Religion and Peak Oil: The Twilight of Fundamentalism

The contemporary predicament of industrial society, as I suggested in last week’s post, is among other things a religious crisis. The religion of progress, the defining faith of today’s industrial nations, staked its claim to the allegiance of the human spirit on the material benefits it offered its votaries. For the last three centuries, that offer was backed up with an astonishing expansion of wealth that left few lives in the western world unchanged, and gave the religion of progress a strength none of its rivals could easily match.

With the coming of peak oil, however, the religion of progress is headed for a pitfall of its own digging. As cheap abundant energy becomes a thing of the past, the material gifts the great god Progress has heretofore given his votaries will likely be in short supply from here on. As living standards slide, wages fall ever farther behind prices, and whatever technological advances still find their way to the market are restricted by cost to an ever smaller fraction of society, the religion of progress may have little to offer the majority of its current adherents.

Thus the likelihood of major shifts in the religious allegiance of the industrial world, it seems to me, is a factor that needs serious assessment in any attempt to make sense of the deindustrial future. As the aspect of human society that relates our lives to the realm of ultimate concerns, religion sets out the narratives that members of a society use to make sense of the world. As the religion of progress crumbles, its narratives will crumble in turn, and the new faith or faiths that seize its current place in the western imagination will likely have a dramatic impact on how we and our descendants respond to the challenges of a world after oil.

One of the apparent candidates for a successor to the religion of progress is contemporary Christian fundamentalism. As one of the very few religious movements to meet the challenges of industrial civilization head on, it’s an obvious candidate. While most religious denominations in the western world struggle to maintain themselves and many have seen epic declines in membership, fundamentalist churches have displayed an impressive ability to gain members and exert influence in the social and political spheres. Thus it’s reasonable to ask if Christian fundamentalism will be in a position to take over from the religion of progress in America, at least, as we begin sliding down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak.

The answer, however, is “almost certainly not.” The reasons for this can best be grasped by looking back over the neglected history of modern Christian fundamentalism itself.

Many people outside fundamentalist circles these days use the term “fundamentalism” as a simple synonym for “zealotry,” but it has a more specific meaning. The word actually comes from a 12-volume series of tracts titled The Fundamentals, released between 1910 and 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and funded by two wealthy oilmen. These tracts offered readers a simplified Protestant theology pitched in popular language. Marketed using the most up-to-date methods of the time, they were enormously popular, and by the 1920s had sparked a huge social movement; H.L. Mencken famously remarked in 1925 that if you threw an egg out a train window nearly anywhere in America, you could count on hitting a fundamentalist.

By the end of the 1920s, though, the fundamentalist movement was in headlong retreat, for reasons that observers of today’s American scene may find highly familiar. In the early 1920s, a very large number of fundamentalist churches and leaders entered into alliance with the revived Ku Klux Klan. From its refounding in 1915, the Klan wrapped itself in a rhetoric composed of equal parts Protestant Christianity and xenophobic Americanism while pursuing a campaign of reactionary social change aimed at rolling back the reforms of the Progressive era.

The appeal of this agenda to the fundamentalist movement can be easily imagined. During the 1920s, some 40,000 fundamentalist ministers became Klan members, and more than two-thirds of the national Klokards (paid lecturers who traveled around the country on the Klan’s nickel) were ministers of fundamentalist churches. One minister-Klansman, the Rev. E.F. Stanton of Kansas City, earned a minor spot in the history books with a 1924 book entitled Christ and Other Klansmen, which presented the Klan as America’s best hope for returning to “old-fashioned” (that is, the newly coined fundamentalist) Christianity.

This alliance backfired explosively, though, when a series of lurid scandals broke over the Klan’s head, most notably the 1925 conviction of Indiana Grand Dragon David Stevenson for raping and murdering one of his office volunteers. Similar scandals racked the fundamentalist scene; open the pages of Sinclair Lewis’ scathing novel Elmer Gantry, or for that matter any of the colorful newspaper stories that inspired it, and you’ll find events right out of today’s headlines. By the beginning of the Second World War, fundamentalism had become a bitter minority estranged from the wider American religious scene, and kept that status until the political dominance of the liberal agenda in the Sixties allowed the same cycle to launch itself again.

Now as it happens, this same cycle can be traced back well before the fundamentalism of the 1920s. Upsurges of socially conservative Protestant piety have appeared on the American scene at something close to regular intervals from the Great Awakening of the 1720s to today’s receding fundamentalist tide. On average, there are two of them a century. Each one starts with a bang using the popular media of the time, whether that’s the letterpress that carried Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to audiences across the colonies or satellite TV dishes scooping up the latest offerings from Trinity Broadcasting System. Each one, without ever quite seeming to notice the fact, gradually reduces the complexities of Christian theology into what we would now call sound bites, loses in depth what it gains in numbers, and ends up becoming a sock puppet for some political faction or other. Each one finishes its trajectory by imploding in on itself, often with an accompanying drumbeat of sexual and financial scandals

At this point we’re well into the diminuendo phase of the current cycle, to the familiar tune of fundamentalist leaders being outed for practicing six days a week the sins they denounce on Sundays, and parishioners beginning to object in noticeable numbers to the gap between Christianity and the political agenda pursued in its name. A growing number of evangelical Protestants are moving away from the big fundamentalist churches to home Bible study circles or to more traditional forms of Christianity, and recruitment – the lifeblood of a movement in which new members, on average, leave within three years – has been in decline for more than a decade.

Yet this also has to be seen in its wider context. In 2005, in one of the most dramatic and least discussed social changes in recent history, the percentage of Americans who call themselves Protestant Christians dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of the republic. The decline has been astonishingly rapid – as recently as the 1970s, the figure was above 72% – and widespread, affecting all regions of the country to one degree or another. With Catholicism holding steady between 20% and 25% of the population, and most branches of Judaism struggling, the number of Americans outside the religious mainstream is at an all-time high.

Thus peak oil could not have come at a worse time for the fundamentalist movement. As America lurches toward a time of crisis likely to be at least as traumatic as the ordeal by depression and world war that followed the boom years of the 1920s, fundamentalism faces the same situation it did then: hamstrung by scandals, hobbled with an oversized infrastructure of churches and institutions its shrinking membership can no longer support, and tarred by its links to a extremist political movement that seems to be doing everything in its power to ensure its own implosion as a significant political force in the near future.

Perhaps the clearest sign that today’s fundamentalism is circling the drain comes from the widespread popularity of Rapture theology: the claim that at some point in the near future all devout Christians will suddenly teleport to heaven en masse, leaving the world to perish in their absence. The dubious exegetical tricks needed to extort this belief out of scripture have done nothing to keep it from becoming a hugely popular belief. Yet the whole Rapture narrative is a lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide – when someone tells their kids that Grandma has gone to heaven to be with Jesus, most people know what that means – and bears an uncomfortable similarity to the ideologies of recent suicide cults such as Heaven’s Gate. Its dominant role in today’s fundamentalist movement says much about the desperation of those who see the tide of their success flowing back out to sea.

Still, might the old cycle keep on turning, and spark a new version of fundamentalism sometime in the future? Of course. If past performance is anything to go by, we can expect another socially conservative Protestant revival beginning around 2020, though if the drop in Protestant numbers continues at its present pace, that future revival may be a relatively modest affair by present standards. Even if that shifts into reverse, earlier revivals did surprisingly little to change the religious outlook or social norms of American society, and it seems unlikely that any future repetition of the same cycle will have any more lasting effect. Much more likely at this point, it seems to me, is an irruption from outside the contemporary religious mainstream altogether – a possibility I’ll explore in the third and last part of this series.