After Movements Die…


I want to address one aspect of Don Johnson’s post on movements separately from my larger answer posted last week. Part of my argument then was to suggest that Don did not give sufficient weight to Webster’s use of organized in its definition of movement. One way in which Don downplays the organized aspect is by appealing to the example mentioned by the dictionary:

However, in the sample phrase the dictionary gives (‘the civil rights movement’), tight organization is not much more evident than we have seen in fundamentalism or evangelicalism, so I suspect the emphasis of the definition should fall on ‘activities working toward an objective’ or ‘effort to promote or attain an end’ rather than on the word organized.

This is one of those strange situations where I think Don’s example actually supplies more evidence for my point than for his because it shows the kind of presentism that misreads history by reading the way things are now back into the way they were. In its present state the civil rights movement is actually no longer a movment since it is not organized and lacks clear objectives, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in its heyday there was very clear and careful coordination of activity and effort aimed at advancing a definite agenda. Protests and marches were planned and executed. Legislation was introduced and achieved. Leaders were known and recognized as directing and speaking for the movement.

That does not mean that it was a single organization, but it would be fallacious to equate being organized with being an organization. In this regard, Don has set up his argument by using a qualifier—tight organization—that makes it hard to refute his point because there are varying definitions of tight.  But, the fact is that the reason the description “civil rights movement” could be applied to it was that there was a definite objective and the parties interested in that objective worked together toward it. Each may have had a particularly slant or sub-agenda (e.g., labor issues), but it was all part of the overarching objective. There is no doubt that the major portion of the movement was the objectives, but we cannot properly deny that there was organized effort to achieve these objectives.

When their goals were largely achieved and the collectiveness of their efforts began to break down, the movement stalled and died. That’s why most histories of it have a specific set of dates for the civil rights movement. They don’t all agree, as is common in these kinds of historical, sociological assessments, but they have an end date. This is why I think Don’s example, borrowed from Webster, actually reinforces my point, not his. The movement existed where there were clear objectives and organized effort to accomplish those. The same was true about the fundamentalist movement.

The dark side of drawing analogies between the civil rights movement and the fundamentalist movement is that it raises the question of whether some of what we see and detest about the vestiges of the civil rights movement actually has parallels in the vestiges of the fundamentalist movement. In its worst present day moments some heirs of the civil rights movement grandstand in order to build a following for themselves and feed on old grievances in order to advance current agendas (and sadly they usually have Rev. before their names!). Something tragic happens and they seize it to stir up trouble. Someone misspeaks or makes what looks like a bad decision and they pounce on it as an opportunity to score points. In the absence of real, significant objectives, the focus shifts toward keeping themselves relevant and recognized.

Frankly, it makes me very unhappy and uncomfortable completing the analogy. A movement has to be for something and it has to be working in coordination (even if loosely) to achieve it. When it loses its reason for existence and fragments into competing agendas, then it ceases to be the movement it once was. Subsets of the once strong movement begin to compete to be the true heirs of the movement, each adding some unique twist to identity markers and boundary questions. Rival voices try to prove their bona fides by taking on some opponent (real or imaginary). Loyalty is built by demonizing the others. Doubts about the need for and existence of the movement are met with them versus us talk rather than explanation of contrasting ideas and animating beliefs.

Thankfully, there are heirs of the fundamentalist movement who have retained their commitment to the ideas and animating beliefs, and that are motivated by a desire to guard the gospel and the purity of the church, not merely position themselves as the true defenders against all the pretenders. The fact, though, that there is very little unity and virtually no organized effort toward a common objective makes me firmly convinced that we cannot look to the movement to do what needs to be done. Really, we never should have made so much of the movement in the first place since the centerpiece of the battle is the church, not the movement.

Churches which agree regarding sound doctrine and separatist commitments should work together as they deem fitting to advance the mission of Jesus Christ. We don’t need anything bigger than that.

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