Fundamentalism Re-Emerges Into the American Public Sphere
by Ashley Lewis
According to Susan Harding, fundamentalism has continually been stigmatized throughout the media as this “cultural ‘other’” separate from our own modern world (Harding 374). The modernist narrative uses key terms and phrases such as bigoted, racist, militant, and “unfit for modern life” to vividly depict fundamentalists (Harding 373). The historical beginnings of removing fundamentalism from the public sphere began in the summer of 1925 during the John T. Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee where a high school biology teacher was being prosecuted for illegally teaching evolution to his class. Evolution had been banned because of its anti-biblical and anti-Christian connotations (Harding 379). Clarence Darrow volunteered to represent the defense while William Jennings Bryan was the fundamentalist prosecutor (Harding 380). Much of the trial’s narrative voice was constituted in the press across the nation from a modern standpoint due to the fact that none of the journalists identified with fundamentalism. All forms of fundamentalist conservative views were erased and overthrown by the liberal modernist voice that took front and center stage on the news media platform. This set the tone for people’s reactions and opinions towards a grueling duel between science and God (Harding 382). Not only did the fundamentalists not have a prominent voice in the media, but Bryan and fellow fundamentalists were often mocked and homogenized in news stories as “plain folk” or the “cranks and freaks who flocked to Dayton” (Harding 383). In the end, evolution beat out creationism and Bryan lost causing the public to outcast the fundamentalists into the private sphere (Harding 390). But, today they are making an influential comeback into the public sphere.
While many modernists believe that fundamentalism is part of a “cultural ‘other,’” Harding argues that the fundamentalists are not alien nor are they outside of our culture, but are in fact, a part of modernity. Yet it isn’t just the media or modernist bias that continues to ‘other’ the fundamentalists in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ context, it is also they themselves who are ‘othering’ their identities. The Evangelical Christians are fundamentalists who pronounce this ‘othering’ in the documentary film, Jesus Camp.
Susan Harding states that, “Academic inquiry into fundamentalism is framed by modern presuppositions which presume “fundamentalists” to be a socially meaningful category of persons who are significantly homogenous in regards to religious belief, interpretive practices, moral compass, and socio-economic conditions..” This categorization is set to help the modern world comprehend the complexities of fundamentalism. But John S. Hawley and Wayne Proudfoot would term this fundamentalist generalization as a “uniformed oversimplification” (Page 25). Although many of these fundamentalist groups share “family resemblances” and meanings they also seem to interpret the inerrancy of the texts in multiple ways which creates a fundamentalist pluralism. Ironically, the one thing they despise the most.
One of the fundamentalist characteristics of the Evangelical Christians in Jesus Camp is their ability to encompass modernity into their religion using influential media tools to accentuate their religious message. The American anthropologist Richard Antoun supports Harding in stating that fundamentalists selectively accept many aspects of the modern world. Antoun said that they are not against change, but “embrace social organizational and technological change on a selective basis, provided the changes are consonant with their own values and help them combat their internal and external enemies” (Lecture Notes). Becky Fischer incorporates this modernity into her sermons by using sight and sound to appeal to the younger audiences and to help the followers in the “Kids of Fire School of Ministry” to learn better. Fischer’s goal each summer is to influence the children and help in their development as God’s next generation of servants who will preserve their traditions for years to come. Fischer and other guest speakers use microphones to echo the word of God throughout the entire church so the children can feel the impact of the Holy Spirit’s presence. She also plays tribal music with war-like rhythms to instill an apocalyptic emotion and symbolize the banding together of spiritual warriors. The Evangelicals use different types of media much like the Christian website GodTube created by Chris Wyatt which delivers Christianity globally 24/7 and attracts the younger technologically savvy generation. These religious websites produce a virtually interactive spiritual experience that generates a new and innovative way of preaching the word of God. GodTube also reaches out to a broader audience by providing access to those who can’t attend religious services. (Getting That Online Religion).
Another fundamentalist characteristic that the Evangelical Christians share is their activism in remaking the world, exercising power, and returning to the public sphere. Becky Fischer calls her followers “spiritual warriors” who Hawley and Proudfoot would describe as fundamentalists with “a militant desire to defend religion against the onslaughts of modern, secular culture, their principal weapon is their insistence on the inerrancy of the scripture” (Page 3). Although Becky Fischer defends her cause as a spiritual one, it is clear to see in Jesus Camp that it’s political more than anything. She angrily blames the government for prohibiting the teachings of creationism in American schools and symbolizes this radical anti-government attitude by allowing the children to smash mugs and vases with the word “government” on them. In another scene Fischer invites a guest speaker to come and talk to the children about the wrong doings of abortion. Then the speaker proceeds to place red tape which reads “Life” over each child’s mouth to signify the unborn fetuses that don’t have a say in their right to live. During the final moments of the film the viewer watches as the children and other members of the church go to the White House in silent protest against abortion. The Evangelical desire to take back the government, religion, education, etc. for Christ is very similar to the discourse expressed in the New Apostolic Reformation of Christian dominionism which also has chapters of “prayer warriors” in all 50 states (Burke). The Phelps family, the founders of the Westboro Baptists in Kansas, are also embarking on a spiritual warfare to save man and fulfill God’s plan (Lecture notes). Their spiritual warfare is exemplified as they protest yards away from a U.S. soldier’s funeral to speak out against the damned soldiers who must be punished for fighting in support of a doomed country (Westboro Baptists).
The film Jesus Camp takes place in Devils Lake, North Dakota where Evangelical Christian children attend the “Kids on Fire School of Ministry” camp each summer. Here the children learn how they can reclaim America for Christ by listening to sermons heavily infused with political discourse and underlying Christian dominionist aspects. In the first few scenes, Fischer paints the children’s faces in camouflage and has them perform choreographed staccato, militant movements to visually depict her “spiritual warriors.” Fischer also implants apocalyptic fear into their innocent minds by declaring that if they don’t repent the evils of their sins, everything they love will be taken away from them. Many mainstream viewers on Amazon perceived this harsh indoctrination on these children as emotionally appalling. One reviewer by the name of R. Browning described this manipulation as “disturbing to see children turned into “soldiers for Jesus.” It smacks of the Taliban and other militant religious groups which take innocent children and brainwash them with their brand of fanaticism.” While others compared these Evangelical practices to other militant groups both past and present such as the Hitler Youth, the radical Islamic fundamentalism, and North Korea, etc (Amazon.com). Aaron Taylor, a blogger who met the O’Brien family featured in the film, even stated that he felt the political activism portrayed in the film was inappropriate and too complex for a group of 6 and 7 year olds to fully comprehend (Taylor).
Although many people believed the film was disturbing, viewers also thought the documentary was powerfully compelling in its raw reality. The directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were meticulous in making sure that the film was an unbiased, true representation of the “Kids of Fire School of Ministry” by excluding any outside commentary or opinions of their own. Ewing stated that the film shows the political war between liberals and conservatives in the politicization of their religion (Jesus Camp YouTube Interview). The viewer becomes aware of a political ‘othering’ as they see Fischer and other preachers continually referencing the government as ‘them’ versus ‘us.’ Their way of life is also ‘othered’ in the sense that these children are taught and preached to in the seclusion of their own homes away from the modern day perspective. In defending these radical religious practices one Amazon reviewer made an excellent point in stating that “Becky really believes in what she preaches, really believes she’s helping those children. The children themselves talk enthusiastically about the sermons and seem determined to convert others or become preachers themselves. At times the people portrayed here seem to live in another universe than yourselves, but at the same time they’re completely congruent with their beliefs” (Amazon.com). The extreme Evangelical Conservative views in the documentary are balanced out by moderate Christian radio host Mike Papantonio who expresses concerns on how these radical right wing perspectives blur the lines of separation between the church and state. Papantonio said “They don’t look like politicos. They don’t look like politicians. They don’t look like they’re on the bandwagon for anything. They look like your neighbors. But when you put them all together what ends up happening is they start to take control in small slices.” This verbal statement transforms visually as the viewer watches the children and their families gather peacefully outside of the White House for their anti-abortion protest.
Overall, it appears that the film succeeded in conveying a true representation of these Evangelical Christians. But when Taylor interviewed the O’Brien family years after the film was made, he discovered that Levi and his parents were not nearly as extreme as the film portrayed them to be. The O’Brien’s do not want to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy nor do they want to overthrow the government, but they do believe that our country has been wrong in a few essential ways and that the only way to correct these misgivings is to live through the word of God (Taylor). Taylor remarks that “The problem with our media saturated culture is it’s far too easy to draw conclusions based on images and 15 second soundbites, especially when the images and soundbites are divorced from their broader context.”
Personally, I believe that Jesus Camp portrayed this portion of Evangelical Christians accurately, yet I do not think that this film represents the nation’s 25% of Evangelicals in their entirety. I researched a website with other reviews by Christians who were appalled at how the film gave them a bad reputation in assuming that the entire faith acted like this. A reviewer named Rob wrote, “This movie will set back the evangelical community. Christians will be seen as manipulators of children rather than the light in the world that we are supposed to be.” And Reverend Bryan Griem was shocked at how this one small segment seemed to place all American Christians into an extreme category such as this. Reverand Griem was not pleased with these Christians for interpreting their way as the only way to preach and understand God’s word properly (Rodriguez).
In relation to Jesus Camp much of Rick Santorum’s rhetoric in the presidential campaign signified that he agreed with Fischer’s point-of-view in that America is on the verge of a spiritual warfare. In his 2008 speech at the catholic institution of Ava Maria University in Naples, Florida, Santorum said, “This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war at all. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies, Satan, would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country: the United States of America” (Kaplan). According to Santorum, Satan has attacked the four pillars of America: academia, culture, politics, and the church, and the only way to protect America is by taking it back for Christ. His prior statements were oozing with Christian dominionist underpinnings, while he ‘othered’ those who disagreed with him about America’s journey to a nationalistic-spiritual warfare. Santorum’s outspoken view on a spiritual war is what attracted his large fan base of Evangelical Christians (O’Loughlin).
Today, he is highly scrutinized for his religious statements because many citizens in this secular, multicultural society are disturbed and potentially threatened by these emerging radical fundamentalist movements that want to turn America into a nation for Christ. And ironically it looks as if Santorum is retracting his past religious views in saying, “If they want to dig up old speeches of me talking to religious groups, they can go ahead and do so, but I’m going to stay on message and I’m going to talk about things that Americans want to talk about, which is creating jobs, making our country more secure,..”(Kaplan). That being said, Santorum may realize that his extreme religious views could be detrimental to his future candidacy in the presidential primaries so he is now undergoing damage control in an attempt to appeal to the larger secular public and “talk about things that Americans want to talk about.”
All in all, our Western secular multicultural society continues to ‘other’ fundamentalists in comparing their beliefs and practices to those of terrorist/genocidal figures from the past and present. In a democratic nation, theocracy is still seen as a threat to the balance of the nation and the state. After the premiere of Jesus Camp, the “Kids of Fire School of Ministry” was terminated which exemplifies this fear of fundamentalism. The controversial uproar from secular, mainstream audiences over the displays of radical political activism and its emotionally disturbing effects on the young, impressionable minds in the film was enough to deter some from that form of fundamentalist behavior. As we continue to progress forward it appears that America may not ever be ready for a nation governed by the word of God. But maybe one day if we stop ‘othering’ each other our nation can come to a neutral compromise where God and the government work as one.
Burke, Daniel. (2011, Sept 1). 5 Facts About Dominionism. The Huffington Post.
Ewing, Heidi & Rachel Grady. (2006) Jesus Camp.
Gordon, Tamar. Religion and Fundamentalism Lecture Notes. February 3.
Harding, Susan. (1991). Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other*.” Social Research, 58 (2), 373-393.
Hawley, John S. & Wayne Proudfoot. Introduction.
Jesus Camp – Interview with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWFBfh7gmZc
Jesus Camp Reviews. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Camp-Mike-Papantonio/dp/B000KLQUV2
Kaplan, Rebecca. (2012, Feb 22). Santorum: Satan Comments in 2008 ‘Not Relevant’ Today. National Journal.
O’Loughlin, Michael. (2012, Feb 19). Politics, presidents, and spiritual warfare. America The National Catholic Weekly.
Rodriguez, Jonathan. Jesus Camp Movie Review. Retrieved from http://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2006/jesuscamp2006.html
Taylor, Aaron. (2008, Jan 26). Meeting the Jesus Campers. Retrieved from http://aaront.wrytestuff.com/swa293448.htm
Westboro Baptist Church – World’s Most Infamous Calvinists. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmIr9P-vkSQ
(2007, Dec 25). Getting That Online Religion. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17599790