Understanding Fundamentalism

Edward Farley offers a theory of fundamentalism in Cross Currents.

Since the early twentieth century, the term, fundamentalism, has undergone significant changes of meaning. First, the initial movement (biblicistic and anti-evolution Protestantism) experienced an upsurge after World War II that included denominational takeovers, the successful deployment of radio and television, relatively successful ventures into local and national politics, and, in recent times, the development of large and small independent congregations (“community churches”) whose music, entertainment, anti-liturgy and informal worship are especially attractive to young married couples with children. Second, in the 1940’s and after, Protestant fundamentalism in the United States split into conservative and moderate factions: the former preferring cultural and denominational isolation and anti-historical Biblicism, the latter, centered in the new National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Seminar, rejecting such isolation and embracing selected elements of “modernism.” Third, the original funmentalist movement, its pre-history, and its period of upsurge called forth a whole literature of historical, sociological, and even theological studies. Fourth, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu communities spawned movements which closely resembled American Protestant fundamentalism. Following these developments, the term, fundamentalism, underwent both a narrowing and a broadening. The “evangelical” or moderate side of the original movement restricted the term to the far right wing of conservative Protestantism. Because of this restriction, “fundamentalism” migrated from a descriptive historical to a pejorative term for an ossified, hostile, and even fanatical way of being religious. In the last part of the twentieth century, students of world religions appropriated the term to describe aggressively anti-modernist, tradition-preserving movements in many of the world’s faiths. Others in turn resisted this broadening on grounds that the term was too loaded with Protestant Christian connotations to apply to other faiths. “Islamism” and “Hinduization” thus became the preferred terms to describe these tradition-defending movements. The broadeners have argued that, granting the differences between religions, there does exist a complex of similar behaviors and attitudes in these faiths that justify a common label. Behind these similarities is the struggle of all contemporary religious faiths to maintain themselves in a radically secularized world.