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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.

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