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The Flea Flicker and other tricks from the fundamentalist playbook

The NFL is in the midst of the playoffs to see who will soon battle in Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas on Feb. 11. As the remaining contenders compete, coaches and players watch hours of film on their opponents and strategize a plan to counter their offensive and defensive schemes.

Football players do not just walk out on the field, snap the ball and hope to score. Rather, the offensive coordinator develops an extensive playbook of various ways his team can try to advance down the field. Calling the right plays and executing them is essential for victory. However, when the defense on the other side of the ball can predict the play calling of their opponent, they can limit the effectiveness of the offense, force them to punt and provide their own offense with opportunities to score.

Fundamentalism has a playbook, and if you have to play defense against it you need to know the plays so you can prevent them from oppressing you, destroying your faith and dividing your congregation.

Fundamentalism, by definition, seeks to maintain strict adherence to the “fundamentals” they hold to be true. In a religious context, this oftentimes manifests in a mandated adherence to a literal interpretation of Scripture, a set of dogmatic and creedal statements of belief, and an intentional separation between those who are in and out of the group.


Common plays

Here are some of the common offensive schemes from the football playbook and how they parallel the aggressive tactics of fundamentalism:


POWER PLAY: when there is a double-team of an opposing player, deep blockers are sent downfield, and the ball is handed to the running back. The goal is to use power to aggressively open a gap for the running back.

Fundamentalism is built on the power scheme. While fundamentalists veraciously claim to believe in the Bible, they only validate their interpretation of the ancient text. Any other viewpoint is invalid to them and therefore heretical. Hence, to ensure you maintain correct doctrine, you have to turn to their leaders; to participate or teach in their institutions, you have to conscribe to their creeds.


COUNTER: when a running back carrying the ball takes a couple of steps in one direction to lure the defense to that side but then goes in the opposite direction. The goal is to use misdirection to deceive the defense away from the intended path of the running back.

Fundamentalism is built on deception. For example, fundamentalists say anyone is welcome in their church, school or institution, but they create an environment where all are not accepted. If you are unlike them (in appearance, personal preferences, beliefs, sexual orientation or lifestyle), you must conform to be included. Otherwise, you will be blackballed, shunned and gaslit until you leave or are publicly ousted.


QUARTERBACK SNEAK: when the quarterback reads the defense and deems it is advantageous for him to run the ball himself right behind the center for a short-yardage gain. The goal is to use a sneaky approach to get a minimal gain for a first down or score.

Fundamentalist leaders oftentimes act in secret. They typically avoid accountability and try to maintain ultimate leadership, authority and control. They speak about being called by and accountable to God alone. This frequently leads to the misuse of power, sexual harassment and abuse, and financial impropriety. Regrettably, even when confronted, the rote response is to deny the accusations, justify what happened and ignore any negative implications.


OPTION: when the quarterback takes the ball and either keeps the ball (running around the outside blockers) or pitches the ball to the running back. The goal is to give the quarterback decision-making options depending on the circumstances and response of the defensive players.

Fundamentalists are selective in their validation of science, medicine, history, culture and archaeology. On the one hand, fundamentalist leaders are always looking for evidence to further back their viewpoint or scriptural interpretation. However, whenever something is discovered that brings their dogma into question, it is quickly labeled false or “fake news.” Hence, it is their belief about who God is, what the Bible says and how people are to live that tests all other theories for validity and truth.


FLEA FLICKER: when the quarterback hands the ball to the running back to trick the defense into thinking it is a running play, but the ball is tossed back to the quarterback to throw to an open wide receiver. The goal is to trick the defense into attacking the run to give the receivers time to get open.

Fundamentalists regularly speak of advocacy in principle but rarely is their cause consistent with other related issues. For example, many hold to a “pro-life” view against abortion, making this the single issue of their political voting, but they have little to no advocacy for other issues that preserve life. Fundamentalists tend to be opposed to gun control laws, advocate for the death penalty, want a strong military, and fail to do social service work or seek to aid the underprivileged.


END AROUND: when the quarterback hands the ball to a wide receiver, who then decides either to run the ball around the outside of the line or to stop and throw the ball to an open receiver. The goal is to use a different player than the quarterback to lead the play.

Fundamentalism weds religion with politics. Seeking to utilize executive, legislative and judicial branches to govern the nation with their values, Christian nationalists portray certain political leaders as messianic figures who hold a divine right to represent God and guide the nation back to being a “nation under God.” Using politicians to advance the cause is antithetical to the principles of democracy and the way of Jesus.


PLAY-ACTION: when the quarterback fakes a handoff to the running back, steps back and passes the ball. The goal is to deceive the defense and get them to commit to a run play, giving the quarterback time to take action, find the open receiver and throw him the ball.

Fundamentalism is more about creating an empire than saving souls. Evangelistic strategies often accompany scare tactics and emotional altar calls; mission trips are often focused on colonialization of other people groups, followed by a return voyage back home; preaching becomes more about indoctrination than open exploration of Scripture. The work of fundamentalism prioritizes preserving truth over caring for people.


SLANT: when the wide receiver goes straight down the field and then makes a move to the center (post route) or the edge (corner route) of the field. The goal is to take advantage of the speed and athleticism of the receiver to get open and catch the ball.

Fundamentalism puts its own slant on pretty much everything. They view the actions of their own people very differently than similar actions of their opponents. Denouncing the protests and escalated riots for racial equality but expressing empathy and vindication for the assault on the capital on January 6 is just one example of the many inconsistencies that accompany fundamentalist thinking.


SCREEN PASS: when the quarterback throws the ball (oftentimes to the running back) behind the line of scrimmage with blockers in front of him. The goal is to get enough blocking to screen the receiver from potential defensive tacklers, advancing the ball farther down the field.

Fundamentalism oftentimes screens what they do by redirecting it to what others do. Instead of accepting responsibility for harmful actions against others, demonizing of marginalized people groups or unloving responses to people in need, fundamentalists tend to shift blame. They create a straw man and then use terms like “socialist,” “Marxist,” “leftist” or “liberal” to describe their opponent’s agenda, never acknowledging their own. They screen their attitudes and actions as being for the safety and wellness of others, while condemning the beliefs and behaviors of their opponents as detrimental to society.


HAIL MARY: when in desperation the quarterback steps back and throws the ball deep down the field toward the end zone in hopes that a receiver will catch the ball and win the game. The goal is to throw the ball up like a “prayer,” hoping the right player will catch the ball and change the outcome of the game.

The resurgence of religious and secular fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s is in a steep decline. The growing rise of the “nones,” who have walked away from organized religion, the trauma many have experienced within fundamentalist churches and from political figures, and the growth of counter movements such as emergence and deconstruction, leave many fundamentalist churches and organizations aging and dying. In recent years, more desperate and drastic measures have been taken to try to turn the tides. Embracing a politicized form of religion, refusing gender equity, caustically denouncing the LGBTQ community and claiming the false label of the “silent majority” are just a few of their “hail Mary” tactics.


Fundamentalism is deadly

I have been a pastor for nearly 30 years, sat on both sides of the classroom in several religious universities and seminaries and listened to hundreds of people share their experiences in religious circles as a counselor and life coach. Time and time again, I have seen the devastating results of extreme conservatives who relied on the fundamentalist playbook to wield the sword and advance their own kingdoms all in the name of Jesus.

This has happened since the inception of Christianity and is certainly not exclusive to one religion. Fundamentalism has distorted the good of humanity into an evil that harms and threatens the existence of many faiths and the wellness of the human race.

As we continue through these times of political, religious and social uncertainty, fear abounds. What will our nation look like after the elections in November? What will the church look like in another decade? What will the world look like as wars continue to rage? There are many unanswered questions that result in high levels of anxiety.

Yet, the answer to these challenges is never to embrace the fracturing and divisive approach of fundamentalism. This playbook is ineffective and counter-intuitive to advance God’s kingdom on earth.


The Jesus way

Jesus taught and modeled a kingdom that prioritizes the values of poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy and peace, even when persecuted. These are the ones who are blessed in God’s kingdom. So, instead of trying to overpower fundamentalist views, let us see through them, avoid them and help others identify their destructive wake.

Know the fundamentalist playbook and counter it with holy curiosity that continues to ask questions and seeks deeper truth. Avoid letting fundamentalism distract you from caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and prisoner. Living with compassion for the ones deemed least in society is the way for us to know Jesus and to make him known in our world.

Fundamentalism’s quest for power is an antichrist, but the quest to love is of Christ.

Love! This is how we defend against the schemes of fundamentalism. This is the playbook of Jesus and of his kingdom.


Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he now leads a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.