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Authoritarian or Authority-Minded? The Cognitive Commitments of Fundamentalists and the Christian Right

  • Dennis E. Owen, Kenneth D. Wald and Samuel S. Hill


One of the more consistent characterizations of both American Fundamentalism and other versions of conservative Evangelicalism is that these groups represent authoritarian religious and social systems. Such characterizations are not entirely without some basis in fact. Fundamentalism will almost always appear authoritarian, and so too will forms of Pentecostalism which, like Fundamentalism, place a heavy emphasis on correct thinking and combine a belief in the infallibility of scripture with a commitment to literal readings. Outsiders are sometimes disconcerted to find that “authoritarian” and related concepts are not assessed negatively in conservative Evangelical circles. Quite the contrary is the case: the Bible, infallible, inerrant, “God-breathed,” is the clear center of Evangelical authority. Many a Fundamentalist sermon has sought to clinch its case with the phrase, “on authority of the holy Word of God.”



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1. Far from being monolithic, Evangelical Protestantism is a diverse family of communities, theologies, institutions, and sensibilities. Fundamentalism should be understood as the most conservative and anti-modern branch of Evangelical Protestantism. All Fundamentalists are Evangelicals, but not all Evangelicals are Fundamentalists. In general, Evangelicalism is characterized by an immediately present religiosity: a high regard for biblical authority and great trust in the accuracy of the text, but not necessarily a commitment to read the Bible literally at every possible point. Evangelicals practice an experientially-oriented religion, with the conversion experience (being “born again”) Standing out in all forms. The centrality of conversion requires that Evangelicals share their faith and seek to bring others to Christ. Different Evangelical groups may stress these concerns to greater or lesser degrees. Fundamentalism is committed to discovering, believing, and practicing truth. Pentecostalism and other charismatics 92 Religion and American Culture stress spirituality —experiencing, demonstrating, and enjoying the divine presence. Evangelists such as Billy Graham and whole denominarions may Orient themselves toward conversion and see spreading the Gospel and saving souls as their raison d'etre. A few Evangelical communities, such as the Sojourners, have begun to focus on social action as the essence of Christianity. Churches will commonly combine several of these foci. For example, a concern for conversion will often accompany concerns for truth or spirituality Evangelicalism is generally characterized by a great deal of supernaturalism which can take various forms: healing and speaking in tongues in charismatic groups, the experience of conversion and belief, providential guidance, particularly in response to prayer, and a divinely produced authoritative text in most all forms of Evangelicalism. Fundamentalism is distinguished by a position known as biblical “inerrancy.” The Bible is the “verbally inspired” word of God, meaning that every word is divinely authored and to be read literally whenever possible. For Fundamentalism, the Bible really does not need to be interpreted. Thus any Statement that clearly appears scientific or historical is precisely what it appears to be and must be believed as true. Other forms of Evangelicalism will take the position that the Bible is infallible, but only in what it intends to teach. From this perspective, the creation stories need not be read as providing an historical or scientific account of the process of creation, but as comments on the nature of God, the human condition, the relationship of God to the world, and so forth.

2. Quotes are from Maguire, Daniel, The New Subversives (New York: Continuum, 1982). The generalized conspiracy view has been offered by Conway, Flo and Seligman, Jim in Holy Terror (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1982), and the broad condemnation of Evangelicals leveled by Young, Perry Dean in God's Bullies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982).

3. The argument is made by Daniel Maguire who uses the term “deviant fundamentalism.” The term “pseudo conservatism” was applied to the radical right by Richard Hof stadter in The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1964), Chapters 3 and 4.

4. Adorno, T. W. and others, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), 971 . Ray, John J., “Do Authoritarians Hold Authoritarian Attitudes?” Human Relations 29 (1976): 307325.

5. See MacNamara, Patrick H., “The New Christian Right's View of the Family and its Social Science Critics,” Journal of Marriage and Family 47 (1985): 449458 , for a critique of negative presuppositions regarding Fundamentalist families. Brown, L. B., “A Study of Religious Belief” British Journal ofPsychology 53 (1962): 259272 , and Rhodes, A. Lewis, “Authoritarianism and Fundamentalism of Rural and Urban High School Students,” Journal of Educational Psychology 34 (1960): 97105, are examples of the pejorative assumptions guiding much of the social scientific literature on Fundamentalism.

6. Gregory, W. Edgar, ‘The Orthodoxy of the Authoritarian Personality,” Journal of Social Psychology 45 (1957): 227,229.

7. Sherwood, J., “Authoritarianism and Moral Realism,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 11 (1966): 17.

8. Daniel Bell, “The Dispossessed,” in The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell, Chapters 1 and 2. Richard Hofstadter, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” in The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell, Chapters 3 and 4; see also Hofstadter, Richard, Anti-Intellectualism in America (New York: Random House, 1963), Chapters 3-5, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), Chapters 2 and 3.

9. Gabennesch, Howard, “Authoritarianism as a World View/” American Journal of Sociology 77 (1972): 857859.

10. Lipset, Seymour Martin, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), 108.

11. Fundamentalist studies have not been a strong point of American academicians. The first substantial scholarly treatment of the movement did not come until 1970 when Ernest Sandeen's The Roots of Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) explored the millennialist sources of the movement. George Marsden's süperb and wider-ranging Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) has replaced Sandeen as the Standard text on the subject. The strength of both of these works is that they take Fundamentalism seriously as a religious phenomenon, driven by the concerns and commitments of theology and faith in general. The weakness of early social interpretations was their tendency to dismiss Fundamentalism as a mere Symptom of more basic realities. Daniel Bell, in The Radical Right (1964) and Richard Hofstadter in the same volume and in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style of American Politics (1965) find Fundamentalism to be little more than an angry, fearful reaction to changes in the hard wiring of the society—increased competition, achieved Status, heterogeneity. Similarly, McLoughlin, William in Reviuals, Awakenings and Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) sees Fundamentalism as a temporary nativistic spasm as American culture moves inexorably in the direction of a humane, liberal, and somewhat socialistic order. We by no means dismiss the importance of the social context in which Fundamentalism occurs, but throughout contextual changes one must, as Paul Carter has suggested, remain mindful of the Fundamentalist commitment to preserve, protect, and defend “the faith once delivered to the Saints” (in Change and Continuity in Twentieth-Century America: the 1920's, ed. John Braeman and others, (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968)). Marsden consistently accomplishes this balancing as does a recent comparative analysis of Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic Fundamentalisms by Lawrence, Bruce in Defenders of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989). For Lawrence, Fundamentalism in its various forms represents a reaction to (and a warning about) first the epistemological implications of the Enlightenment and also the world-wide social and political dominance of the culture it created, particularly through its technological denouement. The forces unleashed by the Enlightenment and by what Lawrence calls “the great western transformation” probably did not impact fully upon American Evangelicalism until after World War I, when it discovered its minority Status. As we read Ruth Bloch's essay “Religion and Ideological Change in the American Revolution,” in Religion and Politics in America: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s, ed. Mark Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) such an outcome may well have been inevitable given the American Constitution's creation of a political 94 Religion and American Culture society no longer dependent upon populär virtue. Wuthnow, Robert, in The Restruduring of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), suggests the whirlwind of change planted in 1787 is not fully reaped until the 1960's when American Society begins to experience in earnest the pluraliza-tion and relativization of life worlds which it had been harboring since the mass migrations of the 1800's. The process of change has been labeled “modernization” with its central aspect identified as “differentiation” or the “chopping up” of society, culture, and experience itself into rather isolated units. Marty, Martin in The Public Church (New York: Crossroad, 1981) and Lechner, Frank in “Fundamentalism and Socio-Cultural Revitalization in America. A Sociological Interpretation” Sociological Analysis 46 (1984), see Fundamentalism taking issue with the heart of modernization, expressing “wholeness hunger” or “de-differentiating anti-modernism,” respectively. Grant Wacker, in “Searching for Norman Rockwell: Populär Evangelicalism in Contemporary America,” in The Evangelical Tradition in America, ed. Leonard Sweet (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1984), sees Evangelicals organizing politically in hopes of protecting its young from the allure of modern hedonistic culture. Yet Hunter, James Davidson, in American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary ofModernity (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983), notes that Evangelicals have adopted much of the culture they reject. A crucial and motivating part of conservative Protestantism's century-old struggle with modernization, we believe, is what we are calling “authority-mindedness.” Our intention in this essay is to contribute to the tradition that has focused upon Fundamentalism as a religious movement, with primary theological and philosophical commitments, that interacts with the forces of social change.

12. Frank J. Lechner, “Fundamentalism and Socio-Cultural Revitalization in America,” 243-260.

13. Schaeffer, Francis A., The God Who is There (Downers Grove, HL: Inter Varsity Press, 1968), Sections 3 and 4; and He is There and He is Not Silent (Wheaton, HL: Tyndale House, 1972), Chapters 2-4.

14. Although Fundamentalism places high value upon and gives great authority to science, it nevertheless operates with an outmoded Baconian view of science which reached the United States through Scottish Realism. Here one finds an epistemological position that rejects theory in favor of immediately sensible “facts” or “evidences” and attempts to stay as dose as possible to these trustworthy particulars when proceeding to the discovery of general laws through a process of induction. See Bozeman, Theodore Dwight, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), Chapters 3 and 7, and Numbers, Ronald L., “The Creationists,” in God and Nature, ed. Lindberg, David and Numbers, Ronald L. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 391423. Just as antebellum Presbyterians would discover doctrine from biblical “evidences,” so contemporary Creation Science finds general laws of science predictable from the same biblical evidences. Henry Morris, founder of the Institute for Creation Research, derives the second law of thermodynamics from the book of Genesis in Biblical Cosmology and Modern Science (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970) and The Bible and Modern Science (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968). Repräsentatives of the American sdentific establishment tend to reject creationists as superstitious believers in “childish myth” at best, or at worst, obscurantists wilHng to impose their narrow doctrines in totalitarian fashion upon the rest of the nation; see Joel Cracraft, “Systematics, Comparative Biology and the Case Against Creationism;” John Cole, “Scopes and Beyond: An-tievolutionism and American Culture;” and Kehoe, Alice B., “The Word of God,” all in Säentists Confront Creationism, ed. Godfrey, Laune R. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983). Few, if any, scientist-critics of creation-sdence have noticed the almost idolatrous veneration that Fundamentalists accord to science. Bruce Lawrence, in Defenders of God, notes that the anti-evolutionists are engaged in a real and even laudable quarrel with positivism but fails to note that creationism meets sdentific positivism with a positivism of biblical revelation. George Marsden suggests that it is creationists, rather than the sdentific establishment, who are dosest to what Michael Cavanaugh has dubbed the “American empiricist folk epistemology”—a combination of “naive realism plus populär mythology concerning proper sdentific procedure and verification;” see Marsden, George, “A Case of the Exduded Middle: Creation vs. Evolution in America,” in Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hos-tility in America, ed. Bellah, Robert and Greenspan, Frederick (New York: Crossroad, 1987). Martin, Alfred and Jelen, Ted provide concurring evidence in “Knowledge and Attitudes of Catholic College Students Regarding the Creation/Evolution Controversy,” in Religion and Political Behavior in the United States, ed. Jelen, Ted (New York: Praeger, 1989). Students surveyed by Martin and Jelen, after having taken College sdence courses, still tended to locate sdence in facts rather than in methods. Much in the manner of populär culture, Fundamentalists tend to see sdence as the logical interpretation of hard “facts.” A sdentific theory, consequently, is believed to be virtuaÜy any coherent explanation of the facts one has at hand. Foreign to both the Fundamentalist and populär views is the modern understanding of scientific theory as explanations that appeal to universal laws, invoking only natural quantifiable causes and predicting definite outcomes which render the theory falsifiable. See Gilkey, Langdon, Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985), for a dear discussion of the issues surrounding creationism's daim to sdentific Status. Recently the Institute for Creation Research has been shifting from a Baconian to a Kuhnian approach, (Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962)), describing sdence as a field of competing modeis or paradigms and arguing that creation sdence, as one such model, deserves equal time with evolutionary biology. A rather Baconian ideal of hard factuality still shadows the newer approach, for creationists are likely to refer to evolution as “only a theory.”

15. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, Chapter 13.

16. For informative discussions of Evangelical approaches to the Bible, see Mark A. Noll, “Evangelicals and the Study of the Bible,” and Wells, David F., “An American Evangelical Theology: the Painful Transition from Theoria to Praxis,” both in Evangelicalism and Modern America, ed. Marsden, George (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984).

17. See Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science, Chapters 7 and 8, espedally 155 for dtation from Hodge; Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, Chapter 13; and Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, Chapter 5, for discussions of early Fundamentalist attempts to claim scientific Status for the biblical account of creation.

18. Morris, The Bible and Modern Science, 12.

19. Kennedy, D. James, WhylBelieve (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1981), 16.

20. Schaeffer, The God Who is There, 109.

21. This theme permeates Luther's entire body of work. For a particularly memorable offering, see his discussion of Abraham and Sarah in Lectures on Genesis, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, part of Luiher's Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986).

22. Whitehead, John and Conlon, John, ‘The Establishment of the Religion of Secular Humanism and its First Amendment Implications,” Texas Tech Law Review 10 (1978): 45.

23. Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent, 32.

24. John Hylkema and Donald R. von Dohlen Jr., “Self-Pac No. 127,” (Lewiston, Texas: Accelerated Christian Education, 1974), 5.

25. Plymouth Rock Foundation, FAC-Sheets, (no date).

26. Schaeffer, Francis A., A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, 111.: Crossway Books, 1981), 2021.

27. Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent, 33.

28. Schaeffer, The God Who is There, 122.

29. Whitehead, John, The Separation Illusion (Milford, Mich.: Mott Media, 1977), 55.

30. Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 124. The citation is from a lament by Hiram W Evans, an Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

31. John J. Ray, “Do Authoritarians Hold Authoritarian Attitudes?” 307-325.

32. We have reported elsewhere a multivariate analysis that sustains the conclusions offered in this paper about the absence of authoritarianism but the presence of authority-mindedness among fundamentalists and NCR supporters. See Wald, Owen, and Hill, “Habits of the Mind?” in Religion and Political Behavior in the United States, ed. Jelen, 93-108.

33. Bill Moyers, “God and Politics: On Earth as it is in Heaven” (New York: Public Affairs Television, December 23,1987).

34. Ammerman, Nancy Tatom, Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (New Brunswick, N.J.:Rutgers University Press, 1988), Chapter 7.

35. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, Chapter 6.

36. Virtually all of Schaeffer's writings share this tendency. It is most clearly visible in what is regarded as his magnum opus, How Should We Then Live? (Westchester, 111.: Crossway Books, 1976), a critical history of the whole of Western civilization that repeatedly makes the point that most societies, thinkers, and ar-tists were not Fundamentalists.

37. These authors have been active in writing moderating artides for the Evangelical Journal Christianity Today. Additionally, they have taken on the NCR version of American history; see Noll, Mark, Hatch, Nathan, and Marsden, George, The Search for a Christian America (Westchester, m.: Crossway Books, 1983), in which they both demonstrate that NCR revisionism cannot be sustained by available data and argue that, from an Evangelical theological perspective, the concept of a “Christian civilization” is inherently idolatrous.

38. For treatments of these themes see Bellah, Robert and others, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Lasch, Christopher, The Culture ofNarcissism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978); Neuhaus, Richard, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1984); Palmer, Parker The Company of Strangers (New York: Crossroad, 1981); Wikse, John, About Possession: The Seif as Private Property (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977); and Sennett, Richard, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).

Authoritarian or Authority-Minded? The Cognitive Commitments of Fundamentalists and the Christian Right

  • Dennis E. Owen, Kenneth D. Wald and Samuel S. Hill


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