Being a Protestant Fundamentalist
by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Sometimes, I think I may be the only leftist, Marxist, feminist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist in the United States who was raised as a Protestant Christian fundamentalist. I remained an evangelizing true believer of the Southern Baptist faith (the largest Christian denomination in the U.S.) in rural Oklahoma until I was 19 years old. My dream growing up was to be a missionary. Leftist accounts or opinions about such individuals and groups strike me as being correct in expressing alarm, but also based on acute ignorance combined with hatred for the lower classes, particularly poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South. Most such self-appointed "experts" steer away from dealing with Protestant fundamentalism among Latinos (the fastest growing market) and African Americans (a majority) and focus on poor whites, the only bigotry that is accepted by most of the left.
Although there are at least two high-profile WASP "born agains" from the blueblood Eastern ruling class -- George W. Bush and Pat Robertson -- they are atypical; most Protestant fundamentalists grow up in the poorer segment of the working class, often rural, as I did. The proto-fascist right wing (now mainstream ruling class) has been able to capture and promote for their own ends a mass movement that took off in the Reagan administration but had been brewing since the 1950s when Protestant fundamentalism and patriotism merged under the banner of anti-communism. Politicized fundamentalism was born in the vortex of Cold-War anti-communism and in opposition to school integration that followed the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954. It took three more decades for political fundamentalism to begin achieving national electoral hegemony, fired by a new cause, ostensibly women's right to have abortions that was legalized nationally with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. Ostensibly, because the right wing backlash was much larger than abortion and went to the heart of the ancient socio-political-cultural acceptance of patriarchy by both men and women, which, as a result of the mass women's movement in the preceding years, was shattered. Gay liberation picked up steam during the same period. Less than a decade later, the right wing brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency, although the anti-women's rights movement had scored victories under born-again Jimmy Carter's administration.
The right wing, hiding under the cover of anti-communism and coded white supremacy (crime, welfare, pre-marital pregnancy), continued under the guise of "protecting the family." But, behind those masks were and are interests that favor the military-industrial ruling class, which pushes for the end of social spending, leaving the state as a vehicle solely for the benefit of capitalism and the war machine. Everything is to be privatized, with the imagined nuclear family as the self-sustaining core of the social order.1
The Democratic Party appears incapable of challenging organized fundamentalism and the transformed Republican Party. Many liberals and a good number of leftists seek to restore the New-Deal-to-War-on-Poverty stance of government, but the policies of that era were driven by the organized working class in the first instance and the massive Civil Rights Movement in the second; those government policies were stopgaps to prevent the overthrow of capitalism. Now it is obvious that they did not go to the root causes of oppression and exploitation, and it is doubtful that the reform strategies of the past can be re-enacted today or in the future.
What concerns me is not so much that the ruling class has come to this strategy of populist fascism with politicized Christian fundamentalism as its mass base -- after all, capitalism is a corrupt and unworkable (for the many) system -- as that so many of those who are committed to social justice, even to a future socialist society, have written off the poor and the working class that they perceive to make up the "mass movement" of this project. Instead of working to unmask the agenda of the ruling class, many liberal and left activists are trying to figure out how to offer religion lite and avoid the issues of abortion, gay liberation, and other "social" issues. One thing I know about Protestant Christian fundamentalists from having been one, however, is that it cannot be substituted by "spirituality."
Christian fundamentalism/evangelism is a precariously balanced house of cards that dwells in the mind of an individual. Remove one card, and down it comes. It is a self-contained system that, once its belief system is accepted, no rational argument can penetrate the mind of the converted. The system rests on quite simple assumptions: you have heard the word of god personally calling you; you have been "born again" or "saved"; you recognize that Jesus is the true son of god who died for your sins; the Bible is literally the truth, the word of god. You do not have to be baptized to be a "born again," but it is recommended, and it must be immersion at an age of reasoning, not sprinkling babies (Catholic) or adults (Methodist, etc.). To be a member of a Southern Baptist church (or some other fundamentalist church), you must be baptized. When I was "saved" at age 13, I took the preacher literally when he said I didn't have to be baptized, and because I was asthmatic and terrified of being without breath, I said I would prefer not to be baptized. For two years, the preacher, his wife, my mother, the deacons, and nearly every member of the church visited me to try to talk to me about being baptized, and I finally caved. It was two years after all my age group had been baptized, and embarrassing, also terrifying. Nor are preachers necessary, theoretically. The "saved" are said to have a "personal relationship with Christ" and can interpret the Bible for themselves without interlopers. But why would anyone choose to do that when the preachers and revivals are so exciting? And in rural areas and small towns, colorful fundamentalist preachers are the best shows around.
When I hear Jim Wallis (God's Peoples) call himself an evangelical, I have to laugh. I know what he means: Christianity inherently is evangelical, but he is no fundamentalist. Wallis tries to convince his ignorant, liberal, secular audience that his kind of "evangelism" can challenge the "bad" kind. Not a chance. I wish it were so. I tried to make the transfer when I was nineteen years old. I fell in love with a fellow Oklahoman my age who was an atheist. Fortunately, for me, he did everything he could to free me of my fundamentalism, which took about six months. It was like what I have read about cult de-programming. He had read the Bible (he was raised Christian in a liberal family) and could argue me down mostly using arguments from science, particularly evolution and astronomy. Scientific knowledge became more majestic to me than the Book of Revelation and the Rapture. It is no wonder that fundamentalists insist on getting evolution out of the schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that forty percent of biology teachers in the public schools avoid teaching evolution, not all because of their beliefs, rather to avoid harassment from fundamentalist groups and parents.
I didn't immediately become an atheist, however; I still believed in a human-like creator god. I joined the Presbyterian church and was married in that church. The services were so boring and reserved that I left it after a year, and tried the Lutheran church, a small congregation in Oklahoma City that had services in German. I loved the Martin Luther hymns in German, which -- in English -- were also favorites in the Baptist church, but I was the only attendee under sixty years old. Then, my husband and I moved to San Francisco, and I enrolled at San Francisco State College, where I joined the Unitarian Church. There was no talk of Christ or God, but I found it boring. I had the good fortune to take a historical geology course from an evangelical atheist, who convinced me that a creator god was something I no longer believed in. Then, I found Marxism in my second year at San Francisco State -- at last, a set of fundamental beliefs I could be inspired by and excited about. Nothing less than an equally fiery passion can replace fundamentalism in the mind of one touched by its flames.
1 However, it's important to acknowledge that war, phrased as national defense (we are surrounded by enemies), has been a means for the ruling classes to solidify national unity and consensus since the founding of the United States, even during the New Deal era and its aftermath into the 1960s. Since the defeat in Vietnam, that has not been as easy.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a long-time activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (forthcoming October 2005 from South End Press) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.