What Is “Fundamentalism?”

What Is “Fundamentalism?”


I was recently asked by a friend to define “fundamentalism.” And the question comes up in almost every class I teach. I have tried to define it here before but new people come to my blog all the time and my own understanding of fundamentalism evolves.

A few years ago some scholars associated with the University of Chicago (as I recall) launched “The Fundamentalism Project” and published a series of very large edited volumes about the subject. The chapters were written by sociologists of religion as well as religious historians. The overall outcome was that “fundamentalism” is religious anti-modernism or anti-modern religion.

I agree more with Nancey Murphy (Fuller Theological Seminary) who argued in Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism that they are brothers under the skin with both being very modern.

Both of these two projects for defining fundamentalism, however, are very scholarly and focused on underlying influences and dispositions unrecognized even by fundamentalists themselves. They are sociological, psychological and philosophical treatments of the subject even if they also touch on history and theology.

My approach to defining fundamentalism is more clearly historical-theological.

But here I will begin not at the beginning of the story of fundamentalism but near its end or, better expressed, at its turning point—away from being a kind of 20th century “underground” religious movement and ethos to becoming a socio-political force to be reckoned with.

I don’t know if anyone knows who in the “smoky back rooms” of the media did this but I clearly remember it coming out on national network television and in the national print media—in America. It appeared and was loudly heard there in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. The American media labeled him and his followers “Islamic fundamentalists.” At that time I was in the middle of my Ph.D. program in Religious Studies at Rice University. I remember my shock at the transference of the label “fundamentalist” to a non-Christian phenomenon. Some of my professors, scholars of world religions including American Christianity and Islam in the Middle East, decried this use of “fundamentalism.”

Soon, almost immediately, journalists and sociologists of religion were using “fundamentalist” as a descriptor for any form of what they perceived as religious fanaticism. About the same time Jerry Falwell, a well-known American fundamentalist leader, dropped the label “fundamentalist” and began to call himself very publicly an “evangelical.” He appeared on television talk shows such as “The Phil Donahue Show” and later “Larry King Live” and presented himself as the spokesman for American evangelical Christianity.

I was taught in seminary to distinguish between evangelical and fundamentalist—historically, theologically and in terms of religious disposition. The roots of this distinction reach back at least to fundamentalist leader Carl MacIntire’s 1942 refusal to bring his American Council of Christian Churches organization into the newly formed National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Then and following a major rift developed within American conservative Protestantism between the fundamentalists and the so-called neo-evangelicals with the latter being led by Harold John Ockenga and then Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry.

The fundamentalists of the 1940s and 1950s continued to call themselves the “true evangelicals” and dismiss the others as “neo-evangelicals”—a label that at first Ockenga accepted but then later rejected in favor of the “new evangelicals.” Eventually, by the time I was in seminary and then pursuing my doctoral degree, a clear parting of the ways had taken place.

So what was and remains the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism? Here is refer to these in the American context.

The best brief explanation may be found in an almost entirely forgotten book by neo-evangelical theologian and seminary president Edward John Carnell (1919-1967)—a person who, during the 1950s especially—stood at the center of the “parting of the ways” on the neo-evangelical side. Carnell was president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the flagship school of the neo-evangelical movement. He was also a Christian philosopher and theologian who wrote many books. Even though he has been largely forgotten, he was formative in the separation between American fundamentalism and American evangelicalism.

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It was Carnell’s exposition of the difference between evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity that influenced and continues to influence me.

In 1959 Presbyterian-related Westminster Press published a trilogy of books about American Protestant Christian theology. Each title began with “The Case for….” Noted American Methodist theologian L. Harold DeWolf wrote The Case for Liberal Theology while Lutheran William Hordern wrote The Case for a New Reformation Theology which was about so-called “neo-orthodoxy” or “dialectical theology” (Barth and Brunner). (Hordern had been asked to write a volume for the trilogy entitled “The Case for Neo-Orthodox Theology” but insisted on changing the title to the one mentioned above. (He told me this himself.) Carnell had been asked to write a volume for the trilogy entitled “The Case for Fundamentalist Theology” but insisted on changing his title to The Case for Orthodox Theology. All three were published in 1959—as a set clearly intended to give novices a guide to the theological landscape among American Protestants.

Carnell’s description of fundamentalism in The Case for Orthodox Theology is, in my opinion, still valid even where that label (viz., “fundamentalist”) is not used. His delineation of fundamentalism is still mine. A major problem, of course, is that untutored journalists, media talking heads, even some seemingly educated people who should know better have come to us “fundamentalist” for a wide swath of relatively conservative religious people. For example, some years ago I read C. S. Lewis described by a journalist as an “Anglican fundamentalist.”

So, admittedly, there is the “popular use” of “fundamentalist” that is little more than a slur. That is its broadest use and one that I find of little use (if any). Then there is a more technical and very narrow use of “fundamentalist” only for those “King James Bible only” Christians who still think of Billy Graham as a dangerous liberal. That is its most narrow use (in America, among Christians) and has some usefulness but is probably not sufficient.

Back to Carnell and his very powerful and important delineation of “fundamentalism.” In The Case for Orthodox Theology he wrote that “Fundamentalism is orthodoxy gone cultic.” (113) (Italics not added) There Carnell distinguished between fundamentalism as a movement and fundamentalism as a mentality. (113) (Italics added) For Carnell, fundamentalism as a movement simply began as a new emphasis among Protestants on the fundamental doctrines of historic, orthodox Christianity. It began as a movement to combat the rise of liberal theology and higher biblical criticism of the Bible in mainline Protestant denominations and their schools. But then it adopted a distinct religious mentality. The movement took on that distinct mentality—to the extent that some within the movement—including Carnell himself—felt it necessary to leave the movement and form a new one (viz., “neo-evangelicalism” later known simply as “evangelicalism” or “post-fundamentalist evangelicalism”).

Here is how Carnell rightly described the fundamentalist mentality: “The mentality of fundamentalism is dominated by ideological thinking. Ideological thinking is rigid, intolerant, and doctrinaire; it sees principles everywhere, and all principles come in clear tones of black and white; it exempts itself from the limits that original sin places on history; it wages holy wars without acknowledging the elements of pride and personal interest that prompt the call to battle; it creates new evils while trying to correct old ones.” (114) Of course, Carnell goes on to expound the details and give examples such as fundamentalism’s rage against the Revised Standard Version of the Bible when it was published.

Now, the fundamentalist movement is dead but its bits and pieces still remain and the fundamentalist mentality (or what I would prefer to call a spiritual-theological ethos) remains and is strong—even among those who call themselves “evangelicals.” This is the great irony of my life as an American evangelical theologian. I was tutored, as a seminary student especially, to make a relatively clear distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism—both in terms of movement and mentality. Jerry Falwell and others like him were known to us evangelicals as fundamentalists. Then, seemingly suddenly, he and other noted fundamentalists began calling themselves “evangelicals” and eschewing the label “fundamentalist” (except where and when using it was convenient) and the American news media embraced him and his fundamentalist ilk as the true evangelicals.

The American media have created the widespread impression that both fundamentalism and evangelicalism—usually equated—are primarily a political phenomenon. They are, the media suggests, the Republican Party of today at prayer. (Just as the Church of England was once called the “Tory Party at prayer.”) This is simply an invention of the media helped along, of course, by many fundamentalists who backed with much money have managed to gain power within the very variegated American evangelical landscape. One manifestation of that power is the growing reluctance of true evangelicals to call themselves that because of its confusion with fundamentalism in the popular mind.

So how do I identify—for myself, my students, and anyone else who cares what I think—a true fundamentalist? When talking about those churches and individuals who proudly call themselves fundamentalists and speak openly disparagingly about Billy Graham and “neo-evangelicals” and who insist that the KJV of the Bible is the only true Bible in the English language, my job is easy. The problem arises when I encounter people who promote themselves as “evangelicals” but I suspect are really more what Carnell meant by fundamentalists. (And it was not only Carnell who meant this; he was only expressing what most evangelical Christian leaders in 1959 thought.)

Here is what I look for—a critical mass of spiritual-theological “symptoms” that I find common to and almost unique (in terms of emphasis and influence) among a particular tribe of American Protestant Christians.

1) A tendency to elevate doctrines historically considered “secondary” (non-essentials) to the status of dogmas such that anyone who questions them questions the gospel itself.

2) A tendency to eschew “Christian fellowship” with fellow evangelical Christians considered doctrinally “impure” along with a tendency to misrepresent them in order to influence others to avoid them.

3) A tendency to “hunt” for “heresies” among fellow evangelical Christians and to reward fellow fundamentalists who “find” and “expose” them—even where said “heresies” are not truly heresies by any major confessional standards shared among evangelical Protestants.

4) A tendency to place doctrinal “truth” above ethics such that misrepresenting others’ views in order to exclude or marginalize them, if not get them fired, is considered justified.

5) A tendency to be obsessed with “liberal theological thinking” that leads to seeing it where it does not exist along with a tendency to be averse to all ambiguity or uncertainty about doctrinal and biblical matters.

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