On Fundamentalisms

The Christian movement we call “fundamentalism” began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely in reaction to the rise of modernity and liberal theology. Its adherents came from a variety of Christian traditions, including established mainline denominations and independent churches that we would today call “non-denominational.” Proponents of this diverse anti-modernist movement joined together in five key affirmations, which they called the “fundamentals”: 

  1. Biblical inspiration and inerrancy
  2. Christ’s virginal conception and birth
  3. A substitutionary theory of atonement
  4. Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead
  5. The historicity of biblical miracles

There have always been serious intellectual defenses of each of these affirmations, and of the five as a group. Each of the five fundamentals has received considerable scholarly attention, though of course none of them has gone uncontested. Mainline Christians often speak derisively of fundamentalist Christians as unsophisticated and irrational, but this caricature is neither helpful nor necessarily accurate. In fact, most mainline Christians would affirm at least some of the five fundamentals. 

All this is to say, there is a particular stream within Protestant Christianity that is properly called “fundamentalism.” It takes on more and less sophisticated forms, and it is characterized by affirmation of the “five fundamentals” as a group. Let’s called this “type 1 fundamentalism.”

Over time, the term “fundamentalism” took on a broader meaning in Western culture. It began to be associated with anti-intellectualism and religious fanaticism. No doubt the behavior of some fundamentalist Christians contributed to this perception, though unfavorable characterizations of Christian fundamentalists by their ideological opponents surely contributed as well. Today the term “fundamentalism” is used to describe groups from a variety of faith traditions. In the early 2000’s we often heard people speak of “Islamic fundamentalism.” Of course, Muslims would not affirm the “five fundamentals.” Rather, references to Islamic fundamentalism are meant to describe a form of Islam characterized by an unreasoned fanaticism.

Put differently, in popular culture, “fundamentalism” has come to refer to a kind of extreme, uncompromising, reactionary, and unreasoned position. Let’s call this “type 2 fundamentalism.” By this definition, there is no particular ideology or religious tradition that holds a monopoly on fundamentalism. While Christian fundamentalists of the first type are certainly not immune from demonstrating fundamentalism of the second type, there is no reason they should necessarily do so. 

As indicated above, it is also possible rampantly to display type 2 fundamentalism without any connection to type 1. For example, progressive protestors who react violently to conservative speakers on college campuses exemplify type 2 fundamentalism. There are voices, they hold, that simply should not be heard. There are arguments and perspectives they must silence. There are ideas that harm our cultures more gravely than the outright suppression of ideas. Fundamentalism of this type–and it is quite common today–is deeply anti-intellectual. Ironically, it has taken root in many institutions of higher learning.

Along with religious fundamentalists, then, there are also political fundamentalists. There are ideological fundamentalists. There are conservative and progressive fundamentalists. Type 2 fundamentalism is a pervasive element today in Western culture, and it is in no way restricted to people of faith. 

Holding a position strongly does not make one a fundamentalist. It is, rather, the absence of intellectual virtue that most marks one as a fundamentalist of the second type. It is a refusal to hear, a desire to win rather than to understand, a desire to impose rather than to persuade. 


Rejecting fundamentalism of the second type does not mean giving up on your core beliefs. It means developing genuine empathy for the ideas of others and cultivating a desire for deeper understanding. It is exceedingly unlikely, for example, that I am going to give up my affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of all creation. I suppose it could happen; better Christians than I have lost their faith. Nevertheless my beliefs about Jesus are so deeply woven into my life it is almost inconceivable to me that I would someday reject them. That said, even with these beliefs so firmly in place, if I am intellectually virtuous I can still be in conversation with people who believe differently than I do. In fact, I can learn from them, and even grow in my faith through these engagements. (Along these lines, check out my colleague Anthony Le Donne’s book, Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.)

Our current cultural modus operandi commonly involves attempts to silence voices we do not agree with through public shaming. If someone voices opinions we don’t like, we make them pay. They’ll think twice about saying such things next time. In many cases we simply do not engage ideas we disagree with at a deep level. Rather, we attempt to discredit those who hold such ideas. Type 2 fundamentalism is so woven into the fabric of Western culture today that we most often don’t see it. It is our “new normal,” and we can adopt its values without ever realizing we are doing so.

That way, however, lies intellectual death. Abandon hope, all ye who enter there.

I believe that the renewal of Christianity in Western culture will involve a renewal of the intellect. It will involve a rejection of the jingoism that so characterizes the world around us, and a love of neighbor that includes a willingness to listen. If the Christian life is characterized by love, shouldn’t this come to bear on our intellectual lives as well? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7). For Paul, love is not simply an emotion. It is the fruit of a transformed life. It affects not just how we feel, but how we think. 

Fundamentalism of the second type that I have described is not a properly Christian way of thinking. The God who assumed all that is human in order to save us from sin and death calls us to the same self-giving love and empathy as we bring that message of salvation to the world. We can do better. For the credibility of our witness, we must.

10 thoughts on “On Fundamentalisms

  1. Great article, David! So true. My devotional reading this morning focused on a pertinent passage: Paul offers helpful guidance in I Timothy 2:14-16,23-26. 14 Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 16 Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly………. 23 Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

  2. I attended Swarthmore College in the mid-70’s. Finding Christ in my Senior year, I began to take a second intellectual look at the Marxist/progressive lens through which many of the people there viewed the world. The academics were rigorous, but I discovered that many of the conclusions were based on a priori assumptions stemming from a particular world view. These assumptions were held as nearly and dearly as some of the tenets held by independent baptist churches, and anyone who dared question them was considered a heretic at worst and a rube at best. I began to suspect that there was such a thing as “liberal fundamentalism” which cuts off true dialogue and exploration as abruptly as some extreme forms of Christian sectarianism. I fear it is still at work in the United Methodist Church today. Thanks, David, for tackling the subject.

  3. I think I am accurate in saying that most if not all Christian entities believe in the tenets of the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, whether or not they pray them. It is those beliefs that identify us as that great “movement” called Christianity, as “One Universal Body of Christ.” Sadly we lose sight of the great words of Paul that you quoted from 1 Corinthians 13, which are what bring us together in relationship with the Trinity and with each other. Thank you David, for lending clarification.


    George Gorman
    UMC Pastor

  4. With you, I could unabashedly state: “Nevertheless my beliefs about Jesus are so deeply woven into my life it is almost inconceivable to me that I would someday reject them.”
    And I agree about the breadth of types 2. I’ve met some rigid self-described atheists and progressive Christians. If I thought more about it, I might come up with good reasoning to call myself an evangelical progressive-inclusive Christian. However, I would not come close to having the same assumptions about the 5 fundamental beliefs as the type 1s. And I don’t think I’m a type 2 fundamentalist progressive. Just as the GOP left Eisenhower Republicans like me behind in the Moral Majority years and since, the evangelical fundamentalists pushed this Billy Graham admirer out of the northern mainline Episcopal Methodism of my youth and childhood. I was always fine with the fundamentalists in their contextual churches. Let us continue to respect and nurture each other’s walk with Jesus. It’s when an evangelical spirit — which needs regular testing in my opinion — comes along and says so many of us are fundamentally wrong and must be purged, that’s the fundamentalism I am completely suspect of. Perhaps it’s type 3.

    • Thanks for these comments, Kevin. It wouldn’t surprise me if we could indeed identify other types of fundamentalism than the ones I’ve mentioned. I think we all need to guard our hearts and minds, even while we continue to profess those beliefs we hold strongly.

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