evangelical revisionism

A lot of ‘young fundamentalists’ repeat the mantra that fundamentalism is a ‘subset’ of evangelicalism. This same notion is perpetrated in a PBS interview I read today.

In the article, John Green, a senior fellow at the PEW Forum on Religion and professor of political science at the University of Akron, is interviewed about ‘young evangelicals’ and politics. Green repeats the revisionist notion that fundamentalists really are evangelicals.

The terms fundamentalist and evangelical are often used interchangeably, but they’re often held as being opposites of one another. One way that one can think about this is that all fundamentalist Protestants are evangelicals. But not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are the heirs of a political and religious movement that developed in the early 20th century in reaction to the modern world, and many of the things that those people saw as bad about the world. Fundamentalism has had an enormous impact on the United States but also all around world, this idea of getting back to the true faith as opposed to the modern world which perverts and abandons the faith.

But not all people in the religious communities that were influenced by the fundamentalist movement adopted all of the particular beliefs. And most of them did not adopt the style of fundamentalists. It’s a very strident style because fundamentalists thought they were defending the true faith against its enemies.

So what we see today is a broad community of conservative Protestants, a small proportion of which adhered to fundamentalist beliefs and ideas. And then a much larger group, that are happy to call themselves evangelicals, but who agree with some of the basic religious values, but with not all of the particular doctrines, and don’t adopt the particular style of fundamentalists.

There are a number of inaccuracies in this statement. I’ll just highlight them as they appear in these paragraphs:

  1. Fundamentalism is not a subset of evangelicalism. More on this later.
  2. Fundamentalists are not the heirs of a movement that reacted against the modern world but rather modernism. The subtle difference of terms betrays the “fundamentalists as cavemen” stereotype.
  3. “This idea of getting back to the true faith as opposed to the modern world” isn’t what Christian Fundamentalism is all about. I suspect it is not what Islamic Fundamentalism is all about either.
  4. It’s not that there was a mainstream conservative Christian ‘community’ that, though influenced by fundamentalist beliefs, stood apart uneasily from fundamentalism between the late 1920s and mid-1950s — on the contrary, conservative Christianity in that period largely adopted the fundamentalist position in the fight against modernism. In the 1950s, the majority of these Christians decided to change their strategy and abandoned fundamentalism.

The last paragraph quoted above is essentially correct. The apparent common link between evangelicals and fundamentalists is that they are conservative Protestants [just don’t tell some IFBs!]. Their similarities end there. The philosophy and doctrines that distinguish fundamentalists from evangelicals mark the two groups as distinct entities.

It is understandable for evangelicals to make the assumptions they do about fundamentalism vs. evangelicalism. They are in the majority and are much more loosely defined. Those fundamentalists who want to define themselves as a subset of fundamentalism have a much more complicated set of motivations and interests. Broadly speaking, I suspect that a good deal of the motivation for this definition is the desire to minimize or eliminate the distinctions between the most conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. There may be other reasons, including simple ignorance of the history and/or current context.

In any case, I believe it is important to realize there are two distinct groups within conservative Protestantism. One left the other, and the one that stayed can’t be said to be a subset of the one that left.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Fundamentalism is certainly not a subset of evangelicalism, something which even some evangelical scholars admit.

    Marsden refers to the evangelicals as “former fundamentalists” in Reforming Fundamentalism. Of course he was criticized by peers for saying so, but defended that approach in the preface to his later paperback edition of the book.

  2. Here is how I would put it. In the 1800’s you had what one author termed, the dominance of evangelicalism, where Biblical Christianity dominated the religious scene in America. Everybody was basically an evangelical at that time. That era came to a close as modernism and other forms of unbelief took center stage in the halls of theological and scientific academia. Those who fought against and eventually separated from that unbelief were our fundamentalist forbearers. At that time, I would say that fundamentalism was a fairly large subset of evangelicalism. Later, the new-evangelicals separated from fundamentalism and took most of evangelicalism with them. So, I think we have a common heritage of evangelicalism but most of what we know of evangelicalism today is the offspring of the new evangelical movement that separated from us. That is probably what you and Duncan are getting at but historically we come from the same root, I think.

  3. Hi Andy

    Yes, I agree. Common roots, but not common cause. The whole agenda is entirely different.

    There remain distinctions between fundamentalists and even the most conservative evangelicals. The attempts to deny those distinctions are suspect.

    However, that is not to say that I am closed to the notion of evangelical repentance and a real rapprochement in the cause of a faithful Christian witness. Some might come to see that separation is Biblical and that loyalty to God is greater than loyalty to men. Of course, for fundamentalists to enter such a realignment would require grace and humility on our part also.

    Nevertheless, it isn’t sufficient for evangelicals simply to make conservative sounds. There does need to be some repudiation of the evangelical compromise and an embrace of separatistic principles.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3