“Fundamentalism” of the Left

“Fundamentalism” of the Left May 9, 2012

I put “fundamentalism” in scare quotes to distinguish its use here from its proper, historical-theological use. It’s proper historical-theological use has to do with the movement of conservative Protestants to oppose theological liberalism in denominations and seminaries (etc.) that arose in the early 20th century and with its various manifestations past and present. In that proper sense, there is no “fundamentalism of the left.”

However, many people (including yours truly occasionally) use “fundamentalism” to designate a certain mindset and style of argumentation especially within religious circles. That is, it is often used in popular speech (what the Germans call Umgangsprache) to designate an ethos exhibited by individuals or groups. That ethos is usually understood to include a very black-and-white view of complicated issues, a tendency to absolutize doctrinal and moral beliefs most people would consider secondary (at best), and a tendency to use almost any means to oppose, marginalize, silence opponents’ views.

Let me be clear: I do NOT think most “real fundamentalists” (in the historical-theological sense) are “fundamentalists” in the popular ethos sense. Somehow or other, the label was drawn from the historical-theological phenomenon and applied to a certain mentality and pattern of behavior discernible across the spectrum of theological (and sometimes political) views.

I wish there were a different label for mean-spirited religious absolutism. But perhaps one has to go with the flow of language and accept that “fundamentalism” is now widely understood in that sense. That is the sense I mean here when I speak about a “fundamentalism of the left.”

I have been around Christian people and organizations all of my life. I’ve been peripatetic in that regard–having been involved in religious organizations of many different kinds: Pentecostal, charismatic, “mainline” liberal, moderate, fundamentalist, etc. I have observed that some self-identified liberals (theologically, socially, politically) can be just as “fundamentalist” in the popular-ethos sense as extreme conservatives.

One area where this is apparent is the debate over homosexuality among Christians. There are “fundamentalists” on both sides–among those who oppose normalizing of homosexuality (religiously, ethically, socially, politically) and among those who promote it.

I attended a meeting of a professional society of theologians at which the president of the society took opportunity to stand before the diverse members (conservative Protestants, Catholics, liberal Protestants, etc.) to pass around a declaration about homosexuality for signatures. He more than implied that to decline to sign the pro-gay declaration, which would be disseminated in the name of the society, would be the moral equivalent of racism. He knew full well that some present, including most of the Catholics professors of theology, would lose their jobs if they signed the declaration. In my opinion, at that moment, that professional society president was behaving in a fundamentalist manner (in the ethos sense). This is just one example of what I call “fundamentalism of the left.”

Of course, such “fundamentalist” behavior is common among those who oppose homosexuality including equal rights for gay people. But we hear about that all the time.

It is almost impossible to talk or write about homosexuality without being given the “fundamentalist treatment” by people on one or both sides of the issue.

Not long ago I wrote a column advocating civil unions for any two adults. I argued that “marriage,” being a religious institution, should be left to churches, synagogues and other religious organizations. I was vilified by people on both sides of the homosexuality debate. For many gay rights advocates, that’s not enough. For many anti-gay activists that’s too big a concession.

Recently I have been called an “anti-gay activist” for no other reason than that I argued (here) that IF homosexuality is biological/genetic, which I suspect it is, that does not settle the issue of the moral status of homosexual behavior. I used pedophilia as an example of something that MAY BE biological/genetic that nobody would argue is morally right. I most certainly was NOT comparing homosexuality with pedophilia MORALLY. To say that I was is to demonstrate intellectual weakness or dishonesty. I MIGHT be completely in favor of normalizing homosexuality morally, socially and politically AND STILL argue that science cannot settle the issue morally. Nothing I wrote gave any indication of where I stand on the moral status of homosexuality.

And yet, one visitor here posted to his blog that I compared homosexuality with pedophilia. That’s ridiculous. The only comparison I drew was that both MIGHT BE biologically/genetically determined (as predispositions). That says nothing at all, whatsoever, about my moral estimation of them. That was simply and purely description and not at all prescription. The ONLY prescription I was making was against science being viewed as the arbiter of morality.

All one has to do to experience the “fundamentalism of the left” is tiptoe into the mine field that is the debate over homosexuality. One cannot even make non-prescriptive claims (such as that science cannot settle the morality of the issue) without risking vilification.

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