As a result of my unexpectedly viral post on the Duggars, I found that I needed to clarify my use of terms.
The problem comes from from writing for a varied audience. (Just among my friends and relatives, there is a wide range of religious and philosophical belief and experience.) I am most certainly not writing for a purely Christian or Evangelical audience. So the terms that we use, our “Christianese,” may not make sense to everyone, which is one reason why I avoid it.
Never is this more apparent, though, than in the matter of “Fundamentalism.” When I wrote the post, I used the term in the sense understood by people outside of the Evangelical bubble, rather than in the “Christianese” sense. This meant that a number of people were offended by my condemning of Fundamentalism, because I appeared to be including them.
Let me see, then, if I can explain it a bit better. The terms “Doctrinal Fundamentalism” and “Cultural Fundamentalism” are my own. I feel they describe what I mean the best.
- “Doctrinal Fundamentalism”
Within Christianity, particularly the American version, there was a split in the late 1800s to early 1900s. A group of more conservative writers and thinkers decided to create a document outlining their version of the fundamentals of the faith, in response to two major opposing ideas. The first was “higher criticism,” which pointed out discrepancies between traditional interpretations and historical evidence. (Among other things. This is a gross oversimplification, but I don’t have time to get into it further in the space of this post.) The second opposing idea was that of the Theory of Evolution. Both of these created theological problems, naturally, and these authors sought to counteract them with a definitive statement of the core doctrines of the faith.
The result was a 1911 document entitled The Fundamentals, a collection of 90 essays written by 64 different authors.
In my view, having browsed (but not read) the collection, there are two separate points to be taken from The Fundamentals. The first is a list of the most important doctrines, while the second is an argument for a particular approach to hermeneutics.
The core doctrines, the most basic formulation I was able to find are these:
- The inerrancy of the Bible
- The factual nature of Christ’s miracles
- The virgin birth
- The bodily resurrection of Christ and his future physical return
- The atonement of Christ on the cross
Many - including the authors of The Fundamentals - include the literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation account in #2 as well, but this isn’t universal.
After these five fundamentals, the discussion really hinges on the interpretation and application of the Bible. That is, on hermeneutics. (Peter Enns makes the excellent point that it is always about hermeneutics. Literalism is a hermeneutic just like every other, and must be defended as any other.) When it comes to discussion of inerrancy, the issue often, in fact, turns out to be a matter of interpretation and application. That is, it is really the inerrency of the interpretation that is at issue. This is the case for the creation accounts, and many other things that are widely disputed.
So, if we reduce “doctrinal fundamentalism” to a belief in those five fundamentals, it is easy to see that the vast majority of American Evangelicals - plus many other American Christians, Catholic or Protestant - could be considered to be “Fundamentalist” in this sense.
In fact, I am a fundamentalist by that definition.
I’ll go with 90% fundamentalist, though, because of the issue of Genesis. As I have blogged previously, I believe in an old earth and universe, so I disagree with ½ of one point (10%) of that formulation of the fundamentals.
You can include a lot of people who would never be considered “fundamentalists” by the greater culture. Perhaps the most telling example here would be Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian. He qualifies as a fundamentalist in the doctrinal sense, but clearly is not what most people would call a fundamentalist.
2. “Cultural Fundamentalism”
When most people talk about “fundamentalists,” they aren’t thinking about people who believe in the five fundamentals. They are talking about people who have a particular approach to culture.
A couple of examples here:
There is a world of difference between the average “Baptist” church, and an Independent Fundamental Baptist church. (IFB)
There is a world of difference between regular Mormonism and FLDS groups like those led by Warren Jeffs.
Let’s just say that the difference isn’t whether they believe in the five fundamentals. That much should be obvious. Instead, they are about specific approaches to their holy books, and thus a specific view of cultural issues.
In my opinion, here are the hallmarks of “cultural fundamentalism.” Keep in mind that not every fundamentalist adheres to all of these, and some non-fundamentalists adhere to some of them. Rather, consider it this way. The more of these that apply, the further along the road to fundamentalism the person or organization is.
Furthermore, when I talk about the creeping influence of Cultural Fundamentalism on Evangelicalism, it is these ideas that I am talking about.
- Authority and Hierarchy
This one is pretty much a sure-fire sign of fundamentalism. If there is a teaching that the fundamental truth of the world is hierarchy, and the most important question that of who must submit to whom, then you are dealing with fundamentalism. And probably a cult.
In fact, Gothard’s teachings hinge on his principle of “authority,” which is that God only works and speaks through a hierarchy. (The first principle he teaches is the relatively uncontroversial one of “design,” which is basically pop-psych self acceptance repackaged, but it is the second, that of Authority, that is really the most important to his system.)
These teachings on authority generally take three forms.
i. Church authority. You must obey the leaders and never question them. God speaks to them for you, not directly to you. You will see examples of this idea in places like 9 Marks (membership “covenants” where you vow to be submissive to the leaders or be disciplined), non-disclosure and non-competition agreements (see Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill), and in the admonitions to not “gossip” about church leaders (which means in practice, don’t publicly call them out for bad teaching or actions.)
ii. Gender hierarchy. A wife must obey her husband in everything, unless he actively demands she sin. She is to never question his decisions, even if she believes they are unwise. In some cases (see John Piper), a wife must submit to domestic abuse rather than seek to get out. This idea is a key one to Fundamentalism, and some of the leaders admit as such. For example the (ever loathesome) Doug Wilson says that the fundamental issue facing the world today is that of sexuality and gender. He believes that the authority of men over women is the key to getting this issue right. Unfortunately, this idea is probably the one that is creeping into Evangelicalism the most. The fact that there even is a “Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” says it all.
iii. Children and parents. There has been a trend for some time of training children to express immediate, unquestioning obedience to parents. In the seemingly never ending parade of books and systems to accomplish this, I would list those by Gary Ezzo and Michael and Debi Pearl in particular as advocating abuse of infants in order to train them to be be perfectly compliant. Gothard’s teachings on authority also are in this line. And, he extends the duty of obedience to adult children as well.
So, if you start hearing these things, you may be dealing with a Cultural Fundamentalist.
A pertinent quote by an author who has a bit of experience with
Fundamentalists who don't like their approach to their holy book challenged.
B. Gender Roles
For Cultural Fundamentalists, this is also a key teaching. Men belong out in the world bringing home the bacon. Women belong at home having babies and cleaning the house. In fact, this is one belief that unites cultural fundamentalists around the world, from radical Islam to FLDS to IFB to Gothardism to Dominionism and Reconstructionism. The fundamental fact of the world is supposed to be a sharp and uncrossable divide between men and women, with men clearly in the role of authority and power.
Given the general definition of Feminism as a movement seeking the political, economic, and social equality of women; Cultural Fundamentalism can be seen for what it is: an opposition to the equality of women. Cultural Fundamentalism seeks political rule by men, the removal of economic power from women (which is why Gothard and the Duggars believe women should not go to college or get jobs), and a social hierarchy where men make the decisions while women meekly assist them in their goals.
Thus, if you start hearing about the importance of keeping women at home or about the different roles that “god” has appointed for men and women, regardless of personal preference or gifting, you are dealing with a Cultural Fundamentalist.
C. Obsession with Sex
You can see this one in several manifestations. If a group’s primary political goals involve homosexuality and abortion, chances are, you are dealing with a fundamentalist group. Why? Because their primary focus is on controlling the sort of sex other people are having. Likewise, if they keep talking about how bad the world is getting, try to pin them down. More often than not, they will list all the people having the wrong kind of sex. Why is God angry with America? Chances are, it won’t be our oppression of the poor at home or abroad. It won’t be the collateral damage of war, or our materialism. Nope. It will be the sex other people are having.
[Explanatory note: I am personally opposed to abortion, but lost all respect for the pro-life movement when they threw in their lot with the Quiverfullers in opposing birth control as basic health care. It appears that preventing abortions isn’t nearly as important as lecturing people about why they can’t afford to have sex.]
Another way this comes out is in the way we talk about lower income people. I have pretty much had it with people blaming poverty on incontinence. As if poor people should just stop having sex until they can afford it. Likewise, rather than actually address the effects of racist systems that have been in place for hundreds of years, it is more satisfying just to blame it on too much sex.
Finally, you see it in how groups prioritize the prevention of sin. Fundies are obsessed with “sexual purity.” Evangelicals too, to a large degree. Other sins just don’t matter as much. Listen in on a sermon directed at youth. See how much time is spent soliciting “pride purity” pledges, or “materialism purity” pledges. When was the last time you heard of a “promise ring” for backstabbing or slander? Do young girls get dressed up and dance with their daddies at “honest balls”? What about “true love doesn’t stir up conflict”? Yeah, that’s a best seller. (These things, by the way, are also “abominations.”)
So, the effort betrays the priority. Sex is an obsession for Cultural Fundies.
Further down the Fundie scale, you will see additional practices aimed at preventing sex. The whole premise of Modesty Culture (which I have blogged about extensively) is that of preventing young men from thinking about sex. Which is done by keeping women from showing that they have female-shaped bodies. Another is Courtship and Betrothal, two ideas aimed at preventing males and females from being unchaperoned or becoming romantically interested in people the parents do not approve of. Depending on the version, the goal can even be preventing any emotional attachment whatsoever before the couple is locked into marrying.
The more Fundie someone is, the more you will see them obsessing about whether they or other people are some how “sexing,” in deed or thought.
D. Focus on Cultural Externals and Cultural Separation
Cultural Fundamentalists are also obsessed with the externals of culture. Clothing is just one area. Movies. Music. Alcohol. Dancing. Hairstyles. The list can go on and on, but the more these are part of the discussion, the more Fundie the group or person. The longer a person is immersed in the Fundie system, the more these externals become the focus.
On a related note, the practice then becomes one of cultural Separation. Counterculture for its own sake. If a non-Fundie has an idea, it must be wrong. Sometimes this becomes a mistrust of technology and a quasi-Amish Luddism. Sometimes it becomes a “back to the land” thing, where cities become evil. Sometimes is a rejection of anything from the 20th or 21st Centuries, whether culture or ideas. Actually, this one is probably the most common.
Finally, this results in the separation of one’s children from all friendships or contacts with people who are not “likeminded.” (That’s a serious trigger word for us ex-Gothardites.) Thus, many Fundies claim that all “true” Christians must homeschool their children. (See Jonathan Lindvall) They insist that all extracurricular activities be expressly “Christian” so as not to have the riff-raff around their children.
E. A Literalist and Theonomical approach to the holy writings
A look at radical Islam reveals this problem too. When the approach to a holy book becomes hyper-literalist, then it becomes necessary to re-create the culture in which it was written. Thus, women return to their state as property, we get to slaughter the infidels “enemies of god” (See Gary North), and we disregard any scientific facts that get in the way of our literalism.
I mentioned above the issue of hermeneutics. The problems of interpretation of scripture are not something that has been solved once and for all. We do not know all of truth, and we cannot assume that our understanding will never change, now that we “got it right” once and for all.
For Cultural Fundamentalists, that is not the case. For them, someone in the past did get everything right, and all change since is compromise and a departure from orthodoxy. Those hermeneutical decisions in the past, and the culture in which the occurred, then are inviolable. We must return to them, and everything will be all right, says the Cultural Fundie.
On the issue of Theonomy, to the Cultural Fundamentalist, the way to become more “godly” is to tease out “God’s Law” from the holy writing. The more detailed system of rules one can find, the better. The cultural externals are a good part of this. The approach to scripture (or the Koran) feeds and complements the reverence for the past in a way that makes the re-creation of the past synonymous with the pursuit of holiness.
Both of these stem in part (again, in my opinion) from the belief shared by most Cultural Fundies that the Bible was literally dictated by God. As in, word for word, with no possibility admitted that the (human) writers were influenced by their culture, knowledge, or understanding. Thus, for many, the Mosaic law is expected to be applied as literally as possible in our times, because it is literally a dictation from God of the most perfect civil law possible. The idea that the laws might be (in part) cribbed from earlier legal codes and be full of assumptions and institutions that pervaded the Ancient Near East, and that understanding this history might be important to interpretation and application is utter anathema. To question the applicability or meaning of a verse is to reject the very words of God. That something might be lost in the translation, linguistic or cultural does not even enter the picture.
This is also why, when you have an argument with a Cultural Fundie, their response if often to slam down some bible verses they think proves their point. They know what those verses mean, and you are just rejecting God’s clear truth if you disagree with them.
It is “Bible Thumping” at its worst.
On a related note:
Because they believe their approach to holy writings is the only viable one, Cultural Fundies believe that those who do not share their beliefs on cultural externals, or on gender roles, or authority, or whatever, are not “true” believers. They are right. Dead right. And everyone else is wrong. And probably not just wrong but downright evil, because they have rejected “God’s clear commands.”
Because they have rejected the possibility of disagreement on nearly - if not all - areas of interpretation and application, the opinions of those who disagree with them are irrelevant. After all, God agrees with them, right? That ends the discussion.
The next step is to assume that God likes them best - or only them - and hates everyone else. One can then act badly toward others, because they are not the chosen. They are not part of the “tribe,” the True Believers™.
This leads to:
G. Judgmentalism and lack of compassion
Because Cultural Fundies believe that they are the sole True Believers™, they can easily assume that the reason bad things happen to people outside the group is because God is smiting them. (When bad things happen to Cultural Fundies, they often think it is “persecution” by non-Fundies.)
Thus, the poor are that way because they don’t follow the Fundie rules. Thus, we should let them suffer - and if anything, increase that suffering by withdrawing government assistance - because that would put pressure on them to follow the Fundie rules.
I believe this is another way to tell if someone is a Cultural Fundie. What is their response to the misfortunes of others? Is it judgmentalism and schadenfreude? Or is it a genuine instinct to help ease others’ burdens? And, do they extend assistance and compassion to those outside the tribe, or is their love limited to those who agree with them? Are they always talking about the “enemies of God,” or are they talking about “the least of these”?
H. Hostility toward science and critical thinking
I would include in this one not just a hostility to the “hard” sciences like geology, evolutionary biology, and astrophysics; but also an acute hostility toward the “soft” sciences like sociology and psychology.
This relates, again, to the hermeneutical approach. If mental illness presents like the “demon posession” described in the Bible, then it must be spiritual, and thus we can’t utilize medication or therapy as treatments. And if sociology comes up with a conclusion that conflicts with a particular interpretation of a particular scripture verse, then, well, it just must be wrong, evidence be damned.
Likewise, in a discussion, the use of logic and critical thinking is typically dismissed. That is mere “human reason,” which is trumped by “God’s Truth™.” Never mind that every interpretation is colored by our own reasoning and our hermeneutical approach. And by our cultural assumptions and experiences. There is no such thing as an unbiased approach to scripture.
But instead, when one tries to apply critical thinking to an issue, the Cultural Fundie will instead insist that one is trying to weasel out of the Fundie’s pet interpretation of scripture the clear commands of God. Thus, because God already agrees with the Fundie, the conversation is ended.
It is this tendency that really makes it difficult to discuss serious issues with Cultural Fundies. For example, if I talk about sex and consent, and use the term “power differential” to describe an unequal relationship where sexual harassment occurs, then I am accused of using “psychobabble” rather than talking about sin and quoting bible verses to make my point. And, if I mention the size of the visible universe as evidence of its age (utilizing the known speed of light), I find that I am being quoted verses about how I should “believe Moses” because Jesus said to. The idea that there just might be a problem with the literalist hermeneutic is not even considered.
And, very much to the point, I deleted a comment on my Duggar post (because it violated my comment policy) which attempted to prove that the Duggars were right, and I was wrong about my beliefs regarding Modesty Culture and the priority God places (or in my view, doesn’t place) on virginity above all other virtues. Guess how the writer tried to prove the point? You guessed it! Just slam down a few scriptures, thump the Bible a time or two, and that ends the discussion.
So there you have it: my view on what makes a “Cultural Fundamentalist.”
I would imagine that when the average person outside of the Evangelical bubble imagines a fundamentalist, that is what he or she looks like.
Authority and hierarchy
Obsession with sex
Rules about cultural externals
A literalist and legalist approach to holy writings
Judgmentalism and lack of compassion
Hostility toward science and critical thinking
When I refer to the Duggars as Fundamentalists, this what I mean. (And the Duggars, like Gothard, demonstrate all of these characteristics.)
Note on one reason there is confusion:
Cultural Fundamentalists want you to think that they are merely Doctrinal Fundamentalists. That is, they hold their views because they are holding to the “one true doctrine.” They hide their ideas about control, gender, legalism, and judgmentalism behind a cloak of “we are just being faithful to the holy book.”
Note on why I didn’t just say “legalists”:
One commenter left a comment, then deleted it (I have no idea why), basically saying that the correct word was “legalist,” not “fundamentalist.” The point is well taken, but I disagree. I chose “fundamentalist” for two reasons.
First, Cultural Fundamentalism is legalistic, but it isn’t just legalistic. It is also authoritarian, which is why I listed that first. I believe that legalism often requires authoritarianism to perpetuate itself, of course, but the two are distinct concepts. Authoritarian systems tend to be legalistic. See Communism. And the more legalistic a system is, the more likely it is (in our modern times) to be authoritarian. However, legalism can also be maintained by social pressures within a community, without the authoritarian requirements. I think the Quakers come to mind as a system that has a lot of legalism in it, but isn’t nearly as authoritarian. On the other hand, it remains a small sect in part because it does not compel obedience.
Another hallmark of Cultural Fundamentalism which is not quite the same as legalism is the literalist hermeneutic approach to scripture. Literalism does indeed tend to lead to legalism. But it also leads to other bad places. I wouldn’t consider Young Earth Creationism to be “legalism,” for example, but I do consider it to be a problem because it makes people believe they have to choose between their faith and what the scientific evidence shows.
Second, using legalism tends to let people off too easily. Honestly, NOBODY believes they are a legalist. Everyone believes he or she is just following God’s True, Clear Law™, and everyone else is simply in rebellion against God’s clear commands.
Thus, “legalism” is kind of meaningless. It also isn’t of much meaning to those outside of the faith. The issue isn’t “legalism” to the atheist. If you don’t believe in God, the approach to an ancient writing by humans isn’t of much interest. It’s like arguing about how to apply The Odyssey to one’s life. The very idea is ludicrous.
However, “fundamentalism” is a generally understood term in the culture, and I am reasonably certain that my definition and description of it reflects the common cultural understanding.
Note on Evangelicalism versus Fundamentalism:
To an extent, Doctrinal Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism have gone hand-in-hand, although there have always been areas where there isn’t as much overlap.
In particular, beliefs about origins have never been as universal as The Fundamentals might lead one to believe. As I wrote earlier, the real resurrection of the YEC position occurred in the second half of the 20th Century.
Likewise, the literalist hermeneutic has never been universal, particularly as applied to specific areas of scripture. For example, many have believed (as I do) that Job is a parable, not an actual historical story. Again, this comes down to hermeneutics. How does one approach such a story, and what can history and culture reveal to us about its writing and how it was viewed when it was written?
Another disputed area is and always has been over the return of Christ. To say that even a majority of Evangelicals currently agree with the approach in The Fundamentals is probably an overstatement.
On the other hand, Evangelicals have been strongly associated with the beliefs in Atonement, Resurrection, and the Virgin Birth.
Cultural Fundamentalism is an entirely different matter.
During my lifetime alone, I have seen an ever-increasing degree of influence wielded over Evangelicalism by Cultural Fundamentalism. I attribute this in large part to two factors.
First, influential Fundamentalist leaders and leaders with Fundamentalist leanings have spread their teachings through Evangelicalism. The number of people who have attended Bill Gothard’s seminars over the last 40 years is astounding. His malignant influence is hard to overestimate. But there are others too. I noted the authoritarian teachings of Gary Ezzo, who is also hugely influential. (Also, Growing Kids God’s Way is a perfect example of the arrogance that surrounds these child-rearing formulae.) Even more mainstream groups like Focus on the Family have helped spread the authoritarian disciplinary teachings, and they have also fed the paranoia about sex that sells so well.
The second influence is that of the homeschooling movement. I have mentioned this in a number of past posts in passing, but it bears repeating. There were two competing ideas about homeschooling that fought for dominance in the early years.
First was the free-spirited approach advocated by Raymond and Dorothy Moore. They focused on the benefits of freeing children from the highly regimented drill and test approach common to classrooms, and encouraged parents to find what worked for each particular child. Although this approach is sometimes called “unschooling,” it is really more of an individualized education.
The other side of homeschooling, however, was anything but free-spirited. Rousas Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism, a hyper-Theonomic and theocratically minded movement, saw in the homeschooling movement the opportunity to build his army that would take over the United States and build his dream of an Old Testament style theocracy. Rushdoony was close friends with Doug Phillips, who later founded Vision Forum, and was a huge influence (and regular “expert” witness) for Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which would become one of the most influential organizations within Christian homeschooling. Rushdoony’s philosophy was also the core of Gothard’s teachings - but like everything else he stole from others, Gothard never attributed it to Rushdoony. Other persons substantially influenced by Rushdoony include Doug Wilson, who is associated with and promotes the “Classical” education movement (although not all classical education organizations have connections to Wilson) and Gregg Harris and his sons Josh “I kissed dating goodbye,” Alex, and Brett (of Rebelution and its “modesty” survey.) All of these have been significant influences in the homeschool movement, and, as a result, in Evangelicalism itself.
These factors contributed to the current trends that we see toward authoritarianism in Evangelicalism, the political obsession with sex, increasing legalism, and the increased emphasis on gender roles.
While there are certainly exceptions, the general conversation within Evangelicalism has been getting more Culturally Fundamentalist over the last few decades.
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