Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

The Nonproblem of Fundamentalism

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

The Nonproblem of Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

I am not sure I should be here. When I was invited to this conference on "Families, Fundamentalism, & the First Amendment," my reaction was that, although there are real issues worth discussing, this is the wrong way to identify them. I still think so.

The announcement of this conference declares: "Fundamentalist families compel the state to confront a classic political challenge in which it must balance its commitment to noninterference in private lives against its commitment to securing individuals' entitlements to certain basic liberties, even when threats to those liberties come from within the family itself."1 Fundamentalist families, then, are understood to constitute a threat to basic liberties.

This is a big mistake. Unless you are invested in a modernist biblical hermeneutic, fundamentalism as such is not a problem.

Fundamentalism, without more, entails nothing in particular about basic liberties. It is a strategy of biblical interpretation, contingently and historically linked to a kind of anti-modernism. Its contingency means that its agenda will sometimes coincide with that of modernist liberals. There is no problem of fundamentalism as such. There is a cluster of problems, with which some fundamentalists tend to be associated. The value of fundamentalism is something that needs to be determined at retail, case by case.


Defining fundamentalism is tricky. George Marsden observes that "fundamentalism," in its original 1920s form, refers to "abroad coalition of conservatives from major denominations and revivalists (prominently including premillennial dispensationalists) who are militantly opposed to modernism in the churches and to certain modern cultural mores."2 More specifically, it refers to a movement that avows a literal interpretation of the Bible.3 In more modern usage, it refers to the evangelical Protestant wing of the Religious Right, a coalition that also includes Catholics and Mormons.4 The agenda of the Religious Right is, of course, associated with conservative positions on abortion, gay rights, funding for the arts, child care policy, the roles of the sexes, and the place of traditional values in education and especially in sex education.5

With respect to each of these issues, fundamentalism is essentially a reaction against what James Davison Hunter has called a "progressive" worldview, which tends to take human well-being as the ultimate standard by which moral judgments and policy decisions are grounded, and to treat any moral truth as a human construction that is always subject to révaluation in light of experience.6 Perhaps because of its oppositional character in modern circumstances, Marsden is able to suggest a shorthand definition: a fundamentalist is "an evangelical who is angry about something."7 The bounds of the category, in short, are somewhat vague. For my purposes, I will use it to refer to the set of people who self-identify this way. As thus defined, it describes a lot of people.

The illiberalism of American fundamentalists should not be exaggerated. Marsden notes some salient differences between American fundamentalists and radical Islamists, to whom the label "fundamentalist" is also often applied.8 Both are trying to stop the '"erosion of religious identity . . . and create viable alternatives to secular institutions.'"9 But American fundamentalists' warfare "is almost always metaphorical rather than literal."10 They hardly ever engage in violence, they affirm separation of church and state, they are strong believers in individual liberty, and they remain comfortable with the liberal ideals of the American Revolution.11

In some respects, fundamentalists can even be enlisted as friends of liberalism. Their first champion, William Jennings Bryan, was an early proponent of women's suffrage, railroad regulation, the federal income tax, opposition to capital punishment, a federal department of labor, campaign fund disclosure, state initiative and referendum, and vigorous enforcement of antitrust law. …

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