America’s Founding and Christianity (Part II): Fundamentalism, Neo-evangelicalism, and Today
In last week’s essay, I explored the Protestant Reformation’s impact upon America’s founding. Articulating his two-kingdoms doctrine, Martin Luther paved the way for religious liberty, or the separation of church and state. The Puritans paved the way for constitutionalism, democracy, limited government, rule of law, and the separation of powers.
In this essay, I will examine why some still question Christianity’s role in America’s founding. Afterward, I’ll consider what America’s founding has to do with us today in the first place.
Interpreting America’s Founding Through Fundamentalism and Neo-evangelicalism
Despite Christianity’s profound cultural, political, and religious impact upon America’s founding, some still doubt, downplay, or deny it. Why is this? I believe the answer lies in an important qualification:
The real disagreement is not whether Christianity affected America’s founding in the general way that I have traced it. No, the real disagreement concerns the extent to which Christianity affected America’s founding through the lens of twentieth-century fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism . We see this in the rhetoric of both Christians and their critics.
However, before examining this, we will consider these twentieth-century movements. We often use these terms, but what do they really mean? And what do they represent historically? By answering these questions, we will better understand the real disagreement concerning America’s founding.
Rather than letting a post-Enlightenment, hyper-rationalistic, scientific populace swallow Christianity whole, Protestant liberalism had redefined and reinterpreted Christian orthodoxy in an attempt to rescue it . However, what it rescued was not biblical Christianity. It questioned, and in many cases rejected, the historicity of miracles, including Christ’s deity, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. As Protestant liberalism gained widespread acceptance and popularity in the seminaries and universities, its teachings trickled down to the pulpits and churches.
Against such developments, Christian fundamentalism rose to combat Protestant liberalism by reaffirming Christian orthodoxy, including those doctrines that Protestant liberalism had denied. Several leaders emerged from the movement: D.L. Moody (1837-1899) founded Moody Bible Institute (1886); C.I. Scofield (1843-1921) authored the Scofield Reference Bible (1909, 1917); and J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) authored the groundbreaking Christianity and Liberalism (1923) and founded Westminster Seminary (1929) .
However, fundamentalism began to lose currency in the mid-1920s, especially after the national news associated the Scopes “Monkey Trial” (1925), the Aimee Semple McPherson kidnapping scandal (1926), and the John Franklyn Norris murder indictment (1926) with the movement . These embarrassing, problematic episodes effectively smeared fundamentalism’s reputation. Additionally, its theology of cultural engagement was lacking—to put it mildly.
While fundamentalism did not completely fizzle out, neo-evangelicalism began to gain momentum shortly afterward. Figures like Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) and Billy Graham (1918ff) championed the movement. Utilizing his training as a journalist, Henry founded Christianity Today (1956). He also called upon Christians to engage a culture whose general optimism had been destroyed by the two world wars, and not to retreat from it—a divergence from fundamentalism. Finally, having adopted the presuppositional apologetics of Gordon Clark (1902-1985) and Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), he also encouraged a “Christ transforming culture” model of cultural engagement.
Like Henry’s, Graham’s influence has been profound upon modern Christianity—nearly unmatched. A preacher of preachers, he has preached the plan of salvation to more people than any other Christian in history. Some surmise more than two billion. He has popularized the “invitation” system, especially in low church traditions. And he has advised every U.S. President since Harry Truman.
While Graham and Henry greatly impacted American neo-evangelicalism, British figures such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), John Stott (1921-2011), and J.I. Packer (1926ff) also impacted this movement.
In sum, evangelicalism continued fundamentalism’s conservative emphasis to reclaim historic, orthodox Christianity from Protestant liberalism by emphasizing the Bible, Christ, the crucifixion, conversion, and cultural engagement . And while each of these movements had their problems, they accomplished much, especially in effectively exposing the gulf between historic, orthodox Christianity and Protestant liberalism.
c. Synthesis: The Christians and the Critics
What do fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism have to do with America’s founding? Quite a lot, actually. When discussing Christianity’s impact upon America’s founding, people often talk past one another.
On the one hand, Christians too often interpret America’s founding through these twentieth-century movements. They paint America’s founders as if they were Moodys, Scofields, Machens, Grahams, or Henrys. As intellectually honest people, we simply can’t do this. Many of the founders were Christians, yes—even committed Christians—but they were neither fundamentalists nor neo-evangelicals.
And just as Christians shouldn’t interpret America’s founders through twentieth-century lenses, their critics shouldn’t assume that Christians do so either. Rather, we should be mindful to give clear definition and articulation of our terms beforehand. By doing this, we’ll avoid talking past one another .
On the other hand, critics too often make equally problematic mistakes. Some deny Christianity’s impact upon America’s founding altogether. Yes, our culture is a post-Christian, secular one, but the founders’ was not. Christianity impacted America’s founding in profound political ways. And it infused the founders’ culture in the subtlest ways. A student of history simply has to scan the early colonys’ laws to see this . Even the deistic Benjamin Franklin once stated, “History will also afford frequent opportunities of showing…the excellency of the Christian religion above all others, ancient or modern” . Other, more committed founders were even more emphatic!
Regardless, the founders’ personal faith is neither the point, nor does it really matter much in a constitutional democracy. That is, America’s system of government gives its majority the prerogative to change its laws as it sees fit, so long as it does not violate the Constitution. The founders’ experience of living in a culture dominated by a Judeo-Christian ethos thus reflected itself in its laws.
However, our society is a post-Christian one, and increasingly our laws reflect this. At the same time, because we live in a constitutional democracy, our laws could again reflect this Judeo-Christian ethos, so long as they do not violate the Constitution, if our majority culture so votes.
In sum, the real disagreement isn’t over whether Christianity impacted America’s founding. Rather, it’s over the extent to which it did so. While Christians shouldn’t interpret America’s founding through twentieth-century Christianity, their critics shouldn’t interpret it through pure secularism either.
History Is Nice and All, But What Does This Mean For Me Today?
Concerning our current, post-Christian, secular state, some may ask:
So what if Christianity affected America’s founding, whatever the degree? Sure, Judeo-Christian assumptions dominated the founders’ culture, and that influence even manifested itself in America’s earliest laws. However, we do not live in that culture. We live in ours. So, how does this solve our current problems? And what does it mean for us as we move into another election season?
Two points: We should remember our heritage of religious liberty and engage our lost culture with Christ’s love.
First, we should regain a robust confidence in religious liberty.
Understandably, many well-intentioned Christians claim America’s founding as their own, and they lament America’s current state. However, as we’ve learned from Luther, we mustn’t impose spiritual matters onto the secular state. Coercive government cannot create faith—only God can do that. It creates all sorts of problems for all parties involved. We must remember our religious liberty heritage—as Baptists, Protestants, Christians, and Americans—and celebrate it.
Second, we should purposefully and strategically engage our culture with Christ’s love.
Especially as the election season moves closer and closer, we must remember that we can’t blame government and shady politicians for our cultural problems or secular state. Change does not occur in culture because like-minded persons vote their candidate into office or because a particular bill is passed into law. Simply put, government, law, and policy are a mere reflection of its majority culture. America’s form of government guarantees this. And today, America’s majority is secular and unchristian.
So what do we do? We look to God, and we faithfully carry out His will for our lives. What does this look like in the public square? Maybe it means pursuing politics vocationally, demonstrating at statehouses and on street corners peacefully, or attending political rallies. Or maybe it means something as simple as calmly discussing political issues with those around us and voting.
At the same time, we must remember that culture’s biggest problems are addressed in the smallest, most basic ways: namely, human relationships. Yes, God works through our collective votes in His own, sovereign way—and we must trust Him in this. But He also works through our vocational contexts too: in our homes among spouses and children, through our churches with Christian brothers and sisters, and in our jobs with bosses and co-workers. A Judeo-Christian ethos dominated our founders’ culture because its majority reflected it daily. The same could characterize ours if we will follow their example.
 I do not employ simply evangelicalism, because this term originally applied to Lutheranism. As a result, I use neo-evangelicalism to describe that movement that arose from fundamentalism.
 Its most prominent leaders included Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930), Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), and Paul Tillich (1886–1965).
 Even though scholars associate Machen with fundamentalism, Machen himself did not like the association. Fundamentalism carried (and still carries) with it connotations of being non-academic, non-intellectual, and (in some cases) anti-intellectual. Unlike so many fundamentalists who hadn’t received university education, Machen actually did. Having sat under the feet of Protestant liberals, such as Wilhelm Hermann (1846-1922), Machen nevertheless rejected it, and nevertheless stood as a bulwark against Protestant liberalism’s tide.
 First, after the state of Tennessee accused John Scopes of unlawfully teaching evolution in its schools, the national media painted Tennesseans as uneducated, fundamentalist hicks.
Second, after Aimee McPherson (1890-1944) was allegedly kidnapped, many believed that she was dead. She reappeared a month later, claiming that a couple had held her hostage. No one believed her story, and many believed it a hoax. Though she was not strictly a fundamentalist, but a Pentecostal, the national media grouped her with the fundamentalists, painting the whole episode as eccentric.
Finally, H. C. Meacham (Mayor of Fort Worth, Texas) had allocated some funds to benefit the Catholics. The flamboyant, fundamentalist, radio preacher John Norris was against this, and when Meacham’s friend Dexter Elliott Chipps went to talk with Norris about it, he murdered him, claiming self-defense. Though Norris was acquitted, this episode only added to the fuel of rising craziness surrounding the fundamentalism movement.
 David Bebbington and Alister McGrath characterized neo-evangelicalism by these five qualities. In fact, the words that they use are Biblicism, Christocentrism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. See David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 4-8; and Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995).
 This fallacy I have here outlined is fundamentally the problem of language. For a fuller discussion on language and its inherent assumptions and problems, see W. Jackson Watts’ essay, “Language Games in the Public Square.”
 For instance, the French world traveler Alexis de Tocqueville highlights this very characteristic, commenting that “[i]n 1649, an association was formed in Boston for the solemn purpose of stamping out the worldly luxury of long hair,” and that the Code of 1650 “included a law prohibiting the use of tobacco.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835-40), Arthur Goldhammer (trans.) (New York, New York: The Library of America, 2004), 44, 96.
 Benjamin Franklin, Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1749), 22.
For Further Reading
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (1923)
Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947)
George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980)