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The following essay was written by Michael Clawson, Department of Religion, Baylor University. It was posted on a blog moderated by Roger Olson on January 19, 2012.

Young, Restless, and Fundamentalist: Neo-fundamentalism among American Evangelicals

A New Fundamentalist Reaction

In his 2007 book The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, influential evangelical pastor and author, John MacArthur wrote the following:

“The evangelical movement as we speak of it today is already doomed. It stands roughly where the mainstream denominations were in the early part of the twentieth century when those denominations began formally excommunicating conservative voices of dissent from their midst – and sounder evangelicals began actively separating from those denominations en masse. . . . It is time for the faithful remnant to redraw clear lines and step up our energies in the Truth War – contending earnestly for the faith. In light of all the biblical commands to fight a good warfare, it is both naïve and disobedient for Christians in this postmodern generation to shirk that duty.”1

I contend that this growing concern expressed by MacArthur and many other evangelicals represents a new movement within evangelicalism toward what I have termed neo-fundamentalism. This is not simply a return to the original Protestant fundamentalism of the early-twentieth century, though it is analogous to it. Instead, I argue that some conservative evangelicals are reacting to the contemporary influences of postmodernity in much the same way that the original fundamentalists did towards the influences of modernity a century ago – namely through hostility towards the broader culture, retrenchment around certain theological doctrines, and conflict with, or separatism from others within a more broadly defined evangelicalism.2 Because of these similarities, I want to suggest that fundamentalism as a scholarly category (as opposed to its more derogatory uses in the popular media) is a useful framework within which to understand this contemporary phenomenon.

The driving force behind neo-fundamentalism, as with historic fundamentalism, is a “remnant mentality.” Neo-fundamentalists believe they alone are remaining true to the fullness of the Gospel and orthodox faith while the rest of the evangelical church is in grave, near-apocalyptic danger of theological drift, moral laxity, and compromise with a postmodern culture – a culture which they see as being characterized by a skepticism towards Enlightenment conceptions of “absolute truth,” a pluralistic blending of diverse beliefs, values, and cultures, and a suspicion of hierarchies and traditional sources of authority.3 Because of this hostility toward postmodern ways of thinking, neo-fundamentalists have little tolerance for diversity of opinions among evangelicals on any issues they perceive as essential doctrines – which are most of them – as opposed to the broader evangelical movement which historically has allowed for a much wider range of disagreement on disputable matters.4 Neo-fundamentalists thus respond to the challenges of a postmodern culture by narrowing the boundaries of what they consider genuinely evangelical and orthodox Christianity, and rejecting those who maintain a more open stance.

While similar, this new movement’s primary concerns are typically not the same as those of more traditional fundamentalists. In regards to behavioral standards, for instance, neo-fundamentalists are less concerned about the sort of moral restrictions that animated conservatives of a century ago: drinking, dancing, card playing and the like.5 Instead they typically focus on contemporary social issues like (more…)

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