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“It is too early, it seems to me, to send the firemen home. The fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment…. Heave an egg out of a Pullman window and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns…. They are thick in the mean streets behind the gasworks. They are everywhere that learning is too heavy a burden for mortal minds.”
When Mencken suggested that fundamentalism might blaze once more, who took him seriously? Clarence Darrow had made William Jennings Bryan look like the country bumpkin he was. Outside the Bible Belt, many mainline churches were promoting the “social gospel” as they tumbled down the hill of liberal theology toward secular humanism. Remember that hullabaloo over the proposition that “God is dead”? Then a few decades ago, to the amazement of intellectuals, hardline fundamentalism began to roar again.
Sociologists are still trying to figure it out. There is no evidence of a large-scale religious revival sweeping the nation, but within Protestantism there has been an unmistakable decline in liberal theology and an upsurge of fundamentalist dogma. While the congregations of mainline churches dwindle, especially with respect to the young, the old-time gospel churches are bursting at the seams. Scores of fundamentalist magazines, seldom seen in public libraries, have circulations larger than the liberal Christian Century. Fundamentalist books, published by sectarian houses and distributed through Christian bookstores, never make The New York Times best-seller lists even though their sales often far exceed most books on those lists.
Polls taken during the last decade all agree that the United States is one of the most deeply religious nations in the world. Over 95 percent of its population say they believe in a personal God and life after death. Only about 25 percent now believe in hell, a remarkable decline, but 25 percent means a lot of souls who are worried. Many who have abandoned Christianity are still drifting East into reincarnation and the New Age of psychic wonders, but growing numbers of those who remain Christian want more from their ministers than hazy doctrines and dull sermons about beauty and ethics. They want to be told about heaven. They want to sing and shout about the Blood of Jesus that washes away all sins.
This growth of fundamentalism has been a time bomb for the Democrats that exploded in 1984. An estimated eight million white evangelicals switched allegiance that year from Democrat to Republican. The South’s Bible Belt, once solidly Democratic, shifted heavily toward Republican. Last June the Southern Baptists, our country’s largest Protestant denomination, voted itself firmly under the control of fundamentalist leaders. In 1980, its white clergy were 28 percent Republican. In 1984 (see James Guth’s “Political Converts: Partisan Realignment Among Southern Baptists,” in…
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