One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s program, Speaking of Faith, a conversation on “religion, meaning, ethics and ideas”. Each week the host, Krista Tippett, interviews scholars and practitioners from a stunning variety of religious backgrounds – evangelicals, Muslims, atheist humanists, Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, even a Haitian Vodou priest with a PhD. Recently I also read Tippett’s personal memoir from the show, also titled Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It. In it she cites a conversation she had with the eminent University of Chicago scholar of religious history, Martin Marty, about his groundbreaking study of fundamentalisms in twenty-three religions around the world. I was intrigued by his basic description and definition of fundamentalisms. Ms. Tippett writes:
Fundamentalism is never “old-time religion,” [Marty] says. It is a modern phenomenon – by which he as a historian means roughly the last two hundred years. It is always reactive, born when there is an assault on values that people have and are uncertain about. And around the world in our time, he says, people are having trouble with identity – what do I believe, whom do I trust, who trusts me? The Fundamentalism Project crafted an evocative conclusion – that there is presently a “massive, convulsive ingathering of peoples into their separatenesses and overagainstnesses to protect their pride and power and place from others who are doing the same thing.” In the United States this doesn’t manifest itself usually in violent insurgencies or terrorism. It does appear in a cultural readiness to divide the world up into us and them, virtuous and vicious, good and evil.
I don’t know if Marty’s study focused at all on atheists or other secular people, but it strikes me that this kind of fundamentalism could infect pretty much any ideology, not just religious ones.
Tippett goes on to offer more of her own observations about the potential for constructively engaging with fundamentalists and redirecting their energies. She then comes back to Marty’s own advice for engaging with religious people of all sorts:
In the end, Martin Marty doesn’t divide the world into conservative and liberal. He divides it into “mean and non-mean.” Billy Graham, who ushered in a gentler, earlier tradition of evangelical religious influence in politics, was not mean. Some of his descendants are, and so are some liberals. As the specter of the fundamentalist religious identity of Al Qaeda has come to overshadow international affairs and identities, Marty has this advice for policymakers and citizens that echoes everything I learn in my life of conversation: Don’t lump the faithful and fundamentalists together in any tradition. Don’t demonize any group of religious people as an enemy. There is great diversity whenever large numbers of human beings are involved. Do all that you can to help them show their varieties and make it easier for them to be diverse. Make it easier for moderates in all of these movements to be moderates. Marty helps me better understand an important side effect of the work I do. Speaking of Faith is among a growing number of spaces in our culture for intelligent, innovative, and moderate religious voices to in fact serve as moderators within their traditions and our culture – to be seen and heard and to act. Marty himself only speaks of religious movements in the plural – as Protestantisms and evangelicalisms and fundamentalisms. In the simple act of pluralizing these broad categories of faith, he defies their use as ideological boxes, wedges, and bludgeons.