Intellectual laziness thrives on ambiguous words. And “fundamentalism” may quite possibly be the plushest linguistic hammock on offer right now. Media outlets are notorious for trading on the word’s elastic and emotive qualities. This pattern holds even when the Boston Globe trots out a religious scholar of Harvey Cox’s stature to tell its readers “Why Fundamentalism Will Fail.”
Cox starts out arguing precisely enough, noting several of the “fundamental” tenets from which fundamentalism received its name. He deems the crown jewel of these to be the literal inerrancy of scripture, even in “matters of geology, paleontology and secular history.” Fair enough.
Fundamentalism, however, quickly overgrows this rather precise definition, becoming instead a shapeless placeholder in the culture wars. Cox reads the vital signs of world-fundamentalism by noting rather disparate trends—e.g., the implosion of Al Qaeda, the prospering adepts of Sufi love-mysticism, the decreasing influence of the religious right, the practice of yoga among Catholics, etc.
But the limitations of this two-tiered notion of fundamentalism become apparent as soon as Cox descends into particulars. When tracing fundamentalism into Muslim precincts, for instance, Cox cites popular opposition to certain 19th century scholars of the Koran. The Muslim masses were “fundamentalist” because they opposed scholars who “sought to rethink their faith in light of science and democracy.” Intriguingly, Cox opines that Muslims may have succumbed to fundamentalism because they were “attracted to the promise of more equal society based on the Koran.”
Popular uprisings against the professorial establishment? Grass roots organization in favor of a “more equal society”? Theological fundamentalism begins to sound like the very opposite of cultural fundamentalism.
Another example: Cox instances the near-bankruptcy of Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue as a sign of the decline in stateside fundamentalism. Cox, to his credit, describes it rather neutrally as an organization that “stages demonstrations at abortion clinics.” Leaving aside the personal views of Randall Terry, however, one is left to conclude that Cox considers pro-life demonstrators “fundies” simpliciter.
From another perspective, of course, one might just as easily cite Operation Rescue’s failure as a moment in the rise of fundamentalism. Since the Bible—literally understood—is rather silent on contemporary abortion procedures, one might argue that the collapse of such activism constitutes a retreat from “rethinking the faith in light of science.” Moreover, at least in some circles, staging demonstrations is considered downright democratic.
But I digress. One statistical anomaly that Cox must account for is the continued growth of Pentecostal/Charismatic groups, who—at 600 million strong—represent nearly one quarter of world Christianity. However—after broadening the term fundamentalist to encompass “unscientific”, “undemocratic”, and “pro-life”—Cox then narrows the definition back to its original sense. Pentecostals, it turns out, aren’t real fundamentalists. On the contrary, they embrace a “wider social agenda and teach the spiritual authority—not the literal inerrancy—of the Bible.” A good theological distinction. But could worldwide Pentecostalism really be considered the Globe’s ally in the culture wars?
At several junctures, it seems,our article gerrymanders the meaning of “fundamentalism” until it supports the desired demographic projection.
Alvin Plantinga, an analytic philosopher in the Reformed tradition, has captured the self-serving nature of the fundamentalist label with both acerbity and humor (pardon the colorful language):
We must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ’son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) … The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
According to standard Anglo-analytic philosophy, other examples of “indexicals” would be words like “I” and “now,” words whose referent is entirely context dependent. They are little more than “pointers.” The problem is that “fundamentalism,” as a contemptuous pointer, allows one to invoke the other facelessly. Religions lose their distinctive identities. Unpopular doctrines are denied a fair trial. Rigorous thought dies untimely.
In short, there is a subtle tendency toward violence in the present use of “fundamentalist.” Perhaps we would do well to shelve the word until it can serve to clarify rather than obscure.