Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Liberal Kitsch Christianity

“Kitsch religion” wrote David Klinghoffer, “seeks to do an end run around Truth, providing a feeling of ‘spirituality’ without the requirement of orthodox belief and action. That is its downfall. From a strict marketing perspective, this strategy can never work for long. In the end, the problem is a simple one of reduncancy. You can think of many nonreligious institutions in American life ready and willing to provide precisely the benefits offered by liberal religion.” This was what I was reading this morning at 6am in an essay called “Kitsch Religion” in a book entitled”Dumbing Down: Essays on the Stripmining of American Culture” which is a nice book from the 90’s. Klinghoffer (I know little about him)  is Jewish, and was speaking about liberal religion in general: “Rouchly speaking, liberal religion in ssynthetic religion, kitsch religion…Kitsch religion reflects only the world: its political interests, its desire to be free of troublesome moral obligations.”

This article was of special interest to me because we have just finished a study group on the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Fundamentalism a movement of the later 18 and early 1900’s responding against liberalism.   Those who continued to hold to the fundamentals of Christianity– that the Bible is true in its account that Humanity is sinful in need of a savior, who is Jesus Christ, both God and Man born of a virgin who pays for the sins of the world through his death on the cross– and these tennants were under fire from Liberal Christianity at the time.  Liberal Christianity was a powerful force from the mid 1880s until the mid 1900s.  According to J.I. Packer in the 1958 essay we read, Liberal Christianity could be summarized as follows:

1. God’s character is one of pure benevolence without standards. 

2.  All humans are good at heart and just need to be encouraged rightly, not saved from their sinfulness.

3. Jesus Christ is savior in the sense of good role model and teacher, not in the sense of died-for-my-sins-on-the-cross savior of the world.

4. Jesus Christ is unique in that he is super-good, but he is not God.

5. The Bible is not Divine revelation but a thoroughly human product.

Fundamentalists, at the time then, were those who disagreed with this liberalization of Christianity.  Those who called themselves fundamentalists at the time were not crazy zealots who had bombs, but people who wanted to maintain the fundamentals of traditional biblical Christianity despite the liberal takeover of seminaries. 

This is all interesting to us, I think, because especially for those of us who came into this world already standing on the shoulders of all those before us, it is easy to be overly critical of your ‘evangelical roots’ without realizing all the good that that tradition holds, and all the blood sweat and tears that went into establishing what we usually simply take for granted and criticize.

In the first session we watched, Ken Kantzer talked about the history of evangelicalism– how it was in many ways the dominant view in the 1800s. A couple important points he made: A. Schools going public: until the 1830s most american schools were run by churches, most of whom were run by protestant churches (when those churches were not liberal). But they received tax money, and when the catholic schools started to want tax money, the protestants decided to just make all schools public instead of giving catholics tax money for theirs. B. Most seminaries (except Harvard) were pretty orthodox in their Christian theology in 1880, but by 1939 Princeton was the last remaining major seminary to make a move to ‘liberalism’.

So the late 1800s and early 1900s were a period of the gradual erosion of traditional Christian beliefs from academia, seminaries, and education in the US. This is what gave rise to the fundamentalist movement, which strove to hold on to the basic fundamentals of Christianity– that Christ was the Son of God, died for humanities sins, humans are in need of a savior, etc.

Carl FH Henry in the second 1/2 hour discussed more the history of all of this on the academic side– how that in the late 1900s evangelicalism had taken hold and had its own reputable publishing houses, scholars, universities and seminaries, and really had made an impact in politics and society in ways which would have been unthinkable to people who held to the fundamentals of Christianity in the face of liberalism in the early part of the same century, including the fact that all 3 presidential candidates (Ford, Regan and Carter) identified themselves as “born again”.  (see the videos on ‘knowing your roots’ at )

Its interesting to see how that liberal Christianity, which appeared to be such a threat in the early and middle part of the 1900s, today seems to be fading.  Klinghoffer (Kitsch Religion) writes,

“When the New York Times wants the opinion of respectable religion on an issue of the day, its reporter inevitably seeks out an Episcopal bishop, a Presbyterian minister, or a Reform rabbi; and so those Americans who rely on the Official Media for news can be forgiven for thinking that th eliberal, “mainline” churches represent the mainstream of religious faith.  At the same time, despite random signs of life…there is a general sense among those who follow such things that liberal religion is on the decline,…This isn’t’ what children growing up in liberal Jesish of Christian homes were told to expect.  These children have long been taught that orthodoxy and fundamentalism are dying anachronisms– that, in the modern world, a “contemporary,” enlightened view of God and man is the only viable stand.  And yet that opinion has itself turned out to be an anachronism” (my italics)

There are today evangelical Christian universities, book publishers, and even phonebooks, and evangelicals are making people take notice with their social concern for the poor and disadvantaged (consider Rick Warren or Shane Clayborn or Sojourners).  The evangelical churches are among the very largest, and those churches are now begining to start their own seminaries ( )  Yet, at the same time, we discussed in our study group, we don’t really want to call ourselves fundamentalists even if we do agree with the fundamentals because inevitably when that word is used people think you are stupid, or ungracious, or mean spirited, or perhaps that you have a bomb and you want to blow up someone.  But the word evangelical is not much better, in many circles.  As Kantzer says, it depends on who is asking me if I’m an evangelical or fundamentalist.  Even David Wells in his recent book “THe Courage to Be Protestant” has said that he feels that the word has been used by so many he does not agree with that he thinks the term evangelical has run its course and lost its usefulness.  So either the word conveys things to outsiders which I don’t mean by it, or it identifies me with some Christians (whether they be too conservative or too liberal (emergent) to feel comfortable with) that I don’t wish to be identified with, or it has simply lost its meaning so that it is not worth using– at any rate, it is harder and harder to find a term which describes those of us who do want to hold to a Biblical historical Christianity in the protestant tradition. 

So, kitsch liberal Christianity is in decline, evangelicalism has made a powerful impact and made great strides in American culture in the last 40 years.  Yet now, ironically, no one dares call themself a fundamentalist or in many cases an evangelical.  That is our current predicament…  May God have mercy on us all.   — andy gustafson

Also check out the JI Packer article if you want at:


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