10 Marks of Fundamentalism

10 Marks of Fundamentalism May 26, 2015

Listen, let’s talk about this.

Based on the comments section of last week’s post about the Duggars, it is clear that we need to have some clarification around what is, and is not meant by “Fundamentalism.” Because people have some FEELINGS about that word, y’all.

It is worth noting that the word ‘fundamental’ is actually pretty tame. Here’s what the dictionary says:

fun·da·men·tal chains

ˌ       fəndəˈmen(t)əl/


  1. forming a necessary base or core; of central importance.


      A central or primary rule or principle on which something is based.

NO BIG DEAL, right? This is an ok word. But add an ‘ism,’ and it becomes laden with cultural value and ambiguity. And, thus complicated, is not so easy to find in a dictionary.

When I say that sexual abuse is rooted in fundamentalism, that doesn’t mean that ALL abuse comes out of that kind of background. I know that, sadly, abuse does not discriminate. However, fundamentalism creates a system in which women (and children) are vulnerable; and perpetuates cultural assumptions that lead to silence, cover-ups and ‘statutes of limitations.’

But here is a really, really important clarification –fundamentalism is not the same thing as conservatism. Not all conservatives are fundamentalists.

And not all fundamentalists are conservative. There is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism.  (Note: believing that gay people should be allowed in church is not liberal fundamentalism. But we’ll talk about that another time).

Fundamentalism, as I understand it, can be rooted in any faith or culture; it can also take root outside of faith. Atheist fundamentalism is a thing. Political fundamentalism is a thing. Secular cults with a doomsday prophet who wrote his own religious text are a thing… or am I just watching too much Kimmy Schmidt? (There is no such thing as too much Kimmy Schmidt).

All of which is to say, calling one person or family ‘fundamentalists’ is not a dig at all conservative Christians; any more than calling ISIS a terrorist group is the same thing as calling all Muslims, terrorists. (Although many people—and far too many of them in Church and media—do not know the difference).

One more ‘what it ain’t’ note, before I get to ‘what it is…’ Fundamentalism is not the same as being deeply religious. Nuns are religious. Buddhist monks are religious. But these are not folks we’d typically associate with fundamentalist systems or behaviors.

And I KNOW that categorizing people based on elements of their personal beliefs is not entirely helpful. But, much of what’s wrong with the world is rooted in these types of systems—and the kinds of leaders they produce—so it’s important that we be able to know it when we see it. And name it. Maybe that gives more power to the light, and all that.

With ALL these disclaimers in place… Here are 10 ways to spot a fundamentalist. Make sure you don’t give them the microphone—or the keys to the Oval Office—if you can help it.

  1. A fundamentalist’s message is based in fear. Fear of some kind of damnation after death; fear of ‘other;’ fear of being ostracized by the community if one’s behavior does not conform to expectations of the leader or doctrine. Within this framework,
  2. Patriarchy is not only an accepted norm… it is preached as divine design. And how well you fit into/perform your gender role is directly linked to your spiritual health and salvation. This is just one expression of an otherwise
  3. Rigid interpretation of scripture, law or other document… in which there is no room for mystery, no room for doubt, and no room to examine the possibility of human error in the founding of said document(s). Along those same lines,
  4. Fundamentalism also values the letter of a law or doctrine over and above human relationship; or the greater good of humanity. Meanwhile,
  5. A culture of silence hovers over anything that does not ‘fit’ the expectations of the leader(s) or group. i.e., sexuality, gender identity, mental illness, divorce, etc.
  6. If imagined persecution lends authority to your message, and creates an insular ‘us-vs-the-world’ culture within your movement…you might be a fundamentalist.
  7. If you need the law of your country to lend legitimacy to your religious beliefs… you might be a fundamentalist.
  8. Combined, these elements make it easy for those in authority to abuse –whether emotionally, verbally, physically, or systemically—those who are vulnerable; and their abuses will be backed by the system. And/or kept silent in the meantime.
  9. These systems also rely on a negative view of education outside the accepted institution. Public schools and universities are either painted as inferior, or as a hostile threat to the system of belief. (They will make you think things and ask questions! That’s how the devil gets you, folks). Isolation is key to sustained manipulation.
  10. Which means also that, within the bounds of fundamentalism, there is always an ‘other.’ An outside group, authority figure, or institution that serves as a boogey man…against which, OF COURSE, the institution can protect you. If you follow the rules (see 1-9. Repeat).

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Nor does any ONE of these behaviors a fundamentalist make. Think of it as like, a magazine quiz. “IF you answered mostly YES…then you might be a fundamentalist.”

So… If you are not these things, then don’t be offended when people call out fundamentalism as ALL THAT’S WRONG WITH EVERYTHING. And if you look around and find that most of the people in your circle do, in fact, fit this description… then get the *&% on out of there.

I know it will be hard. I know it will seem impossible. But you are loved, and you’ve got friends out here, waiting.

We’ll have a beer ready for you, if you want it.



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