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Fundamentalism Around the World

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 28-September 4, 1985, pp. 769-771. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

One can, however, find fundamentalist-like movements in almost every period of the church’s history, and today the evangelistic zeal of American fundamentalism has taken the movement to every continent where some indigenous Christian groups have welcomed it.

Fundamentalism essentially applies to those who have split off from modern Christianity’s mainline developments; these dissenters hold to inerrancy of Scripture, see both the faith and the world caught in a militant struggle between the faithful and the secularizers (or compromisers), and understand history in terms of a dispensational premillennialism. These features differentiate fundamentalists from other evangelical and conservative thinkers who accent the "five smooth stones" by which the Goliath of secular humanism is to be slain: substitutionary atonement, Christ’s imminent return, the reality of eternal punishment, the necessity of personal assurance of salvation and the truth of the miracles.

Despite the peculiarities of modern American Christian fundamentalism, there are surely movements among the world’s other religions that have roughly comparable contours, and it may be useful to reflect briefly on these similarities and contrasts in a broad and hypothetical way. The following eight theses -- more like suggestive proposals than finished conclusions -- may provide possible loci to interpret our own distinctive experience with modern Christian fundamentalism.

1. Every religion is based on certain fundamentals; and fundamentalism arises when these fundamentals are imperiled, obscured or ignored. All religions contain, at their core, something like a "metaphysical/moral vision" about what is true, reliable and worthy of ultimate loyalty. In complex religions, a great number of doctrines, religious practices and symbols are thought to point to the transcendent vision. When this vision becomes blurred, neglected, threatened or subject to neglect, the fundamentals are not only reasserted, but reasserted in specific formulas or cultic forms that are often confused with the fundamentals themselves.

"Reassertion" is a decisive term here, for fundamentalism seems to rise when the authoritative bearers of a religious tradition are perceived as falling into intellectual drift -- when those responsible for cultivating and propagating the vision do not, cannot or will not defend the fundamentals that give the vision articulate form, or when they begin to advocate changing the definition of what is fundamental. This is one reason why movements that approximate fundamentalism often attack the established clergy first, and why they manifest both anti-intellectual and schismatic tendencies.

The term "anti-intellectual," however, must be used cautiously, for fundamentalism internally develops elaborately rationalized schemes to explain almost everything, and it often develops a striking commitment to a dogmatic lay intellectuality. Unable to develop an apologetic that meets the tests of adequacy from cosmopolitan scholars, it enforces its doctrine by exclusion, by intensifying internal discipline or by coercion. These tendencies are exemplified by early Christian heresies that doubted any possible relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, and developed an extensive legalistic theology against the "compromising" church.

2. Fundamentalism tends to arise in lower and lower-middle classes at times of class mobility. Here, nonfundamentalists must be cautious, for our hostility to fundamentalistic thought may be tinged with classism. Nevertheless, downward mobility appears to be the occasion for the rise of fundamentalism in a number of instances. One example would be the RSS -- militant Hindus in South India who beat up Christian outcastes who get "uppity" when they improve their material condition. They also have burned houses of Marxists or Muslims who gain in life and displace the ascendancy of these Hindus’ earlier social position. Some social historians identify similar developments in the militant Anabaptist movements of the late medieval and early Reformation periods.

More often, fundamentalism tends to arise when the nonprivileged classes experience upward mobility after being converted to a highly disciplined piety that has carried them through tragedy and pain. One thinks here not only of the Iglesia en Kristo in the Philippines -- which may be the fastest-growing sect in Asia -- but also of the Soka Gakkai in Japan and several indigenous Christian traditions in Africa.

Perhaps the best example, however, can be seen in the history of the Sikhs. This religious sect was founded by the prophet Nanak as a rather gentle spiritual and contemplative movement. But subsequently caught in the struggles between Hindus and Muslims, and threatened economically, politically and militarily as well as religiously, the Sikhs became decidedly militant. More recently, with the Punjab as the locus of one of the most successful areas of the "green revolution," the sect has experienced upward mobility accompanied by a new burst of militant fundamentalism. One cannot help but wonder whether the parallels with the South’s defeat in the American Civil War and the subsequent rise of the "Sun Belt" economy merit investigation.

Class mobility, however, occurs in many places and at many times without rendering a fundamentalism. Several other conditions besides mobility seem also to be required, like the presence of a charismatic leader who defines reality for those whose world is threatened by chaos. Furthermore, if the evidence from some branches of Orthodox Judaism and of Black Islam in America is taken into account, it may be that the simple clarities of fundamentalism give persecuted people whose lives are in disarray the clean-edged structures by which discipline and order can be imposed on chaos from within. This structure itself may lead to the upward mobility.

3. Fundamentalism tends to arise in prophetic religious traditions. Although they may begin in priestly, mystical or communal religious traditions, fundamentalist-like movements seem to be found more frequently in those religions that claim to have received through revelation or great discovery a grand message of new truth, which must be delivered and which turns all ordinary understandings on their head. Prophetic religion differs from other kinds of religion in that it is willing to condemn culture, society and even the people whom it attracts -- as well as those whom it rejects for failing to heed or embrace its message. In modern experience, the Mormon denomination, the Unification Church and Black Islam exemplify these characteristics.

If the movement survives early hostility and adjusts to the demands of social and economic life, however, fundamentalism will tend to become more priestly, mystical and communal. In the process, it often incorporates -- without criticism -- the values of the social environment, becoming, in fact, little more than the legitimizer of its social context.

Perhaps the best example of this tendency is Theravada Buddhism. Based on the early prophetic message of the Buddha, it enjoyed great and rapid expansion, condemning the priests, mysticism, cultural patterns and adherents of its predecessor, Hinduism. In time, however, Theravada Buddhism became more and more priestly, mystical, communal and conservative. Today, in many parts of Southeast Asia. this is the religion that supports and sustains firmly entrenched political power.

4. It is impossible to predict whether fundamentalism will be left-wing or right-wing. Because fundamentalism must draw its adherents from among those who are outside the religious mainstream, it tends to ally with populist extremes. But as some Anabaptists moved to the left and others to the right, and as Sikhism has plunged both ways, so Theravada Buddhism today tends to support a leftist government in Burma, a militant conservatism in Sri Lanka, and a traditionalist regime in Thailand. In fact, the categories of "left" and "right" simply may not help much in identifying the probable directions of fundamentalism. Rather, fundamentalism tends to oppose pluralism, preferring authoritarian social structures, whether of the right or the left.

Perhaps the best illustrations are found in Islam and that modern "secular religion," Marxism (particularly when it becomes a movement that follows a fixed doctrine or party line). Islam, like Marxism, has been allied with highly progressive movements as well as with decidedly reactionary regimes.

5. Fundamentalism ordinarily requires a text -- a scripture -- as the exclusive source and norm of its authority. In this, fundamentalism differs from religions that focus on a person or a cultic practice. Although not all Theravada Buddhists are fundamentalists, the role of the Pali Canon in that tradition makes the sect more prone to fundamentalism than, for example, Mahayana or Zen Buddhism.

Islam is more given to fundamentalism than other religions with Semitic roots. The Islamic doctrine of scripture -- that the very words of the Koran are ‘‘Un-created," literal dictations of the eternal thoughts of God and not subject to modification by translation or interpretation -- presses this tradition toward literalism. One might also mention that Mao Tse-tung’s "Little Red Book" played a similar role in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Many in these traditions hold that the scriptures do not point to the ultimate truth, but are themselves the ultimate truth.

6. An enduring fundamentalism is difficult to maintain in some religions. Although all the world’s great religions have seen something like fundamentalism come and go, some religions are so constituted that fundamentalism cannot claim to be the authentic representation of that tradition. Hence fundamentalist movements in these religions either fragment into tiny factions or modulate to join the mainstream.

7. In fundamentalism, a definite orthodoxy is linked to a specific orthopraxy, forming a manifest power structure that will, it is believed, confirm its truth to history (although not always within history). Key terms in fundamentalism include belief, obedience and enforcement. These are seen as decisive because either they are predetermined, or those who do not observe them will experience the damning consequences. Those who do believe, obey and enforce what is already predetermined become true agents of the ultimate power of history -- God, Allah, karma or dialectic -- and will lead in time to the visible realization of the ultimate truth. Those who do not believe, obey, enforce or submit themselves to enforcement will be destroyed in a great crisis, either apocalyptic or revolutionary.

A true fundamentalism has little actual appreciation for anything like a crucifixion, where all that is true and good is powerless and subject to destruction in history. Hence, all fundamentalisms tend toward a political religiosity or a political theology in the sense that they establish an identity between religious community and whatever political community has coercive authority.

All religions are, to be sure, social in character; if they do not incarnate in some specific social group and give guidance about living in community, they dissipate. Nonfundamentalists, on the other hand, make a distinction between the decisive religious community and political authority, even if there is a good bit of mutual influence.

8. There are only a few decisive ways to confront and combat fundamentalism.

These include:

• preserving the distinction between church and state, and between religious and political institutions;

• constantly clarifying the fundamentals of faith in a critical and dialogical apologetic;

• being sensitive to those persons or groups whose frameworks for living are threatened by social change or persecution. Humans require a sense of vision and security. If profound religious leaders do not provide these, they will be sought in simplistic answers;

• being willing to declare that fundamentalism is schismatic and heretical, and being able to show why this is the case when militants attempt to take over or subvert serious religious understandings and communities. Recent actions by the World Reformed Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation against the quasi-fundamentalist defenders of apartheid in South Africa are an example;

• loving one’s enemies. Treating the fundamentalists with charity and grace, while leading them to a larger, deeper and broader vision of that to which they are attached, attempting always to draw them into a wider ecumenical conversation.

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