Religious Fundamentalism Research Paper

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‘Fundamentalism’ is the name applied to characterize a variety of modern religious movements internationally, but its use is contested in some cases. The key feature in these movements is their reactive character. That is, they are not simply traditional, classic, conservative, or orthodox. Scholars and others usually speak of fundamentalism only in cases that find sets of religious people responding to certain kinds of challenges. The challenges may vary, but they tend to be variations on what the reactors or observers ordinarily would call ‘the modern,’ ‘modernity,’ ‘modernization,’ or ‘modernism.’

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1. The Term ‘Fundamentalism’

One of the most controversial features of the movements called fundamentalist is the term most widely used to designate them. There are two main reasons for some participants in the movements, people in statecraft, and scholars to have reservations about the use. First, the name is derived from a reactive movement in American Protestantism, and for some decades after the 1920s remained chiefly related to them. To some, the transfer of this term to other religious contexts looks like one more example of a Western linguistic imperialism that needs to be resisted. Others contend that features peculiar to a specific Protestant conflict differ in so many respects from those in other reactive movements that only confusion could result from the use of the term. The second reason why many are reluctant to accept the term as their self-description or for scholarly purposes has to do with the fact that it can be used pejoratively and stigmatically. In a way, this resistance is ironic, since in the American context and, by analogy, in other religions and cultures, those who formed and originally adhered to such militant movements originally wanted to be stigmatized, and still may want this, but on their own terms.

Thus, in an American controversy in the 1920s, partisans in denominational warfare regularly complained that while the majority of their fellow-believers claimed to be conservative, as conservatives these did not do battle for the divine cause. Since they were too and compromising, it was argued, a new term had to be coined and applied. This term would help provide boundaries around the movement and create distance between it and conventional conservatisms—or against anything else that implied a potential for compromise and comfortable assimilation. But because the strategy of setting boundaries and deliberately seeking to offend others went so far that it often ran counter to some of the positive purposes of the movements, many became discontented with the self-chosen name. Some sought moderating terms. In the American case, ‘neo-evangelicalism’ and then ‘evangelicalism’ served this purpose.

The term will not be found in dictionaries or encyclopedias, even encyclopedias of religion in America, before the time of a fundamentalist– modernist controversy in the US, one that came to a climax around 1925. When the word does make its way into reference books after that period, for example in German or French dictionaries, all the meanings of fundamentalism get reduced to something about a battle over the verbal inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Christian Bible—a reduction abhorrent to members and confusing to observers of Islamic, Jewish, or other religions’ factions.

Given these burdens associated with the term, there is good reason to ask about its continued usefulness and appropriateness. Several reasons are cited in defense, among them the following: first, the word is ‘there.’ So widespread is the use among reporters, scholars, and politicians that it is not likely to disappear because of discontent over its use by many. Better to clarify what is meant, it is said, than to invent new coordinating terms that will meet similar resistance in due course. The second reason has to do with the need for some such coordinating designations. To mention that need is, of course, to open the door to the many controversies over comparative methods. James (1902) typically made a defense of the practice of typifying and classifying. Without classifying, it is hard to understand many features of phenomena. At the same time James warned against the danger of losing the individual and particular character of the objects studied.

In the case of fundamentalism, the interest in coordination is almost entirely formal, not substantive. That is, one notices aspects of certain religious movements by studying characteristic features while being well aware that these movements all differ from each other in respect to content. Indeed, a Muslim fundamentalist will be ‘doctrinally’ more distant from a Protestant fundamentalist than modernists in both religions would be to each other. So there is no point in using the word ‘fundamentalist’ to characterize the central teachings of these religious expressions.

Even here, however, the line is a bit fuzzy. Thus, through comparison one can generalize that all the fundamentalisms, apparently paradoxically because they resist that which is modern, and though electronic media result from modern invention, are adept at using radio, television, film, and the Internet to hold their groups together, seek converts, and express themselves to outsiders. That observation grows out of formal comparison. But a second generalization, that all the fundamentalisms are not only patriarchal but that in their talk about God, they stress God’s maleness while moderate and modernist movements play down masculine references to deity does show that there can be certain kinds of substantive similarities.

A third reason for using the term, say its defenders, is that no clear alternative is apparent. Some reporters, trying to avoid the word, will use something like ‘militants,’ appropriate for one dimension of some of their life. But these words do not signal anything of cultural context: one can be militant about revenge, the search for territory, or any number of themes that have nothing to do with religious reaction.

Further defense of the term comes from those who say that all words travel, and globally people would make little sense of each other if they did not have terms that could be reappropriated in a variety of cultures. Thus words like ‘nationalism,’ ‘liberalism,’ ‘colonialism,’ ‘conservatism,’ ‘radicalism,’ ‘democracy,’ and ‘republicanism’ are born within Western contexts and are translated for usage elsewhere. The People’s Republic of China means something very different with the term ‘Republic’ than do those who speak of America as a republic. Yet there are reasons for people to use the term in both contexts—and then clarify what they mean and point to differences.

Attempts to replace the term usually are specific and cannot be used for coordinative or comparative purposes. Thus, one might speak of ‘radical Revolutionary nationalist Islamic reform,’ using other borrowed terms, and then find that they do not relate to phenomena in the Catholic or Hindu world. Mention of such instances suggests why many choose to use ‘fundamentalism’: it has acquired some rather specific meanings, meanings that deserve examination.

2. The Originating Instance In America As A Case Study

American Protestantism, having been divided into many denominations from the beginning, experienced some trans denominational conflicts in the nineteenth century. The first great breach occurred between the North and the South in the Civil War, when churches on each side inspired, monitored, provided morale for, and negatively defined the other side in religious terms. But all through the century another split was taking shape, thanks to latent tensions between theologically more liberal and more conservative parties.

These tensions increased with the arrival in the US after the middle of the nineteenth century of Darwinian evolution, the higher criticism of the Bible, and various forms of political progressivism. Many conservatives massively resisted theories of evolution, in part because these were seen as assaults on the Bible. They all rejected biblical criticism as a threat to the foundations of the faith. And progressivism did not do justice to apocalyptic messages in the Bible. Meanwhile, modernist parties began to develop toward the turn of the twentieth century. These were strongest at the prestigious theological schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Chicago—but rather dramatically not at Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, from which some intellectual impetus for fundamentalism was to come.

Between 1910 and 1915 the conservative parties issued an influential set of booklets called The Fundamentals. From then on the accent on fundamentals grew. In 1919 a World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was born. In 1920 during a battle for power in the Northern Baptist Convention a Baptist editor proudly chose and publicized the term ‘fundamentalist’ for his faction. The Presbyterians and to a lesser extent other mainstream Protestant denominations entered into the battle. The celebrated Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925, one that featured conflict over the teaching of evolution in public schools, was the best known event in the formation and publicizing of fundamentalism.

This is not the place to trace in detail the outcomes of the struggles. Fundamentalists lost the battles for control, but inventively went their way developing their own Bible colleges, seminaries, mission boards and, thanks to schisms, denominations. They were a presence but not a vivid one during this period. In 1941 some formed an American Council of Christian Churches, which engaged in rivalry with a more moderate National Association of Evangelicals born in 1942. Still then seen by nonfundamentalists as marginal, eccentric, and withdrawn, fundamentalists remained generally aloof from politics. However, during the 1970s most of them reversed their stance and began to adopt political interventionist stances. They have been a prominent presence ever since.

To detail this case study further might well bias the case of those who charge that global and interreligious use of the term fundamentalism is too reliant on the American experience. But one could study cognate movements elsewhere—typically the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—and find similar reasons for Islamic conservative groups there to move into reaction. A description of elements that make up what is called fundamentalism in any religion will be more profitable, however, than would extending the number of case studies.

3. A Phenomenological Approach To Fundamentalist Features

By phenomenological here is meant a pattern of observation in which the analysts ‘bracket’ their presuppositions—in this case, for example, assumptions about the positive or negative aspects of fundamentalism—and as if naively asks: what stands out in the phenomena that have been called fundamentalist? Another way to put it is: what phenomena developed in the twentieth century that occasioned the need for fresh naming—since words like conservative and traditional had been easily available? These questions enable one to escape the charge that a priori definitions color the observations. These are some of those features. First, while fundamentalisms originally were dismissed by others as ‘the old time religion’ and while some parade themselves as traditional, they differ in significant respects from conservatisms. In the eyes of doctrinal, political, and sometimes even armed militant partisans, conservatives may be too passive. They are too content to let the world go about its business not reckoning with them. If in any particular instance the cause being challenged is seen as divine—and we are here dealing only with religious fundamentalisms—for anyone to be content with tradition is a betrayal.

Fundamentalisms rise when historically conservative religious movements experience something that challenges them to their core. In Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East after the late 1970s, the challenger might be ‘the Great Satan’ of Western imperialism, specifically in its American form. In hyper-Orthodox Israel the threat to Jewish identity itself appears to parties such as Gush Emunim to come from nonobservant, compromising Jews who might even let some of the land of Israel slip away in diplomatic negotiations. In the US the challenge in the 1920s came in more doctrinal ways, through contests over biblical literalism. But in all these cases, the threat had to be seen as total; fundamentalists do not bother much about trivial issues.

Since the challenge was total, the response had to be drastic. Fundamentalisms characteristically are reactive. They rise among communities that have been acted upon, and they act back. Very often they use the very instruments that had presented the challenge. If a nation–state is the ominous force, they make efforts to win power, through the ballot if possible and through weaponry if necessary. (Let it be noted that not all fundamentalisms take on any form of military or terrorist guise. Some even shun the political arena if they feel that they can convert sufficient recruits from that worldly zone or win their way simply through cultural militancy, as with disputes over ‘values’ and media.) Again, fundamentalists tend to use some of the weapons that have brought change, whenever, for example, they take instruments of mass media, the agents that penetrated their homes and consciousness, and become sophisticated in using these to fight back.

Somehow, in every case, they react. Not to be reactive is to be not fundamentalist. George Marsden, the foremost historian of the American version, describes a fundamentalist as ‘an evangelical who got mad.’ In reaction, the fundamentalist seeks ammunition for defense and aggression. Here is where the fundamentals come in. Fundamentalists reach back to foundations, some in the Qur’an, some in Torah, some in the New Testament, still others in classic events of the past, and claim them for their own. In every case in their eyes there had to be some sort of golden moment or precious book to which arguing parties can resort in efforts to determine winners and losers.

Acting upon these fundamentals, members of the group then engage, as noted, in setting boundaries. They are often described as bearing a Manichaean cast. This means that the cosmos is divided into God versus anti-God, good vs. evil, our people vs. everyone else. They may not necessarily withdraw into enclaves, but they will tend to use code-words, slogans, informal testing devices that help them screen out the most dangerous persons and forces: the moderates. The total outsider, the infidel, the Great Satan is useful for mobilizing forces, but is not a threat the way a compromising modernizer is seen to be.

With the setting of boundaries comes the claim that participants are an elect people, God’s own instrument. They know something of where history is going; it has been revealed to them by sacred books in which they find the fundamentals. By the way, it is easier to be fundamentalist in ‘religions of the book’ such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, than it is in faiths such as Hindu and Buddhist, where no single divine scriptural revelation is foundational.

The elect people, called to represent God, must keep themselves pure, try to recruit others, and, to use the words from the American struggle in the 1920s, ‘do battle for the Lord.’

The battles may vary in character. Thus in most cases in the Islamic world, the enemy has not been the Great Satan of the US. In Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere, the foe is a regime seen as corrupt, secularizing, and compromising even though all its leaders are themselves practicing Muslims. In Israel, the parties called fundamentalist may engage in warfare against Arab Muslims, but they take most pains to define themselves over against compromising Jews.

Action may be hortatory, prophetic, political, military, or terrorist, though it is often only the latter two that draw the world’s attention.

4. Accounting For Fundamentalisms In Culture

No scholar claims that modern fundamentalisms have no counterparts or analogues in the past within the various religions. All of them have times and forces of traditionalist reaction and conservative aggression. It is valuable to study these analogues. But the word fundamentalism has more appropriately been reserved for responses to what has been seen as modern. One way to put it: these are reactive movements that appeared after the modern academy thought there would be no more like it, that the religions that survived would be small, weak, and always compromising.

Psychologists have on occasion assessed persons in the movements or the movements and generalized about their mentality. Participants tend to be people who cannot tolerate ambiguity, paradox, contradiction, or doctrinal and moral ‘fuzziness.’ Yet it is difficult to reduce fundamentalisms to this psychological cast, given the fact that people with such predilections in one culture turn religious fundamentalist and those in others do not.

Political and social scientists perceiving fundamentalisms in culture often relate the rise of such movements to class conflict. Marxist interpretations, for example, can see them as futile resistances by people who take resort in other-worldly solace when they can do little to gain in this world. It is true that in many instances it is the poor and apparently powerless that turn to fundamentalism. But it is also true that those who react may do so from the comfortable confines of Princeton Theological Seminary and Princeton University, as the intellectual definers of early American fundamentalism did. And one will find fundamentalists of wealth in many an American city and note that some of these extravagantly fund fundamentalist projects. Class analysis does contribute to understanding the phenomena, but most scholars again resist reductionism of a sort that fundamentalists are ‘nothing but’ this or that.

Instead, they give evidence that they are complex responses and reactions to many kinds of cultural stimuli and as such manifest features that are best appraised with a variety of perspectives and disciplines. Among these would be humanistic efforts to bring to bear history, philosophy, and religious studies. These are, after all, self-described religious movements, and seen to be such.

One way to approach the study is to listen as anthropologists do for ‘agent’s description.’ Someone who pays attention to, records, and coordinates the testimony of fundamentalists in many religious contexts will find that the issues that evoke response begin very close to the self of the believer. Diplomats, reporters, and scholars often begin at the furthest extensions of fundamentalisms, as when some engage in terrorism or Revolutionary military action.

Instead, whoever is alert to fundamentalist witness will be indeed close to the ego’s center. The believer begins by defending a world-view, including one that has been recently changed thanks to conversion. The world looks different to someone who is an initiate, ‘born again,’ in some versions, than it does to someone else who is distant from or quiet about religious impulses. Very close to that egocenter is the question of personal, social, and cultural identity? To whom do I belong? Whom can I trust? With whom can I check signals and from whom do I draw inspiration? Those who ask such questions in the erosive climate and culture of late-modernity find that identity becomes a major question. They also note that it is threatened by forces such as travel, modern mass communications, mass higher education, especially where the challenges of pluralism and relativism are fierce.

As close to the center of the person as are world view and identity is the issue of gender. Fundamentalists preoccupy themselves with what it means to be a man or a woman. The Manichaean differentiation is strong: there is no room for ambiguity in defining gender. The fundamentalisms, for example, all reject homosexual expression. From gender they move to defense of family. In all the cultures studied by fundamentalist scholars, ‘family values’ and shoring up the family, however defined, is central to the program.

From the orbits of gender and family one moves to other challenges. Thus, one’s mind and habits are shaped by mass communications, and fundamentalists tend to react by trying to screen out uncongenial images, to engage in boycotts, or attempt legally to censor and exclude broadcast or published materials that they believe to be evil or subversive of their values.

Education is another zone in which fundamentalists do battle. They start their own schools to protect and nurture their own young and often engage in efforts to subvert the character of others’, especially the public’s schools, when their teaching and habits are offensive. Similarly, many of them have challenged modern medical practices, and make the clinic their arena of conflict. They organize against abortion, euthanasia, and many forms of treatment that violate their view of the body as God’s temple.

In the sphere of economics it is harder to generalize. Some religious texts favored by fundamentalists— notably those detailing shari’ah, Islamic law—may be explicit was when they proscribe the taking of interest. But some fundamentalist movements promote communal, one might say communistic economic patterns, while others, notably in North America, often align themselves with laissez-faire economic forces. But when they perceive economic circumstances as a threat to them, they may adopt any number of strategies, and find their holy books less definining and definitive.

When it comes to efforts to change polities, for example, it is through the use of the instruments of political propaganda, the ballot, and constitutional revision, that fundamentalists find themselves reckoned with most strenuously. Where they cannot take over a regime, they may in God’s name undertake Revolutionary activity. It is activity of that sort that elicits headlines about fundamentalist militants around the world.


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