Recently, it has become common for certain Mormon apologists to dismiss critics and ex-Mormons as having a “rigid, fundamentalist” view of the world. Apparently, the label “fundamentalist” is used pejoratively to link critics to ignorant Bible-thumpers, as one writer waves critics off as “skilled iconoclast[s]” who merely want to appear “scholarly looking” (Reynolds). Indeed, apologists are reassured that they, not the critics, are the true “liberals” and “intellectuals” in their approach to Mormonism.
I first became aware of this mantra a few years ago, and for a time I actually adopted it. We Mormons, I told myself, were less wedded to rigid interpretation of text, less enamored of objective scientific proof than were our critics, and thus we held a more solid position. But where does this notion come from, and does it have merit?
Perhaps we should define what fundamentalism is. Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes that, although fundamentalism is most often used as “one of those derogatory terms that only other people use about you, like ‘fatso,'” it has specific meaning, being a self-description of believers in the early twentieth century.
The first of the seven fundamentals was a belief in the literal truth of the Bible; and this is probably the best definition of fundamentalism there is. It is basically a textual affair. Fundamentalists are those who believe that our linguistic currency is trustworthy only if it is backed by the gold standard of the Word of Words. They see God as copperfastening human meaning. Fundamentalism means sticking strictly to the script, which in turn means being deeply fearful of the improvised, ambiguous or indeterminate.
This “copperfastening” of meaning and symbol is the sense in which the word is being used to describe critics of Mormonism. Juliann Reynolds writes that “for the critic to convincingly dispute LDS doctrine or practice it is imperative that scripture be treated as inerrant and that Mormons accept targeted statements from religious leaders as infallible. Contradictions and inconsistencies can then be used as “proof” that Mormons do not seek ‘truth.’ Their predictable conclusion that Mormonism is wrong or false or misled rests upon the fundamental and conservative position that “God is truth, God is the source of Scripture, and therefore Scripture must also be truth. If God, the author of Scripture, cannot lie, then neither can Scripture.”
For Reynolds, the critics juxtapose their inerrantist view of God with a similar view of science, as if these were two competing approaches to “truth.” The critics, forced to choose, pick science, but this is a mistake rooted, again, in fundamentalist assumptions. Non-LDS scholar Massimo Introvigne notes:
Unlike many Protestant modernists-Latter-day Saint liberals are persuaded that, thanks to Enlightenment rationalism, an objective concept of “science” and “truth” may allow them to reach factual, empirical, “scientific” conclusions on the Book of Mormon and its origins…
On the other hand, the late modernist and postmodernist position that knowledge is by no means objective and that “true,” universally valid historical conclusions could never be reached, is held by Latter-day Saint conservatives.
Thus it is the conservative LDS apologist who ironically occupies the more open view of truth and more realistic notion that facts and proof are never forthcoming, whereas critics are mired in the black-and-white world of absolutes. Introvigne lays out his thesis in summarizing the work of George Marsden:
Evangelicalism and fundamentalism had, according to George M. Marsden, “a love affair with Enlightenment science” and hailed “objective scientific thought . . . as the best friend of the Christian faith and of Christian culture generally.” As there was only one “true” science (needless to say, not including evolution theories), so—the fundamentalists reasoned—there could be only one objective “truth” about the Bible: that it was the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Marsden has proved that hostility to science was originally foreign to fundamentalism and emerged as a later development, when science started to be secularized and to change its own paradigm. Fundamentalism, as a consequence, has been particularly hostile to late modernist and postmodernist assumptions that there is no “one science,” but that science could be a collection of conflicting points of view, often selected for practical purposes without necessarily implying that one is more “true” than the other. Paradoxically, fundamentalism maintained the objectivity of “scientific truth” when this claim was no longer made by mainline science itself.
The problem here is that Introvigne misstates what Marsden has written. Marsden notes that nineteenth-century evangelicals did indeed have “a love affair with Enlightenment science” which continued until, he says, “it was too late.” Contrary to Introvigne’s summary, Marsden does not argue that fundamentalism asserts that there is “one science” and thus is “hostile” to modernist and postmodernist assumptions. Indeed, in the chapter that Introvigne summarizes, Marsden argues that there has been a longstanding debate within the fundamentalist movement between those arguing for “one science” and those who argue that there are multiple sciences, multiple approaches to science influenced by one’s perspective and beliefs:
In virtually every field, the principal intraevangelical debate has been the same: Do evangelical Christians pursue their science or discipline differently from the way secularists do? By now the literature on this subject is vast. In almost every field today, evangelical scholars are divided into two camps, with some hybrids in between. … The Warfieldians–those who believe in one science or rationality on which all humanity ought to agree–point to the breakdown of any promised consensus in secular twentieth-century thought and claim that evangelical Christians and still argue their way to victory, at least in individual cases. To do so, they must stay on common ground with the non-Christians as long as possible, pursuing the technical aspects of their disciplines with just the same methodologies as their secular contemporaries do, but adding to them Christian moral and theological principles that truly objective people will see are rationally necessary to complete the picture. The Kuyperians, in contrast, emphasize that any discipline is built on starting assumptions and that Christians’ basic assumptions should have substantial effects on many of their theoretical conclusions in a discipline. Thus two conflicting worldviews may be scientific or rational if each is consistent with its starting premises. People who start with premises that exclude God as an explanatory force and people who start with belief in God as among their basic beliefs may be equally rational and may be able to work together on technical scientific enterprises; but on some key theoretical issues their best arguments will simply come to opposed conclusions. There will be two or more sciences. Rationality alone will not be able to settle them.
Introvigne incorrectly summarizes Marsden by suggesting that the debate Marsden describes is over, having been won by those arguing for “one science.” Marsden, however, argues that the debate is ongoing, and that far from being rooted in Enlightenment notions of absolute, objective truth, much of the “fundamentalist” community understands that notions of truth are informed by human perception and assumptions. In some ways, Marsden’s argument mirrors what I see within Mormonism. He tells us that, in the face of Darwinian evolution, fundamentalists took two different approaches: “Liberal evangelicals managed this by adopting ever-looser interpretations of Scripture. Many conservatives, however, reconciled themselves to at least limited versions of biological evolution without giving up their trust in Biblical reliability.” To me, this seems to be the same dynamic going on within Mormonism in response to newer discoveries and theoretical frameworks. In short, Marsden’s argument is not only far more complex than Introvigne’s summary, but actually says the opposite of what Introvigne wrote.
Unfortunately, Reynolds takes Introvigne’s poor summary and runs with it; one assumes that she hasn’t read Marsden’s book but merely takes Introvigne’s word for it. Taking a few offhand statements, she attacks critics such as Brent Metcalfe and Michael Quinn as being rigidly wedded to outdated notions of “facts” and “truth.” Metcalfe is excoriated for suggesting that his readers “think for themselves,” while Quinn is mocked for suggesting that he has tried to be honest in his work.
But the premise here is fundamentally flawed. Marsden nowhere argues that Christian fundamentalists are anchored to a naive belief in the ability of “one science” to “prove” anything. Nor do we see very many critics of the LDS church speak in terms of “proof” that Mormonism is not true, unless you count a few RfM or CARM posters. Most critics understand that there is no such thing as objective truth, that human interaction always colors perception and understanding. To suggest otherwise is missing the point.