Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Fundamentalisms and American Pluralism *

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Fundamentalisms and American Pluralism *

Article excerpt

I. Fundamentalisms

Here I will draw upon the insights of the massive Fundamentalism Project, conducted under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences by Martin Marty, R. Scott Appleby, and a host of other religion scholars.

The origin of the term "fundamentalism" can be traced back to the early 1900's as the self-designation of a group of conservative American Protestants who profiled themselves "as militants willing to do 'battle royal' to preserve the 'fundamentals' of the Christian faith from the evolutionists and biblical critics infecting mainline seminaries and colleges." (2) The term has since been applied to groups and movements across religions, including classic or "pure" cases in Christianity, Islam (for example, the Khomeini-inspired Shi'ite revolutionaries of Iran, Hamas in Palestine, and extreme revivalist groups in the Arab world and Pakistan), Judaism (for example, ultra-Orthodox groups in the West and Israel), and the Sikh Faith (radical Sikh groups in the Punjab), plus what I would label semi- or quasi-fundamentalist cases in various religions (for example, Hindu nationalist groups and extremist Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka, where ethnicity overshadows religious identity). (3) Hence, the plural in my title, for there are many pure and partial "fundamentalisms" beyond the original locus of the term in one corner of conservative American Protestantism.

I offer here a definition of "fundamentalism" taken from the book Strong Religion, the title an apt shorthand phrase for the phenomenon. I recognize that scholars disagree over usage of the term, (4) but I find this definition immensely helpful in clarifying the heart of the fundamentalist worldview and agenda: Fundamentalism is "a discernible pattern of religious militance by which self-styled 'true believers' attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors." (5) This definition confines the notion of fundamentalism to religious contexts. Political or other kinds of nonreligious groups may be militant, but fundamentalist militance stems from religious motivations, seeks religious goals, and battles a secular (that is, nonreligious, even anti-religious) enemy. (6) Definitionally, the term "religious fundamentalism" is thus redundant-"fundamentalism" per se is a religious worldview and pattern of behavior.

Fundamentalists are distinguished from other religious conservatives by their militance. They are fighters, observe Marty and Appleby: (7) They fight back in the face of secular inroads; they fight for traditional values and institutions; they fight with a selected arsenal of symbolic and ideological weapons; they fight against enemies both within and outside of their religion; and they fight under divine or transcendent authority. Fundamentalists do not necessarily resort to violence, but they are characteristically fighters. (8) They engage in "[militant] resistance to modern forms of secularization." (9) The major threats are secular states, secular societies (and the ideologies undergirding them, including religious pluralism), and weak or compromising religious establishments. (10) The battle is typically portrayed in starkly dualistic terms--between good and evil, elect and damned, faithful and secular. (11)

We must take care to differentiate fundamentalism from other conservative forms of religion, especially in American Protestantism. Although they all share some common beliefs, evangelicals and charismatics often draw the ire of fundamentalists--evangelicals because they have shown themselves too willing to compromise with the secular enemy, charismatics because they are too unpredictable in their reliance on contemporary guidance by the Holy Spirit. (12) The boundaries between conservative Protestant groups may sometimes blur, but it is analytically unhelpful to lump them all together. …

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