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Commonly Modern: Rethinking the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversies

  • Kathryn Lofton


Let us begin with the problem of binaries. Stark differentiation strengthens the consequences of difference. If you label something “sacred” for example, and suggest its opposite is “profane” the maintenance of that difference becomes quickly outsized because their difference is contingent on their connection. “Sacred things are those things protected and isolated by prohibitions,” Émile Durkheim writes. “Profane things are those things to which such prohibitions apply and which must keep their distance from what is sacred.” There is no profane without the maintenance of the sacred; the sacred is established through its labored separation from the profane. Binaries are not static opposition as much as they are descriptive of a tense purlieu of their differentiation. In the case of the sacred and profane, Durkheim describes that space as religion itself. “Religious beliefs are the representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they sustain among themselves or with profane things,” he famously explained in 1912, setting the stage for the modern study of religion as one devoted to the analysis of the perpetuation of that binary.



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1 Durkheim, Émile, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 40.

2 Smith, Jonathan Z., “Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism” in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), 118.

3 Smith, Jonathan Z., “Classification,” in Guide to the Study of Religion, Braun, Willi and McCutcheon, Russell T., eds. (London: Cassell, 2000), 38.

4 Despite a rich historiography addressing the politics of fundamentalism in the twentieth century, as well as a recent resurgence of interest in Protestant liberalism, the definitive descriptions of early-twentieth century modernism and fundamentalism remain Hutchison, William, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976); Marsden, George, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

5 Statement from Professor Machen, John Gresham, “The Battle Within the Churches,” in Fundamentalism versus Modernism, ed. Vanderlaan, Eldred C. (New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1925), 361.

6 On the Presbyterian controversies, see Loongfield, Bradley J., The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); on the Baptists, see Leonard, Bill J., God's Last & Only Hope: The Fragmentation of the Southern Baptist Convention (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990); on the Disciples, see Williams, D. Newell, ed., A Case Study of Mainstream Protestantism: The Disciples' Relation to American Culture, 1880–1989 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991).

7 For a diverse profile of the postmodern critique, see The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory, ed. Seidman, Steven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Democracy and Difference, ed. Benhabib, Seyla (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

8 Robins, R. G., A. J. Tomlinson: Plainfolk Modernist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); King, Gerald W., Disfellowshiped: Pentecostal Responses to Fundamentalism in the United States, 1906–1943, Princeton Theological Monographs Series (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2011).

9 Timothy Gloege, “Consumed: Reuben A. Torrey and the Construction of Corporate Fundamentalism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 2007); Brendan Pietsch, “Dispensational Modernism” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2011).

10 Merrill, William Pierson, “The One Fundamental,” in Fundamentalism versus Modernism, ed. Vanderlaan, Eldred C. (New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1925), 60.

11 The conflict between Shailer Mathews and James M. Gray will be well addressed in Timothy Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: Fundamentalism, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).

12 The best treatment of Scopes in the media is Larson, Edward J., Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic, 2006).

13 Robbins, Tom, Still Life With Woodpecker (New York: Bantam, 1990), 77.

14 Smith, Terry, Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 155.

15 This description of Henry Ford is wholly inadequate to the rich world he occupied and created. This field is the subject of significant research by Kati Curts, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University, whose dissertation, “Assembling Fords: A Harrowing History of Religion in the Automobile Age,” will thoroughly grapple with the multiple forms of religion manufactured by Ford Motor Company.

16 Pippin, Robert B., Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999), 119. I have explored the specific emphasis on modernism as method in Lofton, Kathryn, “The Methodology of the Modernists: Process in American Protestantism,” Church History: Studies of Christianity and Culture 75, no. 2 (June 2006): 374402.

17 Heidegger, Martin, “The Age of the World Picture,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 134. I was assisted in this reading by Pippin, Modernism, 118–127.


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