What is to be accomplished by fundamentalism? What is its purpose? Why does it propagate itself? First, it should be noted that I am not referring to what some baby-boomer Christian might mean by “fundamentalism” (i.e. something like “sticking to the basics of the faith”). I am referring to the term as used in current discussions of world affairs.
It is on the forefront of the world stage now. We see in it both religion and politics. In America these are combined in the radical religious right. In the Middle East they are combined in so-called “Islamic” terrorism.
What is fundamentalism? Jimmy Carter characterized fundamentalism beautifully1 as:
- “Almost invariably… led by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others…”
- “Fundamentalists draw clear distinction between themselves, as true believers, and others, convinced that they are right and anyone who contradicts them is ignorant and possibly evil.”
- “Fundamentalists tend to make their self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted, to isolate themselves, to demagogue emotional issues, and to view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolves differences as signs of weakness.”
The three words he chose to summarize these characteristics were: “rigidity, domination and exclusion”.
What is interesting is fundamentalism is like a virus. It cannot thrive on its own. Fundamentalism can only exist and be propagated through a host philosophy. There can be no fundamentalist Christians without Christianity already being there. This follows C.S. Lewis’s characterization of “Evil” in Mere Christianity2. Evil is a perversion of good. “Lying” cannot be defined without first knowing what “speaking truthfully” is. The nature of lying is a parasitic upon the nature of speaking truthfully. Fundamentalism is parasitic upon its underlying philosophy. It has no intrinsic value. Shouldn’t that vacuous nature of fundamentalism give us pause to take up its causes wherever we find them?
What is to be gained by fundamentalism, then? To be sure, an erroneous sense of certainty and, from that, a deceptive sense of fulfillment. If one is right then what remains to be explored? If one is right then what need is there to challenge one’s self?
We see it at play in American politics. Although on the rise for a long time, the past five years (2001-2006) have seen an unprecedented rise of fundamentalism. We see the traits of it as politicians, more and more, “toeing the party line”.
A republic is supposed to work as follows: a group of people to elect a person who represent their values and philosophies. The representatives from all walks of life come to together to enact policy to serve the greater good. This is a noble idea.
But fundamentalism creeps in and the idea that differing ideologies should collaborate to serve the greater good is lost. What remains, and what we see at play in politics now, is to focus on the difference in ideologies and to hold that one set is right and all others are wrong.
Do we not see the same thing in the increasingly sectarian behavior of the Christian church? What of Islam? We have seen what the benefit of fundamentalism is. But what are the costs?
Many things are sacrificed in order to bring about that sense of certainty and fulfillment that fundamentalism brings. We sacrifice wisdom – and we gain rhetoric. We sacrifice peace – and we gain conflict. We sacrifice the pursuit of truth – and we gain dogmatism. Truly, then, fundamentalism will construct elaborate prisons for our minds. For the sake of our friends, for the sake of our families, for the sake of the future; we must break free.
1 – Our Endangered Values, pp34-35, Simon & Schuster, 2005
2 – Mere Christianity, pp 43-44 (Book II, Chapter ), Harper Collins, 2001