Whaddaya mean, ‘fundamentalist’?

Whaddaya mean, ‘fundamentalist’? November 4, 2013

At one of my recent talks on Bristol, an attendee challenged me on my definition of fundamentalism. And while I still think his definition did a violence to any traditional usage of the term (while mine was, obviously, unassailably correct), he raised an important point. ‘Fundamentalist’, in modern usage, is essentially a swear word. If you call someone a fundamentalist, you’re writing off their views as irrelevant and invalid. At the same time, the word does have a historical meaning, referring to a specific type of Christian theology.

In the past, I have capitalised on that very ambiguity with this blog. I blog about self-identified fundamentalists, the kind meant by the historical meaning of the word. But since I also think that these views are irrational and their adherents are extremists, I’ve been letting my readers interpret the term however they wish. If by fundamentalist you mean someone who believes in the literal truth of an inerrant Bible, that’s what I mean. But if you mean a terrorist, well, as far as I’m concerned the atrocities committed by self-proclaimed fundamentalists at Christian reform homes are in the same moral ballpark as terrorism, so that’s fine too.

Now I’ve decided I want to engage meaningfully with believers, I have a problem. You can’t reach mutual understandings through interfaith dialogue while calling your conversation partners terrorists. So is it time to lose the term ‘fundamentalism’? Even Bob Jones University, the spiritual home of fundamentalism, has made noises about ditching it:

“Basically, we’ve decided that we can’t use that term,” said Carl Abrams, a BJU history professor and a longtime member of the faculty. “The term has been hijacked and it takes you 30 minutes to explain it. So you need something else.”

But if not fundamentalist, then what? Well, before we can answer that, we need to know how fundamentalism gained its current status. And for that, we need Adam Laats’s outstanding book, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars.

I was genuinely surprised how much I liked this book. I’m a longtime reader of Adam’s blog and he’s helped me out with research on numerous occasions, so I knew he’s an engaging writer and a top bloke, but I was still expecting to find this a dry, academic slog. Actually, I was riveted. Everything I’ve studied of fundamentalism makes so much more sense in the historical context this book provides. I’d recommend it to people with a casual interest in fundamentalism just as much as those with an academic interest.

In the 1920s, the massed forces of fundamentalism were poised and ready to take back America. In those days, the term had no pejorative overtones and people were (reasonably) clear on what it meant: Christians who rejected theological modernism and higher criticism of the Bible, and instead clung to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, emphasised in a series of essays called “The Fundamentals”. Although there was some controversy over which doctrines actually counted as fundamental, there were a few that were almost universal: (literal belief in) the inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, his atonement for sin, and his bodily resurrection. Interestingly, ‘fundamentalist’ did not always mean ‘young-Earth creationist’. It was the events of the 1920s which made the term more associated with the rejection of Darwinism than anything else.

At the start of the decade, the group themselves ‘fundamentalists’ even included some Catholics, something that would be unthinkable now, in the days where Bob Jones calls Catholicism a cult, “Bible Christians” conduct assaults on “Romanism”, and some fundamentalists claim the “great whore” of Revelation is, in fact, the Catholic church. The events Laats describes resulted in a dramatic narrowing of the meaning of fundamentalism to one which excluded Catholics and mainstream Protestants.

The common cause that united fundamentalists was opposition to Darwinism in schools and colleges. Fundamentalists began the decade confident that evolution could be defeated, the superiority of fundamentalist science demonstrated, and the truth of the Bible restored to prominence in American public life. The stage was set for a decade of lawsuits and legal challenges which fundamentalists fully expected would end in their favour. It ended rather differently than they imagined.

Fundamentalists knew mainstream scientists had different ideas about the meaning of science. At the same time, they believed that public academics were misleading the world, because they thought that a few dogmatic Darwinists had monopolised positions of power. They were confident that there was, under the surface, a large body of scientific experts who would reject the Darwinists’ view and vindicate the fundamentalist position.

Buoyed by the belief that expert opinion would be on their side, fundamentalists attempted sweeping legal reforms which, had they succeeded, would have turned America into something approaching a theocracy, banning evolution and anti-Christian materials from schools, universities, and even public libraries:

[One bill introduced in Kentucky] would have prohibited any public library from owning any materials “containing such teaching that will directly or indirectly attack or assail or seek to undermine or weaken or destroy the religious beliefs and convictions of the children of Kentucky.”

The attempted reforms challenged not only evolution, but in some cases anything deemed anti-Christian. It is scarcely imaginable how broadly such legislation could have been interpreted.

The centrepiece of these battles was the 1925 Scopes Trial, in which the state of Tennessee tried John Scopes for the crime of teaching evolution in a public school. Fundamentalists relished this chance for open debate, because they were sure that evolution would lose. In the end, however, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan was unable to find any scientific experts willing to testify on the fundamentalist side. Instead, the case had to be argued on purely legal terms. Because teaching evolution was illegal in Tennessee, the fundamentalists won the case.

Winning the case, however, did not stop them from losing the public debate. The trial became a national media sensation, and fundamentalism became the butt of national scorn. Fundamentalists were depicted as hillbillies and rednecks; uneducated, backwards, anti-intellectual fools who would plunge America back into the dark ages. One of the harshest critics was H.L. Mencken, who wrote:

In the rural sections of the Middle West and everywhere in the South save a few walled towns – the evangelical sects plunge into an abyss of imbecility, and declare a holy war on every decency that civilized men cherish.

In the face of such a critical onslaught, many would no longer identify as fundamentalists. If you wanted to think of your faith as intellectually respectable, fundamentalism was no longer much of an option. Those who retained the label were forced to come to new understandings of the term. I felt the book could have been stronger at explaining what those fundamentalists who continued to use the term meant by it. Adam repeatedly points out that they had to negotiate new meanings, but doesn’t really go into what those new meanings were. He does say that they sometimes identified with a kind of anti-intellectual Southern pride, which is helpful but doesn’t fully clarify matters.

As a former fundamentalist and someone who has read a lot of fundy literature, I have a few guesses. Those who embraced the fundamentalist label would have been utterly unmoved by the scathing attacks of Mencken et al, because those guys didn’t know God. Of course they couldn’t see the truth, they were blinded to spiritual realities because of their unregenerate, depraved souls. Respect from unbelievers was not something to be esteemed. Indeed, truly rational thought was impossible without God, so it was no wonder those unbelievers didn’t get it.

Although a few of the fundamentalist attempts at legislating Darwin into oblivion were successful, by the end of the 1920s, it was clear that attempts to reform America’s schools and universities wholesale had failed. Instead, fundamentalism withdrew from mainstream culture. Everything we know about fundamentalism today makes sense in the light of these battles: Their attempts to dismantle public schools come from the knowledge that they tried and failed to reform them. Their creation of private school fundamentalist subcultures allows them to make their own schools into what they hoped the public schools would be. And those wearing the fundamentalist badge are those most impervious to external critique.

So if ‘fundamentalist’ does have a relevant meaning, perhaps it’s this:

  • Accepts the ‘five fundamentals’ of the faith
  • Rejects evolution and common descent
  • Is unmoved by secular critics
  • Mistrusts the ideas of mainstream academic experts

Later, I’ll look at some alternative terms we could use. But for now, go and buy Adam’s book, and read his blog!

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