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Volume 8, Issue 4: Non Est

Everyone's a Fundamentalist

Douglas Jones

Rhetoricians from all neighborhoods know the power of unstated assumptions. If I openly criticize your claim, then I have to fight it out in the mud with you; but if I can backhandedly assume that your view is crazy, then the argument is already over. Recent discussions about "fundamentalism" use this tactic well.

The Fundamentalism Project directed by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby and sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has been publishing a hefty five volume study on "fundamentalist" movements making waves in the world's religions. In these papers and conferences, modernists play the tired, old game of being fair and honest observers of something they despise. Since open polemics is beneath them, they engage in showing how various forces of history have converged to produce this odd, recent phenomenon of fundamentalism in every major religion.
Notice the supposed subtlety typical of this sort of research. If you can show that some view is merely the accidental product of recent history, then you gut its claim to be true. To be true it couldn't be of recent origins or accidental. On top of this, deny that worldview any uniqueness by showing that it shares common features with other "abnormal" views, and again you win backhandedly. No mud, no mess. Outside of the circles of back-patting modernists and MacArthur Foundation funding, these sorts of arguments are known simply as fallacies.
Such historical explanations, though, are very, very persuasive, and orthodox Christians should become much more adept at using them in understanding all forms of non-Christian thought, especially religious modernism. If your view is true, then such accounts cease to be fallacies (since all other views can only be products of history). They only become fallacious if you feign neutrality but assume the other guys are wrong.
The researchers involved in analyzing fundamentalism always tip their hats to the fact that the term arose out of early-twentieth century American Protestantism. In the battles with earlier modernists, orthodox Christians, like J. Gresham Machen, circumscribed a list of doctrines that were essential or fundamental to Christianity, much akin to such "crazy, unprogressive" statements as the Apostle's Creed. This stalwart group, however, was an unstable alliance of anti-intellectual pietists and historic Reformational types. The groups diverged quickly, and the pietists withdrew from the social and intellectual arena and set up their Bible colleges, taking with them the title fundamentalist. In this context, the term became associated with pietistic, anti-intellectual, dispensational, atomistic Protestantism.
Over the past decade, media and government officials have taken that term and tacked it on to any extremist religious group that holds "unprogressive" views, whether Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, etc. It's quite interesting, but not surprising, that an era plump with journalistic sensitivity codes has no hesitation in shrouding everyone it doesn't like under the title of fundamentalist. In the colonial world it was "whites" and "nonwhites"; in the modern world it's "progressives" and "fundamentalists." The postmodernists are not always wrong when they point out that modernists use language hierarchies to marginalize one group for the benefit of the established powers.
What I find most humorous about research into "fundamentalisms" are the definitions. The researcher always scowls and pulls some hair talking about how hard it is to define fundamentalism. After all, they have to make the term cover William Jennings Bryan, J. Gresham Machen, and Ralph Reed, as well as Sinhalese Buddhists, Islamic Shi'ites, and Missouri Synod Lutherans. But at the same time, they have to formulate a definition that precludes worldviews they like. This is no easy feat.
In Defenders of God, Bruce Lawrence describes fundamentalism as an exclusively modern development which includes people who (a) view themselves as the righteous remnant, (b) are confrontive in opposing their enemies, (c) have a hierarchy of male elites, (d) generate their own technical vocabulary, (e) have historical antecedents but no ideological precursors.[1] Apart from (e) which is virtually meaningless in context, these characteristics also cover American Indian religions, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformation, most third-world liberation movements, and many homosexual lobbying groups.
In Fundamentalisms Observed, the editors Marty and Appleby sketch fundamentalists as those who (a) fight back against attacks on their core beliefs, (b) fight for a self-consciously held worldview, (c) fight with a select image of the past, (d) fight against those outside the group, and (e) fight under God, or some transcendent reference point.[2] But how many groups and persons would fall under this definition? Hillary Clinton certainly would be counted as a fundamentalist, as would environmentalists, signers of the Humanist Manifestoes, the A.C.L.U., N.E.A., the New York Times, and Sesame Street. We're all fundamentalists now!
Though quite shocking to modernists, what unites all these groups is a commitment to what they believe. They actually think it's true. Gasp. It might be simpler just to define fundamentalists as those who believe that their own worldview is true and religious modernists as those who believe that their own worldview is false.

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