Should raw religion, like raw sewage, be kept underground and tightly contained, out of public notice and smell?
That was the way it was in the good old days, after the Scopes trial in the 1920s and before the emergence of the Moral Majority in the late '70s. Now we have organized groups of conservative religious believers, many of them fundamentalists, who carry on public campaigns against abortion, sexual perversity on television and in popular music, against the evolutionary view in education and public indecency in the arts, among many other causes.
We even have public officials such as Sen. Jesse Helms who persist in uttering and promoting these raw beliefs in public. Should we make a concerted effort to remove them from public life even though we can't prevent them from expressing their benighted opinions as private citizens?
There would be at least one obvious loss were we to succeed. We would deprive ourselves of one of the last targets unprotected by the canons of political correctness. No one has yet included fundamentalists among the list of victims to whom we must be sensitive. What would even we mainstream Christians do without them, since we often prove our "enlightened" status by joining the secularists in pummeling the "fundies"?
I do not think we should be so enthusiastic in our efforts to expunge them from our common life. Religiously, they continue to teach and preach the central core of the Christian faith. True enough, too often they substitute belief in the inerrancy of the Bible for faith in the Gospel of Christ.
But the central message gets through to the millions of conservative believers. I experience that daily as a college teacher of a large number of young people from these traditions. Even though we "enlightened" Christians often snidely put down these fundamentalists, they are the ones who are most apt to know the Bible and attempt to live according to Christian values. In the general religious and moral confusion of campus life, they are important anchors in the community.
Raw religion functions to maintain the "straight stuff" in a world where weak and accommodating religious communities are all too ready to cover their weakness by adapting to whatever the current culture thinks is liberating. Because of their unabashed commitment to the straight stuff, fundamentalists are flourishing this country far more than their more accommodating Christian compatriots. They have confidence and zeal.
Moreover, they have much to contribute morally. In a society of increasing moral indifference and permissiveness, they believe that there are sharply defined rights and wrongs. Perhaps it is the case, as Philip Rieff suggests in his book "The Feeling Intellect," that only robust religious communities carry a strong sense of taboo on moral issues. Some things are simply forbidden for them. Without this powerful sense of limits, Mr. Rieff believes, we might well fall into "the abyss of our own possibilities."
It is only the representatives of raw religion who seem to have the courage to say no to the tug of both mass and avant-garde culture. The rest of us shake our heads and complain about the "splendid vices" of an increasingly decadent culture. But the narrow-minded act.
Finally, raw religion plays a social function that few other groups can perform. Fundamentalists and Pentecostals evangelize and civilize some of the rougher social strata of American life. Populations that are immune to the advances of mainstream religion or enlightened education are approached successfully by the more "unwashed" of religious communities.
None of this is meant to suggest that opposing voices should capitulate to those of raw religion, as if that ever was a real danger. Rather, it is to maintain that conservative religion's role is more constructive than destructive. In spite of its rough edges it deserves a public role. It speaks for millions of fine Christians and citizens, even if its articulation is sometimes of a blunt-edged variety. We tolerate heated overstatement from other groups; why not the fundamentalists?
Let us remember that it is what is held to be true and valuable that is most important, not how it is held. Conservative religious people often hold noble values in a rigid way. But the nobility is the thing.
Philip Hallie, an American philosopher who searched far and wide for examples of pure goodness in the compromised world of World War II, cites a group of Protestants in the French village of Le Chambon. They saved more than 6,000 Jews from the Nazis by following the unambiguous biblical injunctions to "defend the fatherless" and "be your brother's keeper." They were fundamentalists.
Robert Benne is professor of religion at Roanoke College, a Lutheran-related school in Salem, Va. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.