Origin of the Concept: The term `fundamentalism’ has its origin in a series of pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915. Entitled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth,” these booklets were authored by leading evangelical churchmen and were circulated free of charge among clergymen and seminarians. By and large, fundamentalism was a response to the loss of influence traditional revivalism experienced in America during the early years of the twentieth century. This loss of influence, coupled with the liberalizing trends of German biblical criticism and the encroachment of Darwinian theories about the origin of the universe, prompted a response by conservative churchmen. The result was the pamphlets. In 1920, a journalist and Baptist layman named Curtis Lee Laws appropriated the term `fundamentalist’ as a designation for those who were ready “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals.”
Date of Birth: Second decade of the 20th century
Birth Place: The United States
Year Founded: Concept coined in 1920
Sacred or Revered Texts :
The Bible is the sacred text of the Christian Fundamentalists. Indeed, if there is one single thing which binds Fundamentalists together, it is their insistence that the Bible is to be understood as literally true. Further, Fundamentalists see themselves as the guardians of the truth, usually to the exclusion of others’ interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalism in other faith traditions similarly proclaims guardianship of truth.
Defining Fundamentalism: Given the many disparate uses of the concept, it is not surprising that fundamentalism has not been easy to define. Several recent works are helpful in developing a conceptual understanding of the phenomenon. Three important works are examined here:
Bruce Lawrence, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age
Lawrence defines fundamentalism as ” the affirmation of religious authority as holistic and absolute, admitting of neither criticism nor reduction; it is expressed through the collective demand that specific creedal and ethical dictates derived from scripture be publicly recognized and legally enforced .”
Lawrence argues that fundamentalism is a specific kind of religious ideology. It is antimodern, but not antimodernist. In other words, it rejects the philosophical rationalism and individualism that accompany modernity, but it takes full advantage of certain technological advances that also characterize the modern age. The most consistent denominator is opposition to Enlightenment values. Lawrence believes that fundamentalism is a world-wide phenomena and that it must be compared in various contexts before it can be understood or explained with any clarity.
Lawrence ends his general discussion by listing five “family resemblances” common to fundamentalism. 1) Fundamentalists are advocates of a minority viewpoint. They see themselves as a righteous remnant. Even when they are numerically a majority, they perceive themselves as a minority. 2) They are oppositional and confrontational towards both secularists and “wayward” religious followers. 3) They are secondary level male elites led invariably by charismatic males. 4) Fundamentalists generate their own technical vocabulary. 5) Fundamentalism has historical antecedents, but no ideological precursor.
The Fundamentalism Project, directed and edited by Martin E. Marty and Scott Appleby …
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences funded a multiyear project that brought scholars from around the world together to study Fundamentalism. Ultimately they produced 5 volumes containing almost 8,000 pages of material. Admitting some difficulty with the term, the project opts to use it anyway for a variety of reasons. Essentially, they argue that it is commonly accepted, here to stay, and the best term anyone can come up with for this phenomena. The last chapter of volume 1, Fundamentalisms Observed, discusses the “family resemblances” found in the various chapters.
These family resemblances include:
1.. religious idealism as basis for personal and communal identity; 2.. fundamentalists understand truth to be revealed and unified; 3.. it is intentionally scandalous, (similar to Lawrence’s point about language — outsiders cannot understand it); 4.. fundamentalists envision themselves as part of a cosmic struggle; 5.. they seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in light of this cosmic struggle; 6.. they demonize their opposition and are reactionary; 7.. fundamentalists are selective in what parts of their tradition and heritage they stress; 8.. they are led by males; 9.. they envy modernist cultural hegemony and try to overturn the distribution of power. .The last several chapters of the final volume, Fundamentalisms Comprehended, attempts to delineate several properties of Fundamentalism with the research of the previous 7,500 pages in mind. Appleby, Emmanuel Sivan, and Gabriel Almond list 5 ideological characteristics and 4 organizational characteristics of fundamentalism. The Five ideological characteristics are:
1.. fundamentalists are concerned “first” with the erosion of religion and its proper role in society; 2.. fundamentalism is selective of their tradition and what part of modernity they accept or choose to react against; 3.. they embrace some form of Manicheanism (dualism); 4.. fundamentalists stress absolutism and inerrancy in their sources of revelation; and 5.. they opt for some form of Millennialism or Messianism. The organizational characteristics include:
1.. an elect or chosen membership; 2.. sharp group boundaries; 3.. charismatic authoritarian leaders; and 4.. mandated behavioral requirements.
Created by: Steven Jones PhD Student in Sociology, University of Virginia Spring, 1998 Last modified: 07/16/01