Lesson 8: Fundamentalism

It is well worth reading John and Bob’s online comments as well as Campbell and Putnam’s research.   My son and I came up with the same expectations several years ago when researching how Fundamentalism is a natural danger in a technological society. Too many people in our time think Fundamentalism is about reading the Bible “literally”. If you read the Bible “literally”, you would find many traditions, even four interpretations of Jesus’ gospel. Fundamentalism is insisting that the tradition you like is the only correct one and then trying to impose it on everyone else. Another mistake is seeing this as a religious movement. It does appear in every world religion right now, but also in other area as well, as Anderson’s characteristics in the paper show. We have come to discuss like computers, not being able to go beyond “yes” or “no”, “I like” or “I don’t like”.

I posted the following paper many years ago when the kids wanted to talk about Fundamentalism. It is especially interesting in light of current efforts to run candidates who will “restore Christian values”. This certainly does not keep proper boundaries as John encourages us to do. The youth were responding to kids from fundamentalist churches who claimed they were going to hell, because they did not read the Bible correctly. Again you can read about their discussion in the first comment.


The Fundamentalist movements that have appeared in every world religion in the recent past are dangerous, because they claim to break down the mystery of faith into laws and requirements.

American fundamentalism is far more than claiming that the Bible is free from error. It actually goes back to a 12 volume work commissioned by wealthy oilmen Lyman and Milton Stewart and sent to every religious leader in the USA in 1909. This work listed the essentials or fundamentals of Christianity to be 1) the inerrancy of scripture, 2) the deity of Christ which is defined as virgin birth, 3) the substitution atonement of his death for our sins, meaning God’s law demanded someone had to be punished for the sins of humanity, 4) his literal bodily resurrection from the dead, which eventually was defined as believing in Jesus literal return in the second coming, and 5) the objective reality of all the biblical miracles.

The most famous confrontation of the movement and the modern world was the Scopes Trial on 1925 when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant went at it. Somewhat embarrassed by the public reaction, the movement began to concentrate on revivalism and personal conversions. It returned to public view when Jerry Falwell held “I Love America” rallies in the 1970s. In 1979 his Old Time Gospel Hour started the Moral Majority that tried to elect a Christian government. They began with a very organized take-over of California school boards and eventually ran Pat Robertson for president.

Karen Armstrong in Battle for God lists these characteristics of the fundamentalist movements appearing in all world religions:

1) A radical individualism in which people are expected to relate one on one with God with no need for religious community or sacraments. In Christianity this is often defined as making a personal decision for Christ.

2) Basing all on accepting essential doctrine rather than living in an appropriate relationship with the divine.  Belief becomes an intellectual decision rather than a trusting attitude. True believers must accept specific doctrines.

3) A Holy Land is always involved. It is Saudi Arabia for Bin Laden, Israel for Jews and some Christians, America as the Kingdom of God for right wing Christians. The last speak of God placing a protective curtain over the USA which will be raised if we do not live by his laws.

4) All are anti-woman, insisting that woman must be subservient to men. We see this in the Taliban, Orthodox Judaism, fundamentalist Christian churches.

5) Each speaks of holy wars often calling political wars crusades. Islam fundamentalists call for Jihad which can involve suicide bombings and terrorism. Some Christians rationalize the killing of abortion doctors, because it saves innocent babies.

6) The establishment of a religious government is a goal. Separation of church and state is rejected.

7) They depend on charismatic leaders rather than democratic processes. This occurs in everything from Christian mega-churches to Islamic governments. The idea is that God speaks directly to certain chosen people.

8) The movement fails to appreciate religious language. The sacred texts are used as scientific and economic textbooks. Islam religious law is applied to political government, Genesis 1 and 2 become an explanation of how the world was literally created.

9) A drive for purity leads to expelling “nonbelievers” from official positions. They often plot to take over denominations, seminaries, mosques, temples, etc.

Many believe Fundamentalism is a reaction to the uncertainty in the modern world. Rather than regarding faith as trust in God that enables us to live wisely in an uncertain world, they insist God tells us exactly what to do if we read the Bible correctly, the way they do.

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  1. Pastor Fritz Foltz says:

    During the first of many discussions about reading the Bible, the young people
    struggled with why others would attack them for their beliefs. They were hurt, even though they regarded their attackers as fanatics. At the same time, they also wondered a bit if these people might have a stronger faith, saying things such as these people take their religion too seriously. I remember suggesting it is more a matter of being mistaken about their religion.

    This was one of the times when the characteristics of our group was appreciated. We could point to the value of expressing your beliefs honestly, comparing them with others, and working together to come up even better ideas. Next week I’ll present the discussion we had about how to read difficult biblical passages. They also keep bringing up the political dimensions of contemporary fundamentalism in subsequent reading groups.

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