Understanding fundamentalists

In the previous post I was reacting emotionally against ultra-conservative evangelicals. For the sake of fairness I’d like to redress this a little with a more measured and balanced follow-up. (Besides which, we do have some good UCCF-ish friends who I don’t want to fall out with completely. ;-))

Firstly, what is a fundamentalist? I’d like to put forward three possible meanings.

‘The Fundamentals’

Originally, as coined in the late 19th century, ‘fundamentalist’ meant someone who held firmly to the core fundamentals of Christianity (or at least of Christian belief and doctrine, which is slightly different). These were then defined in the early 20th century by a set of publications titled ‘The Fundamentals’. Alongside these came a 1910 formulation known as ‘the five fundamentals’, namely: the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; the virgin birth; the historical reality of Christ’s miracles; Christ’s death as the (penal substitutionary) atonement for sin; and Christ’s bodily resurrection. (Of course, these five are not the only ‘fundamentals’, just the most fundamental fundamentals. Others would probably God’s supreme sovereignty, the doctrine of the Trinity, hell as eternal conscious torment for all non-believers, etc.)

The obvious inherent problem with this approach is: who decides and defines the fundamentals, the core set of truths and beliefs which must be held in order to be orthodox? With Christianity this is by no means as easy as it looks. While all of the ‘fundamentalist’ views listed above can be derived from the Bible, they are not all clearly ‘what the Bible teaches’, and are by no means the only version of theology that can be derived from Scripture. My own set of biblical fundamentals might be the total love and goodness of God, and his desire to redeem all people and all creation as demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

(A more, er, fundamental objection to this kind of fundamentalism is that in defining Christianity merely according to a set of core beliefs it rather misses the point of what Christianity is about. But as I’m being nice about fundies today, I’ll skate over this point for now…)

Broader fundamentalism

Secondly and more broadly then, a fundamentalist is anyone who holds firmly to a core set of received truths and prescribed principles seen by them (and their group) as authoritative and essential. These don’t necessarily have to be religious.

In this broader sense, it’s arguable that almost everyone is a fundamentalist to some extent. Each of us belongs to a family, group or society with an underlying, often unacknowledged set of principles and beliefs that are held as self-evident and inviolable. These might be those of the American Declaration of Independence, ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights… [including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’; or the related values of modern liberal democracy with its emphasis on individual human rights and tolerance for all views (except fundamentalism). Or it could be any other set of unquestioned and unquestionable ‘truths’ on which a particular society, religion, sub-culture or group is based.

Scratch a liberal and you will often find a fundamentalist under the surface – someone who is generous and tolerant towards others who share their own liberal worldview, but aggressively intolerant towards ‘bigoted’ religious or social conservatives. I recognise some of this in myself – as perhaps evidenced in my previous article.

How not what you believe

For fundamentalism is not just about what you strongly believe, nor even the fact that you strongly believe particular things to the rejection or exclusion of others – we all do that. The third, and for me the most important, definition of fundamentalism is about the manner in which you hold your beliefs and values (rather than their specific content); and how you view and treat others who do not share those beliefs and values.

If you hold your truths to be unquestionable and your values inviolable, and if you regard all who do not share your views as your opponents or heretical (though you might not use that word), then you’re a fundamentalist. Whether your beliefs are in scriptural inerrancy or in secular liberal democracy, if you hold those beliefs as pre-ordained, indisputable and axiomatic realities then you have closed down all possibility of meaningful discussion or dialogue, and again you are a fundamentalist.

A stage of development

I’ve said before that fundamentalism of this third kind is a natural and necessary stage in human psychological and spiritual growth. It’s one of the early phases in the ongoing development of how we relate to the wider universe and to what we might call God or the transcendent or ultimate reality. As such, it’s something we all have to go through in one way or another.

This stage is characterised by polarised black-and-white thinking and binary exclusivism (them/us, right/wrong, true/false, good/bad). It’s also characterised by a ‘pre-critical’ (or ‘blind’) acceptance of and adherence to received authority – again, whether that authority be religious, anti-religious, political or whatever. Following M. Scott Peck, I refer to this as ‘Stage 2’.

In and of itself, fundamentalism of this sort is no better or worse than any other stage of spiritual development, though it may be less outwardly attractive – rather as teenage-hood is unavoidable but not always pleasant to behold (though teenage rebellion is really more similar to Peck’s ‘stage 3’).

It’s actually a vital stage because it’s when you learn the ‘rules’, the basics, the ABCs and 123s of your faith, of its creed and moral code etc – the fundamentals if you like. At this point, clarity, certainty, accuracy and clear boundaries are needed – rather as they are in early stage of childhood psychological development. Later can come the questioning, the refining, the subtleties and nuances and grey areas of a more mature and considered faith. Ultimately the idea is that people move on from the early fundamentalist stage; not everyone does of course.

The difficulty with the fundamentalist stage is that those in it can often be deeply suspicious of and antagonistic towards others who do not share their views. However, this is actually quite understandable. If you really believe that you alone have the Truth of God then you will probably see it as a duty and an honour to do battle for that truth, defending it against attack from all the heresies, false gospels and idolatries which you believe will lead others astray into sin, apostasy and even eternal hell. There was a time when I thought this way.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that some of fundamentalism’s antagonism may stem not from strength of faith, but from its weakness. If your faith is genuinely strong and secure, you will not feel threatened by different views. It’s when your faith is weak and untested, not yet fully formed or grown, that you will feel most under attack from alternative or opposing views; and of course when you feel fearful or under attack, you’re often likely to respond with aggression, or with overly forceful proclamation of your Truth.

All this said, I have often been surprised to meet ‘fundamentalists’ (stage-2ers) who are deeply warm, generous and kind people, far better than their particular theology or worldview. Equally I’ve met liberals who are intolerant and ungracious. I shouldn’t really be surprised. Once again, what makes a true fundamentalist is not the content of your beliefs but how you hold them, and how you treat others as a result. It’s equally possible to be either fundamentalist or liberal (or anything else) in more and less healthy ways.

My own prejudices

I’ve made it fairly clear before that I don’t like Calvinism or Reformed theology. I’ll confess that I tend to view Calvinists as baddies with little imagination or sympathy, and with an overly narrow and anti-human view of God and the universe. This is a prejudice – one I happen to share with G.K. Chesterton, but a prejudice nonetheless, and as such not a good thing. I do think that there is something wrong at the heart of extreme Calvinism – I see it as an example of unhealthy religion; but even if that really is the case (and it may well not be), I must never let this lead me to dismiss or hate Calvinists.

So I’m not going to stop arguing against Calvinistic theology, but I do want to be fairer towards its individual adherents and proponents. This isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. I said in response to a recent comment that it can be hard to seek unity with those who view you and your ilk as dangerous heretics and apostates. But if we can show respect and generosity to those who wish to exclude or attack our beliefs, we have in many ways won the battle – or better still, sidestepped it completely.

For of course the real battle is not against Calvinists or liberals, or even against atheists or Muslims, but against our own selves, our own fundamentalisms and prejudices and blindnesses. If I’m going to fight anything, it should be the wrong and evil I see in myself – including my own propensity not to see that evil in myself and instead to project it onto others whose views I don’t like…

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Emerging, Fundamentalism, The faith journey and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Understanding fundamentalists

  1. This is very interesting. I’ve recently been thinking about defining fundamentalism, and my view is coloured by my experiences. I’m very interested by your idea of fundamentalism in anything – democracy, or whatever. But I think the definition you offer that resonates strongest with me is “if you hold those beliefs as pre-ordained, indisputable and axiomatic realities then you have closed down all possibility of meaningful discussion or dialogue, and again you are a fundamentalist.”

    I think that is very dangerous ground. As soon as someone proclaims that something is so set in stone that it is impossible for it to be wrong, regardless of evidence or reason, they’re on a path that can lead to all kinds of bad places.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. idiotsavahnt says:

    As always I enjoyed reading your post. I feel a bit snarky pointing this out but somehow cant resist. Your reference to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” is incorrect. It comes from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, not the United States Constitution. Of course this in no way weakens the point you were arguing. fwiw


  3. idiotsavahnt says:

    “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is from the Declaration of Independence not the U.S. Constitution. Sorry to be snarky but couldnt resist.


  4. James Pruitt says:

    I think this is a very important post, one with which I mostly agree. I have one comment and a follow-up. In the sixth paragraph you attribute to the US Constitution (1787) a quote that is from the Declaration of Independence (1776). (Better not to go into from whom we were declaring our independence.)
    Now for about 200 words on these two documents that I think somehow gets toward the idea of opposing fundamentalism through pluralism:
    The Declaration of Independence makes no mention of any specific religions. In a very religious era, this was all it said about God:
    • “Nature’s God”
    • “Creator”
    • “Supreme Judge of the world”
    • “Divine Providence”

    The Constitution makes no mention of God. (Alexander Hamilton joked that the reason that God wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution is that the Founders forgot to put in a reference.) At the time of the ratification debates some thought that the Constitution’s ban on religious tests would bring “Popery”, the “Inquisition”, or office holders swearing support to “Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, or Pluto”, “Mahometans, who ridicule the doctrine of the Trinity, Jews, Turks & Infidels.” This could have been a direct response to George Washington who, amazingly for the era, said that America should be “open to receive…the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…. They may be Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheist.” Disestablishment of the churches won out and as a consequence the US became a very religious society. As to religion, Thomas Jefferson said: “Divided we stand. United we fall.”


    • No that’s absolutely fine – always happy to have errors corrected! I’m afraid I’m a little hazy on American history – I was really just using it as a particular example of a foundational set of beliefs/values, and I certainly wasn’t meaning to suggest that it implied an underlying Christian belief system. Anyway, I will amend the post!


    • Thanks Jim – as you can see, you’re not the only person to point out my error, which I will now correct! Sorry for the mistake, and thanks for the clarification – and for the interesting lesson in American history and in opposing fundamentalism through pluralism. H


  5. dsholland says:

    I was thinking the other day about something that resonates with some of your statements in the Stages of development section. In particular the idea of “defending” the faith (not in the apologetic sense). Imagine for a moment just how confident God must be! Are you laughing yet? Seriously, it must be beyond confidence so just stop at confidence for a moment and savor the flavor. When the Bible says in Psalm 2:4 He laughs – that’s where this is going.
    When you think about it it becomes obvious how much fear and lack of faith is the real culprit behind some of the less gracious responses (and as you point out not just from Christians – Hmmm, this may play well in my next post 🙂


  6. Theothedog says:

    As always, this all seems to me intelligent, honest and above all healthy stuff. I think the analysis of ‘stage 2-ers’ is certainly right, as long as one recognizes that by no means everyone needs to ‘proceed’ to stage three or beyond. I’ve no doubt that fundamentalism as you define it is the right mode for people with a certain kind of temperament; and, as someone once helpfully put it, if liberals are to make sound and safe progress creatively scaling the heights of theological speculation, they need people who ready and willing to stay at the base camp and defend it (albeit not against the climbers themselves). Increasingly (and rightly or wrongly) I find myself applying a fairly straightforward litmus test: I can applaud and identify with any manifestation of Christianity whose Gospel and is inclusive, and which is open to learning from others inside and outside the church. But if you’re exclusive and closed, then, sorry, I feel excluded and, in the end, just as closed.


    • I like the idea of ‘creatively scaling the heights of theological speculation’, and needing people willing to stay at base camp. I’ve also (sometimes) felt glad that the strong, secure anchor of evangelicalism remained in place for me to return to if needed, while I ventured out into murkier or just deeper waters. (I have a feeling I may be mixing metaphors a little, but hopefully you get the idea!)


  7. Eric says:

    Within America, at least, there’s at least one other large split: the evangelical/fundamentalist controversy. In this split fundamenatalists held to the idea that one should not associate with “worldly” folks except to evangelize. Evangelicals said that Christians had a duty to preach to culture and that this requires some form of engagment with the world (like creating Christian music that was a piss-poor reflection of secular music trends). Some of the nastier bits of fundamentalism probably come from this split where, obviously, fundamentalists made some extremely harsh and judgmental decisions.


    • Thanks Eric – that’s interesting. I knew about the US fundamentalist/evangelical controversy, but only in a rather theoretical way. Here in the UK, the average person in the street tends to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists together as right-wingers and hard-liners. And I think when we look at America, we often fail to understand the difference between the two groups, and just wrongly identify all evangelicals with ‘the religious right’ or ‘the moral majority’.


      • Eric says:

        Part of this is that the split made “fundamentalist” into a bad word in a lot of circles and so a lot of people simply won’t call themselves that. The split is also decades-old at this point and many people are unaware of why it is that they use one or the other term in their church.


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