Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘fundamentalism’

Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘fundamentalism’ June 12, 2013

When it comes to religious terms, you would be hard pressed to find a word more misapplied by the media than “fundamentalist.”

As your GetReligionistas have stressed a gazillion times, that is why the term has its own cautious entry in the Associated PRess Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Alas, whenever this term is used by the media, you can be assured that it’ll have almost nothing in common with its original meaning.

Here’s how we got the term: In the early 1900s a conservative movement sprung up within Protestantism — including the mainstream Protestant churches — in reaction to liberal theology and the form of Biblical interpretation known as higher criticism. A series of articles was written and collected into a four-volume work called The Fundamentals which was intended to outline the key doctrines, the “fundamentals”, of the Christian faith. The movement eventually moved away from its intellectual roots, though, and by the end of World War II it had receded from the culture at large.

Nowadays, though, the term “fundamentalist” has become synonymous with just about any strict conservative stance in any religion or ideology. Once again, it pays to remember that the AP stylebook notes that it has “taken on a pejorative connotations” and advises avoiding it unless a group applies it to themselves.

Unfortunately, that suggestion is rarely followed and the label is applied in seemingly contradictory ways. Take, for example, the title of a report an ABC New’s Nightline: ‘Modern Polygamy: Arizona Mormon Fundamentalists Seek to Shed Stereotypes.’

The story contrasts a group of “1,500 fundamentalist Mormons” living in Centennial Park, Ariz. with another group of nearby polygamists, “the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints followers, or FLDS, the group led by self-described prophet Warren Jeffs.” There’s no indication the Centennial Park polygamists call themselves fundamentalists so why use the term to compare them with a group that does?

The “stereotype” referred to in the title is that Mormon polygamy is repressive to women:

… (The) polygamist community said they are tired of living in secret and want to demonstrate plural marriage as the way they say it should be seen. Hammon said that the stereotype that women in polygamist marriages have no rights, no freedom to leave the community and are only there to have babies is false, as far as he is concerned.

“I can tell you that my door swings both ways,” he said. “If they come in, they can go out. I know of no greater freedom for a woman than living in a responsible, caring polygamist home.”

Another polygamist explains why he thinks the practice should be decriminalized:

“If I had my choices, I would like to see it done right now. I don’t see there is any reason for this lifestyle to be a crime. It’s a religion. Not a crime.”

And one of the wives adds:

“This is where I choose to be. … I truly am happy with this lifestyle. I truly would be unhappy in something different, I truly would,” Rose said. “Living in a monogamous lifestyle simply would not be full enough for me.”

Now imagine if those same lines had not been delivered by Mormons but by members of the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness. Would ABC have referred to them as ‘fundamentalist’ or would they be described as on the bleeding-edge of progressivism?

The problem with the ABC story stems largely from the fact that it’s trying to fit the polygamy narrative into the traditional marriage paradigm. But the issue of same-sex marriage has complicated the issue and makes the previously clear lines (e.g., polygamy is an practice of fundamentalist religions) much blurrier.

Nowadays, on the issue of marriage, the Mormon polygamists in Arizona have more in common with the Unitarian polygamists in New York than they do with members of the Mormon church. Why is one group (polygamist Mormons) assumed to be political and religiously regressive while another group with similar views (polygamist Unitarians) are viewed as political and religiously progressive?

That’s yet another reason to drop the term fundamentalism: It signifies a sense of unity between disparte groups and creates a fundamental misunderstanding of the complexity of religious affiliations and beliefs.

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  • Karlw1988

    Fundamentalist = homeschool family with 8 kids or more, who attend a confessional Presbyterian church and drive a large white van.

  • Carlh

    One of the problems here is the fact that these people DO apply the term “fundamentalist” to themselves (this is clearly the case with the Warren Jeffs group, who include the word in the name of their church, but not really clear as to the group covered by the linked article). You can quibble about whether they have usurped a word that has a very specific “settled meaning” in some contexts. But if these polygamists refer to themselves as “fundamentalist,” what’s a journalist to do? For what it’s worth, I think it’s pretty clear that whenever “fundamentalist Mormon” is used, it refers to groups that practice polygamy (some continuing the practice from before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned it, others adopting it later as even relatively recent off-shoots).

    • Darren Blair

      …except, the Centennial Park group *isn’t* FLDS; they’re a different offshoot entirely.

      Hence why using the term “Fundamentalist” in the article was such a bad call: it confuses the reader as to which group is which.

      • Carlh

        The article used lower-case “fundamentalist” to refer to the Centennial Park group, which although distinct from the FLDS group, is not an entirely different offshoot. Rather it is a 1986 offshoot directly from the FLDS group, made up of dissenters from changes instituted by Warren Jeffs. Check the Wikipedia entry on “Mormon fundamentalism”.

  • Darren Blair

    As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (that is, Mormon)?

    It’s been my personal experience that far too many media outlets seem to think that Mormonism is still stuck in the 1800s, and that “truth” can be found by perusing the least charitable of the anti-Mormon works around. ABC has shown itself to be particularly bad about this, what with their infamous episode of “What Would You Do?” that nearly got one of their actors killed* and their trying to equate Romney paying his tithing to Romney embezzling money from Bain.

    As part of this, whenever the issue of polygamy comes up, these outlets immediately want to declare it a fundamental part of the faith, and as such establish any polygamous sect as being fundamentalist… with everything that entails, including the church purportedly being backwards and regressive.

    This also means that anything which disturbs the narrative is either treated as novel (if recognized at all) or swept under the rug (so as to maintain the narrative).

    *The scenario: a man is verbally abusing his girlfriend in such a fashion as to raise the prospect of violence once the two leave the diner where they are having dinner. Once the scripted argument is over, have one of the two leave and see what the patrons do.

    Well, one patron very nearly hauled the actor playing the abusive boyfriend out into the parking lot for some Western justice; you see, Utah is just like Texas in that chivalry – like a lot of older notions that modern media sees as “quaint” – is alive and well. The host had to *literally* run into the diner to prevent this from happening.

  • Guest

    There is no such thing as “Mormon church,” as written here. Such a name is offensive to many Mormons and rejected by the official church as unprofessional and wrong. Its called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on the first mention (if you are following AP style at all) and the LDS Church thereafter. They prefer to be called The Church of Jesus Christ (come on, there is a church called The Church of Christ, so why not this since its actually in the official name?), but LDS Church will do without offense.

    • mikehorn

      Aside from offensive or correct, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is just clunky. I wouldn’t use it in conversation. LDS Church isn’t much better, but it goes the right direction. LDS is itself clunky, and using acronyms in conversation or writing is also not usually the best choice. “Mormon” has become the default because it simply works better. It rolls, it avoids confusion with other churches, any number of other reasons.

      For the sake of branding and owning a unique identity, Mormons are fools not to embrace the term “Mormon” on the common-usage basis that it is used today.

      • Jettboy

        There are religious reasons that Mormons and the LDS Church reject this name for the mainstream organization. Its not considered “Mormon’s” church, but the church of Jesus Christ. At least “LDS or Latter-day Saint Church” has historical roots in the religion. It is a nickname with pejorative applications whose use is often to hide cherished beliefs.

        • mikehorn

          I understand your concern, but I am addressing other aspects. To briefly address that Mormon doesn’t denote in one word who you worship, neither does Jew or Muslim or Catholic. Or Baptist. Or Methodist. That is not the point, and all of those labels uniquely identify the faith and basic beliefs to even the moderately religiously literate. Mormon fills that requirement quite well. Far better than any of those clunky, long, tongue-twisting alternatives that could serve as exhibit A for horrible branding ideas. Those who I run across that insist on the longer ones come across as stuffy, uptight, and worried about small problems. Not to mention the subtle undercurrent of insisting non-Mormons abide by the rules of the Mormon faith whether they like it or not, another bad way to get any sort of positive message across. It then it turns into a double problem: a clunky name AND a bad impression.

          I suggest Mormons own the name. This works quite well. For a really great example, see the history of Yankee as a term. Several times it has been a pejorative, going back to when the British viewed American Colonial troops as lazy, undisciplined, but we Yanks owned it and threw it back as a positive.

          Also consider that people not even young any more (I’m over 40) have never heard Mormon used in a negative sense any more than I’ve heard Catholic used (I lived in Georgia for 10 years – neither are considered Christian there). But there was no difference in sentiment between LDS or Mormon.

          • Jettboy

            But for Mormons, to use any other name than the name of Jesus Christ (or something derived from the revealed name) is religious blaspheme as explained in the Book of Mormon. In other words, its not just a preference or aesthetic; but a command from God.

          • mikehorn

            Sorry it took me so long. Life happened on this end.

            I can’t seem to find such a hard-core blasphemy claim in the Mormon literature that I’ve found. Often the LDS Church mouthpieces are asking people like the AP to use LDS or the longer version when referring to the Church, but conclude that using Mormon for an individual is fine. The Church even adds Mormon now to their articles online because they recognize the concept of common-usage cannot be successfully fought against – you’ve already lost that one, so move on. The Church leaders decided to do this, from what I gathered, to facilitate google searches in the hope that they can reach more people. While I’d rather the Mormon faith didn’t spread, I still applaud them for a positive approach that recognizes the realities of language and technology.

          • Jettboy

            “Why would I even consider adhering to the theological claims of a religion I do not subscribe to?”

            Courtesy. You have heard of that haven’t you? Then again, I take it you are an atheist although you could just as well be an Evangelical. Neither of them have the slightest understanding of courtesy from what I have observed. You may not believe in the theological claims, but you can at least be aware and careful of what names you use. As a liberal (and what you write has put that assumption front and center) you should be conscious of calling people certain names to avoid offense. Then again, that usually doesn’t count for religious people unless you a Muslim terrorist.

          • Jettboy

            “Why would I even consider adhering to the theological claims of a religion I do not subscribe to?”

            Courtesy. You have heard of that haven’t you? Then again, I take it you are an atheist although you could just as well be an Evangelical. Neither of them have the slightest understanding of courtesy from what I have observed. You may not believe in the theological claims, but you can at least be aware and careful of what names you use. As a liberal (and what you write has put that assumption front and center) you should be conscious of calling people certain names to avoid offense. Then again, that usually doesn’t count for religious people unless a Muslim terrorist.

          • mikehorn

            You seem to be offended when your church is not. This speaks volumes, putting you on the fringe of what is already considered a very conservative religion. See:


            As for courtesy, it goes both ways. If I were a guest in your house or church, or a member of your religion, you would have a point. But I’m not. Consider the demands Islam is trying to make concerning treatment of the image of their prophet. Their demands should be anathema to the Western sense of freedom and free discourse. They are free to demand, of course, but I’m also free to point out they are self-righteous to a fault and make demands they have no right to make. Islam is also the common modern example of murder after the claim of blasphemy. Christianity has that in its near-past, as Mormons should well know, since some of their founders were killed in what can reasonably be called religious violence.

            So, you are free to ask, but I’m free to say that you are wrong and sweating the small stuff. Since I don’t mean any disrespect by the term, and most people don’t, your insistence and your blasphemy label do nothing for your argument, in my eyes. Now it starts to look like coercion and threats. That should not be tolerated in a free society, and you do your Church a great disservice this way. Especially when they don’t even agree with you.

          • Jettboy

            “I don’t mind being called a Mormon,” said Elder Oaks to the Times’ Gustav Neibuhr, “but I don’t want it said that I belong to the Mormon Church.”

            . . . Even with the increased use of “Mormon,” where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tries to draw the line and correct as much as possible is “Mormon Church” as a substitute title — a la Elder Oaks’ aforementioned concern.

            “That seems to us to have crossed another line,” said Otterson, adding “we’ve pushed back on the use of Mormon Church.”

            In other words, I am going by the older and still recognize admonition that the Church should not be called by anything other than what the Lord has decreed it be called. My reasons are not fringe, just not worldly. And its not individuals getting called “Mormon” that I am arguing against, but the name of the Church. Blaspheme, by the way, has nothing to do with intentions or beliefs of the other party.

          • Jettboy

            Here is what I believe the Lord has said on the subject starting with 3 Nephi 27:7-11 in the Book of Mormon:

            ” 7 Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.

            8 And how be it amy bchurch save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.

            9 Verily I say unto you, that ye are built upon my gospel; therefore ye shall call whatsoever things ye do call, in my name; therefore if ye call upon the Father, for the church, if it be in my name the Father will hear you;

            10 And if it so be that the church is built upon my gospel then will the Father show forth his own works in it.

            11 But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return.”

            Here from section 115 of the Doctrine and Covenants;

            “3 And also unto my faithful servants who are of the high council of my achurch in Zion, for thus it shall be called, and unto all the elders and people of my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, scattered abroad in all the world;

            4 For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

          • mikehorn

            I’d like to address the term “blasphemy”. I’d avoid that one. Even more so than the LDS/Mormon issue, the word blasphemy conjures all the very worst aspects of any religion. In the past it got people killed in very ugly ways, and even today it still does.

            The concept of a “command from God” from a religion I don’t believe lacks any convincing power on my end. To put it bluntly: not my religion, not my god. Why would I even consider adhering to the theological claims of a religion I do not subscribe to? I’m fine using Mormon, and most Mormons are fine with it. As I understand the concept of Mormon blasphemy, even the Church doesn’t consider my use and the modern common usage as blasphemy because it lacks any sort of negative intent. Blasphemy requires two things: 1) you believe the concepts of the religion, and 2) you purposely use derogatory terms to either tear down the Church or the faith, or otherwise be angry or negative towards your god. I lack both.

  • timetherington

    You know the other one I hear misused? “Evangelical”. On NPR once I heard a review of a movie about “an evangelical Mormon cult.” That nomenclature made no sense to me so I emailed NPR and asked. I can’t find the email with their exact response but basically the define “evangelical” as anyone who interprets the Bible literally. I explained that it is that but that it is more than that as well but it fell on deaf ears. Probably because I would have had to explain that they’re using “fundamentalist” incorrectly before I could get to a definition of “evangelical” that is historically rooted.

  • Papa Mincho

    Yeah, but the first fundamental in ‘The Fundamentals’ is Biblical inerrancy.

    With Unitarians, Joe’s comparison falls apart entirely: they believe in a multiplicity of deistic interpretations, and do not insist that their members adhere to a specific credo beyond a declaration of belief in God. In their view, the Bible does not have to be inerrant, and could be largely metaphorical, so it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Joe describes.

    Here’s why the media is largely correct in their usage of ‘fundamentalist’:

    Say that a group like the Westboro Baptist Church insists that their specific reading of the Bible condemns most of the world to Hell; the Bible is inerrant truth, so their subjective opinion regarding that truth has to be the truth for everyone else. As a matter of fact, they base their legal opinions and their legislation based on their belief in Scripture, and reference God explicitly when they attempt to enact secular law.

    Is it okay to call them ‘fundamentalist’ then, Joe, or do we specifically have to refer back to the 1920s?

    • ***Is it okay to call them ‘fundamentalist’ then, Joe, or do we specifically have to refer back to the 1920s?***

      Whatever else they are, the Westboro cult are not “fundamentalist” in any reasonable sense of the term. Inerrancy has to do with the Bible text, not with a particular group’s interpretation of the text.

      • Papa Mincho

        Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my post.

        My problem with your response is that there are a multiplicity of interpretations for a multiplicity of texts. That’s why we have Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, et al with different takes on Christian theology, and they all trace their theology back to Scripture. Some might be using the NIV, the KJV, the Living Word, or even the OED, but they’re still basing their beliefs on Scripture.

        ‘The Fundamentals’ are all about the inerrancy of Scripture and the reality of Jesus’s divinity; by the book’s own definitions, the WBC are indeed fundamentalist.

    • Andrew Hidas

      Two points here, one for Papa and one for Joe. Papa, it is simply inaccurate to say that Unitarian Universalism does “not insist that their members adhere to a specific credo beyond a declaration of belief in God.” Many UUs do not “believe in God” in any traditional, theistic sense of that term, and many are flat-out professed atheists. What the faith does insist on is acceptance and practice of its seven core principles, which can be found with a click of your mouse, so no need to list them here. And Joe, I’d like to know what you base your assertion on that “polygamist Unitarians are viewed as political (sic, should have been ‘politically’) and religiously progressive.” I can assume but don’t really know about their political views (do you?) but I am most interested in knowing who exactly is “viewing” them as “religiously progressive.” What does that term mean, anyway? Reference, context and substantiation, please!

  • mikehorn

    The core argument that we should use terms and words as originally formed, or at some sort of crucial historical time, is silly. “Gay” no longer means a person with a sunny demeanor and positive outlook, which it did as recently as the 1950’s (see the lyrics to “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story).

    The English language is not a dead language, meaning that it changes over time. A fascinating study is to spend time with one of those really thick dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary, that gives the current definitions but also traces historical definitions, “archaic” definitions no longer in use, and often the source word and its meaning.

    English changes. Common usage for Fundamentalism is part of the language now whether you like it or not. While the AP stylebook is an important guide, it is but one among many and by no means authoritative.

    I very much appreciate Papa Mincho’s point that many religions claim many different “inerrant” interpretations, and really all qualify as Fundamentalist in the modern usage.

    • Sari

      Should fundamentalist be used in reference to other religions? I have seen articles in which the terms fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Islam were used. While recognizing that living languages are dynamic, should the media use words from one religion to describe another?

      • mikehorn

        Fundamentalist is a modifier, or at most a description of someone’s approach to their religion. It works for any religion, in my opinion. It separates the strict interpretations from the ones that are more real-time context-dependent.

        My handful of Muslim friends would agree that fundamentalism is a phenomena in Islam as well as Christianity. They view the crazies like OBL the same way most Christians view Westboro Baptist.

        • Sari

          I guess my problem is that we’re comparing apples to oranges. Any Muslim who advocates a return to religious law refers to a body of law which changes with every new ruling. Christian Fundamentalism, if I understand it correctly, strives for a literal and direct interpretation of Scripture, one untainted by centuries of traditional interpretation.

          • mikehorn

            To which I ask: which Christian denomination gets it right?

            Near as I can tell, the number of Christian interpretations is at least as high as the number of denominations. The closest thing Christianity has to a central, “official”, interpretation is the Vatican, which gives yes/no and more detailed pronouncements that apply to about 55% of Christians, worldwide. In many Protestant sects, to include some Mormons I’ve spoken with, each and every person is the main interpreter of scripture for themselves, meaning that many sects have as many interpretations as they have people.