Fundamentalists and Liberals: What’s The Difference?

23 Mar

American Fundamentalists and Liberals


It’s an all-too easy label to slap on somebody: “You’re a liberal!” or, “You’re a fundamentalist!” But what do those labels actually mean, and what are the implications of calling someone a liberal or a fundamentalist? The most obvious answer is that it pigeonholes people into convenient boxes. Just recently, I’ve been called a “liberal” because I dared to make some critical comments about Donald Trump; I’ve been called a “liberal” because I dared to question some aspects of the traditional church. But I don’t consider myself a liberal, or a fundamentalist, at all. However, it’s an easy label to put on someone in order to satisfy yourself that you’ve indeed “put them in their place, and told them a thing or two!”

I could cite a whole series of popular conceptions of the two sides. For example: on the one hand, a liberal is one who is some sort of “left-leaning person,” whether politically or theologically. Liberals tend to be more open and tolerant of alternative lifestyles also. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, are more “right-leaning,” both politically and theologically, and would tend to be less tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Liberals vote generally vote Democrat; fundamentalists vote Republican. Biblically, liberals tend to question the historicity of the Scriptures, the miracles of Jesus, and emphasize the human nature of the written text, which could explain apparent mistakes or contradictions. Conversely, fundamentalists tend to emphasize the divine nature of the writing of the Bible, inspiration and inerrancy, and oftentimes hold to a more literal hermeneutic: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And the comparisons could go on.

But where do these (oftentimes) sharp divisions come from? When exactly did the liberal and the fundamentalist movements arise, and what is the legacy of both traditions today?

In these series of articles, I’ll explore not just the historical background that gave rise to the liberal and fundamentalist movements, but also begin to explore the Christian right and its heavy involvement in–and influence of–American politics.

Historical Context of Fundamentalism and Liberalism

Despite their denominational differences (whether liberal or conservative), in the early nineteenth century, American preachers from both Presbyterian and Congregationalist congregations alike shared similar optimistic views of the future for the nation. The pervasiveness for evangelicalism at the time emphasized the notion that a person would get saved by means typically of a conversion experience. Such conversions, in those days, would have most likely occurred at a revival meeting. This revivalist movement, “together with a common set of symbols and language, shifted religious identity away from denominational identification and toward a looser self-consciousness that adopted the phrase ‘Born-again Christian’ as its characteristic moniker.”[1]

Church leadership, right across the denominational spectrum, generally agreed that the purpose of American democracy had but one aim: to build a new social order. This new social order in America would be characterized by such high ideals as freedom from slavery, and the end to political tyranny, ignorance and poverty.[2] Church leaders believed that denominations, by joining forces together evangelistically, could accomplish wonderful things for the nation. Their goal was ideally to achieve the moral reformation of American society, elevate its religious life and bring about  “their vision of America as a redeemer nation that would live up to its potential and embody its best principles.”[3]

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, American scholars and clergy alike increasingly began to wrestle with the issue of acceptable levels of compatibility between Enlightenment scientism and mainline Christianity.[4] It also became clear that there were significant areas of disagreement on both sides of the fence theologically regarding both the nature of conversion, and the nature of the church. These growing disagreements, maintains Old, “could not help but shape their various approaches to revival and to the reform of the Christian life and society as a whole.”[5] By the early part of the twentieth century, the advent of social, intellectual, religious and political crises, combined with the impact of biblical higher criticism, made it increasingly apparent there were two radically differing responses to this issue: the modernists and the fundamentalists.[6]

Ironically, initially both modernists and fundamentalists agreed as to the nature of the problem; the issue revolved around what the appropriate response should be. According to the great liberal American preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1922, in his famous article “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” the problem was this: whether or not Christians were able “to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another.”[7]

In 1923, conservative scholar J. Gresham Machen agreed that the church faced a major dilemma when he asked: “What is the relation between Christianity and modern culture; may Christianity be maintained in a scientific age?”[8]

The difference between the modernists and the fundamentalists lay in both the interpretation and the application of that pressing problem. Whereas on the one hand, liberal modernists attempted to synthesize their faith with modern critical approaches, fundamentalists on the other hand took the opposite approach. They sought to defend the Bible and what they defined as the historic orthodoxy of the church. Liberal modernists saw themselves as “inclusivists,” as they attempted to incorporate the findings of science and modern biblical criticism into their faith. Conservative fundamentalists defined themselves as “exclusivists” in the fight against what they believed to be an ever-encroaching and evil influence of liberalism and liberal theology.[9]  These opposite approaches led to the famous (or perhaps infamous) fundamentalist-modernist debates, which “erupted in the aftermath of World War I and finally sputtered out in the late 1930s.”[10]

Liberal Modernists

Liberal Protestants, termed “modernists” by their detractors, “were concerned to present Christianity in a positive light to their contemporaries.”[11] Liberals viewed themselves as “progressive Christians,” and believed that it was indeed possible to meld Christianity with the findings of modern science. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famous liberal preacher, believed that the fundamentalists were drawing lines of exclusion rather than trying to be inclusive. He maintained in this regard that:

Whenever such a situation has arisen, there has been only one way out—the new knowledge and the old faith had to be blended in a new combination. Now, the people in this generation who are trying to do this are the liberals, and the Fundamentalists are out on a campaign to shut against them the doors of the Christian fellowship.[12]

Liberal scholars, while denying Scripture on an historical level, at the same time sought to affirm what they believed to be the true ethical teachings of the historical Jesus on an essential level. This hermeneutic led to the so-called “social gospel,” which liberals hoped would establish the kingdom of God not only through individual conversions, but additionally “through policies carried out by a variety of large-scale institutions such as government, universities, and philanthropic agencies.” [13]

One of the most famous liberal Christians who is credited with bringing the notion of the social gospel to the forefront was pastor and scholar Walter Rauschenbusch. His 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis, was a bestseller. Rauschenbusch bluntly stated in his work:

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.

On the basis of the social gospel, which liberals saw as consistent with the example modeled by the historical Jesus, modernists hoped both to construct and sustain a “Christian civilization.” Moreover, liberals questioned many of the doctrinal beliefs held by the fundamentalists, which they perceived to be intolerant, narrow, militant and dogmatic. They probed the historicity (and legitimacy, as they saw it) of cardinal doctrines held by the fundamentalists such as: Christ’s virgin birth, the mechanical dictation model of infallible scriptural inspiration, and the literal return of Christ to earth to establish his 1,000-year kingdom.[14]

Liberals, by contrast, viewed the gospels (as well as the rest of Scripture) as not necessarily historically accurate, and questioned many of the miraculous events written about Jesus as to whether or not they were legitimate, largely on scientific grounds. Although they may not have believed in the “Jesus of the Gospels” per se, what they took away from the Gospels was the faith of the disciples, who did believe in him, and that was the most important element to retain. Jesus, in many ways, became more of a religious teacher, but his divinity and miracles were questioned. This obviously alarmed the fundamentalists, who felt that the liberals were abandoning historic Christianity in order to reconcile their faith–and the Bible–with the findings of modern science and biblical historical criticism, which tended to originate from liberal German biblical scholars and theologians. Bultmann, for example, sought to “de-mythologize” the Bible, and this type of thinking seriously worried and upset many conservatives.

Conservative Fundamentalists

On the opposite side of the debate were the fundamentalists, who viewed themselves as the sole defenders of the Bible against the attacks of its detractors, the liberals. These exclusivists held that even when the Bible appeared to conflict with modern science, the gospel of personal salvation was still clear—and that was all that was deemed necessary.[15] Fundamentalists sought to uphold certain core doctrinal beliefs they believed essential to preserving historic Christianity, and were concerned the liberals were abandoning. These included such tenets as the miracles in Scripture, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the virgin birth of Christ, biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the substitionary atonement of Christ, and the second coming of Christ to set up a literal millennial kingdom on Earth. These core doctrines, they maintained, were the “fundamentals” of the faith–and thus the name “fundamentalist” was born.

Fundamentalist Scholar J. Gresham Machen

Moreover, fundamentalists censured liberals for what they saw as total abandonment of orthodox Christianity. Machen would even go so far as to charge that liberalism “is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.”[16] In 1910, five hundred conservative ministers and church leaders signed a fighting manifesto, ‘Back to the Fundamentals,’” while journals such as The Presbyterian and The Herald and Presbyter launched conservative crusades against theological liberals.[17]

Rather than preaching a liberal social gospel, fundamentalists preferred large-scale Bible revivals while staunchly defending from pulpits the two hallmark fundamentalist doctrines: creationism and dispensationalism.[18] The fundamentalists argued that liberal modernism and evolution together had undermined the biblical foundations on which they believed American society had been built. In its public attempts to purge the church of modernism and the schools of Darwinism, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the movement became characterized as separatist, militant, anti-scientific and anti-intellectual.[19]

The infamous “Scopes monkey trial” in 1925, in which a Tennessee high school teacher named John Scopes had dared to teach evolution in a public school, brought the issue between creationism and evolution to the public sector. The resulting trial, following Scopes’ arrest for a violation of what at that time was the state law, led to fundamentalist  prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan being made a fool of. When the lawyer for the defense, Clarence Darrow, subjected his apparently outdated views of the Bible to a withering–and public–critique, fundamentalism seemed all but dead and buried. Although Bryan technically won the case, he and his fellow fundamentalists were disgraced, and appeared to be out of touch with the times.

President Reagan speaking at an NEA Convention

By the 1930s, however, fundamentalists began a movement to engage in more positive evangelistic movements, which were done in an effort to change this largely negative and separatist image. The “neo-evangelicals” of the 1940s established organizations such as Youth for Christ, and the National Association of Evangelicals. By the 1950s, the emerging movement began referring to themselves as “evangelicals” in distinction to those fundamentalists demanding ecclesiastical separatism.[20]

By the 1960s, the evangelical movement took on different emphases, one of which was the charismatic movement, with its focus on the experiential and therapeutic elements of Christianity, combined with a sense of closeness to Jesus through the indwelling Spirit.[21] As an evangelical movement combining charismatic experiential Christianity together with a conservative view of Scripture, the Calvary Chapel movement struck a chord with many disaffected youth from the counterculture 1960s generation. Pastor Chuck Smith took the gospel to the surfers, hippies and rock musicians who hung out on the beaches of Southern California, and thus a movement was birthed–which incidentally, gave rise to the “Christian rock” music industry, contemporary worship styles, and informal dress in church services, among others.


The liberal inclusivist view, which attempted to reconcile Christianity with modern science, ultimately permeated both Sunday school lessons and the American educational system by the 1950s. Many of those constituting the 1960s “counterculture” generation were those raised within this religious and educational context, and would later reject many of its inherent values and perceived shortcomings. Out of this sense of disillusionment with the liberalism of their parents, many ironically began to move toward conservatism.

Many of that generation, who were raised and educated in an environment shaped by reactions to Enlightenment modernism, would ultimately radically reject many of the values of the mainstream culture with its associated characteristics. These values included liberal theology, militant fundamentalism, scientism, intellectualism and affluence.

While the 1960s generation did not entirely reject the values of the “golden rule” ideal and personal freedom, they rejected what they perceived as conformism, hypocrisy and intolerance within older generations.[22] As the counterculture movement gained momentum, American society in the 1960s underwent a period of major cultural disruption. Evidence of this upheaval included the civil rights movement in the South, the murder of Martin Luther King, anti-Vietnam War protests, psychedelic drug experimentation, the sexual revolution, and “acid rock” music. In their rejection of mainstream values with the empty materialism, affluence and pragmatic materialism of their parents, the counterculture generation embarked on a spiritual quest—and ultimately gained a new identity.[23] By “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out,” many within an entire generation rejected mainstream societal values in their efforts to find a new and better way.

Often, it is pointed out today that the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s was the first noticeable emergence of what is termed the “postmodern worldview.” It is interesting to note that even though postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define, or pin down exactly, its roots come from a reaction against the perceived shortcomings or abuses of the modernist, Enlightenment worldview itself. And yet, ironically perhaps, the liberal-fundamentalist debates of the 19th-mid 20th century were themselves a product of the Enlightenment, and impacted upon an entire society.

It is interesting to note, then, that whichever side one landed upon during this period–whether liberal or fundamentalist–depended largely on one major issue: whether or not one was able to reconcile one’s faith with the findings of modern science and biblical criticism. It was precisely the two polar-opposite reactions to the issues that gave rise to such a sharp division, and the echoes of those battles, fought decades ago, still resonate with us today.

Read the second article in this series, “Exploring the Origins of the Christian Right.”


[1] Conser, Walter H. Jr., and Robert J. Cain. Presbyterians in North Carolina: Race, Politics and Religious Identity in Historical Perspective. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012: 21.

[2] Old, Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures Vol 6, 445.

[3] Conser and Cain, Presbyterians in North Carolina, 21.

[4] Shires notes that the American post-war formula for success built on “technocracy”: the efficient and productive use of technologies. Technocracy itself drew upon “scientism,” which was rooted within the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment worldview. By its very nature materialistic, technocratic science “did not dabble in the supernatural or pause over spiritual or moral questions but kept focused on measurable sensorial phenomena.” Based upon the Enlightenment belief that the methods and assumptions of the scientific method could be applied to all disciplines, scholars held that all phenomena—including the alleged miracles of Scripture and the supernatural—should be reduced to natural explanations (Hippies of the Religious Right, 21).

[5] Old, Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures Vol 6, 447.

[6] Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick, 125.

[7] Fosdick, Harry Emerson. “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Christian Work 102 (June 10, 1922) 716.

[8] Machen, J. Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism (New Edition). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, 5.

[9] Miller, Harry Emerson Fosdick, 125.

[10] Harper, George W. “It is a Battle-Royal: A.Z. Conrad’s Preaching at Boston’s Park Street Baptist Church, During the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.” Fides et Historia 45:1 (Winter/Spring 2013), 37.

[11] Worral, The Making of the Modern Church, 117. The foundational tenets of inclusivists were an underlying rationalism, an optimistic view of human progress, a high view of the moral perfectibility of humanity, a desire to separate the “husk” from the “kernel” of Christianity; that is, the teachings of Jesus as opposed to those about him. Finally, they believed in the use of historical-critical methods to strip away the dogmatic accretions overlaying the historical Jesus

[12] Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” 717.

[13] Hart, “When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist?” 618.

[14] Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” 718-719.

[15] Old, Teading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 448.

[16] Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 6.

[17] Miller, Robert M. Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet. Cary, USA: Oxford University Press, 1985: 113.

[18] Hart, “When is a Fundamentalist a Modernist?” 613.

[19] Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 3-8.

[20] Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism, 69-69, 73.

[21] Ibid., 77-78.

[22] Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, 21.

[23] McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 242; Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, 20.

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