The word “Fundamentalist” has become the new “F-word” in many parts of American Society. Nobody wants to be called a “fundamentalist” because that is to associate yourself with crazy people like Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones or Islamic Terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Over the last 100 years the word “fundamentalist” has gone through four major transformations culminating, sadly, in its use today as a pejorative used to write off anyone who holds to any form of religious creed as a danger to a healthy society.
Originally the term “Fundamentalist” was used as a title by both Reformed and Lutheran theologians of various stripes. The word meant one who returns to the basic doctrines of Christianity in light of what was scene as liberal encroachments into American Protestantism, after the First World War. These theologians wrote a series of essays that were collected into a twelve volume work that was given out for free to ministers, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers. They dealt with a variety of topics that mostly seem to fall under one of the five following categories: 1) the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture 2) the deity of Christ 3) His virgin birth and miracles 4) his penal death for our sins and 5) His physical resurrection and personal return.
The first “Fundamentalist,” with a robust theology as their tool, sought to take back the mainline churches that had succumbed to theological liberalism. However, like most renewal movements in mainline American Christianity, this was unsuccessful. As a result the second generation of “Fundamentalist” became more and more isolationist, grew distrustful of scholarship, and became anti-intellectual. Sadly this second generation, by World War II, ventured into the realm of natural science, where they were the least competent, bringing both ridicule and discredit upon themselves. As a result of this second generation the definition of the word “Fundamentalist” shifted from one who emphasizes the basics doctrines of Christianity, to one who claims to have discovered the truth and is unwilling to compromise in light of conflicting evidence.
This second definition became the working definition of a “Fundamentalist” until 1979, when the media used the term to describe Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. Interestingly, the word “Fundamentalist” was used for an Islamic political and ideological take over of a nation by the media, as opposed to the traditional word “Islamist” or “Islamism.” Also, 1979 was the same year Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which became one of the largest political lobby groups for American Evangelical Christians in the United States, and was credited with helping Ronald Regan win the presidency in 1980.
One could assert that both the Ayatollah and Falwell helped shape the third definition of the word “Fundamentalist”. Prior to the Iranian Revolution many traditionally Muslim nations were becoming increasingly secular and Jimmy Carter had presented to the world a kinder and gentler Baptist (some would say almost Episcopalian). As a result, when contrasted with the Ayatollah and Falwell, a “Fundamentalist” became defined as one – possibly even dangerous – whose desire is to force everyone to live according to their religious values, and uses politics as a means to that end. However, while many in the media disliked Jerry Falwell, most saw the huge differences between the Moral Majority and the Iranian Revolution.
The fourth and final shift occurred after the devastating September 11th attack on New York City. The media associated and used the word “Fundamentalist” to describe organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the word became defined as one who uses violence to propagate their views upon a society. However, the media never made the distinction or has never defined the dissimilarities between an Islamic and a Christian “Fundamentalist.” The word most of the time is used interchangeably and has therefore become used a strong pejorative to reduce everyone who holds to a creed or a confession to the lowest common denominator, i.e. they are crazy.
Of course, there are crazies in both Christianity and Islam, so in light of those crazies, it might be interesting to take the “F-word” up again theologically – as an experiment if nothing else. If we take the first definition of “Fundamentalist” into consideration then only Bible-believing Christians can be Fundamentalists, and there needs to be made a clear distinction between not only Christian Fundamentalists and Islamists, but Christian Fundamentalists and those involved with the Christian Right. This distinction, between a Christian Fundamentalist and those involved in the Christian Right, would involve acknowledging the differences in their understanding of the role of the government and the role of America in God’s plan of salvific history. It is in this understanding of the role of government that one might assert that the Christian Right and Islamists are far more similar, which has helped facilitate a media backlash at people of both creeds (The documentary Jesus Camp comes to mind).
A true Fundamentalist (in the original sense), unlike many in the Christian Right, believes that God has given the authority to the state as its vocation to rule justly and protect its people, but it does not have to be a distinctly Christian government. A true Fundamentalist would be a strong supporter of the separation between church and state. They also would read the national covenants historically made between God and Israel in the Old Testament as history, and would not confuse those national covenants with American history, as the promises made to Abraham were met in Christ for the sake of the whole world. Unlike so many on the Christian Right, a true Fundamentalist would not believe that the Lord God of Israel dwells on the other side of the Potomac and is just waiting for America to make the right decision at the polls so He can finally work in this country.
A Fundamentalist, as defined by the first definition, could be an essential ingredient to a healthy and liberal society because many of the freedoms that define that type of society derive themselves from Fundamental Christian ideas. The claim that we are not our own, but have been saved from the tyranny of ourselves and others, so that we might live in charity with our neighbor is not a human or Islamic invention. Rather it is an idea that is revealed in the Bible and has been embraced as the Fundamentals of Protestant, refomational, Christianity.