Gerrymandering Fundamentalism


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.

2 Responses to Gerrymandering Fundamentalism

  1. brettsalkeld says:

    Very good.
    When I teach religion courses to adults I often see the tendency to dismiss Church teaching because it seems to contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on issues of equality, or some other such cultural reference. People feel no real need to engage the Church’s actual arguments, because the presumption against them is so strong that it is presumed only a stupid person could support them. And there’s no use arguing with one of those sumbitches who blindly accepts Church teaching. Better to rail against them (to those who presumably agree with you) than to engage them. They’ll die out soon enough.

  2. Virgilijus Kaulius says:

    Excellent essay with significant import for
    reading the signs of the times, which are,
    sad to say, too heavily skewed by this rather
    contemporary phenomenon of “Fundamentalism”
    as another “ism” to cope with in the global
    village of over-information in our knowledge
    exploded Age!
    Regent College only a few years ago, had a
    symposium on Fundamentalism, and isolated a
    few types thereof flooding the arena of
    contemporary thought. Cox seems to be too
    narrow in his own grasp of the breadth of
    both the application and the problems raised
    by this term?

    Your ending is very wise, and calls for
    alternatives, which for me, reside in epistemology, an under represented academic tool in our times
    to counter sloppy thinking skills, if “thinking”
    can even be aptly applied….
    Because Jungian Psychology in the MBTI
    points out that most people, in fact,
    do not know how to actually “think” properly,
    from academics on down to the trenches of life!

    Maybe the Jesuits could add this as another
    feather to their Missioning cap:
    help bring back awareness plus application,
    of epistemology in the naked public square,
    and therein plus thereby, help
    raise public awareness for how to “think”
    properly. Or even at all? (!) Peace!

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