Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ask Tony: What is a fundamentalist?

Gee, could you be a little less subtle?
First of all, I want you to read Pat Archbold's excellent post in the National Catholic Register on "Generation Porno" ... first of all, because it is an excellent post; second, because it provides context.

The first line is, "Liberal intelligentsia circa 1990:  'You know, you fundamentalist types are all hung up on sex.'"  Later on, Pat writes, "So were the fundamentalists right?  What is a fundamentalist anyway other than someone who says something unpleasant that you know to be true?"

Rover Serton, an atheist, commented: "Unless you are talking about some other kind of Fundy, I suspect you don't believe the flat earth, 6000 year old, ID stuff is true."  Since Pat is a well-educated Catholic, it follows that he doesn't believe the "6,000-year-old flat earth" stuff (ID, however, is a different animal that goes well beyond the scope of this post) to be true.

But then, neither do many Christian fundamentalists.

In origin, "fundamentalist" refers to Protestant communions of the free-church/Anabaptist lineage that lay heavy emphasis on sola scriptura and sola fides as the "fundamentals of the faith".  While some of these communions do treat Scripture as dictated word-for-word by God, Christian fundamentalism does not require adherence to a six-day creation or radical rejection of evolution.

The problem began in Kansas in the 1980s, when some fundamentalist churches and organizations started pushing for creationism to be taught in public schools.  Again, creationism goes beyond the scope of discussion; let it suffice to say, it was then the TV media and pop culture put the equals sign between "fundamentalist" and "ill-educated, anti-scientific rube".  (Not that I blame TV reporters; even at its best, during the days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, 60-90 second news clips didn't leave much time for nuance.)  It's right at this point that many fundamentalist communions started calling themselves "Evangelicals"; they still adhered to sola scriptura and sola fides as the twin pillars of Protestant Christianity, but they didn't want the negative connotations.

From there, it was easy to extend "fundamentalist" to cover any Christian who treated Scripture as anything other than a book of good stories; orthodox Catholics were just as startled to be called "fundamentalists" by Christian liberals as Jewish people are to hear Mormons call them "Gentiles".  Then, as mainline communions such as the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists became more "progressive", ordaining women and loosening teachings on divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, "fundamentalist" became a substitute for "intolerant reactionary" ... because, of course, Christan conservatives are all ill-educated rubes who hate science (or, as Mark Shea put it, "mouth-breathing Hee Haw lovers just about to erupt in mob violence at the slightest provocation").

From there, it was just a matter of time before it would be applied — in all seriousness — to the Shiite extremists behind Islamic terrorists, then by hysterical exaggeration to Tea Party members.  Because words carry their own baggage over time, no one had completely lost sight of the original imprecision: "fundamentalism" had something to do with being true to one's ideological origins, right?  (Not exactly, because neither sola scriptura nor sola fides is true to Christian origins, though they're both very closely associated with the Reformation; however, that too is another issue for another time.)

It's possible to derive a set of "fundamental pillars" for Shi'a Islam; the Tea Party does have three core principles.  But it's debatable whether the Shiite "fundamental pillars" or the Tea Party's core principles really are true to the origins of either Islam or American government (one more debate I won't get into here).  Even if they were, the term "fundamentalist" has been ruined by misuse and abuse; to insist on the technical accuracy of calling either group "fundamentalist" is akin to insisting that Jews are indeed "faithless".

In sum, "fundamentalist" is simply one more way left-wingers can slam and slander conservatives, one more once-useful technical term — like "racist", "sexist" and "homophobic" — turned into a mindlessly-hurled insult.  My advice is that we leave this word to the apostles of tolerance, and stick to calling members of the free-church/Anabaptist tradition "Evangelicals".