Fundamentalist: Defining the Term

I asked this question before about another commonly used term to display the badge of Christian differences by, yes, the Christians,  and was astounded by the combined list of things that people used to define that term. So now, let me come before you and ask this is honest question; no sarcasm here, if that would ever be possible, but really, it is legitimate:

I would like for anyone who is interested in the issue and has used the term “fundamentalist” before about someone or a Christian organization, how they define it and what are the issues that they consider before they label someone, group or organization “fundamentalist”. Note that I am speaking of Christianity only.

The purpose:

  1. is the term related to the current issues?
  2. is the term related merely to feelings, likes, dislikes, etc. or is there a “firm foundation” for it?
  3. how many definitions can we find?
  4. is the term being used more often today because of the in-flux of agnostics in social media and/or because of some TV specials recently presented on TV?
  5. What is the antonym for the term “fundamentalist?”

I am begging for answers.

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17 Replies to “Fundamentalist: Defining the Term”

  1. Because of lockstep politics and associated ring in the nose voting practices, one term that immediately comes to mind is Religious Right. Another commonly used by liberals is fundy.

  2. Thanks, Know More that I Should! I love your expression: “immediately comes to mind…” Isn’t it funny (not you alone, but me and perhaps everyone else) that terms cause certain things, groups, persons, etc. “immediately come to mind…”. Oh the power of labels!

    1. It is interesting to note that fundamentalism is a relatively new theology. Although largely reactionary, it was also once avant guard. Fundamentalism also has parallel philosophies if other disciplines. A literal interpretation of The Constitution of the United States is but one example.

      Among the problems inherent in a literalist point of view is that not only does language change – gay certainly doesn’t mean the same thing as when Abraham Lincoln referred to a “gay people” – translations from ancient texts further muddle the waters. So, too, as humankind’s perception of the world since the Bronze Age. Even more amusing, most fundamentalists are so focused on 19th century Darwinian biology that they ignore the fact that 21st century astronomy is wiping out the underpinnings of their myopic biblical interpretation.

      Thus, it is quite likely that in only a few hundred years, fundamentalism will be little more than a curious footnote in church history as the faith moves on without them.

  3. “Thus, it is quite likely that in only a few hundred years, fundamentalism will be little more than a curious footnote in church history as the faith moves on without them.”
    I agree and could share the same hope but only if it is based on something more than opinions about “literacy (literal-ism)” or “definition of words”. What most fail to realize (without disputing what they consider fundamentalism) is that fundamentalism it is not a “privilege” of the people they call “fundamentalist”. I propose that the “religious left” is also fundamentalist. I also think that progressive interpretation of the Constitution is also fundamentalism. One group cannot create a new set of meaning for old vocabulary words already established as its peculiar definition, and then call all those who will not accept that “new” definition, a fundamentalist, because that would be “rebellion” and not progressive-ism I believe that the political left in fundamentalist when they accept blindly the arguments of old socialist and communists concepts even against the failure of these systems throughout history. We can, in all fairness, say the same about those who defend predatory Capitalism, but I can’t say all kinds of capitalistic ideas are a thing of the fundamentalist (which I heard a few times) because not only I am a beneficiary of capitalism, but I actually enjoy it; that would be hypocrisy. I don’t want to shift my quest outside or the religious aspect, but for some, simply going to church on Sundays, speaking out loud in a prayerful stance; believing that an unseen Deity is listening, is fundamentalism, or to say that any demonstration of faith is fundamentalism. I don’t think we are in the rational stage to be totally free form “fundamentalism” in any side, thinking group, philosophy or science. The thing is that now, in this microcosmic moment we are living, it is funnier and catchier to call some Christians “fundamentalists”… often because it is “chic” and it lends an impression on hearers that we are “cool and modern” thus indicating purely a form of self-affirmation pursuit.

    An example that we are not rational yet to be free of fundamentalism (dumbamentalism, if I may) is what happened to me circa 35 years ago when one of my sons fell off a wall and, for all medical purposes, he died. He was in Brazil then and there was no time to call an ambulance so our church nurse (where he was playing) stuck him in the back of a Fiat and rushed to the hospital honking her horn breaking the laws against the traffic in one way streets. Well, his mother prayed for him and plead with God that he wouldn’t die and no CPR or nothing else was applied, but when he got to the hospital he was back breathing and with normal heart beats. Well, I tell this story to some they will begin to give me all kinds of old scientific explanations as to why this happened, that wasn’t his mother’s prayers, not God, not anyone, nothing related to a miracle or miraculous, that it was pure science. If I tell them that whatever it happened, scientific or not, voluntary or not, since I believe God controls it all, it was God and it was still miraculous, many would label me a “fundamentalist” totally ignoring that they are also “fundamentalist” in their own views by presenting their evidences, which cannot be proven in every case (not everyone rises from the dead), against my evidence, which also cannot be proven in every case (God doesn’t raise every dead person from the dead), thus making it a matter of faith. So, we can concentrate and poke fun on religious people all we want calling them fundamentalists, but there is also an agnostic, an atheist, fundamentalism. Decades ago things that scientists believed to be fables of “fundamentalists” when this term didn’t carry the “bashing” weight that it carries today, have been proven to be correct later by their own discoveries. I cited not long ago Ponctius Pilatus… which may not be a home run, but it is an example that we are not cosmic enough, the range of our knowledge is not that deep that we can just call certain beliefs “fundamentalism”.

    I am, admittedly, a fundamentalist in certain issues but a “sane” person in other issues (to follow the antonym to fundamentalist given by Joel Watts on the that I started about this on Facebook).

    1. Assuming that “religious left” is synonymous with Christian left rather than Buddhist socialism, Islamic socialism, or the Jewish left, it may be worth pointing out that Francis Bellamy – author of the Pledge of Allegiance, without benefit of the pretentious “under God” appendage – was a Christian socialist. By some accounts, so was Katharine Lee Bates – author of American the Beautiful’s lyrics. Given her lifestyle, Bates may have also been lesbian.

      As with Christian fundamentalism, Christian liberalism can claim biblical origins. Much of it is obscure as measured by the standards of American pulpit prattle. Most of it comes from Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Acts, and James. Some consider Matthew 25:31-46 to be the cornerstone of the movement. Luke 10:25-37 is often cited as a source of inspiration.

      The principal difference between Christian fundamentalism and Christian liberalism is the contrast between rigidity and fluidity. To borrow a phrase from Marine Corps indoctrination, the liberal wing of the faith is better suited for improvising, adapting, and overcoming than is its flat-footed opposition.

  4. A fundamentalist is a person who creates and believes in false dichotomies: Either the Bible is inerrant in every detail of incidental science and history… OR… it’s all a load of rubbish. Thus Bart Ehrman was and remains a fundamentalist in his basic philosophical outlook. It’s just that he’s switched sides in what is a false set of choices. If Mark and Matthew say there was ONE man dressed in white garments outside the tomb, but Luke says there were TWO, then obviously one of them MUST be wrong… and so the New Testament is unreliable. This is how a fundamentalist thinks. If someone says the sun “rose” at six this morning, but we know from modern science that the earth revolves around the sun and so it doesn’t really “rise” at all, then this person is either (a) ignorant or (b) lying. This is how a fundamentalist thinks.

    1. I wasn’t going to comment, since there was a request for no sarcasm. But since Bart Ehrman was mentioned, and it is a slow day…
      “Years ago I started defining fundamentalism as “No fun, too much damn, and not enough mental.” Bart Ehrman
      Certainly a basis in truth.
      “no fun”…sermons seem to obsess on telling you the things you are doing wrong. Heavy in sin, Satan, and lately, sex (of the gay variety). Or alcohol, or godlessness of our current age, especially in the good old USA.
      “Too much damn”… same sermon, what you get if you keep doing it, thinking it, or voting it.
      “No mental”… All their preachers ignore real bible scholarship.

      1. Given their eschewing of pleasure, it is quite possible that fundamentalists are little more than latter day Puritans. As old Tom Macaulay pointed out over a century ago, “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

  5. Hey Gary! You can be sarcastic… but with class… 😉
    If I understood you (that is a big IF), I think it is an unfair statement to say that “their” preachers ignore biblical scholarship. I am sure you know that there are many preachers that do consider “biblical scholarship” and still preach the “don’ts” and the “no fun” sermons. There is a place for it without denying certain principles that, in my humble view, should not be changed because the times have changed.
    I think Joel was right on the money when he said on the thread about this issue that fundamentalist is a person who, no matter the amount of information they have, they won’t change their minds. Now, It would be as if one is refusing to see if they refuse to see that there are people on the “anti-fundamentalist” side that not only deny to change even in the face of information, but also “changed” or “spin” the existing information only to make it appealing and convenient to their own thinking, thus, as per Joel Watts definition, making them also “fundamentalists”.
    I would prefer not to give my definition here especially because I think it may be irrelevant, but everyone may conclude how I define it since I am such a no-conformist and would never accept what is popularly accepted about anything (so I am a fundamentalist about being a no-conformist, perhaps 😉 ), but allow me to say that one of the characteristics of the fundamentalist of any type or hue, is simply the fact that they want to impose the authority of what they believe (religiously, scientific or politically even) without considering any other reasonable argument from those who oppose its ideas.
    Names were mentioned here, and that’s perfectly all right, but I won’t cite names of things that I heard, especially in the last few History Channel shows from people that I admire, but that were really off on their opinion because they want to sound “mocking” and “scoffing” since it sells on TV, but… there was spinning of biblical translations, ignoring the entire idea the text wanted to convey, obsession for mockery, and ignoring all that it has been presented throughout the centuries against those arguments by people who only role in life was to study those issues. So, that makes them a “fundamentalist” in my view; fundamentalistically against any view contrary to theirs (with the disclaimer of all the editing of the TV station to make it appealing for TV).
    I often tell people (with my supposedly open mind): Even the most agnostic historian and theologian will tell you that there are texts in the Bible that are truthful and historically correct; well I propose that if they remove all the ones they consider not to be historical and that are fables and purely “men’s fingerprints” to quote Bart Ehrman again, there is enough to have the faith that I have today and there is plenty for a life of godliness.
    In all, consider that this is not the first time people attempt to disprove, and, yea, even destroy the Bible, and the bible stood the test of time against all “natural forces” and a few “supernatural ones” ;). But now they have Facebook Twitter, The History Channel, and Academia… that’s their advantage over those who tried the very same thing in the past.

    1. I hear you. Same for Joel, as he attended the revival, preached, etc. I attended UMC today, heard an uplifting sermon on healing, Mark 1:21 and Mark 2:1, heard the pastor say maybe there are demons, but maybe there is just convulsions from epilepsy, and Jesus healed that. And maybe the person paralyzed had a mental problem. She didn’t want to confuse mental illness with demons! A fundamentalist would say there are demons out to get you, and Satan is after you. And realistically, the top level leaders fight about the theology. The common people want to hear an uplifting sermon that does not conflict with medical or scientific data, and maybe grab a donut afterwards, and feel good about the time spent in church.
      You said, “think it is an unfair statement to say that “their” preachers ignore biblical scholarship”.
      So , what about all those preachers from the Dallas Theological Seminary? You like dispensationalist?

  6. See, too many “maybes”. I don’t think demons are out to get you. But I do think what Peter said demons will do. I don’t go to church to hear uncertainties just to appease my intellectual curiosity. I have other places for that. I go to church to hear God’s word and whether is uplifting if uplifting is anything that it is understood that benefits me, whether it be correction, exhortation, discipline, not necessarily positive only.
    No, i don’t like dispensationalists, but I do not condemn every single person from Dallas Theological Seminary. They have a issue with inerrancy without qualifying that word and I think that is stupid because it makes the bible a book that “must” be accurate historically, medically (as when Paul advises Timothy no longer to drink water, but wine for his stomach pain) and a few other texts where Paul declares openly that he doesn’t know if he is speaking of “himself or of the Lord” and others where he says that he is using truisms of his days (…this is a faithful saying..). So if one uses the word “inerrancy” broadly with no qualification I just prefer not to listen to them.
    That’s me! I am a no-conformist.

    1. Ohhh…my pastor said the older she gets, the less sure she is about things. I think that is true wisdom, and honesty. Maybes are good. Better than saying something that does not make sense. Demons may be internal, but not external. I gave up on boogie men a long time ago.

  7. Fundamentalism is about an ideology (Althusser) and a truth claim. People get hung up on the truth claim bits and miss the circulating ideological components. Martin Marty did a massive multi-volume study of fundamentalism that you might find helpful. Additionally the follow up volume to the series (much shorter) called “Strong Religion” should be of interesting to helping delmmit the term for you. Same with “war or words”

    But as is common knowledge fundamentalism started as and still functions for some as a label of proud self identification. The term starts and gains fractions from 1910-1915 with the publication of the multi-volume “The Fundamentals”

    1. Martin Marty is one of those men many fundamentalists wish had suffered the fate of Althusser’s wife!!!

  8. I was taught by my grandfather to be a fundamentalist, although what he taught me was much different than is seen now. In it’s original and historic context it was centered around five fundamentals of the Christian faith which were as follows:
    Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this
    Virgin birth of Jesus
    Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
    Bodily resurrection of Jesus
    Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
    So it would be safe to say that I am a historic fundamentalist, but certainly not a current one. (Sort of like i am a historic premillennial, but not at all dispensational). At one point, fundamentals and evangelicals were closely related. Where I differ even from the historic view point is that I happily associate with anyone so long as the goal is good. When taught properly, the five fundamentals are a decent guide, or at least were. As an example, the fundamentals, as founded by the Niagara conference I think it was, admitted that in order to understand what the bible was saying , you had to know the culture and history of the times. That way, when turns of a phrase popped up, you could examine them in proper context and go “Oh this is what that means”. It took the historic reality as miracles to mean if Jesus cast out demons, great. If Jesus healed a man with epilepsy great. The point was Jesus healed. Over the last century or so, those basic ideas have been hijacked unfortunately. Hope that helps.

  9. technically speaking from 1910-1915 The Fundamentals were published as a 12 vol. set. These volumes went on to found a moment. Curtis Lee Laws, used the term fundamentalist to refer to the burgeoning protestant, mostly reformed mostly baptist movement, fundamentalist then became the term used to describe people in the movement, most often its leaders.

    _Strong Religion_ defines fundamentalism as any: “discernible pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.”
    Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, _Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World_ (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003), 17.

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