The Achilles’ Heel of Fundamentalism
John J. Dunphy
(Published in the Secular Humanist Bulletin 25:1, Spring 2009)
Author’s note: In 1973 or so I had a conversation with a fundamentalist who was a fellow student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He attended a church whose minister recently had written a short piece for the local newspaper in which he decried strikes. I asked my friend about it and he said that the minister firmly believed that it was always wrong to rebel against authority. “If it’s always wrong to rebel against authority,” I asked my friend, “does your minister believe the American Revolution was unjustified?” That question stopped my friend in his tracks. His faith remained unshaken, however, and he remained a fundamentalist.
Ironically, the church that sent out the newsletter mentioned in the following column is the same fundamentalist church that my friend attended so many decades ago. The minister who so hated strikes is long dead, but the contemporary pastor obviously shared his distaste for defying authority.
The Achilles’ Hell of Fundamentalism
A literal interpretation of the Bible is the cornerstone of Protestant fundamentalism. I have come to believe that it can also be its Achilles’ heel. Ironically, it took a fundamentalist minister to show me that the religion he professes and preaches to his flock contains the very seed of its own destruction.
His independent Baptist church — that is to say, a church to the right of even the Southern Baptist denomination — regularly mass-mails its newsletter to homes near its building, presumably in the hope of attracting to its services those who want to save on gas by attending a neighborhood church. I happen to live just down a state highway from this church, so I receive its newsletter.
The fall 2008 edition contained an article written by the pastor that stressed the importance of strict adherence to the Fifth Commandment: “Honor they father and they mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God has given thee” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment demands more than mere obedience to Mom and Pop, according to the article. Rebellion against any kind of authority is utterly hateful to God, whether said authority be one’s parents, the police, teachers, ministers, an overbearing boss…any and all authority period.
The pastor cited two chilling Old Testament passages that condemn Old Testament passages that condemn rebellion, one of which explicitly carries the death penalty. “And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death…and he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:15,19). This Baptist preacher then reminds us that the Bible states: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubborness is as iniquity and idolatry: (I Samuel 15:23). This humanist can only marvel that God let off Adam and Eve so easily for eating the forbidden fruit.
The preacher noted the frequency of the words obey and submit in scripture and then unleashes a veritable Blitzkrieg of quotations including: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; “Obey them that have rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Hebrews 13:17); “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or governors, as unto them that are sent by him” (I Peter 2:13–14); and “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20).
“To the workman,” the pastor stated, “God’s Word says, ‘Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh’ ” (Colossans 3:22). As I understand it, the pastor’s interpretation of this passage means that organizing a union or striking for better wages is nothing less than a rebellion against a corporation’s God-given authority. If management offers to pay you fifty cents a day to work in a building loaded with asbestos, just mumble “Thanks, boss!” and obey.
Failure to submit to any God-ordained authority constitutes a sin against God, the pastor concluded. He cuts fundamentalist Christians some slack, however, in those instances when the government enacts laws that are contrary to scripture. If preachers are forbidden to call sodomy a sin or it is made illegal to spank one’s children, he noted, then one indeed has the right to violate such an ungodly law. The pastor tempered this dispensation to disobey the law by reminding his readers that “If you or I think it necessary to disobey any legitimate authority, we had better have a plain verse of Holy Scripture and the peace of God to support that action.”
It was upon reading the pastor’s quoting of Paul’s injunction to “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no higher power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God” (Romans 13:1) that it hit me. I sent an e-mail to this minister and have yet to receive a reply.
I asked whether it was a sin for “workmen,” as he calls them, to form unions to win better wages and working conditions, since such an action comprises a rebellion against their employers. Of course, I already knew the good pastor regards that as a sin against Fifth Commandment. Tragically, workers who belong to fundamentalist church often buy into this claptrap. That’s why labor activists have always had such difficulty organizing unions in the South, where fundamentalism is so strong.
I then inquired whether it had been a sin for our nation’s civil-rights activists to challenge state and municipal laws that mandated segregation and prevented African Americans from voting. These laws had been enacted by “the powers that be,” so challenging them must have been a violation of the Fifth Commandment. I knew this was the literary equivalent of throwing a curveball. There can be no question that the civil-rights movement violated the Fifth Commandment, as fundamentalists interpret it. Still, these days even Biblical literalists have to worry about the consequences of being politically incorrect. Dare any fundamentalist risk a firestorm of political censure by saying that the civil-rights movement sinned because it challenged the God-ordained legitimacy of segregation and the denial of suffrage because of race?
Finally, I delivered a knuckleball strike by reminding the pastor that the nation now known as the United States had once been a British colony. King George III and Parliament indeed were “the powers that be” and “ordained by God.” Had the Founding Fathers and their Age of Enlightenment cohorts broken God’s law when they rebelled against Great Britain? Fundamentalism, as many of us know only all too well, delights in wrapping itself in the flag and calling dibs on patriotism. If fundamentalists truly adhere to this interpretation of the Fifth Commandment, they would have to agree that the country they claim to love was in fact founded on breaking that commandment. The grievances against George III, which Jefferson listed in the Declaration of Independence, are irrelevant. The pastor’s article quotes I Peter 2:18 as stating that “Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle but also to the froward,”which the good pastor spells “forward” and defines for us as “bad, crook4ed or perverse.” That should settle the nationality question for fundamentalists who wish to be true to their convictions. If they want to wrap themselves in their country’s flag, then it should be the Union Jack, not the Stars and Stripes.
Share this column with any fundamentalists who will extend the courtesy of listening to a non-fundamentalist. As many of you probably know, members of the more extreme fundamentalist churches refuse to associate with non-fundamentalists or even other fundamentalists who dare to mingle with non-fundamentalists. I believe they have a good reason for subjecting themselves to such harsh isolation. They’re afraid of being asked questions like the ones I just posed.
Author’s note: I never received an answer to the e-mail I sent this pastor. Since moving to my Godfrey, Illinois home in 2007, however, I have periodically visit this fundamentalist church. More specifically, I visit it to cast my vote because it’s the designated polling place for two Godfrey precincts. One has to pass a table that offers free fundamentalist brochures and pamphlets to get to the room that’s been designated for voting.
The pastor who wrote that column is still serving that church. I even ran into him once when I went there to vote.
- John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, “Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.” His latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” will be published this winter by McFarland.