HARRY EMERSON FOSDICK, “SHALL THE FUNDAMENTALISTS WIN?” NEW YORK CITY, NY (21 May 1922)
- What do you think Fosdick hoped to achieve in this speech? Do you think he was successful? Why or why not?
- In drawing a contrast between liberals(or modernists) and fundamentalists, Fosdick emphasized a commitment to liberty on the one side and a restrictive conformity on the other. In your own belief system, do you prefer openness to a variety of perspectives, or commitment to a few unifying ideas? What are the benefits and liabilities of either?
- How do your beliefs define your identity? To what extent are shared commitments necessary for maintaining the cohesiveness of the groups or organizations you identify with? At what point should differences of opinion disqualify you or other members of those groups from membership? At what point does diversity of opinion become a threat to identity?
- In Fosdick’s case, the speaker was a pastor, and the speech was a How might these factors alter our thinking about the questions above? What role do Christian leaders have in granting or restricting free thought within the churches they lead? What obligations do they have to the larger denominational bodies to which they report?
- Do religious beliefs and values stand apart from political or social beliefs and values? Do they influence each other? Is it significant that Fosdick emphasized liberty, which is a core American value?
- Fosdick also emphasized progress, to the point of suggesting that God works in the world progressively. Fosdick argued that God’s revelation came upon us as we expanded human knowledge over time, and that the return of Christ was occurring gradually every day. How do you think this viewpoint fit within the political and social context of the early twentieth century?
- For all of its provocation, Fosdick’s sermon claimed to defendliberal views from the fundamentalist attack. Does the speech strike you as more defensive than offensive? Or vice versa? Do you find Fosdick persuasive?
- In the end, Fosdick called for a spirit of compassion and love, and for liberal Christians to treat their fundamentalist rivals with generosity. The fundamentalists did not return the favor. Eventually, they ran Fosdick out of his pulpit. Does this outcome influence your opinion of Fosdick’s address? Did his message fail? Did the harsh response validate his critique?
- In what ways has the fundamentalist-modernist divide survived over time? Do you see any parallels to the debates between conservatives and liberals in Protestantism today? Or in politics?
- How do calls for individual liberty and/or group conformity impact your life, either for better or worse? How do they impact the institutions—religious, political, social, or otherwise—that shape your life?
- Using search terms such as “Fosdick” and “fundamentalists,” perform a search on an electronic database (e.g., New York Times Historical or Proquest) and read at least five newspaper articles from the 1920s. Pay attention to the descriptions of Fosdick’s performance. What terms are used to describe his sermon? Are they primarily positive or negative? How did Fosdick’s journalistic contemporaries cover the controversy?
- Search next for information about some of the journalists or columnists who offered their assessments of the speech. Do you consider most of the commentary on the speech to be relatively unbiased, or do you sense that those who reported or commented on the speech were religiously partisan? How did these writers’ reactions to the speech correspond to their religious views?
- Try to locate information about some of the other characters in this little drama. Search for information about Ivy Lee, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Clarence E. MacCartney, and William Jennings Bryan, for example. Though Fosdick wrote and delivered the sermon himself, he was addressing a large and diverse audience with sharply opposed views. How did these other figures contribute the reception and legacy of the speech?
- Search also for information about the context in which the address was given. Consider terms such as Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and Social Gospel. What political, social, and intellectual currents influenced Fosdick’s sermon and the audiences that heard or read it?
- Look next for contemporary articles about the fundamentalist movement and its critique of theological liberalism. What beliefs, qualities, and rhetorical styles characterized this movement? In what ways did they invite—and how did they counter—Fosdick’s critique?
- Search for articles that refer to Fosdick’s Though the content of “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” was very confrontational, Fosdick had a reputation for a kindly demeanor in the pulpit. Did he deliver this speech in that characteristically genial style? How did that style contrast with that of the typical fundamentalist, many of whom were known for their aggressive style of delivery? How important do you think Fosdick’s manner of delivery was to public reception of the speech?
- Read up on the political situation in the years following Fosdick’s speech, up to and including the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In what ways do you think Fosdick and his “social gospel” contemporaries might have contributed to later political innovations? In what ways were their priorities consistent with those of the New Deal?
- Draw historical connections between the fundamentalist-modernist controversies and the “culture war” debates of the 1980s and up to the present. Refer, perhaps, to the VOD unit on Patrick Buchanan. In what ways did the theological and political liberalisms of the 1920s serve as precursors to the liberalisms of later decades? In what ways did fundamentalists help shape the rise of political conservatism.
- Reflect once more on Fosdick’s affability. In today’s social and political context, how do you think a speech like his would be received?Do you think he might have delivered it differently today? If so, would it have changed the dynamic of the speech? As citizens, do we have any incentives today to articulate our views and/or offer critiques of others in a spirit of kindness? In what ways do our pundits and politicians either encourage or discourage such an approach?
- Think about religious leaders with which you are familiar—pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, etc? How does their delivery style affect the reception of their messages? How do these delivery styles reflect their religious values? In what contexts do you think it is appropriate to speak in angry or aggressive tones, as opposed to a sad, happy, or worried style of delivery? What contributes to the sense that a speaker’s style is realor authentic, and how does that affect the reception of a religious address like Fosdick’s?
- In what ways does religious speech inform our practice of citizenship today? Do citizens who regularly listen to sermons engage the public sphere in ways different from those who do not? Do they support different initiatives? Do they vote for different candidates? Do religious speakers influence how their congregants participate in public life?
- Shouldreligious belief and practice shape how we approach citizenship? Though the United States Constitution is said to have built a “wall of separation” between church and state, that barrier does not necessarily bisect the hearts and minds of religious individuals. Should fundamentalists allow fundamentalism to dictate their political views and choices? Should modernists defer to modernism in political matters? Should citizens try to keep their religious beliefs separate from their political views? What are the benefits and liabilities in each case?
- Reflect on the ways in which religious beliefs, practices, and speeches have contributed to public life in the United States? Think about the impact of the Puritans, the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Quakers, the freethinkers, the Great Awakenings, the Catholics, the Revivalists, the Transcendentalists, the Mormons, or the Abolitionist, Temperance, and Suffrage movements. How have Jews, the Social Gospel, the fundamentalists, the modernists, the Civil Rights Movement, the Christian Right, the Buddhists, the Muslims, or the Hindus influenced our public life? Overall, how would you assess the impact of religion on American civic life?