From 1987 to 1995 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences sponsored a study called “The Fundamentalism Project.” It was directed by Martin E. Marty, noted professor of American religious history at the University of Chicago, and R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. These two scholars edited the five volumes published by the University of Chicago Press that gathered up the project’s findings.
The term fundamentalism itself arose in American Protestantism in the last part of the 1800s and in the early 1900s when Christians attending some Niagara Bible Conferences thought the Christian faith was getting subverted by people they called “modernists.” They identified articles of faith they considered non-negotiable “fundamentals” of the faith. These basic beliefs were spelled out in 1910 in a series of ten small books called “The Fundamentals,” and thousands of copies of these books were circulated among American ministers thanks to financial support from a couple of California oil men.
The five fundamentals identified by this early 1900’s movement were biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the historical reality of the miracles of Jesus.
Though starting with positive affirmations, fundamentalists got negative. As one Baptist editor said, they were “ready to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” It wasn’t long before some former fundamentalists became unhappy with the term and decided to call themselves “evangelical.” One of them, the late Edward Carnell, for a time President of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote in A Handbook of Christian Theology, “Fundamentalism ... sees the heresy in untruth but not in unloveliness. If it has the most truth, it has the least grace, since it distrusts courtesy and diplomacy. Fundamentalism forgets that orthodox truth without orthodox love profits nothing. The more it departs from the gentle ways of Jesus Christ, the more it drives urbane people from the fold of orthodoxy.”
The recent Fundamentalism Project was launched because of the observation that fundamentalism was not just an American Protestant phenomenon. Fundamentalist voices, attitudes and movements appeared also in the Catholic Church, Islam, Hinduism and other religions. The Project identified “family resemblances” that appeared in these otherwise different religions: A belief in an older era of true religion that is seen as under threat and should be preserved; a fear of change, often coming from the discoveries of science; an enclave mentality in which an elect group that claims to hold the truth seeks separation from outsiders; and a readiness to meet the threat of change with a militant response.
Religious fundamentalism is actually only one species of the phenomenon. There are also political fundamentalisms and economic ones, perhaps even medical ones. As for religious fundamentalism, its appeal, say the scholars who have examined it, is its enclave nature, its offer of a sub-community of like-minded people among whom one can find both security and fortitude to face the challenges of modernity threatening their familiar world.
Although fundamentalism is not a term used in Hinduism, its features can also be seen in India where some Hindus lash out at what they consider the erosion of historic Hindu beliefs and customs shown by some people’s conversion to Christianity. Fundamentalism is even more evident in Muslim areas of the world. In the summer of 1993 a Muslim scholar in Delhi, India, gave me a book on the subject he had just written. Changes are overtaking Islamic societies, such as immunizations, education for women and democratic freedoms. These frighten many Muslims into extremist positions that cling adamantly to historic beliefs and practices.
Marlin Jeschke is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.