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The New “F” Word

A few days ago, someone threw an “F-bomb” at me. Well, not exactly. It wasn’t the traditional “F” word, but rather a new one (at least new to me). I was accused, quite condescendingly I may add, of being a Fundamentalist. I must admit, it was a bit surprising. It made me wonder what that word really means? Is it really an insult? Am I really a fundamentalist? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? So, I went digging for Truth and here’s what I found.
Definition and History of “Fundamentalism”
Let us begin by clarifying terms. The word ‘fundamentalist’ comes from the root noun ‘fundamental.’ When we speak of fundamentals, we are referring to that which serves as, or is an essential part of something. In other words, fundamental has to do with the foundation or basis of something. In a broad sense, Webster’s dictionary defines fundamentalism as nothing more than “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.”[i] In this sense, EVERYONE is a fundamentalist in so far as they adhere strictly to a certain set of basic principles that underlie their beliefs, whether these are scientific, historical, moral, or religious beliefs. All ideas have foundational principles upon which they are built. When someone stands for these ideas and against any attempt to undermine them they are being fundamentalists. Thus, one could rationally speak of Darwinian Fundamentalism, Naturalist Fundamentalism, Atheist Fundamentalism, Relativist Fundamentalism, Liberal Fundamentalism, etc. In a far more narrow sense, Fundamentalism is the name given to a particular religious movement in the United States during the early years of the 20th century. According to historian John Buescher,
Fundamentalism, in the narrowest meaning of the term, was a movement that began in the late 19th- and early 20th-century within American Protestant circles to defend the “fundamentals of belief” against the corrosive effects of liberalism that had grown within the ranks of Protestantism itself. Liberalism, manifested in critical approaches to the Bible that relied on purely natural assumptions, or that framed Christianity as a purely natural or human phenomenon that could be explained scientifically, presented a challenge to traditional belief.[ii]
In this sense, the term was originally coined to refer to the firm stance taken by protestant Christians in response to the liberalism that accompanied the modernist movement. Protestants of all denominations came together to fight against what they perceived to be a systematic attack on the foundational principles of Christianity. In light of the threats of secularism, Christians were forced to clarify what were the “non-negotiables” of the faith; those principles without which the edifice of the Christian faith would crumble. In an excellent article in Christianity Today, Douglas A. Sweeney explains,
The most popular list was “The Five Point Deliverance” of the Northern Presbyterians. The 1910 Presbyterian General Assembly ruled that all who wanted to be ordained within their ranks had to affirm the Westminster Confession and subscribe to five fundamental doctrines: 1) the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, 2) the virgin birth of Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ, 4) the bodily resurrection of Christ, and 5) the historicity of the biblical miracles.[iii]
At the same time, a group of 64 top-notch Christian scholars from across the denominational landscape published a 12-volume collection of essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These were a set of 90 essays published from 1910 to 1915 by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and edited by A.C. Dixon and R.A. Torrey among others.  From the title of this collection the term “fundamentalist” became associated with Protestant Christianity and its desire to defend the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. To be labeled a “fundamentalist” in this regard was considered a badge of honor by Christians as they engaged culture in defense of the faith.
A Problem of Foundational Presuppositions
Is the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century good or bad? The answer depends on the foundational presuppositions upon which our ideas are built. A foundational presupposition is an idea upon which a person builds their personal view of life in general.  It is, metaphorically, like the foundation of a building.  The walls, the ceiling, the doors, and all the parts of the building are distinct from but dependent on the foundation. Even though they consist of different materials and serve different purposes, they are ultimately dependent on the particular foundation of their building to perform their function. Likewise, a person’s worldview covers diverse areas which, at face value, may not seem connected to a particular foundation, but which ultimately are dependent on it. These foundational presuppositions, consciously or unconsciously, affect how all of the data of life is perceived, interpreted and incorporated into a general explanatory hypothesis we call worldview.
It could be argued that the starting point of any set of beliefs goes back to our conception of the God of the Bible. At the core of all ideologies is a foundational presupposition regarding God’s existence. The God of the Bible is or he is not.    When a person who believes in God’s inexistence (an atheist) engages in the elaboration and development of his worldview, by default he will exclude any supernatural component or transcendent involvement. On the other hand, when a person presupposes God’s existence, a very different path is taken, one that considers the supernatural not only as a possibility but rather as an essential component.
One’s response to the God question is intimately related to one’s general view of the Bible. Our view of the Bible is also a key element in the foundation of our ideological edifice. A view of life based on the belief that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired Word for mankind should be noticeably different from one that denies its supernatural nature. A worldview in which the Bible is considered nothing more than a man-made error-filled collection of ancient writings will not take it into account when establishing its beliefs about life any more than it would take Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into account.  If we posit that the God of the Bible exists, and we posit that He has revealed himself to mankind in part through the Bible, then it follows that the Bible must be an integral part of the way we do life.
To someone who adheres to a worldview where the God of the Bible exists and has revealed himself to mankind in part through the Bible, being a fundamentalist is a good thing. It is the application of our biblical worldview. After all, the Bible encourages us to defend the Truth against all attempts to undermine it. Paul warns us not to fall for hollow and deceptive philosophies (Colossians 2:8). He also encourages us to engage with ideas that are hostile to our faith and demolish them (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Jude tells us to contend earnestly for the faith against any teaching that attempts to undermine it (Jude 3). Thus, fundamentalism is deeply rooted in the Bible itself.
Antagonistic and condescending uses of the term stem from those who do not embrace the aforementioned worldview. One would expect this to be the case for those whose edifice is built on a Godless foundation—for if there is no God then the Bible cannot be considered a divinely inspired book—but sadly, much of the resistance to the original fundamentalist movement came from within the Protestant churches themselves. As Sweeney points out,
…most of the mainline Protestant churches struggled to cope with the rise of modernism (which favored adaptation to modern views and trends) along with scientific naturalism, higher biblical criticism, and spiritual apathy…battles ensued in nearly every mainline Protestant body between the fundamentalists and those who wanted to remain “tolerant” and “open-minded” in response to modern learning.[iv]
It seems that many in the Christian camp embraced the “new” ideas of human evolution, naturalism, higher biblical criticism and the like, despite being contradictory to the “fundamental principles” of the Christian faith.
The New “F” Word
When we hear the charge of “fundamentalist” today, it is not even remotely positive. On the contrary, it is now carries significant negative connotations and is considered synonymous fanaticism, extremism, bigotry, zealotry, militancy, etc. Condescension is the flavor of the month. Consider for example how a World Atlas article on what is fundamentalism describes its impact on society.
A society with fundamental beliefs breeds a closed attitude towards life to the degree of paranoia, and in some cases nurtures aggressive behavior. Fundamentalism shuts off the doorway to the acceptance of modern ideas and scientific principles…[v]
The same article also accuses fundamentalists of lacking any “logical explanations” and ignoring “scientific evidences.”
These fundamentalists believe that their religion is beyond any form of criticism, and should therefore also be forced upon others. Logical explanations and scientific evidences have no place in these belief systems if they work against their religious fundamentalists.[vi]
According to sociologists,
Fundamentalism refers to “black‐and‐white” thinking that opposes modernism, or progressive thinking about religion and other social topics. Fundamentalist groups tend to oppose anything that challenges their religious group’s interpretations and opinions.[vii]
However, before we dismiss these attacks as ludicrous, it is true that certain groups would fit these descriptions almost perfectly. This is particularly true regarding the use of violence to promote a certain set of truth claims, as is the case with al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, etc. However, attacking all “fundamentalists” as being paranoid, aggressive or militant is a simple category mistake. The method is confused with the belief. One can adhere to a set of foundational principles worth defending without being paranoid and without resorting to violence in its defense. The choice to engage peacefully or violently is a choice in method or strategy and should not be confused with the belief itself—the commitment to a set of foundational truths—because they are not the same. Furthermore, since everyone is a fundamentalist in the broadest sense of the word—we all adhere to a foundational set of beliefs—are we all paranoid?
That said, there are at least three additional problems with these claims. First, they overgeneralize by dumping all religions into the same box, ignoring the overwhelming amount of relevant differences between them. If a term such as fundamentalism can include Mother Teresa in the same definition as Boko Haram, then the definition is far too broad. One must be able to differentiate between those who defend what they believe to be non-negotiable in a peaceful and civil manner with those that resort to violence and terrorism. Second, these condescending attacks seem oblivious to the fact that some beliefs (those that are actually true) are worth defending while other beliefs are not. Would we be considered “paranoid” and “narrow minded” if we believed that a certain foundational truth—2 + 2 = 4 –should be defended against any attempt to undermine it?  Furthermore, would we be considered “arrogant” or “intolerant” for insisting that EVERYONE know the that 2 + 2 = 4? Why is it wrong to think that we must believe it “beyond any form of criticism?” Shouldn’t we “oppose anything that challenges” this truth? Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of defending what one considers to be a foundational truth, so long as it is actually true. Substitute “2 + 2 = 4” with any other Truth and it becomes rather obvious that some beliefs are worth defending.  Third, today’s view of fundamentalism creates a false dichotomy where we its either modern society or religious fundamentalism. A typical expression of this is found in the writings of Grant Wacker, Ph.D. from Harvard University and Professor of the History of Religion in America at the Duke University Divinity School. He puts it this way,
Generic fundamentalism refers to a global religious impulse, particularly evident in the twentieth century, that seeks to recover and publicly institutionalize aspects of the past that modern life has obscured. It typically sees the secular state as the primary enemy, for the latter is more interested in education, democratic reforms, and economic progress than in preserving the spiritual dimension of life.[viii]
Thus, if one adheres to certain beliefs—such as God’s existence and the divine nature of the Bible—then one chooses the “spiritual dimension of life” over “education, democratic reforms, and economic progress.” Why is it either/or? To focus on preserving the spiritual dimension of life—something that is most often neglected in today’s culture—does not imply a disregard for education, democratic reform, or economic progress. Fundamentalism is not per se against progress, as long as progress does not entail an abandonment of Truth. At the heart of the demonization of the term “fundamentalism” lies a general disbelief in absolute truth. There many in our culture that deny the existence of “Truth” in any absolute sense. That too is a worldview that is supported by its own group of fundamentalists.
So, am I a fundamentalist and is that a bad thing? Well, it depends on what you mean by “fundamentalist.” If it means a paranoid, militant, irrational person holding on to ideas that are simply not true—then NO—I’m not a fundamentalist. If on the other hand, you mean someone who believes that certain truths—such as God’s existence, the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the fact that God created the universe and everything in it as He says that he did—then YES, I’m a fundamentalist and I will wear the title as a badge of honor.  If you mean someone who resists any attempt to undermine the authority of God’s Word, who resists any attempt to deny the deity of Christ, who resists any attempt to attribute the origins of the universe to blind, unguided, unknown forces acting randomly, then YES, I’m a fundamentalist, and I’m proud of it. If it means someone who wants to peacefully and lovingly persuade the rest of the world that his beliefs are true—then YES—I’m a fundamentalist. After all, should we not desire that everyone know the Truth? The only question left to answer is whether you are a fundamentalist too.
[i] Accessed 4/12/17
[ii] John Buescher, “Fundamentalism”  Accessed 4/12/17
[iii] Douglas A. Sweeney, “Who were the fundamentalists?” Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine. Issue 92: America’s 20th Century Evangelical Awakening, 2006.  Accessed 4/12/17
[iv] Ibid.
[v]  Accessed 4/12/17
[vi] Ibid.
[vii]   Accessed 4/12/17
[viii] Grant Wacker, “The Rise of Fundamentalism” Duke University Divinity School, ©National Humanities Center  Accessed 4/12/17
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