fundamentalism as methodology


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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