Fundamentalism refers to any sect or movement within a religion that emphasizes a rigid adherence to what it conceives of as the fundamental principles of its faith, usually resulting in a denouncement of alternative practices and interpretations. There are fundamentalist sects in almost all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Cross-culturally, fundamentalism is characterized by a cluster of common attributes including a literal interpretation of scripture, a suspicion of outsiders, a sense of alienation from the secular culture, a distrust of liberal elites, and the belief in the historical accuracy and inerrancy of their own interpretation of their religious scriptures. Additionally, religious fundamentalists are often politically active and may feel that the state must be subservient to God.
Historically, the term “fundamentalism” was first used in the early 1900s among American Protestant Christians who strove to return to the “fundamentals” of Biblical faith, and who stressed the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching. The subsequent growth of religious fundamentalism in the twentieth century has been tied to the perceived challenge that both secularism and liberal values pose to traditional religious authorities, values, and theological truth claims. Fundamentalism appeals to religious believers who feel threatened by the encroachment of liberal values into traditionally religious spheres. They feel besieged by secular culture which they regard as immoral and godless.
It should be noted that groups described as fundamentalist often strongly object to this term because they see it as a derogatory label. While liberals point to the fundamentalists’ intolerance and self-righteousness as a breeding ground for religious violence, fundamentalists, on the other hand, point to liberals’ intolerance towards them, precisely because they believe in absolutes. Fundamentalists have shown political savvy in working ecumenically with like-minded people of other faiths to promote conservative values, creating such groups as the Moral Majority, which played a major role in the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan.
The narrow exclusivism of fundamentalism, however, is contrary to the spirit of tolerance found in all religions. Nevertheless, efforts within the world’s religions to overcome fundamentalism have been largely ineffective. For one thing, religious liberals may simply reject fundamentalists rather than seek to make positive relationships with them; this only reinforces their sense of alienation and seems to validate their views. Furthermore, since fundamentalism is a reaction to secularism, these movements are unlikely to subside unless moderate religious leaders find the means to overcome the corrosive effects of secular culture.
The concept of “fundamentalism” arose in 1909 from the title of a four-volume set of books called The Fundamentals. These books were published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A. now Biola University), between 1909 and 1920. They were called The Fundamentals because they appealed to Christians to affirm specific fundamental doctrines such as The Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Jesus. This series of essays came to be representative of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy” which appeared late in the nineteenth century within the Protestant churches of the United States, and continued in earnest through the 1920s.
Over time the term came to be associated with a particular segment of evangelical Protestantism, who distinguished themselves by their separatist approach toward modernity, and toward other Christians who did not agree with their views. Originally members of the various Protestant denominations who subscribed to the “fundamentals” were called “fundamentalists” and they did not form an independent denomination. However, they have since broken up into various movements. Early “fundamentalists” included J. Gresham Machen and B.B. Warfield, men who would not be considered “fundamentalists” today.
Rationale of Religious Fundamentalism
Most forms of religious fundamentalism have similar traits. Religious fundamentalists typically see sacred scripture as the authentic and literal word of God. Since scripture is considered to be inerrant, fundamentalists believe that no person has the right to change it or disagree with it. They believe that God articulated His will precisely to His followers, and that they have a reliable and perfect record of that revelation. As a result, people are “obliged” to obey the word of God.
Thus, the appeal of fundamentalism is its affirmation of absolutes in a world that seems to have lost any sense of right and wrong. God has provided through his scriptures the proper values for the good life. Fundamentalists have God’s favor because they alone are true to his word, while everyone else is bound for ruin. The evident decay of Western civilization, which is becoming increasingly decadent and tolerant of all manner of deviance, validates this point of view. Further justification is adduced from the state of mainstream religion: static or falling attendance of many liberal or reformed congregations, from the scandals that have struck, and from the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between religiously liberal and avowedly secularist views on such matters as homosexuality, abortion and women’s rights.
Fundamentalists also commonly believe that their way of life and treasured truths are under attack by the forces of secularism and liberalism. They think that they are rescuing religious identity from absorption into post-modernism and secularism. According to Peter Huff, “…fundamentalists in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, despite their doctrinal and practical differences, are united by a common worldview which anchors all of life in the authority of the sacred and a shared ethos that expresses itself through outrage at the pace and extent of modern secularization.”
Fundamentalists believe their cause to have grave and even cosmic importance. They see themselves as protecting not only a distinctive doctrine, but also a vital principle, and a way of life and salvation. Community, comprehensively centered upon a clearly defined religious way of life in all of its aspects, is the promise of fundamentalist movements; it therefore appeals to those adherents of religion who find little that is distinctive, or authentically vital in their previous religious identity.
The fundamentalist “wall of virtue,” which protects their identity, is erected against not only alien religions, but also against the modernized, compromised, nominal version of their own religion. Examples of things that modern fundamentalists often avoid are modern translations of the Bible, alcoholic drinks or recreational drugs, tobacco, modern popular music, dancing, “mixed bathing” (men and women swimming together), and gender-neutral or trans-gender clothing and hair-styles. Such things might seem innocuous to the outsider, but to some fundamentalists they represent the leading edge of a threat to the virtuous way of life and the purer form of belief that they seek to protect. Many fundamentalists accept only the King James Version translation of the Bible and study tools based on it, such as the Scofield Reference Bible.
Varieties of Fundamentalism around the World
Most religions contain fundamentalist elements that often have more in common with each other than with liberal followers of their own religion. In Christianity, fundamentalists are “Born again” and “Bible-believing” Protestants, as opposed to “Mainline,” “modernist” Protestants, who, from a fundamentalist perspective, represent “Churchianity”; in Islam they are jama’at (Arabic: “religious enclaves” with connotations of close fellowship) self-consciously engaged in jihad (struggle) against Western culture that suppresses authentic Islam (submission) and the “God-given” (Shari’ah) way of life; in Judaism they are Haredi “Torah-true” Jews; and they have their equivalents in Hinduism, Sikhism and other world religions. These groups insist on a sharp boundary between themselves and others, and finally between a “sacred” view of life and the “secular” world. Fundamentalists direct their critiques toward (and draw most of their converts from) the larger community of their religion, by attempting to convince them that they are not experiencing the authentic version of their professed religion. Despite their similarities, fundamentalists from specific religions also have their own unique characteristics and views, as seen below:
The term fundamentalist is difficult to apply unambiguously in Christianity. Many self-described fundamentalists would include Jerry Falwell in their company, but would not embrace Pat Robertson as a fundamentalist because of his espousal of charismatic teachings. Fundamentalist institutions include Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University, but classically fundamentalist schools such as Fuller Theological Seminary and Biola University no longer describe themselves as fundamentalist.
Self-described Christian fundamentalists see the Holy Bible as both infallible and historically accurate. However, it is important to distinguish between the “literalist” and fundamentalist groups within the Christian community. Literalists, as the name indicates, hold that the Bible should be taken literally in every part (though English language Bibles are themselves translations and therefore not a literal, word-for-word rending of the original texts). Many Christian fundamentalists, on the other hand, are for the most part content to hold that the Bible should be taken literally only where there is no indication to the contrary. As William Jennings Bryan put it, in response to Clarence Darrow‘s questioning during the Scopes Trial (1925):
I believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there; some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: ‘Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.
Nevertheless, the tendency of modern Christian fundamentalism is toward a literal reading of the Bible.
Because of the prevalence of dispensational eschatology, some fundamentalists vehemently support the modern nation of Israel, believing the Jews to have significance in God’s purposes parallel to the Christian churches, and a special role to play at the end of the world.
Main article: Judaism And Violence
Jewish fundamentalism is a phenomenon particularly in Israel, where orthodox Jews find themselves in a struggle with secular Jews to define the culture. Haredi Judaism is a movement within the orthodox camp to establish an exclusively orthodox Jewish culture characterized by strict adherence to the Jewish law (halacha) in every aspect of life, the wearing of distinctive dress, and political efforts to enforce halachic ordinances on the general population—to make Israel a truly “Jewish” state. Some Jewish fundamentalists support the movement to establish Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank, which they call “Judea and Samaria,” with the goal of absorbing it into Israel because of its Jewish occupation in biblical times.
Many orthodox Jews are not fundamentalists. The so-called “modern orthodox” believe it is possible to be both modern and observant at the same time. They do not as a rule wear distinctive dress. They make some accommodation with secular life, while strictly observing the Jewish law in the home and private settings, and in particular on the Sabbath.
See also: Mormonism and Violence
Within the cluster of groups who esteem the Book of Mormon as scripture, some conservative movements of Mormonism could be labeled as fundamentalist. Mormon fundamentalism represents a break from the brand of Mormonism practiced by “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (LDS Church), and claims to be a return to the Mormon doctrines and practices which the LDS Church has allegedly wrongly abandoned, such as plural marriage, the Law of Consecration, the Adam-God theory, blood atonement, the Patriarchal Priesthood, elements of the Mormon Endowment ritual, and often exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood. Mormon fundamentalists have formed numerous sects, many of which have established small, cohesive, isolated communities in many areas of the Western United States.
Like other religions, Islam promotes a vision of society and provides guidelines for social life. The Holy Qur’an and the Hadith provide guidelines for Islamic government, including criminal law, family law, the prohibition of usury, and other economic regulations. During the expansion of Islam in its first centuries, the knowledge and culture of conquered territories was absorbed leading to what many consider a golden age of Islam, in which there was a flowering of arts and sciences and which carried Ancient Greek knowledge to the West in the High Middle Ages.
In the thirteenth century Ibn Taymiyyah, a theologian and professor of Hanbali jurisprudence, initiated a reform movement that argued Islamic scholarship had veered from the proper understanding of the Qur’an. He taught an extremely literal interpretation of the Qur’an and advocated the Sharia. He engaged in criticism of the Kasrawn Shi’a in Lebanon, the Rifa’i Sufi order, and others. Some of his critics accused him of anthropomorphism. He also advocated waging a jihad of the sword against the Mongols. Sunni thinkers have held Ibn Taymiyyah in relatively high esteem. Many historians feel his fundamentalism led to the ossification and decline of Islamic civilization.
One important modern strand of fundamentalist Islam is the Wahhabi school, which emerged in the eighteenth century and claims roots in Ibn Taymiyyah’s teaching. Seminal influences came from writers like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, who saw western style individualism as counter to centuries of tradition, and also as inevitably leading to a debauched and licentious society. Qutb advocated a return to Sharia because of what he perceived as the inability of Western values to secure harmony and prosperity for Muslims. He believed that only divine guidance could lead humans to peace, justice, and prosperity, and it followed that Muslims should eschew man-made systems of governance and live according to divinely-inspired Shariah (“The Qur’an is our constitution”).
Islamists and Jihadists
Most Qur’anic usages of the term jihad do not refer to war but to spiritual struggle or to the struggle to establish social justice, such as 22:77–78, “believers, bow down and prostrate yourselves in worship of your Lord, and work righteousness, that you may succeed and strive (jihad) in the cause of God.” Yet other verses are interpreted to refer to armed struggle to establish or extend Islamic rule, such as “Go ye forth, (whether equipped) lightly or heavily, and strive and struggle, with your goods and your persons, in the cause of Allah.” (9:41). Thus the translation of jihad as “holy war” renders only one of the several meanings of the Arabic word, and there are many Muslims who believe that the Qur’an only permits defense (see 22:39–40; 2:190).
However, the loss of Muslim power due to the historical developments of World War I, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and the end of the caliphate, caused some Muslims to perceive that Islam was in retreat, and led them to actively oppose Western ideas and power. Islamic fundamentalism therefore is partly a reaction to colonialism, and sees the solution as a return to classical Islam, where religion played a dominant role in civil society and state affairs. Such groups tend to cite periods of history where Islam was the established social system, and they oppose local elites who supported adopting western liberal ideals.
Islamic political fundamentalists, also called Islamists or Jihadists, have organized active movements to pursue the goal Islamization through violent confrontation with the West, beginning with Westernized elements within their own countries. Such groups include the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (condemned for signing a peace treaty with the State of Israel in 1979). More recently, Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network carried out the attacks against targets in the United States September 11, 2001. These and allied groups regard the West as Islam’s enemy; thus, all Westerners are legitimate targets whether civilian or military. They rely on such Qur’anic verses as Qur’an 9:5 and 2:216 (referred to as the “sword verses”), and justify aggression (taking the initiative), not merely defense. Some jihadists claim to be the successors of the early Kharijites who assassinated Ali ibn Abi Talib as well as of the medieval Assassins.
A Shi’a type of Islamic fundamentalism arose with the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 with the rise of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (c. 1900-1989) who founded the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini galvanized the Shi’a world to embrace his radicalized fundamentalism since he was seen as a great defender of the Islamic faith. His promotion anti-Americanism, hatred against Israel, and anti-Western rhetoric, was in large part aimed at discrediting modernist forces in Iran.
The term “fundamentalist” in relation to the Islamist groups is problematic however, partly because of the term’s origin in Christian discourse (where in modern times it has a purely theological significance; Islamism is political), but also because traditional Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom are not Islamists, actually hold theological beliefs that are remarkably similar to those of conservative Christians in terms of the infallibility of scripture, Jesus’ Virgin Birth (in which, based on Qur’an 3:47 and 3:59, most Muslims believe), as well as strong moral values and a strict lifestyle.
Unlike Christian fundamentalist groups, Muslim groups do not use the term “fundamentalist” to refer to themselves, and in recent years the term “Islamism” has largely displaced the term “Islamic fundamentalism.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines Islamism as, “An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life.” Dictionary: Islamism Retrieved September 7, 2008.
Hindu and Sikh fundamentalism
See also: Hindutva
Some argue that the religious idea of fundamentalism is limited to the “Abrahamic religions,” and have connected the phenomenon specifically to the notion of revealed religion. However, in the landmark series on fundamentalism, Martin Marty (and others) have identified fundamentalism also in non-Abrahamic religions, including Hinduism.
Followers of Hinduism generally adhere to the Vedic statement, “Truth is One, though the sages know it variously,” which would seem to make relativism practically a fundamental tenet. However, a few sects within Hinduism, such as the Arya Samaj for example, do have a tendency to dogmatically view the Vedas as divinely inspired, superior or even flawless. Regardless, some claim that no Hindu can be found who considers his/her name of God to be that of the “only true God” or their scriptures to be the “only scriptures truly inspired by God” or their prophet to be the “final one.” In fact it is normal that Hinduism is itself divided into many different sects and groups with new philosophies continuously being added; consequently, the fundamentalist enclaves identified by The Fundamentalism Project, who claim to be purer than others, are regarded as aberrant within Hinduism.
The Khalistan movement of Sikhism, which flourished in the 1980s, has also been labeled as a type of religious fundamentalism. This movement expressed Sikh aspirations to establish an independent Sikh state in the Punjab, India (the traditional Holy Land of the Sikhs). It was also implicated in the assassination of India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984).
See also: Buddhism and violence
Some refer to any literal-minded or intolerant philosophy with pretense of being the sole source of objective truth, as fundamentalist, regardless of whether it is called a religion. For example, when the communist state of Albania (under the leadership of Enver Hoxha) declared itself an “atheist state,” it was deemed by some to be a form of “fundamentalist atheism” or more accurately “Stalinist fundamentalism.” There are people who in their attempt to live according to the writings of Ayn Rand seem to transgress respect for other perspectives in propagating their views, so that they are deemed to be a kind of “objectivist fundamentalist.” In France, the imposition of restrictions on public display of religion has been labeled by some as “secular fundamentalism.” The idea of non-religious fundamentalism almost always expands the definition of “fundamentalism” along the lines of criticisms. It represents an idea of purity, and is self-applied as a rather counter-cultural fidelity to a simple principle, as in economic fundamentalism.
Criticism of Fundamentalism
Many criticisms of the fundamentalism have been leveled by its opponents.
A general criticism is that fundamentalists are selective in what they believe and practice. For instance, the Book of Exodus dictates that when a man’s brother dies, he must marry his widowed sister-in-law. Yet fundamentalist Christians do not adhere to this doctrine, despite the fact that it is not contradicted in the New Testament. However, defenders of fundamentalism argue that according to New Testament theology, large parts, if not all of the Mosaic Law, are not normative for modern Christians. They may cite passages such Colossians 2:14 which describes Jesus Christ as “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us.” Other fundamentalists argue that only certain parts of the Mosaic Law—parts that rely on universal moral principles—are normative for today. Therefore, in their view, there is no contradiction between such passages in the Old Testament and their belief in Biblical infallibility.
Another common criticism of fundamentalism is that in order for modern people to perfectly understand the original scriptures, they need to comprehend the ancient language of the original text (if indeed the true text can be discerned from among variants). Critics charge that fundamentalists fail to recognize that fallible human beings are the ones who transmit a religious tradition. Elliot N. Dorff writes, “Even if one wanted to follow the literal word of God, the need for people first to understand that word necessitates human interpretation. Through that process human fallibility is inextricably mixed into the very meaning of the divine word. As a result, it is impossible to follow the indisputable word of God; one can only achieve a human understanding of God’s will.” (Dorff 1988). Most fundamentalists do not deal with this argument. Those that do reply to this critique hold their own religious leaders are guided by God, and thus partake of divine infallibility.
Thirdly, Christian fundamentalists are often criticized for accepting religious texts as infallible when they often contain contradictions. Christian fundamentalists, for example, seem to ignore the discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible, as well as prophesies that did not seem to have not been fulfilled in exactly the way that scripture predicted.
Finally, the fundamentalists’ insistence on strict interpretation of religious scripture has often been criticized as the fallacy of “legalism.” H. Richard Niebuhr described this as a form of henotheism where the believer claims to have ultimate faith in a living and transcendent God, but in practice limits God to a lesser object of worship—in this case scripture.
- Appleby, R. Scott, Gabriel Abraham Almond, and Emmanuel Sivan. 2003. Strong Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226014975
- Armstrong, Karen. 2001. The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345391691
- Brasher, Brenda E. 2001. The Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415922445
- Dorff, Elliot N. and Arthur Rosett. 1988. A Living Tree; The Roots and Growth of Jewish Law. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0887064604
- Gorenberg, Gershom. 2000. The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. New York: The Free Press. New edition, 2002. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195152050
- Marsden; George M. 1980. Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Oxford University Press, ()
- Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby, eds. The Fundamentalism Project. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- (1991). Volume 1: Fundamentalisms Observed. ISBN 0226508781
- (1993). Volume 2: Fundamentalisms and Society. ISBN 0226508803
- (1993). Volume 3: Fundamentalisms and the State. ISBN 0226508838
- (1994). Volume 4: Accounting for Fundamentalisms. ISBN 0226508854
- (1995). Volume 5: Fundamentalisms Comprehended. ISBN 0226508870
- Ruthven, Malise. 2005. Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192806068
- Torrey, R.A., ed. 1909. The Fundamentals. Los Angeles, CA: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (B.I.O.L.A., now Biola University). ISBN 0801012643
- “Religious movements: fundamentalist.” In Goldstein, Norm, ed. (2003). The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2003, 38th ed., 218. New York: The Associated Press. ISBN 0917360222.