Some discussion over at little hoot owl's blog raised the question of the epithet "fundamentalist" and its place in the mainstream media's reports on religious topics.
I have long been opposed to the generic use of "fundamentalist" as an adjective describing strict (and often extreme) interpretation of and adherence to religious doctrines and texts. My reasons are severalfold:
1.) Most importantly, using the term generically tends to obscure its roots. The term "fundamentalist" was created in 1922 by and for a group of U.S. Christians who wished to respond to the modernist, rationalist, anti-supernaturalist Christian movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their doctrines were more or less orthodox in terms of their position within historic Christianity. They defended things like biblical literalism (e.g., Jesus literally was/is the primogenitive son of God) and salvation through faith in God (as opposed to faith in humanity or self).
Most generic uses of "fundamentalist" refer to groups whose tenets are not especially similar to those of the original Christian group. Thus, generic use of the word tends to obscure its original meaning.
2.) The root of "fundamentalist" implies that the word refers to someone who cares chiefly about the most basic principles of a philosophy or doctrine. By contrast, many fringe groups described as "fundamentalist" pay inordinate amounts of attention to a few, relatively minute points. For instance, Fred Phelps is commonly described as a fundamentalist even though his chief concerns are limited to several obscure passages (which he and his church almost always tear out of context in their interpretations of them).
3.) "Fundamentalist" is all too often used as a shield that prevents its user from having to consider what defines a specific movement. I know a number of people who categorize all Christians (with the possibe exception of Unitarians) as "fundamentalists" and then promptly "other" the whole thing, including the dozens of denominations that are not conservative or reactionary by any stretch of the imagination.
In summary, "fundamentalist" seems fairly useless to me as anything except an adjective to describe a specific sect of Christianity. It's a shame that people use it to obscure discussions of belief rather than to elucidate them.