Interviewer: Religious fundamentalism has been a force in American life at particular moments. Would you highlight its political importance with a couple of examples?
Eric Foner: Religious fundamentalism is certainly an important political factor today, particularly in the Republican Party. Religious fundamentalists are an important part of the base, as we call it, of the Republican Party. Fundamentalists, that is, people who believe in the literal truth of the bible and trying to ground public policy as closely as possible in biblical beliefs, have been around a long time. But their participation in politics seems to ebb and flow.
For example, in the 1920s, religious fundamentalists were very active in the movement against Darwinism, against the theory of evolution. Of course, a famous episode in that struggle was the Scopes trial in Tennessee in the 1920s, in which a teacher was convicted of violating a Tennessee state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. That trial sort of subjected fundamentalist teaching to ridicule in the mainstream cosmopolitan press and led to a retreat from politics.
This was coupled, of course, with prohibition, which was in effect in the 1920s and had been supported by many different groups. But religious fundamentalists were one of the groups that brought about prohibition. Although by the end of the 1920s prohibition was seen as a disaster and a failure and was repealed in the early 1930s.
And so, the combination of the Scopes trial and the fiasco of prohibition seemed to lead many religious fundamentalists to retreat from direct engagement in public life. They may have commented on public life but they didn’t organize politically again until really the 1970s when, once again worried about what the considered rampant immorality in American life—the feminist movement of the 1960s was a challenge to traditional gender roles and the traditional definition of women as housekeepers, homemakers, etc. Also a Supreme Court decision barring prayer in public schools, the rise of the Gay Movement, all of these things were, in the eyes of many a religious fundamentalist, signs of a kind of moral decay in the country. And led by people like the Reverend Jerry Falwell and others, fundamentalists mobilized to go back into politics to try to affect public life. They helped to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The problem facing these groups, and this continues all the way to the present, is that the social changes that are alarming to them seem to be irreversible. No matter what kinds of laws you pass, you are not going to have women go back to the traditional role of the 19th century where they’re in the separate sphere of the home and do not work anymore. You’re not going to go back to the patriarchal family where the man is the head of the family and women have very little voice. And the proliferation of the Internet and different modes of communication is sort of flooding the country with all kinds of images, many of which are seen as very offensive by deeply religious people. But it seems difficult to imagine how you’re somehow going to get rid of that. So, in a way they are fighting an uphill battle against the tides of modern life, many of which seem to be quite hostile to some of the moral standards of religious fundamentalism.