washington Gladden Williams Jennings Bryan

THERAPEUTIC RELIGION: New religious movements, attracting seekers for personal healing or seekers for a healthier social order,  presented alternatives within the always competive religious marketplace, creating still more diversity and religious fragmentation.

Marty: chap. 15 ("Healing the Restless") discusses movements of "therapeutic religion."

Porterfield, # 24 ("Science and Health") and #26 ( Williams James' "Varieties of Religious Experience") are documents reflecting aspects of the practical or therapeutic uses of religious faith. #26 is a small excerpt from a classic in American intellectual history.

Liberalism and Modernism

Religious liberalism has been part of all periods of American history, but between 1870 and 1970 it grew tremendously  and exerted a powerful influence upon American culture as a whole. (Since 1970 it has come under sharp critique from both the left and the right, but that remains another story! Wait for Topic 10.) Although religious liberalism affected all three of the main confessional groups in the United States—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—Protestants undoubtedly experienced the most telling effects. The following remarks apply most closely to the Protestant experience.

Religious liberalism should be seen in three contexts.

bullet First, it functioned as a way of legitimating or even sacralizing the ideals of Victorian culture, including frugality, sobriety, punctuality, hard work, delayed gratification, male supremacy in the public sphere, female supremacy in the domestic sphere, honor in personal relations, and the superiority of American culture generally.
bullet Second, it served as an intellectual reaction against the evangelical Protestant heritage that pervaded most denominations. Evangelicalism stressed the supernatural character of Christianity, seeing the Bible as a transcription of God's will and human salvation solely through faith in Christ.
bullet Finally and most importantly, religious liberalism attempted to reconceive the essence of Christianity in the face of powerful intellectual challenges that had been stirring in educated circles since mid-century.
bullet One of those challenges was growing consciousness of religions in other parts of the world. Christians had always known, of course, that many religions existed. But in the late nineteenth century the rapid expansion of trade, of military contacts, of recreational travel and, ironically, of Christian missions, fostered a new and disturbing awareness that many non-Christian faiths carried highly developed ethical systems of their own.
bullet Another challenge stemmed from the impact of science in general and the Darwinian view of human origins in particular. Thoughtful men and women on both sides of the Atlantic had long believed in the great antiquity of the earth and the development of animal forms within species. Many too had recognized that something like the survival of the fittest reigned in the natural and social realms. But Darwin's ideas, which reached American dinner tables in the early 1860s, introduced the disturbing notion of natural selection. Still more troubling was the possibility that all natural processes proceeded at random, without any hint of divine direction. These theories seemed to undercut the authority of the Bible and suggest that Christian morality was nothing but a survival mechanism that could be discarded as convenient.
bulletThe third and by far the most important challenge to historic Christian theology was biblical higher criticism. Rigorous analysis of the content of the Bible was hardly new. For many centuries preachers (and rabbis) had scrutinized the text of Scripture in order to know exactly what it said and meant as a guide for life. But the late nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented attention to questions of authorship: who wrote the various parts of the Bible? How did those authors reflect the assumptions and prejudices of their cultural times? More critically, the new approach to the Bible presupposed that the Scripture could, indeed must be understood as any other ancient text, without recourse to the supernatural explanations. Arguably the elimination of the supernatural from the working vocabulary of biblical scholars, emerged as the hallmark of religious liberalism and, not incidentally, provoked fierce confrontations with religious conservatives in the twentieth century.

Religious liberalism itself took a variety of forms.

bullet On the far left, so to speak, stood religious naturalism. Proponents of the latter, such as the prominent educator John Dewey, discarded all of the supernatural elements of the Christian tradition yet urged thoughtful citizens to nurture the ideals that the biblical heritage had engendered such as democracy, progress, and fair play.
bullet In the center of the spectrum stood religious modernism. These figures unabashedly erected the canons of contemporary science and culture (or at least the "best" of contemporary culture) as normative for Christian theology. By their reckoning Christian teachings could be retained when, but only when, they could be validated by recent secular thought. The divinity schools at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and many social science departments in prominent universities, proved centers of modernist thinking.
bulletFinally, an outlook commonly known as evangelical liberalism occupied the right side of the spectrum. Advocates of this position dominated Protestant mainline seminaries and likely shaped the thinking of a majority of Protestant clergy through the mid twentieth century. Evangelical liberals assumed that Christianity began in direct religious experience of God. Experience produced doctrine, not the reverse. The Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, longtime pastor of New York's Riverside Church, and probably the most famous of liberal preachers, was wont to say that Christian experience bore the same relation to theology as the enjoyment of a flower did to the science of botany.

Given these premises, liberals reinterpreted God as an immanent presence within history, Jesus as an ethical guide, and the Bible as a historical record of humankind's encounter with God's love.

    Many but not all religious liberals (of all types) applied these principles to the amelioration of social wrongs. Such efforts went by various names, including Christian Socialism, Social Christianity and, most often, Social Gospel. The best known proponents included Ohio pastor Washington Gladden, Rochester Seminary professor Walter Rauschenbusch, temperance advocate Francis Willard, and perhaps settlement house worker Jane Addams. These individuals insisted that the historic focus upon individual salvation reflected a highly selective, if not downright immoral, reading of the Bible. In their view the larger meaning of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures called for structural (which usually meant legislative and judicial) intervention in society in order to rebalance staggering disparities of wealth, inhumane working conditions, and the exploitation of children in factories and mines. Though Social Gospelers remained largely oblivious to unjust treatment of minorities and women, they helped to establish many of the principles of justice that churches (and synagogues) have come to take for granted in the 1990s. [See Topic 9 for more on the application of religious  liberalism to issues of social and economic justice and the Progressive Movement.

Adapted from Religious Liberalism and the Modern Crisis of Faith , by Gordan Wacker. Browse the site for a complete version.


Defining "fundamentalism": The term is commonly used in newspapers, television newscasts, backyard arguments, and above all in churches, both in negative and positive ways. The word means different things to different persons. It is best distinguish small "f" from capital "F" usages: fundamentalism as a generic or worldwide phenomenon versus Fundamentalism as a religious movement specific to Protestant culture in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Generic fundamentalism refers to a global religious impulse, particularly evident in the twentieth century, that seeks to recover and publicly institutionalize aspects of the past that modern life has obscured. It typically sees the secular state as the primary enemy, for the latter is more interested in education, democratic reforms, and economic progress than in preserving the spiritual dimension of life. Generic fundamentalism takes its cues from a sacred text that stands above criticism. It sees time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns as rooted in the very nature of things, in the order of creation itself. That means clear-cut and stratified roles for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity. On the other hand, generic fundamentalism seeks to minimize the distinction between the state and religious institutioins. To hold that the state should operate according to one set of publicly shared principles, while individuals should operate according to multiple sets of privately shared principles, is morally pernicious and ends up harming everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. Religious truths are no different from the truths of medical science or aeronautical engineering: if they hold for anyone they hold for everyone.

Historic Fundamentalism shared all of the assumptions of generic fundamentalism but also reflected several concerns particular to the religious setting of the United States at the turn of the century. Some of those concerns stemmed from broad changes in the culture such as growing awareness of world religions, the teaching of human evolution and, above all, the rise of biblical higher criticism. The last proved particularly troubling because it implied the absence of the supernatural and the purely human authorship of scripture.

Social changes of the early twentieth century also fed the flames of protest. Drawn primarily from ranks of "old stock whites," Fundamentalists felt displaced by the waves of non-Protestant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooding America's cities. They believed they had been betrayed by American statesmen who led the nation into an irresolved war with Germany, the cradle of destructive biblical criticism. They deplored the teaching of evolution in public schools, which they paid for with their taxes, and resented the elitism of professional educators who seemed often to scorn the values of traditional Christian families.

Fundamentalists fought these changes on several fronts. Intellectually they mounted a strenuous defense of the fundamentals (as they defined them) of historic Christian teachings. Thus they insisted upon the necessity of a conversion experience through faith in Jesus Christ alone, the accuracy of the Bible in matters of science and history as well as theology, and the imminent physical return of Christ to the earth where he would establish a millennial reign of peace and righteousness. Fundamentalists conveyed their convictions in numerous ways, but most prominently through the wide dissemination of twelve booklets called The Fundamentals (1910-1915).

Fundamentalists also pursued the battle through legislatures, courts, and denominational machinery. In the 1920s they tried to monitor public school curricula by presenting anti-evolution bills in the legislatures of eleven states (mostly in the South). Undoubtedly the best-known instance, the so-called "Monkey Trial," pitted the Fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan against the agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow in a steamy courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925. Bryan won in the court but lost in the press. Partisans also fought their opponents, commonly known as Modernists, in the general conventions of several mainline denominations, including the Northern Baptists and Northern Presbyterians. Here too their record proved mixed at best.

For more discussion on the Scopes "Monkey" Trial go  here: The Scopes Trial, 1925

Nonetheless, Fundamentalism continued to grow and eventually to flourish. In the 1930s it moved underground, so to speak, where it built a network of day schools, colleges, seminaries, and missionary agencies. More importantly the movement soon established a print and telecast industry of its own. It also created a system of parachurch organizations aimed to meet the spiritual needs of numerous socially discrete groups (youths, unmarrieds, veterans). Above all Fundamentalists found innovative ways to address the religious concerns of common people. Though it would be unfair to say that they were anti-intellectual, they made a point, as evangelist Billy Sunday once said, to keep the cookies on the bottom shelf. And they proved remarkably successful in passing their beliefs on to their children. Historic Fundamentalism, largely forged before World War I, helped to produce the massive evangelical, pentecostal, and charismatic revivals after World War II, as well as the Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s.

Adapted from  The Rise of Fundamentalism by Gordan Wacker. Browse that site for more details.


The Americanist Conflict in the Catholic Church

The online essay, The Phantom Heresy, by Aaron Massey, is a clear and balanced review of the issues and people involved in the so-called Americanist Controversy. If you read the essay as well as the assigned documentary materials for this topic: Pius X  and  Sullivan, you will note how this episode in American Catholic history combines issues of topic 7 and 8, issues of adaptation to American life with the theological issues raised by Modernism in late 19th and early 20th century intellectual life.

Catholic “Conservative” Leaders: John Hughes, Michael Corrigan, Bernard McQuaid, Anton Warlburg,

Catholic “Liberal” Leaders: John Ireland, John Lancaster Spalding, Denis O’Connell, James Gibbons,

MODERNISM IN BRIEF [Jay P Dolan, The American Catholic Experience, p. 310]

Adaptation of religious ideas and teachings to modern culture.

God is immanent [existing or inherent] in human cultural development and revealed through it.

Human society is moving towards the realization of the kingdom of God.

Central to the modernist outlook was a historical consciousness which saw religion in a developmental manner.


Bible and the Abortion  Debate: This recent article in the New York Times is a good example of the continuing issue of biblical authority in determining belief and policy on a  matter that has become bitterly divisive in our national life.

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Therapeutic Religion 

Sociologists like Robert Bellah in his 1985 book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, have characterized our civilization as "therapeutic" -- that is, as being dedicated to and largely obsessed with the goal of personal fulfillment and self-contentment, and that one of the places this is most evident is in our choice of religion or church. Americans increasingly seem to be no longer any more committed to a particular faith or belief system than they are to living their whole life in one community or even with one husband or wife. Instead, religious affiliation or its replacement by some variety of home-grown "spirituality", more often than not, is chosen (and frequently changed) merely on the basis of what makes us "feel good inside".