Whaddaya mean, ‘fundamentalist’?

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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About jonnyscaramanga

I grew up as a Christian fundamentalist in the UK. Now I am writing a book and blog about what that's like, and what fundamentalists believe.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in Atheism, Book Reviews, Christianity, Creationism, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. The word “Darwinist” tends to be pejorative as well 😉

  2. Thank you. Informative and thought provoking.

  3. Though fundamentalism began as a reaction to evolution and German-influenced biblical criticism, it later developed a strong separationist tendency that by the 1950s was refined into first, second, and third degree separatism.

    Those fundamentalist who decided against separatism and chose dialog over isolationism became evangelicals.

    Since my years as a fundamentalist (1950-60s), fundamentalism has changed by becoming home-schooled, purity-cultured, and more patriarchal. But two things that have characterized fundamentalist are still integral to the movement: inerrancy and separatism.

    Perhaps a candidate for a replacement for the changing popular concept of fundamentalism is inerrantist-separatists.

  4. For those interested in the REAL story of the Scopes Trial as contrasted with the Hollywood history in “Inherit the Wind,” see the website http://www.themonkeytrial.com or download the original trial transcript. For starters, contrary to what’s stated in the above article, the State of Tennesee never outlawed teaching the theory of evolution in the public schools or anywhere else; it DID outlaw the teaching in the public schools that ONE SPECIES (out of an estimated 2,000,000) evolved: namely that mankind evolved from a lower order of animal (monkeys). This aspect of Darwinism was contained in the biology text that John Scopes allegedly (but never actually) taught from where the races of mankind are ranked from the lowest (Negro) to the highest (Caucasian). Sick stuff to teach kids but very popular at the time. The biology text also contained plenty of “eugenics” — the idea that mankind should be bred to weed out the weak and purify the strong. You might want to also look at the 2010 movie on this trial starring Brian Dennehy as Charles Darwin, Sen. Fred Thompson as William Jennings Bryan, and Colm Meany as H.L. Mencken. Fun!

    • Well, then, teaching the facts about evolution wouldn’t have gone against the law, because humans didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans are descended from early hominids who had a common ancestor with monkeys.

      Saying we evolved from “monkeys” is like saying that your great-uncle is your dad.

  5. Jonny –

    Thank you for sharing this book. I just ordered it. I have started to follow Adams’ blog.

    You provide such a great service – keep up the good work!

    As for your old work making you shudder, I resonate with that. I found some of my own today and just had to leave it in the file (*shudder*).

    Enjoy the lovely autumn weather,

    Lisa K.

  6. What is funny is that some of the fundies are totally cool with being called a fundamentalists even though it has bad connotations. Kevin Swanson called us a bunch of “ex-fundie homeschoolers” like it was bad that we left.

  7. Jonny–Your narrative is helpful but incomplete. Fundamentalism did not become a pejorative term until the late 1950s. The “Fundamentalism” of the 1910s “evolved” (no pun intended) into something rather different in the 1920s through the 1950s. This caused a backlash by young evangelicals like Carl Henry and Bill Graham. I simply wanted to point out that the movement (and therefore the moniker) has changed over time. Joel Carpenter’s book “Revive Us Again” and George Marsden’s work “Fundamentalism and American Culture” do a nice job of following some of these changes. I hope this helps your readers. Lionel

  8. Something that should be mentioned is the relative homogeneity of the American Religious Experience in the second half of the 19th century. Prior to that we were virtually all Protestants of one stripe or another, and the one thing all Protestants have in common is we don’t like the Catholic Church very much. Some of the reasons are valid, some are not, and some are so ancient history as to be utterly irrelevant.

    Anyway, Catholics were a statistically insignificant part of American society up until the Great Potato Famine when millions of “Filthy Irish” started coming over, intially as something like migrant laborers, then to stay. This was considered deplorable because, well, they were getting a toehold in our “City on a Hill,” and were going to ruin it. Then came the Italians, and that was even worse. It’s worth noting that “Jew” was higher on the social ladder than “Catholic” in those days.

    By the turn of the century, there were enough Catholics in the Northeast to scare the crap out of the South and the Midwest, and as those regions diminished in political power, and the “Papist” areas increased, we became more and more paranoid about Rome taking over our government and blah blah blah blah. People saw it as degenerate, as pagan, and there was no doubt some racism involved in it too: Italians and Spaniards tend to be a bit darker than Germans and English, and of coruse everyone hated the Irish for some reason.

    So a large part of the appeal of the Fundamentalist movement was not only its rejection of 19th century theological liberalism (Which, honestly, most Americans were unaware of at the time, and wouldn’t have understood if they HAD heard of it), but also a deliberate reaction against/rejection of the encroachment of Catholicism into our society.

    Eventually this got expanded to become a rejection of ‘liberalism’ as a whole.

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