On Being A “Liberal Fundamentalist”

On Being A “Liberal Fundamentalist” October 16, 2013

Lately I’ve noticed that many liberal Christians do this thing where they accuse other liberal Christians of being “liberal fundamentalists.” Are these accusations of “liberal fundamentalism” warranted?

I’m thinking back over the times when I or a friend of mine has been called a “liberal fundamentalist:”

  • When I asked a popular Christian blogger to stop repeatedly using a slur.
  • When a queer friend criticized the organization NALT because of Dan Savage’s (who has a history of biphobia, transphobia, rape apology, racism, and misogyny) involvement.
  • When I pointed out that a book written by Rob Bell promotes rape culture..
  • When I and others refused to defend Hugo Schwyzer, a known abuser.
  • When a friend criticized a recent The Oatmeal piece for idolizing a man who advocated for the African slave trade.

Is this really the same as fundamentalism? 

I’m often told, and often see other people told, that being angry, passionate, and intolerant of racism, homophobia/transphobia, sexism, rape culture, etc. is just as bad as being a fundamentalist. I’m just being a liberal fundamentalist instead of a conservative one, right?

This thinking requires coming up with some false equivalences. Is telling someone to stop using slurs that hurt people really just as bad as telling people that it’s a sin to say “gosh darn?” Is calling out rape culture really just as bad as promoting it? Is being intolerant of racism, transphobia, and homophobia really just as bad as being racist, transphobic, and homophobic? Is refusing to defend abusers really just as bad as covering up abuse in the name of God?

According to these folks, when fundamentalists are angry and intolerant about something, and these certain liberals/progressives over here are angry and intolerant about something, what matters is not the “something” that is the source of anger and intolerance, but the anger and intolerance itself.

This is how they can come to the conclusion that these two groups are acting the same. They ignore the context.

It’s interesting, too, when I look over the scenarios in which I’ve seen people called a “liberal fundamentalist.” I and others criticized a popular Christian blogger, a famous activist, a former mega-church pastor, a popular male feminist, and a popular cartoonist.

Is this not a fundamentalist-like way of thinking? The idea that some people are above criticism because of their popularity and influence? That we should appreciate their leadership rather that criticize them, and that we should focus on the good things they’ve done?

Touch not the Lord’s anointed? 

This isn’t even applied consistently. Many of the folks calling others “liberal fundamentalists” would rip to shreds a blog post from anyone at The Gospel Coalition using oppressive language, but when a popular liberal blogger uses such language those who call her out are being “too PC.” These same people would never tolerate Mark Driscoll promoting rape culture but insist that we give Rob Bell the benefit of the doubt. They’re up in arms whenever a story of an abuse cover-up at a conservative church breaks, but want us to stop talking about the continued abusive acts Hugo Schwyzer is committing.

When it comes to oppression and abuse, compromise, patience, and kind words aren’t always a virtue. It’s no time to be tolerant. It helps no one to focus on only the good things our liberal leaders and heroes are doing if they are also hurting others or contributing to oppressive systems.

If I’m a fundamentalist for saying that, fine.

Anti-oppression and anti-abuse is fundamental for me, and I’m not going to be insulted by that.

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  • I have nothing to add but thunderous applause.

  • the way folks hurl this “reverse fundamentalism” thing is extraordinarily puzzling to me. it generally seems like a way to label and dismiss–which is fine, I suppose–but I don’t think one gets to do it while claiming to be generous or pretending that they aren’t also operating from conflicting fundamentals of engagement/philosophy.

    • The way you phrased it there – “reverse fundamentalism” – makes me think that the charge is just a microcosm of the powerful reasserting their place of power by making themselves the victims of the marginalized people’s ire. It’s very like the false equivalence of “reverse racism” that gets brought up any time a POC makes a comment about “white people.”

      The thing is, the charge only really works in a world where the oppressed gaining equality and power is a threat to your privileged place.

  • RtRDH

    Frakking applauds all of this. YESSSSSSSSS!

  • Nicole Resweber


  • Shade Ardent

    fundamentalism is a thing that carries a lot of weight and fear. i think it should be something we are all aware of. we each hold the potential to be fundamentalistic about certain things. even whether eggs should be soft-side up or scrambled hard. we hold our own ideas as sacred, and it’s hard to bend them.

    having the idea that any one thing or person is the only voice or right belief is a fundamentalist attitude. i think it’s important to examine ourselves and try to decide if the label fits instead of just discarding it. though discarding is easier to do when something sparks shame.

    i left fundamentalism as a religion, but i recognize it in many many other places. reserving it for a select few diminishes its power to be seen and fought as it crops up like weeds in our world.

    for HS, i defend only his right as a human to try to heal and to try to make amends. as someone who has pulled herself off the floor, put back the clothes, and ignored the marks, i know some of the impact he has had on those he hurt. i also had to recognize my unwavering hatred that i’d had for a long time towards him. do i trust him ever to be alone with me? no. do i hope he can make amends and heal his life and his world? yes.

    i have to, or it consumes me. and it’s easier to start with hope for him than the one(s) that hurt me.

  • Rob

    “Anti-oppression and anti-abuse is fundamental for me”

    erm, no it’s not. You just wish to abuse and oppress a different set of people. I guess you’re not fundamentalist just for being angry or passionate, but in addition being so committed to your ideology that you refuse to be corrected when shown to be in error. Your hatred and spite are more important to you than whether what you say is accurate or whether you are telling lies about people. Luckily most people are able to recognize you as the pathetic, whiny emotional mess that you are and move on. Rational engagement is not an option with you, and *that’s* indicative of the fundamentalist mindset.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Aw, Rob. I’m going to make like a fundamentalist and block you now!

  • Lenore Kaibel

    I grew up in a liberal/radical left household (caught between the two in a way). I think what is being referenced in the “Liberal Fundamentalist” label is a way of thinking that becomes in itself closed minded, narrow and VERY ideologically based. There are, for sure “liberal fundamentalists”. However, that label can also become a cop out for racism, homophobia, you name it. It is a complex issue for sure.

  • I’ve not heard the term “liberal fundamentalist” before, but it does apply to one facet in the American conversation.

    I’m an egalitarian, as was Thomas Jefferson—all men are created equal—and the whole human race as it evolved, evidenced by both evolutionary biology and anthropology:

    “…remain politically autonomous as individuals…this egalitarian arrangement.”

    Christopher Boehm (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press, p. 194.

    “Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign. They generate their own subsistence with little or no assistance from outside sources. They bow to no external political leaders. Nor are they routinely exploited by outsiders.”

Service, Elman (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York, NY: Norton.

    Yet when I broach the subject of the Jeffersonian egalitarian power-sharing arrangement in the Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution, liberals generally behave as badly as the worst behavioral caricatures that progressives can conjure about right-wing conservatives.

  • A-freaking-men.