09 May 2006

On "Fundamentalist"

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.

2 comments:

Evil Bender said...

I agree with you on most of this, but...

"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."

Except that people don't agree on what the "real" or "most important" or "essential" aspects of a faith are.

If you polled 1,000 Christians and asked them what to elicidate the essential tenants of their faith, how many could agree?

James Dobson says its his heart's desire to ban gay marriage--for him, that's a Christian dealbreaker.

But that's the point: "fundamentalists"--as the term is used nowadays--believe THEIR beliefs--generally ALL of them--are essential. That, to me, marks them: agree with us on basically every doctrinal point, or you're evil.

luaphacim said...

Yeah, I see your point, EB. And I am not one to pretend that langauge can ever exist in a vacuum (thank you, Mikhail Bakhtin), so I sort of have to cede that most people do use it in that sense today. (Which, I think, is why AP suggests that reporters not use it unless referring to the Xian movement that came up with the term.)

But that doesn't make me stop tearing my ever-diminishing hair out every time I see the word applied to, say, a hard-line Israeli politician. Meh.