Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Appeal of Fundamentalism

Since fundamentalism has been so widespread and influential in the past decades, its popularity must surely be because there are many people who find it appealing. This article, based on the third chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (FuF, which I am in the process of updating) analyzes some of that appeal.
The Religious Appeal
Since Christian fundamentalism claims to uphold, to preserve, and/or to restore the true faith, many believers who are serious about their faith are naturally drawn to the type of Christianity that makes such claims.
Especially for non-creedal Protestant Christians, the Bible is the basis for all faith and action. Thus, any questioning of the veracity of the Bible is seen by many such Christians as a potentially dangerous attack on the faith.
The fundamentalist emphasis on an inerrant Bible, consequently, has great appeal for all who wish to protect Christianity from attacks.
Fundamentalism, which is sometimes little more than traditionalism, is also appealing to many because of its emphasis on a glorious past. Such Christians have been happy to sing “Give Me that Old Time Religion” and have seen fundamentalism as the effort to protect that hallowed tradition from the eroding effects of “modernism.” 
Further, fundamentalism’s affirmation of a type of faith that doesn’t compromise is appealing to some, for compromise is seen as a weakness--and a factor that weakens robust Christianity.
The Psychological Appeal
In addition to the religious appeal, there is also a psychological appeal in fundamentalism--such as is seen in its emphasis on simplicity and certainty.
Others find fundamentalism psychologically appealing because of the pride factor and/or the fear factor.
One of the bestselling novels of 2004 was Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. It was not about religion, but one of the characters in the book declares, “I'm telling you, this is the way modern society works--by the constant creation of fear” (p. 456).
That has been how fundamentalism works also. The fostering of fear has been strong in fundamentalism from its beginning to the present--and the claim of fundamentalist preachers that their message overcomes those fears has been psychologically appealing to many people.
The Political Appeal
From the beginning of Christian fundamentalism a century ago, there has been a strong strain of American patriotism--or even nationalism--in it. Many conservative evangelical leaders have claimed that the United States was a Christian nation from the beginning and that it is up to Christians to see that it stays that way.
While FuF considers fundamentalism mainly up to the year 2005, we have seen even more in the years since then how conservative evangelicals have aligned with the Republican Party.
The inexplicably overwhelming support of DJT by conservative evangelicals show how fundamentalism and politics have become strongly intertwined. The MAGA emphasis of DJT is one of several political appeals to Christian conservatives.
It is quite likely that, on the other hand, conservative Protestant churches are the most appealing form of Christianity to the MAGA enthusiasts who are not Christians.
My March 5 blog article was about Project Blitz, and those political efforts of conservative evangelicals are appealing to those who want to make America great again by restoring it to the type of society it was in the 18th century.
In spite of these various appeals of fundamentalism, though, there are plenty of problems in it that repel many people. Next month I plan to post an article based on “The Problem with Fundamentalism,” the fourth chapter of FuF.


  1. There have been few comments so far about this morning's article, but the first one received, from local Thinking Friend Debra Sapp-Yarwood, is a substantial one:

    "Thanks, Leroy. Interesting summary. I'm in paper-writing mode for my class and otherwise underwater now, so I don't have time to read your full chapter. You may deal with this idea in the section on Psychology, but I have noticed something about [a certain person], a fundamentalist. This is how she summarized it: 'When I became a believer, I could read the Bible and know what God wants.'

    She was referring to a mystical (I would venture hormonally-charged?) experience that happened when she adopted the idea that she was 'saved' eternally and others (like me) lived in darkness and ignorance. This 'mystical' transformative experience fostered a deep sense of comfort and confidence that she was correct about everything. By God's grace, God's thoughts had now become her thoughts. (And I would argue it was vice versa, of course.) God hates abortionists, instruments of the devil, just as she does. God loves and prays for Democrats to see the error of their ways and repent. God wants LGBTQ people to turn to Him for help in addressing their own sins against nature, and not to burden others with having to 'tolerate' what she and God feels are unsavory practices. You get the idea."

  2. Here are brief comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky"

    "I think it appeals to a certain personality-type, Leroy, people who demand certainty. That appeal gets promoted by a lot of evangelistic churches that prey on the fear of uncertainty. And we have plenty of uncertainty to appeal to!"

    1. Yes, and when I read Debra's comments about "a certain person," it seemed that that person's desire for (or need of) certainty was a major factor in her fundamentalist stance.

  3. Let me begin with a confession, I was born across the river, one of the Saints in Zion. It's true, I grew up reading "the true Latter Day Saints Herald" and otherwise trying to make sense of living in Independence, Missouri. Just after I turned twelve, the age Jesus was when he asked questions that confounded the elders in the temple, I asked the question that confounded myself, "How do I know that God exists?" Like a bolt of lightning crossing the nighttime sky, the answer exploded in my mind, I did not know. Then, even more unexpected, came the crack of thunder, no one else believed either. We were all playing some kind of game. (OK, "game" was my metaphor, I went on to be first board on my high school chess team. Others have called it other things.) I became a spy in Zion. What were we doing? It seemed very important, yet it was not what it seemed. Well, I still think that.

    Years later I read "The Mind of the Bible Believer" by Edmund Cohen (Prometheus Books). He was a psychologist who wrote both professionally and confessionally in the book. On the professional level, he made one brief point that struck home with me. While describing a counseling session with a woman who had lost her faith, he commented that in her confession she had this feeling that no one really believed, which he described as common. I was not alone! On the confessional level, he described being sucked into a fundamentalist church by the amazing kindness he saw in the group, something that made no sense in his psychological training. Then, just before he was to officially become a member of that church he was awakened in the middle of the night by a dream. A voice from a Kafka novel cried out "And now I close the door!" He awoke in a frenzy, horrified at what he was about to do. He had nearly snuffed out the voice of truth deep in his soul. He had come that close to becoming a fundamentalist.

    I have seen increasing references to an old quote from Voltaire, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Fundamentalism is not something that just happens. It is carefully cultivated by leaders, some of whom are true believers, as Edmund Cohen almost became, and others are seeking power any way they can, even by deceit and pandering. That is why Voltaire's quote has become increasingly popular in the age of Trump. Absurdities and atrocities are his tools of trade. Why else are babies ripped from the arms of asylum-seeking mothers? Why is aid withheld from desperate communities from Puerto Rico to Guatemala? Martin Luther knew the answer, "A mighty Fortress is our God,/A Bulwark never failing;/Our Helper He amid the flood/Of mortal ills prevailing:/For still our ancient foe/Doth seek to work us woe;/His craft and power are great,/And, armed with cruel hate,/On earth is not his equal." If the world lasts long enough, someday people will marvel that so many "faithful" were lead astray by the Orange Anti-Christ.

  4. Leroy:
    I think people long for the security that certitude brings. The faithful are often guilty of mental and spiritual laziness that avoids critical thinking and struggle. Luther is a good example of a believer who nearly tore himself apart with struggle until he found the crown jewel of faith. My biggest problem with fundamentalism is not belief but the kind of nasty disposition and certitude that characterizes so many of their kind.

    Thanks again, Leroy.

    Truett Baker

  5. I am late posting these comments from local Thinking Friend Charlie Broomfield, who for years has researched and written in opposition to Christian fundamentalism and the Religious Right in the U.S.

    "Great blog, Leroy. Wish you (we) had more time to go even deeper into this subject.

    "One of the aspects of the subject that has always baffled me is easily fundamentalist disregard the simple teaching of this fellow they call Jesus.

    "Seems to me that I recall that in my old Harlem Baptist church days, 'Brother' Daering occasionally referenced Jesus' words...something about 'Seek ye the truth, the truth shall make you free.'

    "In seeking that 'truth,' more often than not, I find that there is more truth on the other side of what fundamentalist believe, for example, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' feed the hungry; take care of the children, etc.

    "Anyway, thanks for the blog."