Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Problem with Fundamentalism

Having looked at the appeal of fundamentalism last month, this article takes a look at the other side of the issue. This is the fifth posting this year of an article based on my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, which I am updating and planning to re-publish by the end of the year.
The Problem of Arrogance
In a book written more than 40 years ago, Oxford University professor James Barr wrote that one main characteristic of fundamentalism is “an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all.”
For some Christians to be so sure that their beliefs are so certainly true that “Christians” who hold differing views are not Christians at all surely smacks of arrogance.
One of many manifestations of such arrogance is seen in the proclivity of some fundamentalists to insist on homeschooling their children.
The author of a chapter in the book The Fundamentals of Extremism (2003) charges that the textbooks used in some fundamentalist schools “promote sectarianism, religious intolerance, anti-intellectualism, disdain for critical thinking and science, and conservative political extremism.”
The result of that sort of arrogant activity has been called “intellectual abuse.” Indeed, it can be argued that all arrogant efforts of indoctrination are, or at least border on, intellectual abuse. 
The Problem of Intolerance
Intolerance has also long been regarded as one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism—although many fundamentalists have looked upon intolerance with favor and have assumed that designation as a mark of honor.
Of course, it can be effectively argued that there are some things that are intolerable and that it is dangerous for a society to tolerate everything rather than to take action against those things that are truly intolerable.
But, in fact, people disagree about what can and cannot be tolerated. For example, gay marriage and abortion are two clear examples and issues around which the culture wars have raged for decades now.
While there are not a lot of examples of Christian fundamentalism leading to violence, it has at times—and we may well see more examples of intolerance resulting in violence in the years ahead.
Back in 2005, Charles Colson wrote about “The New Civil War” (in the Feb. issue of Christianity Today). He wasn’t necessarily talking about a civil war that includes actual physical violence. Neither was Michael Brown when last week he posted “The Coming Civil War Over Abortion.”
I don’t refer to Brown’s article in my book, but it is written from the standpoint of conservative evangelicals (fundamentalists) and claims that if violence erupts over the abortion issue it will be caused by those on the left, those who a part of “the extreme pro-abortion movement.”
Brown’s last paragraph begins, “A civil war is certain. The only thing to be determined is how bloody it will be.”
The Problem of Obscurantism
Although not a widely used word today, obscurantism can be defined as opposition to the spread of knowledge. It is much the same as anti-intellectualism.
During the early years of Christian fundamentalism in this country, the president of The Science League of America wrote in The War on Modern Science (1927), “The forces of obscurantism in the United States are in open revolt!”
The resurgence of fundamentalism after 1980 also shows many of the same anti-intellectualism signs of early fundamentalism. Just one example is the change of the name and focus of “pastoral counseling” courses at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Since the Bible is considered sufficient, those courses are now called “biblical counseling.”
The specific problems of fundamentalism, analyzed in the following chapters of my book, all smack of arrogance, intolerance, and/or obscurantism.


  1. The first response received this morning, before 7 a.m., was from Thinking Friend Daniel O'Reagan in Louisiana. Here is part of what he wrote:

    "One of the first things that Dr. Ray Summers taught me at Southwestern Seminary was that we were not supposed to use theological label in referring to things theological. Fundamentalists and Fundamentalism are theological labels that I choose not to use. So your whole work violates my first principle in the study of things theological. . . . Fundamentalism is a pejorative that I choose not to use."

  2. Dan, thanks for reading and responding early this morning to the new blog article.

    As you know, Dr. Summers went from Southwestern to Southern Seminary, and I took a couple his courses there. He was a wise man and a good teacher--but I don't remember him talking about not using theological labels. (I don't know if he didn't talk about that when I studied Romans under him or whether I just don't remember it.)

    I fully agree that pejorative language should not be used. That is the reason why I say early in my book that I do not, and will not use, terms like "Fundies." But I have used the terms fundamentalism/fundamentalists in my book as descriptive terms and not with any intentional pejorative meaning.

    Let me remind you that the term(s) grew out of the publishing of the books titled "The Fundamentals" by people who firmly believed in those things considered fundamental to true Christianity. Fundamentalists were praised because of their holding firm to those fundamentals.

    As I also sought to make clear in the second chapter of my book, "fundamentalism" was again seen as something positive by those who were promoting its resurgence. In September 1982, Jerry Falwell founded "The Fundamentalist Journal" and in the inaugural issue he authored the article titled "Why I Am a Fundamentalist." In 1989 he again wrote in that journal that he was proud to be a fundamentalist.

    My point is, if a man founds a journal and calls it "The Fundamentalist Journal" and says he is proud to be a fundamentalist, he is using that term in a descriptive sense and not as a pejorative one.

    While I am critical of fundamentalism, I have sought, as I said, to similarly use the term to describe a particular expression of the Christian faith rather than to denigrate anyone by a label.

  3. Here are pertinent comments by Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Well said, Leroy! I think the more insidious issue today is that fundamentalism has become chiefly political. When you combine political views with arrogance you get the most destructive kind of intolerance."

    1. Thanks, Dr. Hinson -- and I fully agree with your comments.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Chris Sizemore sent this brief, and meaningful, comment:

    "I can guess how Wayne Oates and Dick Young would have responded to the 'renaming' of pastoral counseling."

    1. Yes, that change at Southern would have been like a slap in the fact to Dr. Oates, who was one of the wisest teachers I ever had. Fortunately (I guess I could say), he had already died by the time that change was made in 2005.

  5. So many personal stories from the opposite side which sound the same. A lack of grace. Intolerance because something is intolerable. Good groups of Christians who no longer affiliate because the other is intolerable – Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal/Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Mennonite, Methodist… Each is right in their own eyes, and have good proof texts to prove their points. Obviously the other is not behaving or believing “Christianly”. Anathema to Christ’s final command to Love One Another, and to be One Church in unity, even as God is One in Trinity.
    I look back at two “Christian” tribes from growing up years, the Wahutu and the Watutsi who had tribal animus dating back at least decades. In the ‘70s the Watutsi attempted a vicious genocide of the Wahutu. To this day, thousands of Wahutu live in refugee camps. 20 years later the Hutu Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated. The result was pent up revenge on the Watutsi. “Christian” on “Christian”. Rotarian on Rotarian… When the refugees were being resettled in the United States, one of the first things I heard from a Hutu to a fellow refugee was “We Mtutsi”, plus a few other select words which they did not realize I understood.
    I have also heard “scientific” statements made as “fact” but had no facts to back them up in college. When the Dean’s hand was called, he just made threats and statements of ignorance. A professor was fired for pointing out his lack of evidence. The Ham/Nye debate was a farce by both sides. About as clean as a debate on Saturday Night Live, or Science Friday (both of which employ ad hominin to make points). Ad Hominin is a favorite means of deriding evidence to this day – “He’s a Fundamentalist”, rather than questioning good scientific evidence.
    I have been called out as a non-Christian by Christian fundamentalists (they would claim that term), and by Christian Identity. I have also heard much the same by the Christian “moderate/progressives”, and several others. Plus being threatened by rogue groups like the ACLU and BLM, and a couple of cops. You can keep all of them. I’m sure Christ weeps. There is no Love. There is no Unity. Open hatred and intolerance both ways. I attended one of Jimmy Carter’s “Gatherings”. I walked out after 45 minutes of them spewing their intolerance in the name of Jesus. Harmony? Baloney. It was self-righteous arrogance.
    I will affiliate with people of goodwill who attend or belong to those organizations, but I certainly would never join them. Christians can talk a good line, but the lives don’t show it. The Church has lost its foundational apologetic as stated by Tertullian, “See how these Christians love one another.” Only the Spirit of God and those of goodwill offer love. This makes it hard to find a good congregation of any Brand/Denomination – See how they hate one another, and refuse to reconcile. I’m afraid the “Moderates” and “Fundamentalists” are both intolerant, arrogant, self-righteous, and maybe even “anti-Christ” at heart. Gone are the days of John Wesley’s words “If thy heart be as my heart, give me they hand.” It’s now “Repent and be _______ (like me)”. Other religions are much the same in their divisions.
    So maybe the real question is “What does the term “Christian” mean”. And yet, I do see some light coming from those of variance who face persecution and martyrdom together in other parts of the world. Maybe when those come to our land (maybe it’s already started) we will again find unity, in addition to war.

  6. Capitalism is a religion, and market fundamentalism is its primary cult. Fundamentalism can arise in any world view when experience is denigrated and abstract reasoning is elevated over it. Victor Hugo explored this phenomenon in his "Les Miserables" where the policeman Javert is guided by the logic of the stars, but finally falls, while Jean Valjean goes to jail for stealing bread to feed a starving child, yet follows his heart and experiences and finally finds peace. We need to be guided by both love and stars, but, if push comes to shove, love outshines stars.

  7. Earlier this morning I received the following important comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your thoughts and the copy of chapter four of your book, which I have found to be very interesting.

    "In dealing with fundamentalists, I try not to be arrogant myself even though I deeply disagree with their views on a number of topics. I do not view them as misguided fanatics, although some of them seem to be so; many of them, however, are very fine people with some valid concerns. I know you agree.

    "As for displays of the Ten Commandments (in reference to chapter four of your book), every society has laws that parallel those in the Ten Commandments; there is nothing particularly unique about most of those laws, so I see no point in posting displays of the Ten Commandments, as opposed to something similar from a different culture. If fundamentalist Christians want to post something unique, why not the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 or the 13th chapter of First Corinthians?

    "The Supreme Court could have ruled either that no displays of a religious nature should be allowed, or that all displays should be allowed. If all displays are allowed, then court house lawns could be filled with displays of the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the Beatitudes, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Humanist Manifesto, etc. It seems that allowing no displays would be the simpler, less complicated approach."