Define “fundamentalist” — please

A journalist writes in with the following commentary on what the word fundamentalist meant in one newsroom in which he worked: Fundamentalist” is like the political f-word (fascism) . . . and other f-words. It has a particular meaning in the hands of someone who knows what he’s talking about — test cases: one who can distinguish the religious f-word from “charismatic” (or who correctly answers the question “is Pat Robertson a fundamentalist”) is someone who has a right to use the word.

I had a boss at a paper other than the one I work at now who was very into “Course in Miracles.” Which is not objectionable in itself, except that it caused him to ask me whether I was a “Catholic fundamentalist.”

I said, “there’s no such thing.” I explained to him, in as much detail and as vigorously as prudence would allow as he was my boss, that fundamentalism was a late-19th/early-20th century movement within Protestantism, an effort to return to “the fundamentals” of the Bible and cut away the accretions of past tradition. Barely a month later, he writes his Sunday column about “fundamentalists” and includes the charming sentence “Saddam Hussein is a fundamentalist; Hitler was a fundamentalist.” He was plainly just using the word as a term of abuse for “someone who believes that truth is truth, and his truth ’tain’t my truth.” I believe that is what people who use the word ignorantly are trying to say.

Once again, the AP Stylebook simply advises journalists to avoid this word altogether — unless religious believers use it to describe themselves. Like a Jerry Falwell.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • noname

    my editor simply uses the word “fascist” to describe anybody from a republican to a christian to a police officer to a member of the U.S. military to my spouse who happens to be four out of those three. if you fail to write a story “taking the piss out of,” say, charlton heston or the police department or George Bush you are a “fascist” too and your coverage becomes suspect. on christmas eve we sat captive in the office until 3 p.m. and were subjected to repeated insults about christianity and christ to the point where one reporter finally got up and said he was tired of having his religion insulted. the rest were afraid to speak up. this is an extreme but very real example of a typical newsroom and “old guard” journalists who came of age in the 60s and 70s.

  • Joe Perez

    Politically correct AP style books aside, there truly is such a thing as a Catholic fundamentalist, just as there are also atheist fundamentalists. Here’s a Webster’s definition of fundamentalism: “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.”

    Strictness and literalism are indeed key traits of fundamentalists, but I’d go further. I see fundamentalism as a psychological and spiritual defense against the rich subtlties, nuances, complexities, and mysteries of life itself. As I see it, fundamentalism is a rigid style of thinking, oblivious to subtlties and nuances, akin to obsessive compulsive disorder. In fact, studying OCD reveals much that is applicable to fundamentalists of all stripes–both religious and secular. Its tell-tale signs include defensive posturing, rigidity in body and mind, a deeply felt need to “be right,” and sometimes paranoid and delusional thinking. The rigidity and certainty are a mask to cover the emotional core that truly distinguishes the fundamentalist: deep fear and anxiety coupled with nostalgic or uncritical regard for an ideal.

    Do some people use fundamentalist like the term fascist is often used, as a catch all bogyman? You bet, just as there are plenty of religious fanatics who use “moral relativist” or “godless atheist” or other labels as a form of bigotry. But that doesn’t mean that critical thinkers should avoid using the term.

  • Victor Morton

    No, Mr. Perez, there is NO such thing as a Catholic fundamentalist (or atheist fundamentalist or Hindu or Muslim fundamentalist), for the reason I implied — namely that in Catholicism, Tradition is one more form of revelation, and therefore not something that hides or accretes over Scripture, but rather deepens it and brings it more fully to light. (There are no “fundamentals” in that sense.)

    And frankly, Mr. Perez, I can’t take you seriously on this matter. You are simply using “fundamentalism” as a term of abuse. You’re practically calling it a form of mental illness: “a psychological and spiritual defense against the rich subtleties, nuances, complexities, and mysteries of life itself … akin to obsessive compulsive disorder … defensive posturing, rigidity … paranoid and delusional thinking.”

    I’m sorry, that’s not a serious definition. I think you’re overdue for some learning about the rich subtleties of complexities of a lot of things, and if I thought like you seem to think is morally acceptable way, I would be inclined to wonder what mental disorders and insecurities by so rigidly defining something so subtle and complex. But I’m not.

    Very simple test case, that is just about infallible. Do not trust definitions of a group from an overt outsider that produce a doctrine that you cannot imagine a sane man embracing.

  • Victor Morton

    And just in case it wasn’t clear from the post at the top of this entry — which was mine — I was citing the story with what-I-thought-was-obvious disapproval. The “Hitler and Saddam are fundamentalists” line ran in the paper though, because the article in question was his weekly column, where writers (rightly) get more room to express themselves outsides the strictures of straight news style. Or get enough rope to hang themselves with their own ignorance. (Take your pick.)

  • Joe Perez


    My, my, aren’t we a wee bit defensive, here?

    No, wait. I give up. You are right: there is one and only one valid definition of fundamentalist, and it’s yours. Call Webster’s why don’t you and get them to yank out the definitions you don’t like.

  • JM

    Why is “fundamentalism” such a negative word?

    In a couple of weeks, Spring Training starts. What will the players concentrate on? Not peripherals. Not things of marginal usefulness. Not style points. They will be drilled on the “fundamentals” of the game.

    Why should Christians, or any other religious people, not concentrate on the essential parts of their religion?

  • Victor Morton

    “A wee bit defensive” — that says it all. Reducing disagreement to accusations of character flaws against others.

  • Joe Perez

    Victor: Somehow I supposed that when you said “there is NO such thing as a… Muslim fundamentalist” I concluded that your disagreement was based more in emotion than in reason. Go figure.

  • Victor Morton

    And Joe, when I read your definition of “fundamentalist,” I concluded that your disagreement was based more in hatred than in reason. And frankly, given the rest of your work, your criticisms of me as elevating emotion over reason really has very little bite. Go figure.

    But I stand by what I said that you seem to think is so ridiculous — there is no such thing as a Muslim “fundamentalist” for the very simple reason that there is no such thing as a Muslim modernism, a quest for the historic Muhammad or higher Koranic criticism for Islamic revivalists to reject. Everyone in Islam accepts that the Koran is the definitive, inerrant word of God — the cleavages that occur in Islam are over other issues, ones that simply don’t graft onto the Christian template of modernist-fundamentalist.

    Which brings us back to what this thread was about — the lazy use of “fundamentalist” as just an epithet for “a religion I disapprove of” among the news media and certain nameless … cough …. bloggers. I don’t deny that “Muslim fundamentalist” has become a conventional journalistic shorthand among the lazy, but it obscures more than it clarifies, because it encourages us to graft our understandings onto them. My saying there is no such thing as a Muslim fundamentalist isn’t as shocking as it sounds.