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Issue Date:  May 7, 2004

The rise of global fundamentalism

Fundamentalists battle what they see as modernity's evils, but the movement itself springs from a modern mindset


In the Middle East, Osama bin Laden fulminates against the infidel West. Here at home, Jerry Falwell terms Islam a demonic religion and Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin boasts to a church group that his God is bigger than the God of Islam. At the dawn of the 21st century, religious warfare seems not a relic from the distant past but an all too likely prospect for the future.

The rise in religious hostility can’t be detached from politics, of course. It also can’t be detached from a worldwide upsurge in conservative and fundamentalist movements in religion. As religions based on a text, Islam, Christianity and Judaism are particularly prone to fundamentalism, which is associated or identified with a literal reading of sacred scriptures. But fundamentalist movements are also affecting other religions. In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a Hindu fundamentalist party. There are fundamentalist strains appearing in Buddhism as well.

Scholars say fundamentalism is a modern movement that responds to and reflects the pains of modernity and modernization. To liberal critics, fundamentalists may look old-fashioned and archaic, but fundamentalists are usually masters of modern communications, which they employ to great success to critique modernity. Even their critique stems from a modern mindset, scholars point out. In her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong observes that a Christian who reads the Bible from a fundamentalist point of view is reading it in a way that would have been impossible before the invention of the printing press. Premodern societies valued both myth and rational thought and kept the two distinct, Armstrong writes, but in the modern world the myth and mysticism that in the past imbued people with a sense of meaning became increasingly discounted. In the West, many Christians, including fundamentalist Christians, adopted a scientific, rational approach to faith, which in the case of fundamentalists emphasizes the literal accuracy and inerrancy of the Bible rather than the cultic rituals that gave people in traditional societies a sense of transcendent value.

In their study of global fundamentalism, Professors Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby stress that fundamentalism is reactive. “Fundamentalism doesn’t just start up on its own,” said Marty, a professor at the University of Chicago and co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project, a five-volume study of fundamentalist movements around the world. “What starts up on its own is traditionalism, conservatism and orthodoxy, which is inherited from the centuries. Then something comes along and jostles it, mass media or imperialism or religious pluralism, people from a strange outlook impinging on your own thought patterns that are very uncongenial to what you are used to, assaults on your own personal or group identity, and then you must react. You feel you will be overcome otherwise.”

Marty and Appleby describe fundamentalism as an embattled form of spirituality that engages in conflicts with those who are seen as espousing secularist policies that are inimical to religion. The fundamentalist critique of modernity is shared by many who are not fundamentalist, who are not even particularly religious, said Appleby. These people are also concerned about materialism, the breakdown of the nuclear or traditional family, and the strains that arise from massive and rapid urbanization. In the developing world, millions of people have left the country for cities that are unable to properly accommodate them and experience there the shock of de facto pluralization, said Appleby.

While others outside the fundamentalist fold may agree with some parts of their diagnosis of the ills of modernity, Appleby said fundamentalists are those who have adopted a specific strategy about developments they regard as threatening.

“They interpret these events not as coincidences or accidental but as a kind of conspiracy of the opponents of religion. They see this often most clearly in feminism, what they would call radical feminism. They see this as a concerted effort by unbelievers to displace God’s natural order,” Appleby said. “The fundamentalists would be opposed to the autonomous self, to the individual set apart from the tribe, the church. Feminism, as they see it, separates the woman from her natural and divinely ordained orientation to community and to family.”

In many cases, fundamentalists’ ire is directed not only against business, political and artistic leaders who have shucked off the traditional constraints of religious, ethnic and tribal authority but also and even more strongly against religious leaders within their own faith who fundamentalists believe have adopted the same atheistic or indifferent attitude to religion.

“There is a sense in fundamentalisms that society experiences divorce and drugs and violence and various kinds of moral decadence, including the exploitation of women, precisely because the secular elites have advanced this agenda of the autonomous self, of the liberated individual who can be quite selective with regard to belief, practice, community ties,” said Appleby, a professor of history at University of Notre Dame.

“It’s not a trivial backlash,” said Appleby, who noted that fundamentalists see the world dualistically and perceive themselves to be in a clash of good against evil.

Anger at liberalizing trends within their own faith explain why fundamentalist movements in Judaism were and are vociferous against recent movements in Israel to reach political accommodation with Palestinians and why Osama bin Laden, like the late Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, is strongly against more modern forms of Islam, said religion writer Darrell Turner.

The origins of fundamentalism

The rise of fundamentalism as a global movement can be traced back to the 1970s. In the Mideast, the Six Day War in 1967 set the stage for the development of both Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist movements. In this country, the liberalizing trends of the 1960s contributed to the upsurge in fundamentalism. Today, fundamentalism is at least steady and probably growing in the United States, said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College in New York and author of the book, later turned into a PBS documentary, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Lord: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.

“I don’t think we’re a fundamentalist society. But fundamentalists wield a considerable influence,” Balmer said. “Fundamentalists are much more influential than they were 50 years ago. The religious right dates to the 1970s and that’s when it begins taking off.”

Balmer attributes the growth of fundamentalism in the United States both to specific historical cues and to the ability of fundamentalists to communicate a very simple and unambiguous ideology. “People with that kind of disposition have come to have a profound influence on the media,” Balmer said. “I’m thinking about radio in particular, but also Pat Robertson on TV and televangelists and all the right-wing talk show hosts.”

Whether in the United States, the Middle East or South Asia, fundamentalists attempt to resacralize an increasingly secular world. Their efforts are in large measure a comment on how threatening modernization can seem not only to traditional religious values but to broader human values as well.

“The modern world, which seems so exciting to a liberal, seems Godless, drained of meaning, and even satanic to a fundamentalist,” writes Karen Armstrong in The Battle for God. Armstrong emphasizes that while fundamentalist movements are often angry, intolerant and reactionary, they are also modern, innovative and modernizing. “In various ways, fundamentalists have rejected the separations of modernity (between church and state, secular and profane) and tried to recreate a lost wholeness,” Armstrong notes.

The perception that science and technology have created as many problems as they’ve solved and the universal hunger for belief in something beyond the material realm are all part of the mix fueling religious revivalism. In fundamentalist movements around the world, believers are called to a radical conversion that will transform their beliefs, identity and actions. This in turn often triggers reactions from the unconverted that can result in oppression and persecution, writes Robert Eric Frykenberg in an essay titled “Accounting for Fundamentalisms in South Asia” in Volume 4 of The Fundamentalism Project.

While belief in a utopian future underlies fundamentalist movements around the world, fundamentalists reject the notion of progress that has been so strong in Western culture. Indeed, fundamentalists tend to see life as getting worse, not better. Joel Carpenter, a professor of history and provost at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, said the fundamentalist world vision is epitomized in remarks made by the president of the Moody Bible Institute in the 1940s that it was possible to be robbed at midday in Manhattan and to be stabbed after dinner in Chicago -- a comment that expresses the fear and suspicion that fundamentalists then and now bring to the outside world.

According to Frykenberg, fundamentalists see evil and corruption coming from outside and also dangerously lurking on the inside. “Good people must be vigilant, ready to fight, and, if necessary, to suffer. ‘The System’ of evil is profoundly deceptive, sinister, and subtle,” writes Frykenberg.

The reforming zeal of fundamentalists has had some positive effects. “Fundamentalists tend to be puritans, to be cleanies, to promote private ethics. They want honesty in day-to-day transactions,” said Marty. He noted that American fundamentalists have brought greater attention to the family and have slowed down the development of cloning in the United States while in the Islamic world, the best schools in Egypt are Islamist schools and the best medical clinics in Muslim Africa are those founded by fundamentalists.

If nothing else, the rise in global fundamentalism proves that the adage that “God is dead” is far from true in the 21st century.

“One thing we could say for sure is that the assumption that most social scientists and historians have had, that secularization is inevitable and irreversible and will someday be complete, has been shown not to be true. Religion is very much alive and very much a factor, just not in people’s personal lives but in public affairs,” said Carpenter.

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer and opinion editor. Her e-mail address is

Invoking the past, setting an agenda for the future

Because of the different theologies they grow out of, fundamentalisms can and do differ from one society to another. As a Western term coming out of a Protestant Christian tradition, fundamentalism may not be the most appropriate word used to describe anti-secular religious resurgence within other religious traditions, say some scholars, who prefer “Islamism” or “Jewish extremism” to talk about strains in Islam and Judaism that attempt to combat secular modernity.

Nonetheless, “fundamentalism” serves as a handy catch-all word to describe religious movements around the world that employ some common strategies in contending with a world they see as hostile and threatening. Scholars Martin Marty and Scott Appleby said fundamentalists fortify their beleaguered sense of identity by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs and practices from a sacred past, which they then refine and modify to fend off outsiders who would draw them into a syncretistic, a-religious or irreligious cultural milieu. In trying to restore the efficacy of religious life, fundamentalists are similar to other religious revivalists of past centuries. But however much they invoke a bygone golden era, fundamentalists’ agendas are directed toward the future, not the past, with fundamentalists attempting to refashion society according to their ideas.

“Fundamentalists set and maintain boundaries, identify and mythologize their enemies, seek converts, and create and sustain an array of institutions in pursuit of a comprehensive reconstruction of society,” write Marty and Appleby in their introduction to Volume 4 of The Fundamentalism Project.

Like it or not, fundamentalism is not going to disappear soon, warns Karen Armstrong. “In some places it is either going from strength to strength or becoming more extreme,” she observes.

-- Margot Patterson

Related books

The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, by Karen Armstrong (Ballantine Books, 2000, $15)

The Fundamentalism Project, edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (University of Chicago Press, 1994, five volumes)

Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements, by Richard T. Antoun (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001, $21.95)

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicism, by George M. Marsden (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991, $15)

Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, by Joel A. Carpenter (Oxford University Press, 1999, $21.50)

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 2004

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