Fundamentalism with a human face

grim preacher.jpgLaurie Goodstein of The New York Times has written a 1,400-word article that uses the word fundamentalism 15 times–and never in a way that qualifies her report for GetReligion’s Creeping Fundamentalism file of hysterical or misleading stories.

Goodstein has achieved something that really shouldn’t be so difficult for reporters who set their mind to it: Remembering one of the wisest sentences in The Associated Press Stylebook (“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself”).

These paragraphs by Goodstein are the best summary I’ve seen in a very long time in the major media of how fundamentalist is used too loosely in American discourse:

After the American presidential election in November, some liberal commentators warned that the nation was on the verge of a takeover by Christian “fundamentalists.”

But in the United States today, most of the Protestants who make up what some call the Christian right are not fundamentalists, who are more prone to create separatist enclaves, but evangelicals, who engage the culture and share their faith. Professor [Martin] Marty defines fundamentalism as essentially a backlash against secularism and modernity.

For example, at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, in Greenville, S.C., students are not allowed to listen to contemporary music of any kind, even Christian rock or rap. But at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical school, contemporary Christian music is regular fare for many students.

Christian fundamentalism emerged in the United States in the 1920′s, but was already in decline by the 1960′s. By then, it had been superceded by evangelicalism, with its Billy Graham-style revival meetings, radio stations and seminaries.

The word “fundamentalist” itself has fallen out of favor among conservative Christians in the United States, not least because it has come to be associated with extremism and violence overseas.

To be sure, Americans sometimes apply the word too loosely to Muslims or Hindus, and it would be a huge mistake to insist that fundamentalism inevitably leads to violence. Maybe someday journalists will find as clear a definition of fundamentalism as seems to prevail in some academic circles. For today, thank God for Laurie Goodstein’s clear example of how good work can be done.

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  • Darrell Grizzle

    Driving from Georgia, though South Carolina to North Carolina recently, I saw quite a few churches that describe themselves (on their signs) as “fundamental” churches. I saw this word a lot, but I didn’t see the word “fundamentalist” once.

  • dlw

    In the technical sense, many evangelicals are fundamentalist in their theology. Fundamentalism also consists of taking something that is subject to many different interpretations and saying that one’s interpretation is right and all other’s are wrong and should be brought to one’s interpretation.


  • JoJo

    Recall that Fundamentalism was defined and adopted by its adherents, and they wore the badge without embarrassment. Many Christian groups today still accept the five fundamentals as a statement of faith: literal and inerrant scripture, virgin birth and deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the second coming. Perhaps it’s no longer Theopolitically Correct to use the term since Fundamentalism has taken on a perjorative connotation, but the original definition seems to be just as applicable as ever.

    Why can’t Evangelicals can be Fundamentalists? In addition to the five scriptural points above, wouldn’t you agree that many modern day Evangelicals reside in theological enclaves (rather than physical ones) and that they tend to oppose secularism and modernity? Think about school prayer, creationism in the classroom, women’s roles in society, freedom of sexual expression between consenting adults. Granted, not all Evangelicals are massed on one side of these issues but neither are they neutral on the matter, generally speaking.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I have fewer complaints if a writer uses “fundamentalist” to refer to the five scriptural points you mention, though even then I have to question the insistence on using an “ist” word.

    The vast majority of cases I see have far more to do with using the phrase to mean one of the following:

    – A violent extremist

    – An uneducated mouth-breather straight out of “Inherit the Wind”

    – Anyone with whom an author disagrees or finds repugnant

    Without question the word has taken on perjorative meanings since it was first coined. The Associated Press Stylebook has recognized this for at least a few decades now.

  • JoJo

    The AP Stylebook rule makes a lot of sense. One should certainly hesitate before using a label if the intended recipient disavows it. (I grit my teeth whenever hearing the word “pro-abortion”, since the term is technically incorrect and often self-serving.)

    So when do we abandon the rule? When should journalists speak frankly even at the expense of bruised feelings? And what’s the rule for using a term that is technically correct but carries some unintended baggage?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    One rule I observe is this: If people protest about how I’ve written about them, that’s a good time to examine whether what I’ve written is accurate — and even if it’s accurate, whether it is necessary.

  • Alex

    Ms. Goodstein notes “– most of the Protestants who make up what some call the Christian right are not fundamentalists– but evangelicals, who engage the culture and share their faith.”

    What is it exactly that evangelicals share in their cultural engagements? The results of an extensive study published in Ronald J. Sider’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” (Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2005) paints a disturbing picture. Sider laments the fact that across a wide range of issues (divorce, materialism and the poor, sexual disobedience, racism), most indicators confirm that, on average, evangelical behavior is worse than that of the population at large.

    The core of Protestant evangelical preaching is the message that conversion to their movement brings with it a miraculous “new birth” that initiates a lifetime of radical moral renewal and transformation. Sider’s study reveals this to be hypocritical and self-serving myth — at least among evangelicals in the United States.

    The word scandal doesn’t quite capture the essence of the problem. (Sider himself employs the term “treason.”) These findings seem to imply this generation of evangelicals has little or no faith. Moreover, it touches at the very heart of evangelical theology.

    Overstated? No — especially in light of the example of martyrs down through the ages (including today’s Christians suffering for their faith in Sudan) who won hearts (and minds) to Christ. How is this generation of evangelicals honoring their memory? What exactly to they project to others that is worthy of “sharing and engaging the culture”? Do evangelicals believe they can hide behind the usual slogan of “we’re all sinners anyway”?

    Note that Sider hopes his article will bear the same (alleged) fruit Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” did. In fact, he may be kidding himself because even here the data does not bear out his hope: 10 years after his book, Noll published a follow-up article in the October 2004 issue of First Things to assess the current state of affairs. His opening line: “Ten years after the publication of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I remain largely unrepentant about the books’ historical arguments, its assessment of evangelical strengths and weaknesses, and its indictment of evangelical intellectual efforts–”

    Little heart, small brains. Aren’t free will (to do good) and reason (to know God) the very things that distinguish us from the brute animals? How much fertile fodder can evangelicals lob to the secularists?

  • tmatt

    The key issue here is being tackled by the pollster George Barna (and Gallup, to a lesser degree).

    He now is using two different words to describe the pack of believers that most people call “evangelicals.”

    One group, he says, is truly conservative in an older, biblically defined sense.

    The other — which he calls the “born-again” — are defined not by doctrine, but by an emotional experience.

    There is a major tie here to the debates about just how large, or small, the “values vote” is and what defines a true red zip code from a blue zip code.

    If you are interested, see this for more info:

  • EV

    LeBlanc notes that “fundamentalist” is sometimes applied “too loosely to Muslims or Hindus.” I would add that religious Jews too are subject to the media’s propensity to categorize sloppily. In the recent, well publicized case of a Jewish student in Jerusalem spitting on an Armenian archbishop, the press was quick to identify the young man as “ultra-Orthodox.” However, ultra-Orthodox that I know were displeased at the way an act of physical assault was once again being laid at the feet of charedim (how ultra-Orthodox Jews refer to themselves) when this was evidently not the case. Since the name of the student’s yeshiva was being circulated in some of these news reports, I was able to look into the matter myself on the internet and thereby confirm that the student’s school, at least, was not charedi. To peek into the umbrage taken by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi at “the classic bias of the media against charedim,” read this post, “Oops, they did it again” on the charedi blog Cross-Currents (

  • Tom R

    I’m curious that a [c]haredi weblog would use the title “Cross-Currents”. No offence intended, just that I read once (in Commentary, no less, IIRC) that “ultra-Orthodox” Jews in Israel use some other symbol instead of a plus sign when doing arithmetic, one that doesn’t look like a cross.