Friday, May 13, 2011

Fundamentalism and Intolerance

Today I stumbled upon Andrew Himes, as well a relative of his, Stephen Lamb. The reason I found them of interest is that both are descendants of fundamentalist power-house John R. Rice, whose publication The Sword of the Lord, was a major voice for fundamentalist intolerance in the United States. To get the relationships clear: Stephen is the great-grandson of Rice, Himes is the grandson of Rice, and uncle to Lamb.)

Above Himes talks about how black children were treated in his school in Tennessee. It is god-awful to listen to the description and I fear, had I been there, that I would have broken down emotionally as he did. It is shameful. But this is par for the course in the fundamentalist South.

Many people simply don't understand the origins of the "Christian school" movement in America. They think the inspiration was godlessness in government schools. Such secularism was a factor, but it was a minor factor. The real inspiration for the Christian schools movement in the United States was racism. Most these schools cropped up in the American South as a means to avoid having to send white children to school where black children would be allowed to attend.

I was in a fundamentalist Baptist high school. And the principal of the school was one of the main, behind-the-scenes figures in the birth of the Religious Right. He was a major force pushing fundamentalist churches to start their own schools. I sat in classes that he taught and listened to him spout racist garbage about why whites and blacks could not attend school together. His argument was that only white people were capable of critical thinking (odd from a fundamentalist) and that blacks could only learn by rote memorization. Since the two races have to be taught so differently they shouldn't be schooled together. And, our high school followed that policy. No black students were allowed in the high school while I was there.

Every day we were required to attend a chapel period with a different individual preaching. This was rather extensive brain-washing actually. Consider that in addition to five daily sermons we also had to attend church on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night. That is 8 sermons per week. On top of that Friday nights were reserved to attend "youth" meetings at church and Saturdays were given over to door-to-door proselytizing. The idea was to create a "hot house" that would insulate us from any ideas contrary to the authoritarian world-view of fundamentalism.

It didn't work for me. Nor did it work for Himes and Lamb. The reason I found their comments so interesting is because John R. Rice was a regular preacher during high school chapels and then again when I was in college at a fundamentalist seminary. Lamb says his great-grandfather died one month before he was born. So, unlike him, I actually met his great-grandfather on several occasions.

One of the odd rituals in fundamentalist circles was to have these "great preachers" actually sign the inside of your Bible, as if they were the true authors. In many ways there are the true authors since they are the ones who tell the faithful what the Bible "really" means. And their interpretations can be unique.

Unfortunately, more often than not, fundamentalism has been consistently on the wrong side of morality when it comes to issues of individual justice and human rights. Contrary to revisionist history fundamentalists were primarily defending slavery while Abolitionists were more likely to be Quakers or even deists. The largest fundamentalist sect in existence today, the Southern Baptists, is the result of a split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. Fundamentalists helped fuel the Ku Klux Klan, with many a Klan "chaplain" being a local fundamentalist minister.

When it came to woman's suffrage fundamentalists tended to be against the idea of women voting or even having equal rights. Women were seen as the extension of their husbands, and under the control of their husbands, the way "God intended." Some fundamentalist sects, mainly Pentecostals, would allow women to preach, but they were still considered subservient to their husbands.

When the civil rights movement advocated for the equal rights of African Americans, fundamentalists routinely opposed the idea. Individuals like Jerry Falwell, who preached the funeral sermon for Rice, went so far as to say that the idea of equal rights was communist in nature.

Of course, today's great struggle for the extension of rights and liberty is the battle over the legal status of gay and lesbian Americans. And, keeping with their previous stands, American fundamentalists are once again on the wrong side of the issue. But this is the nature of fundamentalism, being it Christian, Muslim or whatever. I dare say there are even libertarian fundamentalists who are just as intolerant, narrow-minded, and blinded to facts contrary to their own conclusions.

One simply can not understand the course and future of American politics without understanding fundamentalism. So I look forward to reading a new book by Himes, The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family, which is the account of John R. Rice and his relatives.

Below is another video story by Himes in which he talks about the day a black man, with three white friends, came to church. It illustrates the bigotry and intolerance that I believe is inherently a part of fundamentalism.

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