Fundamentalism in the World

by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

This is the second part of a two-part article. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 29, 1992, pp. 456-458. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


In his review of Fundamentalism Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Wuthnow describes the commonalities and distinctions among various religious fundamental movements in the world and corrects numerous myths and misunderstandings about fundamentalism with scholarly research.

BOOK REVIEW: Fundamentalisms Observed, ed. by Martin E. Martyand R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 872 pp., $40.00.

In addition to enhancing our understanding of fundamentalism in the U.S., Fundamentalisms Observed, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 872 pp., $40.00), demonstrates the extent to which fundamentalism is a worldwide phenomenon. The editors guide us on a tour that quickly departs from North American turf and winds through Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East. The journey introduces us to fundamentalists in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Some of the groups portrayed here are quite small, attracting only a few hard-core extremists; others include millions of devotees.

Fundamentalism appears to be advancing steadily in virtually every corner of the world. Sections of Latin America have been radically transformed by the growth of Protestant groups in recent decades. South Korea and Taiwan have become centers of neotraditionalist Confucianism. Expanding rapidly in Japan are the so-called new religions, several of which are essentially Buddhist counterparts to Protestant fundamentalism. And the spread of fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world is well known.

The authors of this volume are quick to point out that "fundamentalism" is not necessarily the best label for these movements. But they also perceive certain family resemblances. What are the common dimensions of global fundamentalism? Why is this happening now?

Readers will have to wait for subsequent volumes in the series for answers. The present volume, however, provides more than ample grist for speculation. The editors correctly chose to present as much descriptive material as possible before turning to interpretation. This volume aims primarily to describe the worldviews of particular fundamentalist groups. Fortunately, the authors generally describe patterns of religious practice as well as ideas. Many of the individual chapters are also written with an awareness that readers may have less interest in, say, the Jamaat-i-Islami conference in Pakistan than in broader comparative questions. The editors provide a framework to help us think about the common characteristics of global fundamentalism, and offer some tentative conclusions. In the paragraphs that follow I will note the most important of these conclusions.

Fundamentalism is largely a phenomenon of the 20th century. In many parts of the world it has been deeply conditioned by the breakup of colonial empires and the founding of new, independent nations. Although many fundamentalists argue that they are the descendants and preservers of longstanding traditions, we should not regard them as contemporary manifestations of something left over from the distant past. The distinctive feature of fundamentalism is its dialogue with modern culture. The questions it asks and the issues it emphasizes could not arise in a culture that was not exposed to the modern world.

Fundamentalisms are enormously diverse. Though many of them oppose modern culture, they do not oppose it in the same way or oppose the same aspects. For example, the casual observer might, when reading about fundamentalist movements in Lebanon, Syria and Algeria, conclude that all fundamentalists condone violence in the pursuit of their cause. Yet comparable movements in India, or even less prominent ones in Israel (such as the haredi society) or in Pakistan, value moderation and strict adherence to civil law.

Despite this diversity, fundamentalist movements are similar in the fact that they define themselves in opposition to modernity. They worry about the growing secularity of their host societies, fear that the rejection of God or some comparable conception of the divine is unleashing negative effects on the world, and argue that a concerted effort must be made to retain and revitalize commitment to sacred truths. For this reason fundamentalists have influenced debate well beyond their own circles about the character and fate of religion in the modern world.

Fundamentalists are quite selective in what they oppose and what they accept in modern culture. Many are remarkably willing to harness the latest technological innovations to advance their causes. Tape recorders, television, and satellite hook-ups have helped spread fundamentalist ideas in many parts of the world. Many fundamentalists long ago made peace with rational thinking, and argue that in fact their own ideas are more logical and rational than those of their opponents. They are, in this sense, less dramatically opposed to modern culture than many mystics, poets and naturalists. Their opposition is most pronounced in the specific arena of religious interpretation, and beyond that, in matters of political policy. The former is a battle over the correct interpretation of divine truth; the latter, a war to protect their own communities against incursions by secular authorities.

Fundamentalists do much more than simply react; they are enormously creative in formulating their own ideas and in modifying these ideas to meet new challenges. This is in part because they take language itself so seriously. They study their sacred texts, memorize them and talk about them so much that adherents share a deep, rich common language. This language animates their personal experience and helps them interpret it in relation to divine meanings. They also interact intensively with one another, forging communal bonds that undergird their beliefs. Fundamentalists' discursive and communal richness is a form of "cultural capital," giving people status within their religious communities much in the same way that wealth or education might give them prestige in the secular world.

We can speak of fundamentalists as distinct groups, at least in specific situations, because they themselves draw sharp boundaries between their own members and outsiders. Although their particular tactics are enormously diverse, many fundamentalist groups impose creedal tests on their followers, many have rites of passage such as conversion experiences that demarcate entry into the community, and many enforce conformity in such matters as dress, sexuality and the use of alcohol. They also depict outsiders with imagery of evil and worldliness.

Fundamentalists have been a genuine annoyance to many of their host governments because they can mobilize their followers against particular leaders and policies. By reinforcing ethnic and regional loyalties, they have often made it difficult for central regimes to integrate and stabilize broad national populations. When they have succeeded in capturing power, as in Iran, they have often imposed authoritarian and oppressive rule. In the larger scheme of things, however, fundamentalist movements have probably done as much to prevent the consolidation of centralized power and to force regimes to acknowledge opposition factions. In this sense, fundamentalist movements have helped establish conditions that allow democratic governments to emerge. They have also been able to grow more rapidly, it appears, in democratic societies that protect religious pluralism and freedom of speech than under authoritarian regimes. Fundamentalism is, in this regard, very much a product of, and an adaptation to, modern political conditions.

Fundamentalists in all the major world religions tend to reinforce male-dominant gender roles. From requiring women to wear veils, to encouraging them to cater to their husbands' psychological and emotional needs, to barring them from ordination, the various fundamentalisms display much the same attitude toward women. Nonetheless, many fundamentalist groups are more popular among women than among men, and women support these groups because they encourage men to take a more responsible role in heading families than is often the case in fragmented or changing social circumstances, and women often play powerful roles behind the scenes.

These characteristics show just how diverse fundamentalisms are, despite the generalizations one reads so often in the newspapers or hears from the pulpit. Fundamentalists share many of the concerns about the future of our world that others express. Yet they do seem to differ from most nonfundamentalists in the level of energy they devote to their religious beliefs, their emphasis on differentiating believers and nonbelievers, and their desire for clarity, purity and absolute moral commitment.

Close attention to the phenomenon of fundamentalism should cause us to question some of our assumptions. Some of these assumptions are all the more troubling because they persist in scholarly works themselves, including the volume under review. Most academicians are not fundamentalists, the vast majority are decidedly more sympathetic to nonfundamentalists than to fundamentalists, and a few have even been victims of physical violence and intimidation perpetrated by fundamentalists leaders. It follows, therefore, that most academic discussions of fundamentalism exhibit a certain slant. If we are to understand fundamentalism better, we must question some of our assumptions.

Having read about countless fundamentalists groups, I become highly suspicious when I hear fundamentalists described as believers in a revealed truth that is whole, unified and undifferentiated. At one level, I understand what these terms mean. A Christian fundamentalist, for example, might describe the Bible as a single text that logically hangs together, presents one vision of God and of salvation and contains no internal inconsistencies. But nonfundamentalists should not assume that this is how fundamentalists operate in their day-to-day lives. Within any group of fundamentalists there are likely to be different opinions about the exact nature of truth. Were this not the case, fundamentalists would not have to exercise the authoritarian leadership styles they are so often noted for. They may unanimously agree that truth is indeed whole and real; but many humbly acknowledge that they do not and cannot know more than a small portion of that truth. In fact, they are offended by presumptuous nonfundamentalists who express too much confidence in their own perceptions of truth. One fundamentalist pastor I interviewed some time ago said he was much in favor of the study of biblical theology, but opposed the study of systematic theology because the latter presupposed too much about human wisdom.

As a social scientist, I also question the assertion that fundamentalism arises or gains prominence in times of crisis, actual or perceived. First, crises are everywhere. To say fundamentalism arises in a time of crises is like saying that fundamentalism arises whenever time is moving forward. We can make a case for almost any event's being a real or perceived crisis. Perhaps, for example, there wasn't actually an economic crisis in 1979 when the Moral Majority was formed, but there was a crisis in political leadership. Or maybe fundamentalists merely perceived such a crisis. The second problem is that crisis-talk easily becomes a way of associating fundamentalism with something negative, reactive, even paranoid. Apparently most of us manage our crises intelligently, but fundamentalists go off the deep end, expecting Armageddon every time the stock market drops.

To be sure, there may be special opportunities for fundamentalist movements when the social fabric is torn by serious crises. But opportunity is a better word than crisis. People approach opportunities intentionally. They are not provoked by forces beyond their control, leading them to engage in some kind of mindless mass hysteria. They must plan and organize themselves if they are to capitalize on their opportunities. Surely this is what fundamentalists do: they are too well organized and too successful to be simply the products of social crises.

The success of fundamentalism is due also to the groups' ability to amass vast resources. Were they simply reacting to crises, they could not have lasting influence. But they are careful stewards of resources. They build colleges and seminaries when times are good. They train grass-roots leaders. By distinguishing themselves from outsiders, they make sure their followers spend time together, thinking about the right ideas and inculcating faith among the young. Indeed, modernity is very much their friend in this respect because it encourages them to think rationally, to plan ahead, to study, to engage in gainful employment, to strategize politically, and to model their own organizations on the businesses or government agencies in which they work.

I also question statements about fundamentalists' being animated by fears. Do they really fear extinction as a people? Do they think the truth is about to be snuffed out? Perhaps some do. But many of the chapters in this volume suggest the opposite: many fundamentalists are enormously optimistic that God and history are on their side. Some Americans may find it comforting that Islamic fundamentalists believe that our nation's great power threatens their very existence. But this isn't what they mean when they refer to us as "the Great Satan." It is we who are weak because we have deluded ourselves into thinking we are strong. They are confident that our way of life is doomed because of its moral corruption.

Finally, I doubt the assertion that fundamentalists have a totalitarian impulse. What exactly does this mean? Indeed, some Muslim rulers have established theocratic dictatorships, and the cultic obedience required of some fundamentalist followers in the U.S. smacks of totalitarianism. The very fact that fundamentalist leaders are seldom the humbling visionaries we take them to be lends credence to the possibility that they can seize power and organize a fascist-like machine to exercise that power.

But is it appropriate to accuse fundamentalists of a totalitarian impulse simply because they envision a mode of life, emanating from religious principles, that embraces law, polity, society, economy and culture? Every known society that has survived for any length of time is integrated to some extent across all these spheres. Capitalism, for example, is based on a small set of theories about prices and profits; yet it certainly penetrates and encompasses law, politics and even religion, as well as the economy. The same is true of the principles undergirding democracy. What makes a system totalitarian is the type of principle and the amount of moral or political force used to back it up, rather than the extent to which it integrates the various spheres of people's lives. Modernity perhaps encourages most of us to lead compartmentalized lives in which our religious beliefs do not affect our work, our view of money or our attitude toward the environment. To seek ways of informing all those spheres more effectively with our religious convictions is certainly not to become totalitarian fundamentalists.

These concerns lead me to conclude that there is still much to be learned about fundamentalism, and much to be learned about the broader contours of modern religion and culture through the study of this phenomenon. The present volume and those projected in the same series represent a major step forward in our understanding of the contemporary religious world. Fundamentalisms Observed is a remarkable achievement, not only because it foreshadows so much more to come from the Fundamentalism Project, but because it provides a valuable overview of some of the most important religious developments of our time. It should challenge serious readers to do more than shake their heads and wring their hands at the successes of fundamentalism. A more appropriate response is to ask what nonfundamentalist solutions to the challenges we face may be most viable. Part of that response must be to recognize the continuing vitality of religions of all kinds in the modern world.