The Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism

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Jonathan J. Edwards
Rhetoric & Public Affairs
  • East Lansing, MI: 
    Michigan State University Press
    , April
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Superchurch: the Rhetoric and Politics of American Fundamentalism, Jonathan Edwards explores the way rhetoric functions to create fundamentalism as a counter-public, which he defines as “a rhetorical process by which social movements continually rearticulate the boundaries of marginalization and resistance through discursive constructions of public exclusion and oppression”(9).  Edwards’s claim is not that fundamentalism is marginalized and/or oppressed, but rather that it constructs its identity as such.

The book traces the history of fundamentalism from its puritan roots through the 20th century, using examples from mid-century popular fundamentalist culture such as the film A Thief in the Night and the rise of Christian radio, to the church growth movement, megachurches, and superchurches.  All this with a focus not on beliefs, but on rhetoric—specifically a taxonomy dividing the institutional church (as it makes common cause with the state) and the imagined “true” church.

Edwards explains and explores the notion of counter-publicity as one in which the dominant public is challenged by counter-publics that reject the totalizing discourse of the dominant public (147). He specifically focuses on the employment of what he calls “verbal condensation symbols” (58), which are symbols that have no “rational or critical dimension”; they do not make propositional claims and are therefore difficult to refute. Speakers and hearers attach their own meanings to them while often assuming their meaning to be obvious and objectively agreed upon.

The book’s framework challenges the view that non-religious secularity can be neutral regarding religion; indeed, as the author points out, some religious communities believe that they are required to base their public commitments on religious convictions. Moreover, these communities have come to see secularity as an effort to “marginalize or eliminate” their fundamentalism (7).

This is an important theoretical shift away from efforts to understand fundamentalism as a system of theological beliefs, and helps resolve some paradoxes created by earlier approaches, such as why premillennial fundamentalists engage in efforts to reshape the political world while expecting it to come to an end in the immediate future, how a movement can be both separatist and expansionist, and how a movement that in parts of the country represents a hegemony can effectively construct its self-identity as embattled and persecuted? Edwards makes his argument with reference to specific examples within fundamentalism, but makes clear that he is making claims that have broader applicability. These discursive strategies are not limited to certain ideologies, or even to movements deemed “religious.” Edwards points out the ways they can be used by all manner of groups that are marginalized or perceive themselves to be marginalized.

This work is densely theoretical, challenging, and insightful. For those familiar with the history of American Protestant fundamentalism, Edwards situates the familiar narrative in a new theoretical framework, shedding an entirely new light on the story. But theoretical models should have a general applicability, and Edwards also effectively shows us the broader implications of this analysis of discourse.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julie J. Ingersoll is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at University of North Florida. 

Date of Review: 
May 17, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan J. Edwards is Instructor of Speech Communication and Rhetoric at the University of South Carolina.


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