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throwing the baby out – ‘fundamentalism’ is way overdue for an unceremonious tipping on the vegie patch

August 15, 2010

I had a lovely phonecall this morning with a dear friend. She’s one of my real-world homies that I invited to view my blog – one I was a little worried I may have already offended in previous posts. Even though she said she is enjoying reading and has not yet been offended, it started us talking about the term fundamentalism such as I’ve been using it here. My friend is a firm believer in what are generally considered the most important tenets of orthodox Protestant Christianity and in no way is she dangerously nutty as are some of the folk I’ve been describing. So I wanted to have another crack at defining fundamentalism and explaining why I think it’s a term best tossed out with the bathwater.

Most people who have been exposed to Christianity would be aware that many relatively moderate Christians gladly own the term ‘fundamentalist’. These adherents take the term to refer simply to those who are believers in the fundamentals of their faith. Although the term is applied to many non-Christian religious sects and even secular political branches, so far as many Christians are concerned, ‘fundamentalism’ simply means believing in the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible including accepting a six-day creation, the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ and his atoning death and resurrection. But sometimes a term which was formerly worn as a badge of honour loses it’s gloss as it increasingly attracts negative connotations that cannot be wished away. Ultimately, even though purists persist in using the term and insisting on its original or preferred definition, it may have become irrevocably tarnished whatever they say.

In my view, ‘Christian fundamentalist’ is a term that has well and truly exceeded its useful life so far as any but the most extreme wings of Christian belief and practice are concerned. I understand perfectly what Bible-believing Christians mean by fundamentalism and why many remain proud owners of the term. Indeed, if we accept that it means ‘believing what we think God believes and trying to live it’ how could any sincere follower of Christ reject the notion that accepting those fundamental tenets of faith is a good thing? However, I think the time has past in which that particular term can be redeemed. ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘fundamentalist’ have been irreversibly contaminated and are in need of replacement.

Wikipedia defines fundamentalism as
…”a belief in a strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), sometimes as a reaction to perceived doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.”
Wiki further notes that the term did not appear in the Oxford Dictionary before 1950. The article states that the rise of fundamental Protestant sects was a response to perceived liberalism within the broader school of US protestant Christian belief as well in general society.
“The movement’s purpose was to reaffirm orthodox Protestant Christianity and zealously defend it against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism and other movements which regarded it as harmful to Christianity.”
Fundamentalism thus defined is a way for the conservative orthodoxy to draw a line in the sand. Alienated and under attack in a society less and less inclined to be ruled by formerly widely-accepted guidelines of their faith, they ‘go back to the Bible’ in an effort to redefine and revitalise a religion whose power to influence is waning. Hunkering down in churches and home groups these beleaguered possessors of a truer understanding of the Book challenge the converted to attain greater heights of ‘biblical’ correctness. Failing to tempt their neighbours away from the cinema or the evils of rock music, they pursue political avenues to regain their grip on a world sliding to hell.

The political aims of fundamentalist groups are often the most disturbing aspect of their dogma for non-believers. Fundamentalists as defined here cross the line from personal belief and practice of a stricter version of a mainstream religion to seeking to influence the State to impose penalties for contravention of the moral laws they value. History has shown this to be a mistake. Wherever Christianity has been imposed on the unconverted masses, the true church has been weakened and it is doubtful whether any genuine new converts were added to the fold. This is because, in my view, Christianity is at its core an intimate spiritual and relational encounter with one’s God. Belief, that is faith, is the foundation of religious practice and must be the root and cause of moral adherence. Imposing legalistic stricture on moral issues at a civic level may tidy things up in the short term but applied with the aim of converting hearts it is futile and attacks the underpinnings of the religion itself.

Outside of conservative Christian circles, the term ‘fundamentalism’ is almost always perjorative. This is true in part because of the inescapable connection between Islamic fundamentalism and images of  bearded and white-robed terrorists but also because it is tainted by association with groups such as US racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan. Interestingly, KKK members themselves reject the notion that their beliefs place them in the fundamentalist fold saying they draw their membership from a broad cross-section of protestant Christianity. Regardless, in all of these cases, it is only the fundamentalists themselves who do not apply the term in a negative sense.

In persisting in identifying as fundamentalists, Christians are forced to isolate themselves from shared community understanding of the term unless they really do assent to the excesses it now conjures up for the majority. Like it or not ‘fundamentalist’ is now synonymous with brainless religious nutjob and surely few would choose to own to that. I feel it is likely high time Christians of good will and common sense relinquish rights to the term ‘fundamentalism’ although what they might replace it with I cannot imagine. ‘Born again’ and ‘evangelical’ have been thoroughly sullied by exposes of immoral tele-evangelists and documentaries mocking pentecostal practices such as ecstatic fainting. It may not be fair but Christian believers in Bible basics need to admit the necessity of ditching a stinking fish, redefining themselves and attempting to win a more credible position in the Western secular cultural psyche than the one they currently own.

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