Rich Mouw: A Fundamentalist with a Sense of Humor

George Marsden

Rich Mouw is a fundamentalist with a sense of humor. When I say he is a fundamentalist, I mean it in the best sense of the term. He appreciates what is fundamental to fundamentalism. Nothing is more important to him than to love Jesus, and for him that love is simple and heart-felt. He has written of his liking of “the smell of sawdust” and of what believers who think themselves more sophisticated can learn from that heritage. When has he preached when he has not quoted a Gospel song?

While fundamentalism is usually noted for its militancy, Rich, as a fundamentalist with a sense of humor, is often disarming. As anyone who has been around him very long knows, Rich is amazingly quick on his feet and can come up with priceless lines. The essence of his sense of humor is the ability to see things in new and unexpected relationships. Once, a group of us spent a weekend on Captiva Island, Florida, as part of a Pew Foundation program on Christian scholarship. Rich gave the Sunday morning meditation. His theme was from 2 Corinthians 10:5: “Let us bring into Captiva every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

Seeing the fundamentals of Christianity in new and unexpected relationships has been the characteristic of Rich’s outlook throughout his career. The counterpart is not to be held captive by the conventional interpretations of a tradition. Another way of saying that is that Rich has a marvelous ability to distinguish between what is essential in the Christian heritage and what is peripheral and dispensable or at least negotiable. That starts with the Reformed version of fundamentalism in which he was reared. American fundamentalism was shaped by a populist heritage and a peculiar set of ecclesiastical and cultural battles of the first half of the twentieth century. Sometimes there were good reasons for fundamentalists to take the stands that they did, at least compared to the alternatives. But often their militancy in combatting what was wrong led to drawing far-more-narrow lines than those defined by the central doctrines of the faith shared by Christians through the ages. For Rich, deep study of the Reformed heritage and especially Abraham Kuyper was his primary antidote to narrow fundamentalism. But, his genius has been to distinguish between what is essential and what is peripheral and negotiable in these traditions as well. So characteristically, in his little book on Calvinism (Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport) he offers what he calls “mere” Calvinism, or what he sees as the essence of the heritage. Likewise regarding Kuyper, he has no difficulty in moving beyond what is time-bound in Kuyper and updating his mentor to fit contemporary concerns.

That leads to one of Rich’s major contributions to the Christian world for the past generation. Whereas fundamentalism fostered a legacy of building moats and battlements to fight off various ecclesiastical or cultural enemies, Rich has been a builder of bridges. At first that was largely in bridging the gap between traditional Christian teachings and progressive politics, as suggested in the title of his early book Political Evangelism (1973). More broadly he has become the leading evangelical participant in ecumenical dialogues for the past several decades. He is also the leader of the evangelical side of the Mormon-evangelical dialogues. Such bridge building takes the same skills that shape his sense of humor: the ability to see things in new relationships; and that hone his theological perspective: the related skill of being able to distinguish between the essential and the peripheral. And that in turn involves firm commitment to the essentials or the fundamentals of the faith. Rich’s bridge building depends on his ability to find commonalities—sometimes surprising commonalities. But there is no indiscriminate throwing of pontoons over rapids that will not sustain them. Distinguishing between what is essential and peripheral also involves recognizing differences. The best bridge building involves maintaining firm foundations on one’s own side of the gap that might be traversed. So to preserve the essence of Christianity it is sometimes necessary to take a stand and to say we can go only so far. Rich is a genuinely friendly person who can find commonalities with just about anyone. Yet good Kuyperian that he is, he recognizes antithesis as well as common grace. Having the sense of humor that he does, he can often relate these two in uncommon ways.

Ultimately his work in bringing people together is grounded in his trust in the reconciling work of Jesus. Rich is grounded in Scripture as well as in Gospel song and in any of his addresses the words he is most likely to quote are “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow. . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” That is a blessed hope that ties his heritage to his good-humored enthusiasm for his many ongoing concerns.

George Marsden is professor of history, emeritus, at the Univeristy of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.