Fundamentalism—What Is It?
WHERE did fundamentalism start? At the end of the last century, liberal theologians were changing their beliefs to accommodate higher criticism of the Bible and scientific theories, such as evolution. As a result, people’s confidence in the Bible was shaken. Conservative religious leaders in the United States reacted by fixing what they called the fundamentals of faith.a Early in the 20th century, they published a discussion of these fundamentals in a series of volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. From this title comes the term “fundamentalism.”
In the first half of the 20th century, fundamentalism made news from time to time. For example, in 1925, religious fundamentalists took a schoolteacher named John Scopes of Tennessee, U.S.A., to court in what became known as the Scopes trial. His crime? He was teaching evolution, and that was against state law. In those days, some believed that fundamentalism would be short-lived. In 1926, Christian Century, a Protestant magazine, said that it was “hollow and artificial” and “wholly lacking in qualities of constructive achievement or survival.” How wrong that assessment was!
Since the 1970’s, fundamentalism has constantly been in the news. Professor Miroslav Volf, of Fuller Theological Seminary, California, U.S.A., says: “Fundamentalism has not only survived, but also flourished.” Today, the word “fundamentalism” applies not only to Protestant movements but also to those in other religions, such as Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.
A Reaction to Our Times
Why the spread of fundamentalism? Those who study it attribute it, at least in part, to the moral and religious uncertainty of our times. In earlier years most societies lived in an atmosphere of moral certainty based on traditional beliefs. Now those beliefs are challenged or rejected. Many intellectuals assert that there is no God and that man is alone in an indifferent universe. Many scientists teach that mankind is the result of chance evolution, not of the actions of a loving Creator. A permissive mentality prevails. The world is plagued with a loss of moral values on all levels of society.—2 Timothy 3:4, 5, 13.
Fundamentalists hanker after the old certainties, and some of them strive to bring their communities and nations back to what they feel are proper moral and doctrinal foundations. They do all in their power to force others to live according to a “correct” moral code and system of doctrinal beliefs. A fundamentalist is strongly convinced that he is right and others are wrong. Professor James Barr, in his book Fundamentalism, says that fundamentalism “is often felt to be a hostile and opprobrious term, suggesting narrowness, bigotry, obscurantism and sectarianism.”
Since nobody likes to be called narrow, bigoted, or sectarian, not all agree on who is a fundamentalist and who is not. There are, however, certain aspects that characterize religious fundamentalism.
Identifying a Fundamentalist
Religious fundamentalism is usually an attempt to preserve what is believed to be the original traditions or religious beliefs of a culture and to oppose what is perceived as the secular spirit of the world. That is not to say that fundamentalists oppose all that is modern. Some use modern communication very effectively to promote their point of view. But they fight against the secularization of society.b
Some fundamentalists are determined not only to preserve for themselves a traditional structure of doctrines or way of life but to impose these on others, to change social structures so that they conform with the fundamentalists’ beliefs. The Catholic fundamentalist, therefore, will not limit himself to rejecting abortion. He may well pressure the legislators of his country to promote laws outlawing abortion. In Poland, according to the newspaper La Repubblica, in order to have an antiabortion law approved, the Catholic Church conducted “a ‘war’ in which it deployed all its power and influence.” In doing so, the church authorities were acting very much like fundamentalists. The Protestant Christian Coalition in the United States fights similar “wars.”
Fundamentalists are distinguished above all by their deep-rooted religious convictions. Thus, a Protestant fundamentalist will be a convinced proponent of the literal interpretation of the Bible, likely including the belief that the earth was created in six literal days. A Catholic fundamentalist has no doubts about the infallibility of the pope.
It is understandable, then, why the term “fundamentalism” evokes the image of unreasoning fanaticism and why those who are not fundamentalists are uneasy when they see fundamentalism spreading. As individuals, we may disagree with fundamentalists and be appalled by their political maneuverings and their sometimes violent actions. Indeed, fundamentalists of one religion may be horrified at the actions of those of another religion! Still, many thinking people are concerned about the things that provoke the spread of fundamentalism—the growing moral laxity, the loss of faith, and the rejection of spirituality in modern society.
Is fundamentalism the only response to these trends? If not, what is the alternative?
a The so-called Five Points of Fundamentalism, defined in 1895, were “(1) the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture; (2) the deity of Jesus Christ; (3) the virgin birth of Christ; (4) the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross; (5) the bodily resurrection and the personal and physical second coming of Christ on the earth.”—Studi di teologia (Studies of Theology).
b “Secularization” means stressing the secular, as opposed to the spiritual or sacred. The secular is not concerned with religion or with religious beliefs.
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In 1926 a Protestant magazine described fundamentalism as “hollow and artificial” and “wholly lacking the qualities of constructive achievement or survival”