The concept of religious fundamentalism originally developed among Christian revival movements in California and New England around the turn of the 20th century. But since 1979, the meaning of the word has expanded to include Muslims and Jews and Sikhs. But before we can understand the implications of world fundamentalism, we need to know what fundamentalism means in its original Christian designation.
To begin with, although most fundamentalists would consider themselves born-again Christians, not all born-agains are fundamentalists. To call oneself a born-again Christian, as do between 30 and 50 million Americans, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, means to have gone through an adult conversion experience that included accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. The experience is often preceded by a period of less than exemplary living, after which the believer is “rescued” by the Lord and is called to regenerate his or her life. But just as Carter and Reagan had very different political viewpoints, many born-again Christians refuse to align themselves with the so-called Christian Right, remaining staunchly liberal on social issues and often preferring to maintain separation of church and state.
How Did Fundamentalism Come To Be?
When empirical philosophy was applied to Biblical criticism during the 19th century, increasing numbers of Christians began to accept the Bible as largely symbolic and metaphorical rather than literally true. Scientific evidence and biblical scholarship were increasingly showing that on a rational level at least, the Bible didn’t stand up to scrutiny as either a scientific document or even as the work of many of the men to whom it was credited. Bible scholars, for instance, were able to show based on textual evidence that the first five books of the Bible, known in Hebrew as the Torah, could not have been written by one person, and certainly not Moses. Indeed, they were shown to have been composed after the works of the Prophets, who follow those books in both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. And parts of the creation and flood narratives were found to closely resemble accounts from Sumerian and Babylonian myths that predate the Bible by more than a thousand years.
Those Christians who clung to the old belief that every word of the Bible was literally true — called biblical inerrancy — came together and formulated their beliefs at a series of revival meetings and Bible study conferences that took place across North America from Ontario to Southern California between 1875 and 1915. These groups agreed on five “fundamentals” of Christian belief that were enumerated in a series of 12 paperback volumes containing scholarly essays on the Bible that appeared between 1910 and 1915, entitled The Fundamentals. Those fundamentals included:
- Biblical inerrancy
- The divinity of Jesus
- The Virgin Birth
- The belief that Jesus died to redeem humankind
- An expectation of the Second Coming, or physical return, of Jesus Christ to initiate his thousand-year rule of the Earth, which came to be known as the Millennium.
By definition, fundamentalists also believe in some form of creationism, the doctrine that the universe was created only a few thousand years ago, rather than the billions claimed by modern science, and that God created man and woman and all the species outright, rather than by a process of evolution. (Creationists differ over how to explain fossil records that “appear” to be millions of years old. Some believe God created them that way on purpose, others, that they were put there by Satan to mislead humanity.)
Fundamentalism, or the adherence to the fundamentals of Christianity, grew at least in part out of a desire by fundamentalists to return to the days of a less ethnically and religiously diverse America, a time that predated not only the empirical approach to biblical criticism but also the influx of large numbers of immigrants from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean rim, mainly Roman Catholics and Jews. They especially sought a return to a world in which moral laws were absolute, men dominated women, and the laws of the Bible were strictly adhered to. Throughout the 20th century, for example, fundamentalist Christians have staunchly opposed equal rights for women and the legalization of homosexuality and abortion. For these reasons, fundamentalist Christians tend to be intolerant of those who practice modernized, liberalized, or less rigorous forms of their religion (something that is true to some extent of all religious fundamentalists, including Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs). They lobby to have their beliefs, including creationism, taught in public schools and, increasingly, they have moved into the political arena by promoting candidates for public office — from local school boards to the presidency of the United States. The extremist fringe of fundamentalism advocates militant action that may include civil disobedience, violence, and even murder.
Although many of the most vocal fundamentalists are rigidly conservative in their political orientation, national polls have indicated that as few as one-third of Americans who identify themselves as born-again Christians align themselves with the so-called Religious Right, which is dominated by politically active fundamentalists with a socially conservative agenda.