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The Modernism of (Some) Religious Conservatism

It is sometimes pointed out that Islamic fundamentalism is a modernist phenomenon. I think it must be true of all religious fundamentalism.

Over the weekend, I got into a brief Twitter exchange with a pastor of a nondenominational “Bible church” (as if all churches aren’t Bible churches) in Texas who said that I am not a Christian, because Orthodox and Catholics are not Christian. I pointed out to him that Christianity did not begin with the Reformation, but then decided to block the guy on Twitter, because the last thing I wanted to do was get into an exchange with a guy like that.

An hour later, I was standing in our Orthodox vespers service, thinking about that guy and smiling. There we were, praying in a church that can trace itself in an unbroken line back to the apostles. We chanted Psalms and read passages aloud from the Old Testament. We sang hymns commemorating the Council of Nicaea (325), and its victory over the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus. As in every vespers service, we sang the hymn “O Joyful Light,” which is the oldest surviving hymn from antiquity, having been composed in the late third or early fourth century; tradition says it was written by a bishop on his way to martyrdom. He didn’t write it for a praise band.

And I thought about all the Christians of the Middle East being exiled and martyred today for their faith in Jesus Christ. These Christians are almost entirely Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic, or members of one of the Nestorian churches. Whatever their communion, their ancestors were worshiping Jesus Christ as God when the ancestors of nearly all of us northern Europeans were praying to pagan gods.

And yet, to this fundamentalist Protestant in Texas, these people are not Christian.

It’s such a risible position to hold that one can only smile at it. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly understand the reality of theological conflict, and actually admire people of whatever church who don’t elide real division for the sake of comity. Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox all have serious theological conflicts among us, conflicts that cannot be easily resolved, if they can be resolved at all. It’s important to acknowledge that fact.

But to hold a position that says, either explicitly or by implication, that Christianity cannot be said to have existed prior to the Reformation — or, as I have heard it said, to hold a theory that the real church somehow went underground after Constantine’s conversion, and only emerged at the Reformation — is bizarre. Many of the things modern Fundamentalists object to about Catholicism (and presumably Orthodoxy) were well established in the Church before Constantine’s conversion. For example, the early church had bishops and priests, and the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr in the year 107, had been appointed bishop by Peter himself.

For that matter, how does Mr. Bible Church think the Bible came into being? From the Church! There were no Protestants at any of those early church councils that defined dogmas and created the canon of Scripture, which was set firmly by the fifth century. Christians like him are heavily dependent on everything that came before them. Whatever else it is, that guy’s position is radically unconservative.

Don’t misunderstand: though I reject the Reformation, I recognize that there are good, and good faith, arguments to be made for why the radical ecclesiological development that the Reformation represents was God’s doing. But if I understand this correctly — and I may not, so I invite your correction — the Fundamentalists go even further than the leading Reformers, denying that there was any church at all from the Constantinian era until the Reformation. I looked up this pastor’s church, and judging from their statement of beliefs, they are classical Fundamentalists — but claim no affiliation with any historic Christian confession. The first thing on their Statement of Beliefs is that the Bible is the inerrant and final word of God, and it contains everything that man needs to be saved. Okay, but that is not what the early church believed, and could not possibly be, because they did not have a canon of Scriptures for centuries … and Scripture did not canonize itself. By whose authority was Scripture canonized?

Well, anyway, I have no interest in engaging in theological disputation here, and won’t. What prompts this post is my curiosity about this question: Does laying hold to a position so extreme and so ungrounded in history leave people like Mr. Bible Church vulnerable in other ways to the forces of modernity, which deny the authority of the past? That is, does the nature of their conservatism leave Christian fundamentalists particularly vulnerable to the cultural forces that are tearing Christianity apart in the West?

This reminds me of firebrand political conservatives who seem to think conservatism began with Ronald Reagan, and that before his appearance among us, there was a vast void between the age of the Founding Fathers, and Reagan’s coming. Their historical ignorance denies them deeper philosophical resources that they could rightly draw on to defend their position against contemporary challenges. All true conservatives — as opposed to ideologues — lay hold to continuity with the past, and the democracy of the dead.

Christians who refuse, even denigrate, the Church’s deep theological roots in history, strike me as holding a conservatism that is a hard outer shell. What happens when the experience of living in modernity, with its valorization of radical autonomy, erodes or pierces the armor? With their creedless, non-denominational, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to Christianity, they are sitting ducks. They deny themselves the wisdom and profundity of tradition, which would give them deep roots. Ironically, their approach to ecclesiology is itself part of modernity, the very thing they oppose so fiercely. Christian fundamentalism, especially in its nondenominational variety, is parasitic on older, more ancient forms of Christianity, in ways that its adherents don’t appreciate.

It’s like political conservatives who don’t grasp that conservatism is a far broader and deeper thing than Reaganism and post-Reaganism. Given Reagan’s celebration of the free market, they don’t know what to say when questions are raised about the market’s role in undermining traditions that conservatism has historically stood for upholding. So they double down on dogmatism and ideology, which, as time goes on, persuades or attracts fewer and fewer people.

This is going to happen to fundamentalist Christianity, I think. It is an unstable thing, and far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of time than its believers think. We can all look at liberal Protestantism and liberal Catholicism, and see how they are withering. Fundamentalism looks strong by contrast. I think this is deceptive.

And yet, it must be conceded that all that tradition, and all that doctrinal depth and comprehensiveness, is not producing Catholics who believe in what their own church teaches, as opposed to Fundamentalists and Evangelicals (which are not the same thing). This may be the same with Orthodox Christians too, but we are so few in the US that I honestly don’t know what things look like outside of my own individual experience. Poll numbers routinely show, though, little evidence that magisterial Catholicism has formed the worldviews and consciences of the Catholic laity, such that their views are distinctively different from the general populace. The Fundamentalists lack a lot of the things that liturgical Christians like me have, but we lack something they have: zeal.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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