Monday, May 17, 2010

Decline and Fall of Fundamentalism (at Least in the Suburbs of America)

Karen Armstrong defines religious fundamentalism thusly:
Religious fundamentalism represents a widespread rebellion against the hegemony of secularist modernity. Wherever a modern, Western-style society has been established, a religious counterculture has developed alongside it in conscious rebellion. Despite the arguments of politicians and intellectuals, people all over the world have demonstrated that they want to see more religion in public life. The various fundamentalist ideologies show a worrying disenchantment with modernity and globalization. Indeed, every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. All are convinced that the modern, liberal, secular establishment wants to wipe out religion. Each fundamentalist group has sprung up independently; each even differs significantly from other fundamentalists within their own faith tradition. But at the root of all these movements is the same visceral dread that is rapidly being transformed in some quarters into ungovernable rage. This should not surprise us; culture is always contested, and the proud secularism of Western modernity was almost bound to inspire a strong religions reaction.1

Given Armstrong’s definition, the casual reader may be surprised to learn that Harvey Cox believes fundamentalism is in decline. Modern, liberal, and secular influences are not on the wane. Why then would a religious reaction to such influences be in decline? What follows is a reflection on that question.

While Professor Cox speaks of a global decline of fundamentalism across faith traditions, this paper narrowly focuses on Christian fundamentalism in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The following will demonstrate a correlation between the growth of suburbia in America and the growth of Christian fundamentalism in America and the reasonableness of predicting a decline in Christian fundamentalism in America in the near future.

A Comfortable Spot in the Suburbs

Certain strands of fundamentalism in late twentieth century America are connected with suburbia. Suburban self-identified fundamentalist congregations (faith communities) are overwhelmingly inhabited by suburbanites of two types: “white flight” suburbanites and “urban migration” suburbanites.2 The former have left the city for the suburbs because they have become disenchanted with modern urban living and retain some animosity toward both the urban center of cities and modernity in general. The later have left the farm and a life in rural American for a new life in the suburbs with all the possibilities and challenges the move offers. Together, these two groups of first generation suburbanites form the core of many fundamentalist congregations.

Nancy Tatom Ammerman, a sociologist, in her book Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World analyzes a fundamentalist congregation describing it as occupying “a comfortable spot in the suburbs.3 In her research, Ammerman finds that where people grew up and whether they had moved later to a different sort of place made a difference in their religious beliefs.4 Those who grew up in the suburbs or small cities were more likely to adopt a non-fundamentalist brand of Christianity.5 Those who grew up on farms, however, were least likely to locate on the left of center.6 Further, she found that those who had grown up on the farm, but moved to the suburbs as adults, were, as a group, the most likely to self-identify as “fundamentalists.”7 Those who grew up on the farm and continued to live in rural areas were not as likely to describe themselves as fundamentalists. She posits that those who have moved from farm to suburb identify “with a movement that has historically sought to preserve threatened values.”8 Ammerman’s sociological research points to a reality the historian George Marsden has noted as well. Marsden quipped: “An evangelical is someone who loves Billy Graham. A Fundamentalist is someone who loves Billy Graham and wants to fight about it.”9 Those who stayed on the farm, while equally as religiously conservative as their suburban cousins, don’t have a need to fight about it.

The second group that Ammerman found most likely to identify with fundamentalism was the group that grew up in urban centers, and chose as adults to move to the suburbs.10 Ammerman argues that the appeal of fundamentalism as a religious ideology was greatest for those who felt the greatest disruption from the effects of the suburbanization of America.11 She describes them as “those who moved from farm to city and those who fled big cities.”12 Thus, those most likely to identify themselves as “fundamentalists” (at least among Baptists) were those who were part of the twentieth century’s urbanization of America (farm to city) and those who were part of the twentieth century’s “white flight” (urban center to suburban living). With regard to the suburbs, Ammerman writes: “If fundamentalism can be defined as a movement in organized opposition to the disruption of a previously accepted orthodoxy, then we would expect to find it thriving in just such places.”13 On this point, she writes

Indeed religion’s very character is different when it must face a changing environment. In a relatively undisturbed setting, religious practices are tightly interwoven into the fabric of life. One learns prescribed rituals as part of an array of necessary knowledge for membership in the group. Beliefs about the deity or sacred scripture are appropriated alongside beliefs about planting and harvesting, birthing and burying. While culture is undisturbed by outside intruders, by changes in technology or climate, these everyday ways of being and believing remain central to the group’s way of life. But when change occurs, everyday patterns of life are thrown into disarray, and the links between beliefs and practices are disrupted. Things that used to work do not work anymore. Ways of making a living, relating to neighbors, and even relating to God, are made uncertain by the dislocation of the cultural system. What used to come naturally no longer seems plausible. What used to be possible by habit must now be thought about, reevaluated, rationalized, perhaps even given a new sacred meaning. People have to think about why they do what they do, as well as whether they want to do it at all. Both patterns of living and the ideas that legitimate those patterns are “up for grabs” in times of cultural disruption and transition.14

The American Dream

Sociologically and demographically the post-World War II growth of suburbia in America has been well documented.15 The growth of the suburbs was driven by two migrations: urban center to suburbs and rural to suburban. As for the later, the population of the United States grew increasingly metropolitan from 1910 to 2000.16 In 1910, 28% of the population lived in urban areas. By 2000 80% of the population would live in metropolitan areas. Most of the growth in metropolitan areas was suburban growth. Half of the population of the United States would live in suburbia by the close of the century.17

“Metropolitanization” characterized much of the demographic change in America in the 20th century. Before the second World War, the majority of the population lived in rural areas. By the end of the century, 4 out of every 5 people would live in metropolitan areas (and half of these would live in suburbia).18 The growth was essentially the growth of the suburban population. By the year 2000, the urban core would represent a smaller share of the population than it did at mid-century.19

In 1910, only 21% of the population of the United States lived in central cities (the urban core) and only 7% lived in the suburbs.20 As the metropolitan areas in America grew, the suburbs grew disproportionately. Beginning in 1940, the suburbs would account for the majority of the growth of metropolitan areas. Post-World War II there was a massive migration of people into new suburbs. By 1960, the proportion of the U. S. population living in the suburbs (31%) was roughly equal to that of the urban core (32%).21 For the remainder of the century the proportion of the population living in the urban core would be stable, but the suburbs would continue to grow substantially.22

The reasons for this growth was multifaceted, but included the social legacy of the Great Depression, the end of the war, the return of the soldiers to the U. S., those former soldiers beginning families, the consequent “baby boom,” the “G. I. Bill,” government backed loans for first time home buyers, and the availability of relatively cheap automobiles and cheap gas to run them.23 The chart below, from the U. S. Census Bureau, tells the story.

Before Crabgrass was a Concern

At the same time the suburbs were growing, fundamentalism was growing. Fundamentalism, however, was not born in the suburbs. Fundamentalism’s origin was among evangelical Christians in the early twentieth century and predates the emergence of suburbia. The “gilded age” was seen by many (not just those who would become fundamentalists) as a turning away from God.24 In his Preface to Morals, Walter Lippmann (no fundamentalist) complained of the “irreligion of the modern world.”25 Thus, the 1920s were for many a time of profound spiritual and cultural crisis. Fundamentalists believed “modernity” and the theory of evolution had brought about this social and cultural catastrophe.26 Fundamentalism was a militantly anti-modernist movement. Of this movement, George Marsden writes: “Fundamentalism was a loose, diverse, and changing federation of co-belligerents united by their fierce opposition to modernist attempts to bring Christianity into line with modern thought.27 Fundamentalism’s campaign was to purge the congregations of modernism and schools of Darwinism.

Before World War I the fundamentalist movement was quiescent. After the war, fundamentalism emerged as a cultural force. The disruption caused by the returning of soldiers from war, labor disputes, and terrorist bombings engendered panic and alarm. Further, there was (as intimated above) concern and angst over rapidly deteriorating moral standards.28 Finally, the threat of “Bolshevism” weighed heavily upon the American psyche.29 This sense of disruption, though temporary for most Americans, was only the beginning for Fundamentalists.30 From 1920 to 1925 fundamentalism flourished and maintained impressive vitality. The “Scopes Trial” of 1925, however, would mark the end of this phase in the history of American fundamentalism. The trial, with the public scrutiny that accompanied the trial, drained fundamentalism of its vitality. Fundamentalism moved into the shadows and out of the lime light.

Revive Us Again

After 1925 and into the 1930s, fundamentalism “moved underground,” building schools, colleges, seminaries and missionary agencies.31 Of this period, Karen Armstrong says “There were ‘two nations’ in America, unable to share each other’s vision of the modern world.”32 She labels this period of fundamentalism’s history in America as a time of “counterculture.” Whether “underground” or forming a “counterculture,” fundamentalism was to reemerge from the shadows.

Armstrong terms the period of reemergence as “mobilization.” Of fundamentalism, she writes: “They had often experienced modernity as an aggressive onslaught.”33 But, they were beginning to mobilize. And, their ranks were increasing. The growth was internally attributed to “God’s blessing” upon the movement. Sociologically, however, the growth was due to the increasing number of persons who were experiencing the secularization and rationalism of modern urban societies as disruption. By the 1960s many evangelicals, with “roots” in rural America, found themselves in metropolitan settings (most often suburbia) and they were “angry and were determined to fight the liberals and secularists who had, they believed, oppressed and marginalized them.”34

Mass media played a role in the development of late twentieth century fundamentalism. Pat Robertson established his “Christian Broadcasting Network.” Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and a host of lesser known “TV evangelists” began disseminating their beliefs via modern mass media. There is a certain amount of epistemic tension created by using modern mass media to combat “modernity.” Nevertheless, the growth was spectacular. During the 1980 presidential election, Pat Robertson declared: “We have enough votes to run this country!”35

The Southern Baptist Convention, while not monolithically fundamentalist, is nonetheless a good barometer of the growth of fundamentalism in the twentieth century.36 In 1931, the Southern Baptist Convention reported 3.9 million members. By 1986 that number had grown to 14.6 million.37 In 1926, 92% of Southern Baptist congregations were located in rural areas and 72% of members lived in rural areas. By 1981, only 50.1% of Southern Baptist congregations were located in rural areas and only 25.3% of members lived in rural areas.38 The decline of Southern Baptists rural base entailed the spectacular growth of their suburban congregations. Sociologist Nancy Ammerman summarizes this phenomena “The typical Southern Baptist church had moved to the suburbs.”39

As has been shown, the growth of suburbia and the growth of fundamentalism is positively correlated. If suburbia is one place where socially conservative persons meet modernity and experience the disruption of previously conceived norms, and fundamentalism is birthed in such places of disruption, then it is not surprising to find the two conjoined in this way.
Prospects: the Decline and Fall

Professor Harvey Cox, in an article for the Boston Globe, says “for all its apparent strength, the fundamentalist sun is setting on all horizons.”40 He continues, “a tectonic shift in religion is underway, and the fundamentalist moment is ending.” In his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, Cox argues that the “age of belief” is being supplanted by an “age of the spirit.” When pondering the future, Cox posits that “fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying.”41 There are sociological and demographic reasons to believe he is correct, at least about Christian fundamentalism in America.

The future for suburbia will be different from the past. Jonathan Weber, writing for MSNBC, has noted “Most demographic and market indicators suggest that growth and development across the country are moving away from the suburban and exurban fringe and toward center-cities and close-in suburbs.”42 With regard to population growth, the 1990s were the best years for central cities since the 1950s.43 For the concerns of this paper, however, the most important piece of data is the slowing of rural to urban migration. While the suburbs will continue to grow, the growth will be fueled by births and immigration from abroad (or recent immigrants from abroad moving from central cities to the suburbs), not rural to urban migration. The suburbs will, therefore, take on a different persona in the future. The first suburbs are now aging and need renewal. Such renewal is apt to be provided by recent immigrants from abroad.44 Agriculture being industrialized, the main force driving rural to urban migration, only happens once. In America, it happened in the early to mid-twentieth century. That migration pattern is now in the past. While they will continue to grow, the growth of the suburbs will be demographically different in the future.

The future for fundamentalism will be different from the past. Second generation suburbanites do not tend to become fundamentalists. Professor Cox writes: “Virtually anywhere on the planet, it is hard to imagine the grandchildren of fundamentalists reconciling themselves to their tightly constricted spiritual world.”45 Ammerman’s sociological data confirms his intuition. Ammerman writes: “Although they carefully surround ‘church kids’ with a biblical world, a large number of Southside’s [a fundamentalist congregation’s] youth, like the youth across Fundamentalism, choose to leave when they reach an age of consent.”46

First generation suburbanites will decline in number in the years to come. The mass migration of farm to city that followed World War II has now ended. What was a flood has become a trickle. “White flight” migration of those in the urban core to the suburbs has also now ended. Again, what was a flood, has become a trickle. In some places, the trend may even be reversing itself, with some city centers showing population growth. As this first generation of suburbanites dies, those institutions they supported, such as communities of faith, will have to find new patrons or decline themselves. If a congregation remains committed to fundamentalism, the congregation will be in decline. If the congregation begins to accommodate the second (and third) generations of suburbanites, the congregation will not long remain fundamentalist. The spectacular growth of fundamentalism, like the growth of suburbia, may be slowing, or may have even already peaked and is presently in decline. If the Southern Baptist Convention is a barometer, then it is interesting to note that from 2001 to 2006 their membership did not grow, but remained flat. Beginning in 2007, their membership has been in slow decline.47

Put another way: if fundamentalism is produced by the disruption caused by being introduced to modernity as an adult and fewer and fewer adults are being introduced to modernity (the majority of the population having grown up with modernity), then one would expect fundamentalism to wane. The conditions necessary for the flourishing of fundamentalism are abating. Fewer and fewer adults are being introduced to modernity. More and more of the population grows up in modern urban settings. Children of fundamentalists live in a world that is secular, and yet religion is seen to thrive. Modernity has not annihilated religion the way many feared (and others hoped). As Professor Cox indicates in The Future of Faith:
The resurgence of religion was not foreseen. On the contrary, not many decades ago thoughtful writers were confidently predicting its imminent demise. Science, literacy, and more education would soon dispel the miasma of superstition and obscurantism. Religion would either disappear completely or survive in family rituals, quaint folk festivals, and exotic references in literature, art, and music. Religion, we were assured, would certainly never again sway politics or shape culture. But the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion--for good or ill--is now exhibiting new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.48

Karen Armstrong has noted, “every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. All are convinced that the modern, liberal, secular establishment wants to wipe out religion.”49 Second generation suburbanites are not apt to share this fear with their parents.
Postcard from Suburbia

Karen Armstrong defines religious fundamentalism as “a widespread rebellion against the hegemony of secularist modernity.”50 As she has surveyed the contemporary religious scene, wherever she has encountered a modern, Western-style society, she has noted a religious counterculture developing alongside it in conscious rebellion. One such place were American suburbs. People all over the world have demonstrated that they want to see more religion in public life. In America, the suburbs have been inhabited by just that sort of person. The world’s various fundamentalist ideologies show a disenchantment with modernity and inhabitants of America’s suburbs, many having moved there from rural areas, isolated from modernity in many ways, suddenly experience the disruption modernity can bring. Others come to the suburbs, fleeing the city’s center, trying to escape modernity by escaping from an urban existence.

While each fundamentalist group around the world has sprung up independently; and each even differing significantly from other fundamentalists within their own faith traditions, still “at the root of all these movements is the same visceral dread.”51 The very same visceral dread was to be found in American suburbs across the country. Culture always being contested, it is not surprising to find the secularism of modernity inspiring a strong religions reaction.52 This strong reaction can be seen in suburbia.

While it may be surprising to learn that Harvey Cox believes fundamentalism is in decline at a time when modern, liberal, and secular influences are not waning, Prof. Cox’s intuition is nonetheless confirmed by a sociological/religious reflection on America’s suburbs. The population growth of America’s suburbs is correlated to the growth of religious (Christian) fundamentalism. As the flow of migrants from rural areas and the inner city slow, so will the growth of fundamentalism. Prof. Cox is correct, “fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying.”53

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