Why Liberals Are Weak When Faced with Fundamentalism

News at Home

Mr. Simpson, Douglas P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Harvard University, is the author of Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and its Reformation Opponents (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Liberal intellectuals recoil from the obvious manifestations of scriptural fundamentalism, yet they continue to admire the very culture that produced it. The inheritors of the Enlightenment, they trace their own dissenting, intellectual ancestry from the very society that successfully promoted scriptural literalism and inerrancy. Liberals continue, that is, to accept the Whig interpretation of sixteenth-century Protestant reading: they continue to maintain that this was a grounding moment of the liberal tradition, when the ordinary reader could read the Bible for him or herself, when the individual gained freedom from the disciplines of an always oppressive institution. Liberals also routinely dismiss fundamentalism as an incomprehensible historical throwback. They present fundamentalism as the product of some weird historical warp that has thrown “conservative” reading practices into the realm of what should be a neat and tidy modernity, swept clean by the broom of the Enlightenment. 

All these persuasions need to be scrutinized. The liberal tradition needs to revise its genealogy from sixteenth-century Protestantism, and it needs to understand that scriptural literalism is not some ghastly “medieval” revenant. Its extraordinary contemporary vigor attests, on the contrary, to its status as a creature of modernity itself, an alternative to Enlightenment modernity. As we approach (as we enter, indeed) the second wave of fundamentalist reading in the West, not to speak of the Middle East, we should understand how the first wave produced a century and more of European violence, from 1517 to, say, 1648. We ignore understanding our religious history, and particularly the history of religious reading, at our own contemporary peril.

We should abandon simplistic, Whig accounts of sixteenth-century reformers, accounts that have received powerful restatement in recent English historiography. In particular we should abandon the following rock-hard persuasions of the liberal tradition: that Luther believed that readers should interpret the Bible freely, making up their own minds about the truth of Scripture; that Luther placed the liberating text of Scripture above the institution of the Church; and that Lutheran theology is more “democratic.”

Instead, we would be well advised to reread Luther and his vigorous English followers, especially William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536). There we discover that the Lutheran moment was the source of fundamentalism, and the source of different kinds of persecutory violence. Most obviously, Lutheran reading practice provoked violence against its stated enemies; more surprisingly, it also provoked psychological violence, paranoia and permanent schism within its own adherents. In many ways the Lutheran program turns out to produce a bad news Bible.

How? Luther detested what he called “private interpretation.” He promoted, instead, a movement that repudiated interpretation itself. A recurrent theme in Lutheran theology is that Scripture interprets itself. Scripture is not, and cannot be subject to the messy negotiations of history in which all other texts are immersed. It does its own interpreting (i.e. Scripture interprets itself, but my interpretation is right).

Neither did Luther place the text of Scripture above and before the Church, despite frequently proclaiming that he does exactly that. Instead, his position is that one has to be a member of the True Church, the Church of the Elect, before one can be a good reader (how else can we explain the fact that so many readers get what should be an entirely open and incontrovertible Scripture wrong?).

Neither are Luther and his followers democrats, by any stretch of the imagination. The “politics” of their theology is stridently absolutist, with God holding all the initiative and decision making, regardless of the worth of individual Christians, who are, in any case, radically incapable of exercising free will and free choice. How could Christians choose, abject and infected as they are by original sin? No, Christians could not be relied on to elect the boss (democracy); it was instead the boss who elected them (predestination).

Luther’s theology, then, posited an exclusivist and extraordinarily demanding institution (the invisible, True Church of the Elect) as the precondition of any “good” reading. This is where the individual reader’s grievous psychological stress emerges; it’s also whence the schismactic, even paranoid quality of evangelical experience derives.

For if one was saved only by God’s predestinarian grace, the difficulty lay in knowing whether or not one had been chosen. One couldn’t materially advance one’s chances, since the decision had been taken; all one could do was to search for signs of which way the decision had gone. Spiritual experience becomes less a matter of works in the world and more a matter of exhaustively scrutinizing the world, and the Bible, for signs of one’s own fate. The limpid, straightforward text of Scripture was surrounded and invaded, that is, by illegible signs and portents (have I been saved?). 

Spiritual experience becomes less a matter of slow accretions of virtuous action in the world, and more a matter of sudden, born-again conversions. The past is rejected and the Christian energized by the gratitude any newly elected member of an exclusive club feels.

Exclusivism based on literal understanding of the Bible itself produces, however, more exclusions. Literalism is both the child and the parent of distrust: the new born evangelical convert learns to distrust both his or her own persuasion of personal salvation (self-persuasion is the hardest psychological trick, after all). He or she will also distrust others who feel certain they are elected members of the True Church. Put two readers of any complex text together and you’ve got two differing interpretations. If those two readers can appeal only to the literal sense, then those two divergent evangelical interpretations inevitably lead to schism.

I am here describing sixteenth-century phenomena, without any necessary reference to contemporary evangelical and/or fundamentalist practices in the United States. Historically the Protestant tradition has much to be immensely proud of, but those achievements are, I suggest, born more from unpredictable historical paradoxes than directly from the sources of Protestant culture. And certainly the Christian Right in the United States, with its individualist, social-Darwinist economics, its idolatry (of the God Bless America kind), and its unshakeable sense of having been elected, conforms in many ways to the exclusivist, distrustful culture that took shape in the sixteenth century. It’s time that the liberal tradition confronted fundamentalists more directly, rather than just wishing they’d go away. For that confrontation to be successful, liberals need to rewrite the genealogy of their tradition.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jason Blake Keuter - 3/1/2008

This returns us to the central paradox of liberalism: it wasn't simply about liberty; its origins rest in the assumption that liberating man from the shackles of medievalism would produce a specific kind of society. In other words, liberty was the means to an end that all "truly" free people would naturally embrace. In the immediate historical exercise of that liberty, however, it was discovered that the values and beliefs of liberals were not necessarily those of the people they aimed to set free. It was at this point that the liberal patron, shepard was born. In other words, it was at this point that liberalism showed its reactionary side, and the liberal intellectual took over the role of the priest and cleric, directing and controlling ideas to assure that those ideas did not challenge the enlightenment vision of a perfect, harmonious society.

Liberalism thus unleashed forces that conservatives predicted it would : namely, disorder. But the fruits of liberalism are only disorder for those who value order. The conservatives obviously did. What is usually absent from any discussion of liberalism and its enlightenment era roots is that the liberals did too.

Thus liberals say they're for liberty, but, when they don't win, they proclaim that the liberty exercised by voters was tarnished by superstition or was a by product of sinister (i.e. popish now corporate but its all the same) manipulation by illiberal and reactionary bogeymen. In other words, human freedom must lead to some kind of predetermined result and when it doesn't it can't be called true liberty. Those who believe that the right to exercise liberty is the most precious end that can be attained and have the maturity to realize that no "total" victory is possible in any democratic and free society do not find much companionship among so-called liberals, who have been constantly trying to stuff the genie of free people back into the medieval bottle from which they were conjured by elitist, insular and foolish philosophes so many centuries ago.

Alonzo Hamby - 2/26/2008

No one can question that early Calvinism was authoritarian, but what of the implications of contract theory. Do we assume that Locke would have developed them as he did if Calvinism had not existed. That modern liberalism derived in substantial measure from Calvinist theory may be ironic, but nonetheless true.

Nigel Anthony Sellars - 2/25/2008

I think Prof. Simpson places too much blame on Luther. Much of his description of Lutheran theology is actually a much better description of Ulrich Zwingli and Jean Calvin's theology (esp. predestination.)

We must also remember that modern fundamentalism is a creature of the 19th century and of Romanticism as well. Premilennialists like John Nelson Darby and the Holiness and Pentecostal movements have their own twisted and tortured origins and theology that really owes little to Luther except the Reformation itself.

But Simpson is quite right to attribute the problem to that idea of literal interpretation and persecutory violence to the Reformation and to the "idea" of "personal interpretation."

A possibly apocryphal story attributed to George Bernard Shaw illustrates it well. When being told by two evangelical missionaries of their success in converting Africans and teaching them to read the Bible, Shaw asked the missionaries if the converts also knew how to use rifles. When the missionaries replied, yes, that the converts did, Shaw responded, "Then sirs, you have doomed us all."