‘History is a great ironist, though historians seem rarely to see the joke’. So observes Marilynne Robinson in a delightful essay titled ‘Hallowed Be Your Name’ (in Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. ed. Peter Laarman; Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, pp. 1–12). One of the interesting things that Robinson does in this wee essay is to contrast the First and Second Great Awakenings (she notes Edwards and Finney respectively) with what some have identified as a Third Great Awakening. Robinson contends that this third movement – which is what American Christianity is currently living under the burden of – differs significantly from the first two in a number of respects, not least its being ‘notably devoid of interest in equality’. She goes on to argue (and I cite at length) that this Third Great Awakening, whose other name is Christian Fundamentalism,
‘… passionately supports a government whose policies have created a sharp rise in the rate of poverty. For a self-declared Christian movement, it shows startlingly little sense of responsibility for the vulnerable in society.
And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are Social Darwinists. The great defender of what were then called “the fundamentals” was William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat and a pacifist and a passionate campaigner against what he saw as the economic structures that created poverty. His “Cross of Gold” speech spoke of the poor of America as Christ crucified – not at all the kind of rhetoric we hear these days. Bryan, a liberal by any standard, opposed Darwinism because it was taken at the time, rightly or wrongly, to justify not only economic exploitation but also racism, colonialism, eugenics, and war. He feared the loss of belief in the sanctity of the human person, the only stay against these things.
The neofundamentalists treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They seem to overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase which, isolated as it is by them from human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person and is therefore as unbiblical a conception as Bergson’s élan vital. It invokes Jefferson, but Jefferson posited a divine endowment to every person that includes also liberty and the pursuit of happiness – terms that are difficult to define but that clearly imply dignity and hope and the exercise of meaningful agency. These are rights that, though “inalienable,” have to be enabled and respected in society if they are to exist in fact. For example, they more or less require that one come through childhood in a reasonable state of health. Policies that spread and intensify poverty, besides being unbiblical, deprive individuals of what Jefferson called their God-given rights. The thought among anti-Darwinists was, and supposedly still is, that humankind is demeaned by the notion that God was not in every sense present and intentional in the creation of our first parents. The passionate loyalty of the neofundamentalists to the second chapter of Genesis (the first is startlingly compatible with the idea of evolution, though not Darwinism) seems to have prevented them from reading on in the text. Were they to do so, they would find there much to indicate that God continues to be present, and also intentional, in the lives of Eve’s children.
Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.