Fundamentalism: A Theory

By Farley, Edward | Cross Currents, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Fundamentalism: A Theory


Farley, Edward, Cross Currents


The Problem of a Theory of Fundamentalism

The term, fundamentalism, initially described a trans-denominational movement among conservative Protestant Christian groups in the United States which, in the first part of the twentieth century, vigorously and publicly defended biblical inerrancy against historical criticism and biblical geology and cosmology against the theory of evolution. (1) Subsequent studies of this movement uncovered both complex and long-term roots in nineteenth century pre-millenarianism and resistance to the changing roles of women. (2) Since the early twentieth century, the term, fundamentalism, has undergone significant changes of meaning. First, the initial movement (biblicistic and anti-evolution Protestantism) experienced an upsurge after World War II that included denominational takeovers, the successful deployment of radio and television, relatively successful ventures into local and national politics, and, in recent times, the development of large and small independent congregations ("community churches") whose music, entertainment, anti-liturgy and informal worship are especially attractive to young married couples with children. (3) Second, in the 1940's and after, Protestant fundamentalism in the United States split into conservative and moderate factions: the former preferring cultural and denominational isolation and anti-historical Biblicism, the latter, centered in the new National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Seminar, rejecting such isolation and embracing selected elements of "modernism." (4) Third, the original fundamentalist movement, its pre-history, and its period of upsurge called forth a whole literature of historical, sociological, and even theological studies.(5) Fourth, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu communities spawned movements which closely resembled American Protestant fundamentalism. Following these developments, the term, fundamentalism, underwent both a narrowing and a broadening. (6) The "evangelical" or moderate side of the original movement restricted the term to the far right wing of conservative Protestantism. Because of this restriction, "fundamentalism" migrated from a descriptive historical to a pejorative term for an ossified, hostile, and even fanatical way of being religious. In the last part of the twentieth century, students of world religions appropriated the term to describe aggressively anti-modernist, tradition-preserving movements in many of the world's faiths. Others in turn resisted this broadening on grounds that the term was too loaded with Protestant Christian connotations to apply to other faiths. (7) "Islamism" and "Hinduization" thus became the preferred terms to describe these tradition-defending movements. The broadeners have argued that, granting the differences between religions, there does exist a complex of similar behaviors and attitudes in these faiths that justify a common label. (8) Behind these similarities is the struggle of all contemporary religious faiths to maintain themselves in a radically secularized world.

The guiding premise of this essay is that fundamentalism is the response of religion to modernity. (9) Given that premise, it is anachronistic to apply the term, fundamentalism, to movements, figures, or views in medieval or Reformation Christianity or to pre-modern Judaism or Islam. Neither can the term be applied to contemporary religious groups, Appalachian snake handlers for instance, which have little connection with modernity. To say that fundamentalism is one way (ordinary) religion responds to modernity carries with it a rather daunting problem. Most of the features of fundamentalist movements appear throughout the history of the religions. In order to survive over any period of time, a religion must develop and maintain rituals, narratives, origin-stories, cultic practices, casuistries and taboos, and figures and institutions of authority. Throughout their history, religions have been threatened by political-military and "religious" aggressions from other peoples, by internal heterodoxies, alternative origin-stories, and alternative practices and belief. …

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