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Why don't fundamentalist Muslims separate their politics from their religion? As Osama bin Laden has repeated his calls for holy war--the ultimate fusion of religious fanaticism and political action--Americans have been asking themselves this question. It's a good question, but it's one that says more about us than about our enemies. It implies that "our" fundamentalists--that is, fundamentalist Christians in America--do keep their religion separate from their politics.
But our recent history suggests exactly the opposite. The past half-century has witnessed an enormous surge of Christian fundamentalists toward politics, not away from it. America's Christian fundamentalists do combine their religion and their politics--and the fusion has made them more humane, tolerant, and inclusive.
American fundamentalists generally identify themselves by two features: a personal experience of conversion to Christ and a faith in the absolute authority of the Bible. The latter element, especially, seems antagonistic to the give-and-take of democratic politics. For if God establishes "One Way" to truth--as the bumper sticker proclaims--how can fundamentalists bargain or even communicate with people who do not share it?
Over the past hundred years, they've had to learn to do just that. In 1925, they achieved what appeared to be an important victory when a Tennessee court convicted a teacher named John T. Scopes of violating an anti-evolution law. But the coverage of the Scopes "Monkey Trial," by reporters such as H.L. Mencken, turned the fundamentalists into a laughingstock, and in the ensuing decades they withdrew from public life, focusing their energies on establishing and nurturing institutions such as colleges, newspapers, and radio stations to bring each soul to Jesus.
Thirty years later, the Christian-fundamentalist advances in the schools began to be rolled back. After the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, worried American educators reformed their science curricula to encompass more up-to-date and theoretical material--including material about evolution. Five years after that, the United States Supreme Court barred teachers from leading public school children in prayer.
By the time Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980, self-described fundamentalists had become more likely to participate in politics than other Christians were. Forging new organizations like the Moral Majority, they became a linchpin in Reagan's victory. He promised them most of what they wanted, including restrictions on abortion and the revival of school prayer. More importantly, he assured them that their values were in fact the majority ones. In the Reagan era, fundamentalists presumed, politics would allow righteousness to triumph.
It hasn't quite worked out that way, of course. Abortion is still legal, and constitutional amendments to restore government-sponsored school prayer have stalled in Congress repeatedly. The frustration at these setbacks has led Christian fundamentalists to adopt a new mantle: minority rights. Like multiculturalists, some fundamentalists argue that restrictions on prayer violate their "cultural heritage;" like civil libertarians, others argue that the prayer ban harms their "freedom of religion."
A similar transformation has marked the nation's battle over evolution. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not bar the subject from schools. So fundamentalists started to demand "equal time" for their own perspectives, echoing the cadences of liberal pluralism. Even Jerry Falwell conceded that John T. Scopes should not have been convicted in 1925, because Scopes was "teaching both points of view--evolution and creation."
In short, the fundamentalist incursion into politics has moderated the most absolutist aspects of fundamentalism. Traces of the old temper remain, of course (e.g. in Falwell's comment that gays, feminists, and civil libertarians caused the September 11 attacks). But the overwhelming reaction against this comment--from the White House, as well as from Falwell's fellow Southern Baptists--demonstrates the unequivocal triumph of pluralism in Post-war American life. Millions of Americans still view the Bible as the unerring Word of God, but most of them no longer aim to impose this view upon those who do not share it. Instead, they ask only that their own perspective receive the same respect and credence as others.