Before Evangelicals and Fundamentalists Fused Together

Years ago, fundamentalists and evangelicals were distinct groups -- and they hated each other.

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Hi and welcome back! Earlier, we got a good question on the previous post (about Michael Flynn). It’s been on my mind lately for what will likely be obvious reasons in a moment, and I might want to refer back to the answer in future posts. So I’m answering it here. See, fundagelicals are evangelicals who buy into fundamentalist doctrines. A few decades ago, though, evangelicals and fundamentalists hated each other. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a long-ago era in Christian history: the years before evangelicals fused with their onetime biggest enemies.

(Daniele Levis Pelusi.) If only their fusion could be this pretty and graceful. Credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi / Unsplash

(What follows obviously does not describe all evangelicals and fundamentalists everywhere. Nothing about Christianity is monolithic. In this post, I describe the situation I saw around me at a certain point in time (the 1980s and early 1990s) in a certain place (SE Texas). Your evangelicals/fundamentalists may vary.)

(See also: Back When Evangelicals Loved the ACLU.)

Defining Moments: Of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

After growing up Catholic, I converted in my teens to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an evangelical denomination. This phase, which began in Houston in the mid/late 1980s, lasted just a few months.

Very shortly afterward, I joined the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI). That’s a fundamentalist denomination. However, I wasn’t there all that long for the first round. So I didn’t tangle much with the animosity I’ll describe shortly. The second time around, I lasted a lot longer in the UPCI. So I encountered evangelical animosity nonstop, especially once I got into college and was brushing up against Christians of all kinds of beliefs and affiliations.

I still remember when it really hit me that there was a hard division between fundamentalists and evangelicals. It was at Biff’s parents’ house. He and I had dropped by there for some reason and were raiding his mom’s deep-freeze.

While there, we found some SBC tracts on the table. They spoke against the fundamentalist practice of speaking in tongues. His mom told us that some missionaries had dropped them by the house. (She was a churchless believer herself, while Biff’s dad was a very firm atheist. So I don’t know how this happened.)

I’d seen tracts before then, of course. They’re standard-issue evangelism tools. But I’d never seen one directed in this way before: from an evangelical to a fundamentalist. And I’d sure never seen a tract attack another right-wing Christian practice as demonic. Later on, we’d meet with those missionaries — and discuss the matter with our evangelical friends as well.

None of those evangelicals ever successfully convinced me or Biff that speaking in tongues was demonic. But the experience did get me looking out for other markers of division between our two Christian groups.

The Lines Between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

Roughly speaking, the actual doctrinal differences between evangelicals and fundamentalists were slim and poorly-defined. Both groups officially thought very highly of the Bible and considered it extremely important as a sourcebook for Christianity. Both thought evangelism and obedience to its rules was very important, as well.

Most of the differences, as I saw them, consisted of cultural practices.

Evangelicals thought their marching orders from Jesus included mingling a lot with popular culture — the better to influence, win, and shape it. Fundamentalists saw the world, to use their phrase, as harmful and toxic — and their leaders demanded that members of their group withdraw from it. So an evangelical could go see movies, as long as they weren’t really awful, while a fundamentalist wasn’t officially allowed to go to any movie at all.

Evangelicals looked fairly normal, if somewhat artificially scrubbed-clean looking. Fundamentalists followed what they called holiness standards, which applied (albeit unequally) to both men and women and resulted in them both looking prudish and out of step.

Evangelical churches tended to have a painfully cheap and impromptu look to them (cheap carpet, warehouse-looking buildings, folding chairs, etc). But evangelicals accused fundamentalist churches of looking more like very fancy, expensive funeral homes than houses of worship.

And that said, evangelicals tended to belong to a much higher socioeconomic tier than fundamentalists could ever hope to attain.

The Beliefs Involved.

Of course, the two groups did differ in actual beliefs as well.

Evangelicals prided themselves on accepting the Bible as nuanced, at least to some extent. I didn’t know anybody in any evangelical group back then who could qualify as a Young-Earth Creationist. They all thought the whole concept was childish — as were holiness standards and the demands for separation from the world.

Meanwhile, fundamentalists, of course, prided themselves on believing that the Bible was 100% true in every single way, literally as it was written. Every jot and tittle, as they said, was important and had to be obeyed. (They never did remember all the difficult bits they hand-waved away — like all those dietary rules.)

Evangelicals did not get rowdy at church like fundamentalists did. Clapping was okay, and head-bobbing and maybe even a hand raised in the air was fine. But they didn’t get nearly as aerobic as fundamentalists did. You’d never catch evangelicals zipping around the church aisles, hopping around, rolling, dancing, and of course screaming in baby-babble (the aforementioned speaking in tongues).

Even the two groups’ music was way different. Evangelicals played worship music. With electric guitars! And drum kits! And soundboards! Fundamentalists rejected that stuff in favor of hymns and gospel songs played only on acoustic instruments. They shuddered about the way worldly music had that demon beat of Africa.

Essentially, the evangelicals I knew back then thought fundamentalists were dangerous zealots and wingnuts who’d missed the entire point of Christianity in their rush to be as theologically correct as they could.

Fundamentalists, for their part, thought evangelicals were lukewarm weaklings who couldn’t handle the real deal of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ — and thus would fold and accept the Mark of the Beast the moment the Endtimes began in earnest.

The Endless Fights Between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

Obviously, it was of great importance to my then-boyfriend Biff to persuade those poor widdle evangelicals of the truth of fundamentalism. And since those evangelicals were absolutely convinced that we Pentecostals were literally allowing demons to use our bodies and mouths, they felt a similar need.

I described what followed in a previous post (here), but I’ll summarize:

For a long, long time when I was in college, evangelicals and fundamentalists got into these big huge involved arguments about whose beliefs were superior.

For both sides, these fights involved tons of diagrams, Bible verses flung like magic spells, tracts exchanged, and — of course — sorrowful but passive-aggressive prayers that were basically projections of what we each wanted the other side to do:

… Lord, we just ask, Father, that you just open all of our hearts so we can just better understand your words and just embrace them, Jesus, even if it’s just so difficult to just admit we’re wrong, because it’s just so important to just be right with you, Lord, so please just guide us as we just study your word here today so we can just rightly discern the best way to just live by your commands, and just give us the courage to just do what’s right here, God…

*quick surreptitious look at the targets to see if they’ve been convicted by Jesus yet; if not, then continue for a while like this*

(Not a direct quote. But dang, it’s close.)

Anybody who’s ever tangled with evangelicalism or fundamentalism already knows how those fights went, though:

Not once did any of us ever change our minds. 

What Changed.

Obviously, now evangelicals and fundamentalists are fused together. A few holdout groups maintain the differences I saw in my day. But overall, there’s not a bit of sunlight between the flavors.

Heck, last time I looked up my first UPCI church, I saw that every one of the women in their church pictures had cut-and-styled hair and wore clothes and makeup that would have been 100% off-limits back then. They looked completely indistinguishable from any regular nondenominational Baptist-ish evangelical megachurch congregation.

And that’d be cuz they were, in fact, indistinguishable.

That realization blew my mind, but it shouldn’t have — because I know what changed.

Already in the 1980s, a bunch of fundamentalist Calvinists were seeking to covertly convert the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to their beliefs about literalism and inerrancy. They called this covert campaign the Conservative Resurgence, and it really began with them convincing the denomination that Jesus wanted them all to become fundamentalist culture warriors.

Over the next 15-20 years, this campaign dragged the SBC further and further into fundamentalism and endless culture wars. 

At the same time, movements like the Toronto Blessing made evangelicals feel more comfortable with fundamentalist practices like dancing in the spirit and speaking in tongues.

The Rise of the Modern Fundagelical.

By 2000 or so, the deed was done.

Evangelicals had become fundagelicals.

Along the way, they’d also completely lapped fundamentalists themselves in beliefs. Fundamentalists receded further and further into cultural irrelevancy — only to briefly flare into prominence in 2015 with the Kim Davis debacle, then vanish again. However, fundagelicals also remained active participants in popular culture — and still wanted to rule over it. (For Jesus. Of course. Not for themselves!)

Even more weirdly, fundagelicals seemed convinced that they’d always been fundagelicals. They didn’t even seem to remember a time when they sneered about fundamentalism and held it in deepest scorn — and even worried about their fundamentalist peers’ eternal fates.

Of course, most evangelicals never picked up any really out-there habits like speaking in tongues or dancing in the spirit. But they could no longer flat-out reject fellow evangelicals who did. Or try to claim the practices were demonic.

In this fashion, then, fundagelicals only grew more and more whackadoodle as the years crept past.

Why Modern Fundagelicals Should Make Folks Nervous.

Speaking as someone who spent a little time in evangelicalism and a lot of time in fundamentalism before their merger, I can safely say this:

The fundagelical-evangelicals of today are way more extremist and scary than the fundamentalists of my own day were. Even Biff was never as scarily dogmatic and overzealous then as they are now.

Worse, though, is this fact: as fundagelicals’ cultural power continues to wane, watch for them to become, in response, even more extremist and rigid in their behavior and beliefs. Wingnuts spin only in one direction. Their throttle only opens further; it can’t pull back.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over two awful tastes that taste even worse together.

NEXT UP: At least one evangelical researcher is super-psyched for a new survey database coming out. But it won’t do what he hopes it will. It won’t save his religion from cultural irrelevance. We’ll check out why next time — see you soon! <3

About Lord Snow Presides (LSP)

Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow was my very sweet white cat. He actually knew quite a bit. Though he’s passed on, he now presides over a suggested topic for the day. Of course, please feel free to chime in with anything on your mind: there’s no official topic on these days. I’m just starting us off with something, but consider the sky the limit here. We especially welcome pet pictures!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...