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Evangelicals v. Fundamentalists
Why are these two terms so often confused? How do these groups compare in their core beliefs and attitudes toward society? And why have Americans moved away from strict fundamentalism? Here are the views of Steve Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet and John C. Green, author of Religion and the Culture Wars.

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steve waldman
Editor-in-chief, Beliefnet

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People often get confused between the terms evangelical and fundamentalist. They mean two different things. Evangelicals are a very broad group. It's probably a third or 40 percent of the population of the United States. Fundamentalists are a subset of that. They are very conservative politically. Have a literalist view of the Bible.

Evangelicals have a much wider range of political views. A lot of them are conservatives, but not all of them. About a third of evangelicals voted for Al Gore. So it's a pretty broad range.

And you tend to think of evangelicals as being fundamentalists because the most well known evangelicals are people like Jerry Falwell who are fundamentalists and are very conservative. But in fact, the evangelicals who are part of Bush's inner circle are not all fundamentalists. They are often very devout evangelicals. But their approach to politics is much more nuanced than the fundamentalist approach. …

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john c. green
Author, Religion and the Culture Wars

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The differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism are a bit subtle, and oftentimes difficult to understand from the outside. A lot of it is a style. Fundamentalists tend to be very strict. They tend towards intolerance. Notice, I said, "tend towards intolerance." Many of them are not intolerant. But they tend towards that direction. They tend to be very judgmental. They tend to want to require an awful lot of individuals who would join their communion. And they tend to be very, very critical of other Christians -- even other evangelical Christians -- who don't share their very strict approach to religion.

But there are some other things besides style that differentiate fundamentalists from evangelicals. … Evangelicals and fundamentalists both agree that the Bible is inerrant, but fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally.

Many evangelicals don't actually read it literally. They're willing to understand that there's metaphor and poetry in the Bible, and it's just that the truth expressed in that metaphor and poetry is without error; whereas fundamentalists would tend to want to read even the metaphor and the poetry literally. That's a particular way to interpret the Bible.

Likewise, many fundamentalists would see conversion as a sudden event -- something where you could actually pick the date and the time when one accepted Jesus; whereas many evangelicals might have a broader understanding of conversion, something that might take place over a longer period of time, and in fact might not even really be understood until long after it happened. Someone might look back and say, "Yes, it was at that particular time that this transformation occurred in my life."

Also, when it comes to the question of who Jesus was, fundamentalists tend to have a fairly narrow, specific, very strict view of who Jesus was. Evangelicals have a somewhat broader interpretation of who Jesus was.

Fundamentalists also add some additional doctrines to their beliefs that many evangelicals would not agree with. For instance, many fundamentalists have a dispensational view of the Bible. That is to say, they have a particular understanding of sacred time, where the activity of God and history is divided up into particular eras. Different things happen in the different eras or different dispensations.

Depending on which fundamentalist you talk to, we're either at the end of the sixth dispensation or the beginning of the seventh dispensation. This, of course, will eventually lead to the return of Jesus to Earth and the end of human history as we know it. Many evangelicals would not accept dispensationalism. They might-- They do take the return of Jesus very seriously. They do take sacred time very seriously, but would not necessarily buy into a dispensational approach.

Another difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals is the degree of separatism that they practice. Both fundamentalists and evangelicals believe that conservative Christians should separate themselves from the world in many important ways. But fundamentalists are much stricter in that separation, and they would extend it to religion as well.

Many fundamentalists don't want to associate even with other Christians who don't agree with them. They want to separate themselves from people that have fairly similar values. Oftentimes, fundamentalists will even want to separate themselves from people who refuse to separate themselves from people who they don't agree with. Of course, this can be extended a long way.

Evangelicals are not as separatist. They are perfectly willing to cooperate with people of other religious faiths, with whom they don't agree on all of the particulars, for the greater cause of evangelizing and bringing people to Christ. So evangelicals, for instance, will often talk about making common cause with Roman Catholics or with mainline Protestants. Fundamentalists are very reluctant to do that, because they see it as being wrong to associate in religious terms with people with whom they don't have complete agreement. So those differences are sometimes subtle. But in style, belief, and practice, fundamentalists really are different from evangelicals.

Can you talk about and compare how the evangelicals versus the fundamentalists got their ideas out there, and began appealing to the mainstream of America?

The evangelical Protestant tradition contained a lot of fundamentalists. The term "fundamentalism" was first used widely early in the 20th century. The name comes from a series of pamphlets that were published by evangelicals, theologians, that detailed certain fundamental beliefs that they regarded as non-negotiable.

Many evangelicals today by the way would agree with many of those fundamentals. But the strict separatism, the special doctrines and the harsh style of fundamentalists often turned out to be unproductive when it came to the mission of the church, and when it came to politics as well.

So all throughout the 20th century, there's actually been many people who wanted to drift away from fundamentalism and, in some cases, wanted to actually have a break with fundamentalism; not to reject the fundamental beliefs of evangelical Christianity, but to have a more effective style in social and religious matters.

In fact, the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in the late 1940s was one example of that moving away from strict fundamentalism. We've seen a lot of that since. In the 1990s, for instance, there was a real effort on the part of the National Association of Evangelicals and many other evangelicals to move away from some of the aspects of fundamentalism which were problematic.

These are individuals who, both at a religious level and in their social and political life, wanted to make common cause with a broader group of individuals in the United States, and wanted to find allies. They wanted to work with other people who agreed with them on many important issues, but maybe not on everything. They found that a more tolerant, open and inclusive style was much, much more effective.

So there has been a move away from strict fundamentalism. In fact, if you look at surveys today, there are actually relatively few people who identify themselves as fundamentalists. If you look at measures of fundamentalist doctrine, those measures have become somewhat less common.

A good example is separatism. In recent surveys, my colleagues and I asked evangelical Protestants, broadly defined, the following question: "Christians should separate themselves from the world to avoid evil." Relatively few evangelicals in the survey agreed with that statement, including some who called themselves fundamentalists.

So there really has been a movement away from fundamentalism, properly so called. Now, oftentimes, the word fundamentalist is used to mean other things. It's used to mean intolerant, because some fundamentalists really did have those intolerant tendencies. So oftentimes, in popular discourse, we'll refer to an intolerant person as a fundamentalist, as sort of a code word for certain aspects of religion that that people don't like.

Sometimes it's also used to refer simply to having an orthodox Christian position. So we'll often say, "Well, that person takes the Bible seriously. They must be a fundamentalist," when in fact they may not be a fundamentalist at all. They may be simply a person that takes the Bible seriously, but doesn't have the other attributes of fundamentalists.

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posted april 29, 2004

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