Theology

fundamentalism as methodology

founation

Last week I wrote a post on “15 things not to say to a recovering fundamentalist.” The reaction I got completely blew me away, and I’m grateful for the response. Rebuilding our lives after something like Christian fundamentalism has torn through it is not an easy thing to do, and I hope that the stories we shared can help in that process for some of us.

A few of the reactions I got were . . . well, let’s just call them “interesting.” Ironically, many of these comments were variations of the “15 Things Not to Say,” which I thought was hysterical. Which, granted, it’s the internet, and you’re totally allowed to disagree with me, but still. Many of these comments were also about what I expected, and, thankfully, I came prepared. However, I don’t want to respond to each comment individually (many of which I did not publish because they violated my comment policy), because my answers would be pretty much the same. Most of the really intense negative reactions came from these sections, so that’s what I’m going to focus on today.

12. “Fundamentalism isn’t really Christianity.”

Oh, boy. I get this one so much, and I’m never entirely sure how to respond to it, because damn. What do they think Christianity is then? It’s a pretty big religion, and it’s got an awful lot of denominations. If believing that Jesus is God, literally came to earth, was crucified and resurrected and now sits on the right hand of the father, and he did all of this to save us from our sins doesn’t qualify you for Christianity, I’d like to see what does. Fundamentalism is an especially pernicious sub-culture in Christianity, but it’s not something totally different. They believe a lot of the exact same stuff that most Christians do . . .

15. “Your critiques of Christianity aren’t valid, because you’re just confusing it with your fundamentalist background.”

However, fundamentalism is really just a microcosm of Christianity in general. It’s not that there’s anything about fundamentalism that is super off-the-radar crazy that makes it obviously bad. All it is, really, is a concentrated version of Christianity. Think of every single thing you’ve ever run into at your completely normal, run-of-the-mill Protestant churches, and I guarantee you that you’ll find it in a fundamentalist church. They’re not different, really, they’re just intensified . . .

Many, many, many people intensely disagreed with me about this. I got accused of a lot of stuff, as well, one of which was “obviously not knowing my history,” which is funny, because I spent over a week writing posts on the history of Christian fundamentalism in America. A lot of people thought that I was being ridiculous, that it is “so incredibly clear” that fundamentalism is, in fact, nothing like Christianity. They bear no resemblance whatsoever.

Which, in the interests of being fair, I do agree with them on one general point: I think the spirit of fundamentalism and the spirit Jesus taught his believers are not the same thing. There are really good reasons why I’m no longer a fundamentalist, but still consider myself a Christian (although a liberal one). In that sense, which one reader called the “essence” of Christianity, I tend to agree– fundamentalism isn’t what Christianity is supposed to be.

However, that’s not the point I made. While I think that fundamentalism falls far short of an “ideal” Christianity, it is not that different from the typical American evangelical or Protestant church. That’s not to say that all of Christianity has elements of fundamentalism in it. I never made that claim, and I found the experience of people putting words in my mouth on that aspect unpleasant. I said, specifically, that in your average evangelical or Protestant church, you’re likely to find something in common with a fundamentalist stance.

If you’re not familiar with Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture, and you’re at all interested in Christian fundamentalism or the Religious Right, I highly recommend that you read it. Marsden is the one who quipped that a “fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something,” and I tend to agree with him, obviously. Another good book (much shorter and lighter read) is Olson’s Pocket History of Evangelical Theology, and he makes the argument that “Most . . . evangelicals do not wish to be called fundamentalists, even though their basic theological orientation is not very different.”

Which leads me to my main point: the difference between fundamentalism and typical American evangelicalism is not WHAT, it’s HOW.

If you ask the question “what does your typical fundamentalist believe and your typical evangelical believe that’s different?” the answer is going to be, most of the time, not that much. Theologically, they share a lot of the same territory. Christian theology, which I’ve said before, is not a monolith. There are as many theological perspectives and beliefs as there are Christians. There is no such thing as universal agreement about pretty much anything (although, there are concepts like the regula fidei). However, among evangelical Christians and fundamentalists, consensus exists for many ideas.

The problem is not what they believe. It’s how they go about believing it.

I talk about Christian fundamentalism, because that’s what I have experience with. However, fundamentalism, as a concept, isn’t strictly Christian. There’s fundamentalist versions and fundamentalist groups of nearly any ideology. I’ve talked to so many fundamentalist atheists, and fundamentalist feminists, and fundamentalist Democrats, and it all gets incredibly exhausting.

Fundamentalism, at its core, is a methodology. It’s a framework. It’s a way of thinking. It’s human pride and arrogance. It’s the belief that I’m right and everyone who doesn’t agree with me exactly is completely, utterly wrong. Modern fundamentalists believe that there are some things in their ideology that simply are not open for discussion. There are certain things that cannot be challenged, no matter how badly they need to be debated. Anytime that that ideas come before the needs of people, what you’re probably dealing with is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is rigidity, inflexibility. And it’s about advocating and promoting that inability to bend– about proselytizing some into agreeing that these are the ideas that we will fight for no matter how much we hurt people.

That is what I mean when I say you can find aspects of fundamentalism in pretty much any American church. Because, unfortunately, human nature seems to want to get fundamentalist about things. We like confidence and certainty and believing we’re the only ones who got it right. We don’t like change. Having to work through very hard, difficult questions can be a painful experience– and avoiding those questions is easy. That’s how fundamentalism can creep up on virtually anyone, even me. I have to watch out for it, too. I can get just as fundamentalist about my belief that it’s important to admit you don’t have all the answers as a traditional Christian fundamentalist can get about knowing all the answers.

Avoiding Christian fundamentalism isn’t about making sure you don’t believe the same thing they do. It’s about remembering that God is Love, and God loves us, and that Jesus said “they shall know you by your love,” and that he never said anything about “being recognizable by your correct theology.” The greatest commandment, after all, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

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  • I thouhgt the original post was great last week, but I did take issue with the extraploation from fundamentalism to Christianity as well, though for different reasons than the ones you mention here. If you were arguing that *Evangelicalism* was not that different than fundamentalism, then I think you’ve got a solid critique (that this post argues well for), but the problem is in trying to extrapolate that to Christianity writ large, which is what you seemed to try to do last week, and seem to be continuing to do here (at least I think. If I’m misreading you, I apologize.) Specifically, I think we have to acknowledge our own cultural location and the potential blindspots it can produce.

    So when you write,

    “fundamentalism is really just a microcosm of Christianity in general. It’s not that there’s anything about fundamentalism that is super off-the-radar crazy that makes it obviously bad. All it is, really, is a concentrated version of Christianity.”

    and

    “While I think that fundamentalism falls far short of an “ideal” Christianity, it is not that different from the typical American evangelical or Protestant church…in your average evangelical or Protestant church, you’re likely to find something in common with a fundamentalist stance.”

    I can see how this sort of language could be construed as ethnocentric. It relies heavily on an explicitly western (American) definition of Christian tradition and tacitly excludes non-western (non-American, non-fundamentalist) expressions of the Christian faith from the conversation. I think that your project of erasing the distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is important, and I think you do a good job of laying out that case here, but I don’t think that it’s fair to, say, the Eastern Orthodox or South American Liberationist Catholics or African Pentecostals or any other number of non-American expressions of faith, to extrapolate that erasure to Christianity as a whole.

    Your last paragraph, though, is perfect. If holding our theology is such tight fists leads us to bludgeon everyone around us with it, we’re doing it wrong.

    • Thank you, Luke.

      And yes, you’re right about the ethno-centricity, which is why I did my best to specify that I was talking about American Protestantism/evangelicalism– however, in the case of Christian fundamentalism, there’s a reason why I did that. Christian fundamentalism is historically an American movement. From my research, the Christian fundamentalist movement, as it appeared in America in the early 20th century, has never had much reach or impact in Europe, Latin America, or Africa except as part of fundamentalist missionary movements. There are occasional exceptions– like one mega-church in Seoul, South Korea that bears all the hallmarks of America Christian fundamentalism.

      Making the distinction is important, however, which is why I made it.

      • Tim

        It is interesting that a lot of this is, by and large, an American phenomenon. I would like to agree and point out for the record, that it is not a solely American cultural thing in my experience either. I have encountered some very fundamentalist churches (okay, maybe it’s just the one)/ believers in Switzerland, of all places. (I guess maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised though. IIRC, that is the birthplace of Calvinism after all!)

  • In your paragraph on methodology, you said: “Fundamentalism is rigidity, inflexibility. And it’s about advocating and promoting that inability to bend– about proselytizing some into agreeing that these are the ideas that we will fight for no matter how much we hurt people.” I was cheering when I read those statements. I am somewhat estranged from my own family because of this. Not my entire family, but certainly the ones who are still steeped in fundamentalism. It pains me that my own parents, now in their 80s, remain not only inflexible, but they believe it is their SACRED DUTY to proselytize. Because I left Fundamentalism for another faith, I have been laughed at, belittled, and basically made to feel as if I am an outsider. I am reminded about my “faulty” religion over and over. So, now I telephone my parents, communicate with the more rigid Fundie siblings via social media, but I don’t physically put myself around any of them. The decision to remove myself came about this past Memorial Day weekend, when it all came to a head for me. If Fundies only knew the effects of their proselytizing, which they refer to as “witnessing”, they would stop hurting people. I really appreciate how well you articulate what Fundamentalism is really all about. It divides, it hurts, and it causes the opposite effects of what it intends.

  • MyOwnPerson

    This is so perfect! I didn’t come from what is typically recognized as a fundamentalist background, but fundamentalism penetrated it in a very real way. You’re right, it’s an attitude more than a particular set of beliefs.

  • krwordgazer

    Because, unfortunately, human nature seems to want to get fundamentalist about things. We like confidence and certainty and believing we’re the only ones who got it right. We don’t like change. Having to work through very hard, difficult questions can be a painful experience– and avoiding those questions is easy.

    That’s so true and so well-said! I wish everyone could read this!

  • Angela

    After becoming disillusioned with Mormonism I began trying out other churches, mostly Christian ones. To my surprise I found that often the same doctrines, dogmas, and rhetoric where still often preached over the pulpit, even in purportedly liberal congregations. The difference was that the congregation didn’t actually intend to live it. Wives weren’t actually intended to submit and obey yet the pastor would still speak about it during the wedding ceremony. Premarital sex was still considered sinful, but most parishioners scoffed at abstinence. So on and so forth.

    On the one hand it was refreshing to be in an environment where people felt free to question and determine their own values. On the other hand, few people were actually able to articulate the reasoning behind this disconnect. Most just sort of shrugged it off as no one being perfect which actually felt more like hypocrisy than enlightenment, especially given that people who actually implemented these teachings were called out as fanatics. Mainstream Christianity may claim to be totally separate from fundamentalism but in some ways I believe it’s actually what drives it. It seems that many families begin as mainstream Christians but are driven to fundamentalism out of a desire to live a more authentic life.

    To be fair, there are more progressive churches who have done quite a bit of soul-searching and revised their doctrines and teachings to be more in keeping with how they live (or at least how they strive to live). I also want to make it clear that this isn’t meant to be critical of those who do find answers from the other churches I mentioned. Most of them were lovely people who I believe were genuinely trying their best to navigate their own spiritual journeys. I simply wanted to reinforce the idea that mainstream and fundamentalist Christians tend to be more linked than either side generally cares to admit.

    • Angela

      Oops! I meant “were” still often preached. Not “where.” Unfortunately I’m sick today and feel like my brain is mush. Hopefully the rest still makes sense:)

  • Carol

    Although there are fundamentalist distortions of all religious Traditions, American Evangelicalism seems to have produced an exceptionally shallow form of it.

    As far as I know there is only one place where the scientific theory of evolution is still challenged and that is in the American Bible Belt.

    Pope John Paul II expressed the opinion that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” And Rome was not exactly a hotbed of theological liberalism under his papacy.

    Philip Schaff, a Swiss theologian, analyzed American Christianity for a German audience in 1854 in these words: “(American Christianity) is more Petrine than Johannean; more like busy Martha than like the pensive Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. It expands more in breadth than in depth. It is often carried on like a secular business, and in a mechanical or utilitarian spirit. It lacks the beautiful enamel of deep fervor and heartiness, the true mysticism, an appreciation of history and the Church; it wants (i.e. “lacks”) the substratum of a profound and spiritual theology; and under the mask of orthodoxy it not infrequently conceals, without intending or knowing it, the tendency to abstract intellectualism and superficial rationalism. This is especially evident in the doctrine of the church and of the sacraments, and in the meagerness of the worship… (wherein) nothing is left but preaching, free prayer, and singing.”

    Fr. Joseph Breighner writes in an article, “Fundamentalism, I believe, appeals to people who need rigid structures and uncomplicated explanations of faith. … Essentially, then the attraction of fundamentalism is psychological, not theological.”

    And from Rev. Ken Collins: “Fundamentalism is the antithesis of any religion’s orthodoxy thus not even a property of Christianity. There is a fundamentalist version of every religion.
    Christian fundamentalism is gnostic and narcissistic, and thus not orthodox. It’s heretical. A heresy is by definition not a property of orthodoxy.”

    I believe this is what many people mean when they say that fundamentalism really isn’t Christianity.

    Others have also commented on the peculiar properties of American Christian fundamentalism:

    “Christian fundamentalism: the doctrine that there is an absolutely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, universe spanning entity that is deeply and personally concerned about my sex life.” ~Andrew Lias

    “There are three religious truths: 1) Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. 2) Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian faith. 3) Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store or at Hooters.” ~ Source Unknown

  • Liz

    My own quest of retreating out from under the yolk of fundamentalism was spurred by two books. “True Spirituality” by Frances Schaeffer and “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen.

    In “True Spirituality” Schaeffer says during a discussion at L’Abri – the group argued for the removal of ‘the list’ from their thinking and at first he agreed. The longer he listened the more he came to see that the reason they didn’t want ‘the list’ (of whatever taboos and rules that were prevalent in their culture) was basically because they wanted to DO and JUSTIFY the things that were on ‘the list’. This is where he entered the discussion. In removing some shallow and narcissistic list, mostly consisting of taboos, you are not faced with a looser form of Christianity but a higher one. In removing ‘the list’ you come face to face with the God of the Bible that asks you to love your neighbor as yourself, irregardless of whether or not he agrees with you.

    In “Subtle Power” I realized that I was not alone and the dogma I had indoctrinated by was abusive. That was a HUGE LEAP. I’m still very close to the other people that left this abusive place, and the only thing every one of them ever wanted was to please God with their lives. Not the God they were being told would hate, punish, and spew them out for minor infractions of ‘the list’, but the God they knew, the one from the Four Gospels that came to earth to demonstrate his perfect love and abundant grace.

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  • …Out of curiosity, have you read The Authoritarians by Robert Altemeyer? (I apologize if you have; I’m new to your blog.) It’s more focused on politics than religion, but your explanation of fundamentalism-as-methodology reminded me strongly of his definition of authoritarianism.

    FWIW, I think everyone ought to read this book. It’s available free at the link, and it really does put a lot of things into perspective.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Fundamentalism, at its core, is a methodology. It’s a framework. It’s a way of thinking. It’s human pride and arrogance. It’s the belief that I’m right and everyone who doesn’t agree with me exactly is completely, utterly wrong.

    “On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everybody wants to be absolutely right himself, or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”
    — Thomas Merton, “The Moral Theology of the Devil”

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  • The overriding factor that seems to go unremarked is the fact that fundamentalism, irrespective of the religion, did not start in a vacuum.

    The basic tenets of Christianity, for example, established during the initial Church Councils still form the bedrock of the Christian Faith: The Nicene Creed, incorporating the Trinity and the Apostles Creed.
    This man-made doctrine, instigated largely by Constantine with help from the likes of Eusebius and then hammered further into shape by people like Theodosius has changed little.

    By dismantling religious (Christian) fundamentalism one is still left with the nonsense that every other Christian denomination is built upon, hence there are over 40,000 interpretations of the same ridiculous diatribe and yet, there is no unity.

    Thomas Paine’s view of Christianity was perfect

    http://articles.exchristian.net/2002/03/thomas-paine-quotes.php

    . “The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”

  • Bartok Ridi

    I live in the south, and know a fair number of evangelical Christians. I’m not religious at all, so for me it’s a peek into a foreign culture, which is interesting. Something I hear about here but which I’m not seeing on any comments here or elsewhere is the influence of African Christianity on US evangelical Christianity. People who have worked in Africa with evangelical Christians there come back certain that Africa is the new home of evangelical Christianity (Nigeria in specific, but they seem to think that Africa in general is a wellspring of evangelical Christian energy). When a French visitor said he thought evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity was a largely US phenomenon he was almost mobbed by people who wanted to tell him about how Nigerian Christianity is affecting US practice. Not sure if this is just a tiny, local idea or the front edge of a wave, but it’s interesting that I hear about it but don’t read about it much online at all.

    • I’ve run into this idea a few times, although the way I’ve heard it is that American evangelicalism is being transplanted into some African countries– most notably in some of these countries’ legal systems– like Uganda’s new homosexuality legislation.

  • I want to thank you for writing about Christian fundamentalism. I grew up in the Deep South in an IFB church, and I’m still deconstructing what the hell happened. I’ve been out of that scene since I was a teenager, but I then started attending evangelical and charismatic churches. That fundamentalism was softened, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized how screwed up it all really was. I’ve never run across any writing that so clearly speaks to the issues of growing up fundamentalist. I’ve been reading your blog for hours and I don’t think I’ll stop. Thanks again!

  • roger

    I’m in the UK, and I have some fundamentalist
    Pentecostal “friends”. These people, with
    their hypocrisy and ranting in tongues are slowly but
    surely sucking the soul out of me. I don’t see Christ in
    them, just a warped right wing, babbling in tongues sense of elitism. They are literally driving me mental.