Martin Marty and Krista Tippett on Fundamentalisms

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.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Kudos for the accurate description of fundamentalism. Saying fundamentalism is anything other than a modern movement is simply historical revisionism.

    While we’re talking about defying ideological boxes, let’s also not divide people into “mean and non-mean”. There are virtues to both sides of that issue.

  • mikespeir

    I agree with miller. We all know, of course, that the term “Fundamentalist” originated in the early 20th century with a series of essays (“The Fundamentals”) by various Christian thinkers who insisted on plenary biblical inspiration and a more-or-less literal interpretation of Scripture. But this was a reactionary effort, aimed at countering the growing influence those who taught otherwise. While it certainly embodied ideas of earlier Christian teachers, the Fundamentalist contribution was to build a wall around these and adopt a fortress mentality.

  • Maria

    interesting. thanks for posting

  • http://gdtk.blogspot.com Greg Gyetko

    I think it would be tough to be a fundamentalist before the bible was translated out of Latin, wouldn’t it? How could you be a illiterate literalist?

    It also depends on what “fundamentalism” means. Is it merely biblical literalism or does it also include the idea that you are required to force your religion on everyone?

    If it’s the latter, then fundamentalism (“my way is the only way and you’d better agree”) has been around a long, long time. If it’s the former, then it can’t have started before the bible was tranlated out of Latin, setting a certain limit to the age of fundamentalism (depending on what country you’re in and what language you speak).

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    While we’re talking about defying ideological boxes, let’s also not divide people into “mean and non-mean”. There are virtues to both sides of that issue.

    And what exactly is the virtue of being mean?

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    I don’t think mean and not mean works as categories regarding religion.

    There are lots of fundamentalists who are not mean. They still have terrible doctrine and hateful rules, even if they don’t act “mean” in enforcing their rules.

    I’m not sure I’m explaining that correctly, but just because some fundamentalists are nice people does not mean that fundamentalism isn’t something we should fight against.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Actually, fundamentalism is old. It’s original name was “the mainstream”.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Actually, fundamentalism is old. It’s original name was “the mainstream”.

    And you’re basing your disagreement with a PhD in the history of religion on what exactly?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but give us some reason to accept your unsupported pronouncement over Marty’s extensive research.

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    Mike – I kinda wonder if Samuel is maybe referencing the Puritans or the general Victorian sub-culture of the 19th century? I’m curious to see his response too, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what he’s thinking of.

    Miller and writerdd – What categories would you prefer? I can understand the point about someone espousing a mean system in a nice way, but I’m curious at what you’d suggest instead?

    Thanks for posting Hemant, really interesting quotes.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    And what exactly is the virtue of being mean?

    Mike, I’m glad you asked, because I believe you’ve talked about this yourself. Haven’t you ever said that Jesus wasn’t all about peace and getting along? He also advocated social change? Isn’t that “mean” in some sense of the word? If you demonize everything “mean”, there is a potential to demonize all forms of change.

    What categories do I prefer? How about accurate ones. There are religious people, non-religious people, and a long tail of freethinkers. There are the Catholic Church, the emerging churches, various evangelical denominations, etc. etc.

    And this isn’t all to say that “mean and non-mean” are totally useless categories. But they’re exactly the sort of demonization that Marty rebukes.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Fundamentalism is not the same as orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is quite new; orthodoxy is quite old. Although they may overlap in some areas regarding strictness in following certain types of rules and in their current adherence to conservative politics, they are not the same thing.

    One does not need a PhD in religion, nor does one have to have read Marty’s thesis, to know this. One simply has to read up a bit on the history of religion in the world and the US.

    I like conservative and liberal. It says something I understand. I don’t have any beef with religious people in general. I have a huge beef with conservativism, particularly the way it is expressed today by the religious right and the Republican party in the US. Even when they are not mean, I still hate what they stand for.

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    Miller – That makes sense, but I still think mean and non-mean can be useful, though I think they should exist as one taxonomy amongst many, not as the exclusive lens we use in discussing these issues. (We’re discussing this at The Friendly Atheist, after all :). )

    I mean, you can say the ideology that Billy Graham supports is mean, but I think a discussion with Graham would look radically different from a discussion with Pat Robertson, even though they have similar theology. And I think having some categories to distinguish between the two is helpful.

    However, I do agree that the categories can be a form of demonization. (Ultimately I think we’re just running into the problem that every taxonomy is going to be flawed.)

    writerdd – What do you mean by “conservative” and “liberal”? Those terms are extremely fluid. What’s conservative to one person might be considered liberal by another. If everyone has the same basic definitions in mind they’re useful, but how often does that happen? (There’s a thread on the forum about this whole issue of semantics in debates between theists and non-theists.) For example, you might listen to an interview by Steve Brown with Tony Jones (a leading emerging Christian). He asks Jones how he responds to the allegations of liberalism that are being made by many evangelicals. Jones response is to say, “Well, they all live in a liberal democracy.” So the question is – Whose conservatism? Whose liberalism?

    That said, I do appreciate your distinction between fundamentalism and orthodoxy. You understand the distinction better than a lot of Christians I know :). (That said, I do think the adherence to conservative politics, while being a common occurrence in the US, is not necessarily because orthodoxy necessitates conservatism. But maybe I’m just saying that because I like to think I’m orthodox and I’m planning to vote for Obama :p.)

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Mike, I’m glad you asked, because I believe you’ve talked about this yourself. Haven’t you ever said that Jesus wasn’t all about peace and getting along? He also advocated social change? Isn’t that “mean” in some sense of the word? If you demonize everything “mean”, there is a potential to demonize all forms of change.

    I think you’re stretching the meaning of the word “mean” if you want to include types of social action as inherently “mean”. There’s a big difference, I think, between standing up for justice and being “mean”. One can oppose things without being “mean” about it. In some ways “mean” is the opposite of justice in that it is a stance towards others that fails to treat them with love and dignity as human beings. In fact, the social change that Jesus advocated was itself a move away from “meanness” towards love for others.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    Fundamentalism is not the same as orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is quite new; orthodoxy is quite old. Although they may overlap in some areas regarding strictness in following certain types of rules and in their current adherence to conservative politics, they are not the same thing.

    Yes! Exactly right.

    For instance, in the original interview with Marty on SoF, his full comment was:

    Number one, fundamentalism is not the old-time religion. Fundamentalism is a very modern packaging. That is, it’s born when there’s an assault on values that you have and are uncertain about. There has to be a threat to you as a group identity or to you as an individual. So the most important word in fundamentalism is you react. Very few fundamentalists are concerned about things that traditionalists and regular conservatives and orthodox are. You can’t get a phone booth full of an argument on the most important Christian doctrines like the divine trinity and the two natures of Christ and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. They care about evolution. They care about being left behind as the world ends. But there’s a very selective agenda. The whole left-behind theology is not the old-time religion. It was invented in the 1840s, which is really the modern world.

    As Marty points out, the primary doctrinal concerns of historic orthodox Christianities tend to be rather different than those of modern fundamentalisms.

    I like conservative and liberal. It says something I understand.

    Really? I usually find those words to be so amorphous and relative that they almost have no useful meaning anymore. The only working definition of either one for most people is “whoever is to the right (or left) of me” (depending on which one the speaker prefers to be).

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I think you’re stretching the meaning of the word “mean” if you want to include types of social action as inherently “mean”.

    Yes, it’s a stretch. But if I can abuse the concept, so can other people. Let’s face it, that which goes wrong with human nature cannot be summed up in four letters. You need to have a much more elaborate paradigm which would include, for instance, what you’ve just written about justice.

  • http://emergingpensees.com Mike Clawson

    I still think Marty’s observation about meanness is useful though, since in my experience that’s what is usually meant by “fundamentalist” in common parlance. When most people talk about fundamentalists, they’re usually not referring to specific beliefs, but the degree of assholishness with which they’re held.

  • http://www.wordsfromtheway.com/between-the-trees Jake Meador

    Mike – Is “assholishness” your term? Cause if it isn’t copy-righted, I’m going to steal it at some point ;).

  • Ron in Houston

    That’s actually a spot on analysis. You look at a bunch of what we call Christian fundamentalism and it dates to the mid to late 1800′s. The whole “rapture” or “left behind” nonsense? It came into being in the mid to late 1800′s. Actually some of the American fundamentalism dates to the early 1900′s rather than the 1800′s.

    If you want to screw with those left behind nuts just tell them that they fall outside the Christian tradition because their theology was unknown until the 1800′s.

  • cipher

    When most people talk about fundamentalists, they’re usually not referring to specific beliefs, but the degree of assholishness with which they’re held.

    My cousin used to use the word, “assholic”.

    If you want to screw with those left behind nuts just tell them that they fall outside the Christian tradition because their theology was unknown until the 1800’s.

    But they’ll just insist that the things they believe are what most Christians have believed for most of the past two millennia.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    But they’ll just insist that the things they believe are what most Christians have believed for most of the past two millennia.

    Actually, that’s not true. They will probably insist that they are going back to what the early church — before Catholicism — was like, taking examples from the book of Acts. But between then and the 19th or 20th century, true Christianity was wiped out by the Catholic church (Orthodoxy) and its been a slow journey back to the real truth ever since the reformation.

  • Karen

    Actually, that’s not true. They will probably insist that they are going back to what the early church — before Catholicism — was like, taking examples from the book of Acts. But between then and the 19th or 20th century, true Christianity was wiped out by the Catholic church (Orthodoxy) and its been a slow journey back to the real truth ever since the reformation.

    Exactly. That’s what we were taught in the fundamentalist churches I attended. We were the “true” Christians, a return to the churches of Acts, and ready to be raptured at any moment.

    Also, most fundamentalists have no clue about the history of their own movement. They simply assume that all true Christians have believed as they do forever. Heck, they will start off by denying that they are fundamentalists, because they don’t even know what the word means. All they know is that it has a negative association in today’s culture.

    The good part of all this political pastor nonsense (starting with Rev. Wright) is that the most extreme beliefs and nutty viewpoints of religious leaders are getting wider attention than they ever have before. In my mind, that’s a great thing. Seeing Rod Parsley and John Hagee ranting on the national news is bound to send more average Joe Americans away from religion.

  • David Crespo

    The part about helping moderates be moderates stands out to me, because Sam Harris talked about it in an interesting piece called Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks. He said that instead of being afraid of offending fundamentalists, we must support moderates who condemn radicals, particularly within Islam.

  • http://boremetotears.blogspot.com Lynn

    re: mean v. not-mean

    The problem, as I see it: There are many good-intentioned (“not-mean”) fundamentalist Christians who believe that “obeying Scripture” means substituting “the foolishness of man” (their own best, humane instincts) for “God’s wisdom” (Christian doctrine, which is “mean”). In doing this, they become complicit in the meanness; the assault on the rights of gay people, for example, wouldn’t be successful without the participation of many not-mean Christians, casting mean votes at the ballot box, donating lots of money to “pro-family” organizations, like Focus on the Family, AFA, etc.

    Just my take.

  • Karen

    Sam Harris talked about it in an interesting piece called Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks. He said that instead of being afraid of offending fundamentalists, we must support moderates who condemn radicals, particularly within Islam.

    I’m surprised to hear that. I’ll have to find that article and read it, because Harris is one atheist who has in the past been particularly outspoken in his lack of respect for moderates of any religion.

  • Maria

    I’m surprised to hear that. I’ll have to find that article and read it, because Harris is one atheist who has in the past been particularly outspoken in his lack of respect for moderates of any religion.

    yeah, me too. that’s my main beef with him


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