What is Fundamentalism?

I recently made a complaint via social media about jumping into a dialogue with a “fundie.” Despite my inclinations not to (you know, that red blinking alarm that goes off inside your head), I opened a can of worms that needed to just stay shut. So there you go. Once again, I’m causing controversy! What a surprise…

Of course, I woke up this morning to have a private message from a self-identifying fundamentalist. It was gracious, was written with a loving heart, and just noted that not all “fundies” are of the sort I was frustrated with. It was a point of correction and, for me, a need to clarify what I mean by ‘fundamentalist.’ This is an important clarification, for while I’m an opinionated individual on a number of topics, I never want my readers to think that when I speak negatively about any topic that I am relegating the proponents of those views with the actual criticism. I think it is extremely important, in all but a few cases, to separate the person from the argument. I know many people who love God, love their neighbor, love the Bible, practice faith in their personal lives and society, etc. that hold to many of the views I disagree with. I would actually be quite wary of calling a single one of them a fundamentalist, for I the way in which I think the term holds weight now has changed dramatically in the past 100 years.

Historically, fundamentalism was a movement in reaction to the liberal theology which ousted the reality of miracles, the divinity of Jesus, the physical resurrection, and so on. It did not make Jesus the object of faith but, rather, merely the example of it. Between 1910 and 1915 a series of tracts were published entitled…wait for it…The Fundamentals. Within these pages, there were five fundamental doctrines of the faith: 1) The virgin birth; 2) The verbal inspiration of Scripture; 3) The substitutionary death of Jesus; 4) The physical resurrection; 5) The second coming of Jesus.

Of course, even on this count I would not fall in with the fundamentalist camp due to my rejection of point 2. And I am not convinced that number 1 should be considered a “fundamental” anyways, though I understand how some get there. However, the point is this: fundamentalism was actually a designation for a set of beliefs, not a general attitude.

The tides have turned. The word, by and large, has lost its meaning. As Larry Wood notes, ‘It is customary today to use the label of fundamentalism in a pejorative way when one wants to condemn another’s point of view as being too narrow. As a result, the term is no longer useful. Few contemporary conservative scholars would use it as a term to describe their theological position” (Wood, Theology as History and Hermeneutics, 29). And as Wood recognizes, the pejorative sense to the word was a natural progression to the word’s changing definition.

We have exchanged the five fundamental doctrines for the five fundamental attitudes:

  • Self-Righteousness – The lack of expressed humility towards both unbeliever and believer. There is a sort of exalted pompous attitude inherent in ones words and actions which reflect a “Holier than thou” attitude.
  • Judgment – The desire and proclivity to pass non-justifiable condemnation on others who might not share your same convictions. Usually, this sort of judgment is expressed without a willingness to dialogue about the issues at hand but, rather, is ad hominem in nature (attacking the person). Terms like “bigot”, “moron”, “godless”, etc. Also, in the south, “Bless your heart” 😉
  • Exclusion – The adoption of an ‘Us vs. Them’ approach. This often characterizes itself not just in externally separating oneself off from the world but, equally, separating oneself off from fellow believers (notably, by using language like ‘heresy’).
  • Narrow Mindedness – Unwillingness to actually consider, as objectively as possible, the views and convictions of others. There is no need to consider the validity of another’s opinions due to your indubitable certainty in yours.
  • Ignorance – Related to Narrow Mindedness, today’s fundamentalists tend to be (though not always) uneducated in the disciplines that they speak so passionately about and against.

Of course, some who consider themselves fundamentalists might be insulted by the description I just offered. But then again, that’s the point of this post: you’re probably not a fundamentalist in how that term is generally conceived nowadays. Also, it’s important to note that fundamentlism no longer equals conservatism. Indeed, there are fundamentalists of all stripes and colors. Not all fundamentalists are conservatives and not all conservatives are fundamentalists. It is an attitude, a general approach to having, expressing, and enforcing an opinion on others.

What are your thoughts? Are there other tenants of the new fundamentalism that I am missing?

  • Lonergan and Voegelin use the term “differentiated consciousness” to distinguish between a common sense ( things as they appear to a person) and theory ( things as they relate to things).
    When a person can live and function in both worlds as the situation requires, they will move from fundamentalism ( common sense) to a comprehensive worldview. As NT Wright says in the opening pages of Justification worldviews make a difference!
    Blessings, Mike

  • 母3子(haha3ko)

    Just a slightly tangential thought: the definition of delusion is a belief that is held with no option for discussion.

  • Jason