Fundamentalism

In the spirit of genealogical inquiry, this essay aims to ask, not what is the truth of fundamentalism but instead what work is performed by the truth claims about it. We are therefore focusing less on those whom we call “fundamentalists” than on what calling them (or sometimes ourselves) fundamentalists might accomplish, particularly when contrasted to alternative terminologies one could deploy, such as Scripture-affirming or conservative on the one hand, militant or extremist on the other. Why fundamentalism?

A political concept no more than a century old, “fundamentalism” typically evokes what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a “strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrine” (Dictionary). To call someone or something “fundamentalist,” therefore, is to represent them as “dogmatic” in a literal sense: as the embracers of a dogma. But this is a dogmatism of a particular sort: first, it is religious; and secondly, fundamentalism’s embrace of doctrine is said to offer “no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs” (also from OED definition). Fundamentalism is therefore defined as that which disavows the changes demanded by modernity. As we shall see, in its derogatory uses, this connotation comes to represent the fundamentalist as a dangerously militant anachronist.

Examining the genealogy of how the term “fundamentalism” has been used in the United States over the past century highlights the complicated relationship of religion, secularism, and political belonging in recent American history. While the earliest use of the term signified a rejection of liberal religions’ “concessions” to secular modernity, the reframing of the term in the late twentieth century not only did the work of demonizing communism and anti-U.S. Islamic movements, but also helped to integrate conservative Christians (the original “fundamentalists”) into the stronghold of American neoliberalism.

The word “fundamentalism” was coined in the 1920s as a self-description by certain American Protestants who, by contrast to their liberal Protestant counterparts, continued to champion what they understood to be the “fundamental” tenets of Christianity, tenets that at that time appeared under assault by Darwinism and especially Biblical “Higher Criticism.”1 Curtis Lee Laws, a Baptist editor, made the first known use of the word in 1920, offering a strikingly military image of fundamentalists like himself who were ready, as he put it, to “do Battle Royal for the Fundamentals.” First among these tenets worth fighting for, of course, was the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, followed by particular Scriptural claims (Mary’s virginity, the ex-nihilo creation of the world) that now appeared in dispute.

While “fundamentalism” was born as an affirmative if combative statement of commitment to revealed Biblical truth, it was quickly resignified by an alliance of secularists and liberal Protestants as a derogatory term for aggressive theological rigidity. What follows is an investigation into the basis of this derogation. The idea of what the OED calls making “concessions to modern developments” contains within it a rich set of theo-political implications that trace back to the early stages of liberalism.

In his “Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke famously argued that only ancient Jews had possessed a true theocracy, while Christianity has always maintained a separation between worldly and spiritual authority. In the Christian context, Locke claims, it has always been inappropriate to force others “by fire and sword to profess certain doctrines” (Locke, 8). While Locke acknowledges the deep importance of arriving at spiritual truth for the sake of one’s soul, he insisted that it was not appropriate for worldly authority, the government or commonwealth, to impose this truth. It has often been assumed that this argument in Locke implies a case for the privatization of religion. In fact, as Elizabeth Pritchard has convincingly shown, Locke was arguing for just the opposite, the making public of religion as it moves into a public sphere construed as a marketplace of religious ideas, a competition of Churches in civil society. Religion, for Locke, should no longer serve as a pretext for violent conflict, but become instead a site for demonstrating the profound spiritual value of public debate, persuasion, and the development of opinion (1-13).

Seen from this liberal economic perspective, the fundamentalist is someone who refuses to let their religious opinions enter the Lockean “marketplace of ideas,” to entertain and engage with arguments that might lead to “concessions” that count as responses to the natural development of modern thought and practice. Instead, the s/he becomes a figure for intolerance and even war. As Karen Armstrong dramatically puts it, fundamentalists engage a battle that they does not regard “as a conventional political struggle, but experience [it ] as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil” (xiii). The fundamentalist embodies a perpetual threat to the authority of the state that is mounted in the name of allegedly embattled religious truths.

Had “fundamentalism” simply remained a term for marginal American Protestant groups, its significance would be quite limited. In the late 1970s, however, prominent conservative evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell began reclaiming the term even while insisting on its compatibility with active engagement in American At almost the same moment, the term began to go global, acquiring in politics.2 the process a certain utility for naming the enemy of a world civil society that was characterized (in Lockean fashion) by the mutually tolerant co-existence of modern secularists and “good” (i.e. liberalized) forms of religion. As religious historian David Harrington Watt has noted, “fundamentalism” received its intellectual debut as a global concept with Martin Marty’s 1980 proclamation that Jerry Falwell and the Ayatollah Khomeini were essentially kindred spirits who were:

militantly antimodern, fanatical, and [who] hold in contempt the separation of church and state. Every day, it seems, brings forth new evidence of the growing power and determination of the religious recalcitrant (Marty).

In establishing the influential Fundamentalism Project at the University of Chicago, Marty sought to produce scholarship in support of a liberal political culture that might push back against an international upsurge in religious conservatism. It is ironic, therefore, that the chief beneficiaries of his arguments were themselves ultimately conservatives. By redeploying the concept of “fundamentalism” onto the terrain of the Islamic world, Marty ironically helped to shore up what might be called the political theological basis for an alliance between market neoliberalism, hawkish neoconservatism, and the Christian evangelical right.

Ronald Reagan, elected in no small part against the backdrop of Jimmy Carter’s impotence in the face of the Iran Hostage Crisis, brought Evangelists and free market neoliberals together in a hegemonic coalition that was united through an explicit Lockean theology of liberalism (America’s liberal freedoms are grounded in Christian faith in God’s natural laws, including those of the market). At the same time, as can be seen in his famous cold war “Evil Empire” speech, notably delivered at the 1983 annual meeting of the American Association of Evangelicals, Reagan added militancy to this assemblage by redefining communism as a theological enemy, by redescribing it as a secular variant of what Martin Marty had called “fundamentalism.” Reagan was continuing a narrative initiated by Rev. Billy Graham during the Eisenhower administration, according to which the United States’ battle against the Soviet Union was not a conflict between two secular powers, but a battle between Christian truth and atheism. After Reagan’s 1980 election, American evangelical hostility toward atheistic communism moved into a new phase, as it became commonplace for conservative evangelicals to see Reaganomics as an integral component of the Christian worldview. In Reagan’s account, of course, it was not Jerry Falwell who was akin to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but the likes of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, leader of a militant and rigidly dogmatic totalitarian party whose members “preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the earth”(Reagan). Reframed in this way Christian Evangelicals became theological partisans of the market, inclusive of the marketplace of ideas, and thus not fundamentalist, while secular communism, paradoxically, became the true site of a theological dogmatism whose deep threat to global civil society necessitated an ardent defense.

In the post-Cold War environment, and especially since the September 11, 2001 attacks, this notion of fundamentalism has reverted not only to the site of Islam, but also to other religiosities construable as a civil threat. George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” replayed Reagan’s themes by describing jihadism as a kind of totalitarian “Islamofascism” continuous with both Nazi and Soviet doctrinalism. Martin Marty’s compatriots at the Fundamentalism Project have continued to write in ways that ultimately support these political effects when, as recently as 2003, in Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms Around the World, they describe contemporary fundamentalism as the “third rebuff” of Enlightenment expectations, a social phenomenon that follows in the footsteps of Burkean conservatism/ clericism in nineteenth century Europe, and then the “totalitarian Boleshevism” and “clerical-authoritarianism of fascism and Nazism in the twentieth century (Almond et. al., 5).

As a discourse of scholarship, “fundamentalism” presents the apparent advantage of being genuinely comparative in its effort to identify “family resemblances” among religious political forces situated across globally diverse regions, cultures, and histories. In this sense, the study of fundamentalism is ineluctably appealing for a project like RelSec. On the same grounds, it can be positively compared to a term such as “Islamism,” which risks the collapsing together of very different kinds of political projects, as well as making religious politics a problem exclusive to Islam. At the same time, however, it is critical to observe that “fundamentalism,” though comparative, is not a neutral term, but one that produces an anti-modern figure through the trope of a violent rejection of the exchange of ideas and a vision of modernity as essentially characterized by the ‘give-and-take’ that finds it institutional archetype in the market. None of this is to say that the various religiously grounded forms of political belonging today do not need explanation. Yet there are alternatives to the “fundamentalist thesis” in the form that Marty and Appleby have conceptualized it. Faisal Devji, for example, has analyzed jihadist movements by developing comparisons, not to Protestant evangelicals, but instead to vanguardist and humanitiarian movements. Kamran Talattof has shown how the politics of “fundamentalist” Islam constitute a reworking of the themes of revolutionary Marxist movements.3 Likewise, interpreting the "Hindutva" phenomenon in India as “fundamentalist” risks obscuring some of its most interesting features, such as the movement’s strong association of Hinduism with key liberal values, including tolerance, religious freedom, and the nation-state.

Novelist Mohsin Hamid arguably gets the last laugh when, in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he narrates the story of a formerly westernized Pakistani who comes to reject his work on Wall Street, and returns to do political work in his homeland. If at first, we assume that the fundamentalism of the novel’s title must be Islamic, presaging the protagonist’s reactive and violent return to his Muslim roots, the novel eventually comes to suggest something quite different, namely that the fundamentalism at the heart of the story is market fundamentalism, a faith in the commandment to practice a cost-benefit analysis that should, in fact, have steered him away from love of country and family and toward a life that honors only the natural law of financial valuations. As Hamid’s novel cleverly confirms, in the final analysis the anti-fundamentalist is him or herself tacitly modeled upon the fundamentalist. To create a theological fundamentalist enemy of modernity one must embrace with ‘no concessions’ the political theology of liberalism, a theology that asserts spiritual enmity against those whom it views as the world’s militant anachronists.


See Simon Wood, “Rethinking Fundamentalism” (171), David Harrington Watt, “Muslims, Fundamentalists, and the Fear of the Dangerous Other” (3), and Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning (17-18).

See Ed Dobson , Jerry Falwell, and Edward Hindson’s 1981 book, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, which proudly reclaims the term from its history of abuse even while repoliticizing it. See also Susan Friend Harding’s ethnographic study of this moment in the surge of the American Christian right, titled The Book of Jerry Falwell.

See Devji’s Landscapes of the Jihad and The Terrorist In Search of Humanity. Tallatof, while accepting the term “fundamentalism,” uses it quite differently (as a form of engagement with revolutionary modernity) in his essay “Comrade Akbar.” See also Simon Wood’s “Rethinking Fundamentalism,” in which he shows that even the archetypal Ayatollah Khomeini does not truly fit the fundamentalist bill when his words and actions are considered carefully.

Works Cited

Almond, Gabriel A., R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan. Strong religion: The rise of fundamentalisms around the world. University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Armstrong, Karen. The battle for God: A history of fundamentalism. Random House LLC, 2011.

Devji, Faisal. Landscapes of the jihad: militancy, morality, modernity. Cornell University Press, 2005.

Devji, Faisal. The terrorist in search of humanity: militant Islam and global politics. Columbia University Press, 2008.

Dictionary, Oxford English. "Oxford English dictionary online." Mount Royal College Lib., Calgary 14 (2004).

Dobson, Ed, Jerry Falwell, and Edward E. Hindson. The fundamentalist phenomenon: The resurgence of conservative Christianity. Doubleday Books, 1981.

Hamid, Mohsin. The reluctant fundamentalist. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 2012.

Harding, Susan Friend. The book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist language and politics. Princeton University Press, 2001.

Locke, John. Letter Concerning Toleration. London: J. Crowder, Warwick Square 1800.

Marty, Martin E. "Fundamentalism reborn: Faith and fanaticism." Saturday review(1980): 37-42.

Pritchard, Elizabeth. Religion in Public: Locke's Political Theology. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Reagan, Ronald. "Speech before the National Association of Evangelicals." Orlando, FL 3 (1983).

Ruthven, Malise. Fundamentalism: The Search For Meaning: The Search For Meaning. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Talattof, Kamran. "Comrade Akbar: Islam, Marxism, and Modernity." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.3 (2005): 634-649.

Wood, Simon. “Rethinking Fundamentalism: Ruholla Khomeini, Mawlana Mawdudi, and the Fundamentalist Model.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. 11.2 (Spring 2010). 171-198.

Watt, David Harrington. "Muslims, Fundamentalists, and the Fear of the Dangerous Other in American Culture." Journal of Religion and Society 12 (2010). 1-14.

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