Definition: What is a Fundamentalist?

The word “fundamentalist” is bandied about—most typically as an insult—across a broad range of contexts. There are:

  • Muslim fundamentalists
  • market fundamentalists
  • Hindu fundamentalists
  • Marxist fundamentalists
  • Christian fundamentalists

Of course, there are other “fundamentalists”—but you’ve probably never heard someone called a Buddhist fundamentalist, and this leads to a question:

Why does the moniker “fundamentalist” seem to work in some contexts, but not in others?

What is a fundamentalist, really?

Here’s my stab at defining “fundamentalist” (as the term tends to get used in contemporary culture):

A fundamentalist is someone who, with missionary, martyr, or terrorist zeal, is doctrinaire: she or he rigidly adheres to—and actively propagandizes to others—the fundamentals of this-or-that religion or ideology as it (supposedly) first appeared on the historical scene. The fundamentalist, however, gives little serious attention to subsequent intellectual developments surrounding that religion or ideology. In other words, he or she substantially discounts or rejects Modernism, and is alienated from contemporary intellectual culture. And there are ur-texts and historical moments that take on sacred status for the fundamentalist, and they are not to be seriously questioned or reinterpreted.

To put it more concisely, a fundamentalist is someone who sings some version of the following:

Give me that old-time religion!

Hence the connection between, say, a Muslim fundamentalist and a Christian fundamentalist. Both are:

  • rigidly devoted, in a doctrinaire fashion, to sacred texts;
  • missionary (or worse) in their zeal; and
  • battle, discount, or simply ignore the contemporary intellectual scene.

Thus we rarely—even never—hear someone called a fundamentalist Buddhist for the simple reason that so few Buddhists (at least in the West) are especially doctrinaire, obsessed with reading and following Buddhist texts literally, overtly missionary in their activities, or in intellectual flight from Modernism and secular university culture.

We also rarely hear the Pope—even Pope Benedict—called a fundamentalist because the Catholic Church, though missionary and Orthodox, seriously engages with Modernism. It does not, for example, reject biological evolution. Likewise, a professor such as Alvin Plantinga (who is a Reformed Calvinist) also generally dodges the fundamentalist label by his flexible and open intellectual engagement with the contemporary world.

Below is Johnny Cash nostalgically singing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” at a time when religious fanaticism seemed to be largely a thing of the past. Of course, in the 21st century fundamentalism has reasserted itself into history once again in a more serious fashion.

Too bad.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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