Fundamentalism and American Culture, by George M. Marsden (Oxford). Although de Tocqueville (yes, him again) recognized that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” evangelical Protestantism—America’s quintessential religious expression—has traditionally been relegated to the backwaters of American historical and literary studies. But over the last four decades, a number of the most innovative works of American history—including John Boles’s Great Revival; Rhys Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790; William McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform; Nathan O. Hatch’s Democratization of American Christianity; Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith; Mark Noll’s America’s God; and David L. Chappell’s Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow—have brought evangelicalism to the center in the study of our cultural and political life.
In many ways the most influential such work is this book, first published in 1980 but now reissued with a lengthy new chapter. Marsden elegantly synthesizes theological, social, cultural, and intellectual history to elucidate the roots and development of Christian fundamentalism—a movement, contrary to the stereotype, that is largely northern in its origins and that Marsden, with characteristic concision, defines as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism”—from the last quarter of the nineteenth century through the 1920s. An almost impossibly rich work, it explicates a host of thorny theological, philosophical, and epistemological controversies and positions (Marsden, for instance, insightfully draws the connection between, on the one hand, the intellectual appeal of dispensational premillennialism and the opposition to Darwinism and, on the other, the peculiarly American “non-developmental” understanding of history). Primarily, though, it reveals fundamentalism’s central cultural contradictions: its sense of custodial responsibility for the United States as a “Christian nation” (a sense that grew out of a broader evangelical heritage that embraced such evangelical reformers as the abolitionists) together with its conviction that the “end times” are close at hand (a belief that militates against any political involvement) and its intensely separatist impulse to (as Romans 12:2 would have it) “be not conformed to this world” (Marsden shows how fundamentalists were a truly countercultural force in an America that was increasingly embracing self-fulfillment and the consumerist ethos). This is the one book every American who wants to understand fundamentalism should read. It’s also among the best assessments of the cultural transformations that convulsed America from the late nineteenth century to the years immediately following the First World War (transformations this country is still assimilating) and, in its masterly new chapter, of the peculiar and far-from-inevitable political turn that fundamentalism has taken since the 1970s.
And while you’re at it, read what is essentially this book’s sequel: Joel A. Carpenter’s almost equally masterly Revive Us Again (published in 1998), which chronicles fundamentalism’s “lost years”—the period from its nadir following the Scopes trial, in 1925, when it seemed to have lost all influence and prestige in the culture at large, to 1949, when, after Billy Graham’s triumphant Los Angeles revival, it was poised to transform the religious landscape of postwar America. Following Marsden, Carpenter incisively reveals the contradiction posed when fundamentalism—a movement that was at once anti-modernist and populist—eagerly, subtly, and brilliantly assimilated the latest promotional techniques of mass communication and the style and idiom of popular entertainment to propagate the old-time religion.