The Book’s the Difference

The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 could not have happened without the influence of Fundamentalism. When I use this word with an uppercase ‘F’ I refer specifically to an American religious movement that rallied behind The Fundamentals (1910-1915). A total of twelve inexpensive volumes covered a variety of topics ranging from the inerrancy of Scripture to the doctrine of atonement. A further defense of premillennial dispensationalism set Fundamentalists apart from other conservative groups. At its core, however, the movement rose up in opposition to theological liberalism.

Critics and outside observers portray Fundamentalism as a militant struggle against social progress.[1] The anti-evolution movement of the 1920s, for instance, is seen as an attack on modern science that had nothing to do with the merits of Darwinian theory or its ethical implications.

This way of understanding the conservative impulse within Christianity was extended to militant Islamic movements after World War II. Sociologists Jeffrey Hadden and Anson Shupe characterize this broader notion of global fundamentalism as “a proclamation of reclaimed authority over a sacred tradition which is to be reinstated as an antidote for a culture that has strayed from its cultural moorings.” [2] The common theme is supposed to be alienation. Just as conservative Bible believers felt isolated by the arrival of the modern scientific paradigm, so Muslims felt isolated by the arrival of the modern secular state.

There are at least two major problems with the popular Hadden-Shupe thesis. First, American Fundamentalism was, for the most part, a religious movement. Concerned believers set their sights on the rising tide of secularism within their own community of evangelical Protestants. They took their Fundamentals to be an antidote for a church that had gone astray. Influence on culture was only a secondary goal.

A second and larger point is that the language of Hadden and Shupe’s definition masks a critical difference between American Fundamentalism and militant Islam. The first group was committed to the prevailing Rule of Law typical of an organized, orderly society; the second, not so much. For instance, Fundamentalists were instrumental in creating Tennessee’s anti-evolution legislation, which in turn triggered the Scopes Trial. The act prohibited teachers from presenting anything contrary to “the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.” This certainly looks like an attempt to reinstate sacred tradition on the surrounding culture, but no matter what you might think about the law itself, the Fundamentalists operated within the constraints of a free and and democratic political structure. When John Scopes volunteered to test the law, his case was heard in a court of law. Militant Islam, as witnessed in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the attacks on 9/11, took an entirely different approach.

Moreover, essays in The Fundamentals were written by people committed to rational argument and empirical science. Only a very narrow segment of Fundamentalists could possibly fit the stereotype of anti-intellectual radicals seeking to plunge Western civilization into a theocratic dark age, and yet this is precisely the goal of militant Islam.

We need only compare The Fundamentals to Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (1964) to appreciate the difference between these two movements. Both publications were meant to serve as manifestos for their respective faith traditions, and yet their diagnoses of what went wrong and their prescriptions for change were light years apart. From within the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Egypt, Qutb argued for the violent overthrow of its secular government. And that was only the beginning. Qutb’s writings continue to have a profound influence on the Muslim world.

Exporting the “fundamentalist” label to these post-colonial Islamic groups might have seemed compelling at one time, but only on the shallowest of levels. Sociologists looked to the east and saw a reform-minded movement which treasured the Qur’an and wanted to see it play a larger role in the life of ordinary Muslims. Did this not resemble the back-to-the-Bible movement of the 1920s? It soon became apparent that the jihadis wanted so much more, but the elites had a story to tell, and that story drew a moral equivalence between Islamic radicals and conservative Christians. If Muslim fundamentalists sought the collapse of liberal Western democracy then, by mere dint of labeling, Christian Fundamentalists must have the same goal. Both movements could be demonized as religiously motivated threats to the progressive agenda.

The reluctance to mark a distinction between conservative Christianity and militant Islam stems from a refusal to take their respective texts seriously. The New Testament and the Qur’an (and the supplementary hadith) embody diametrically opposite views on the role of violence in religion and the role of religion in society. The book really does make the difference.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, April 2010, p. 27.]

[1] George M. Marsden. Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 4.

[2] Jeffrey Hadden and Anson Shupe. The Politics of Religion and Social Change. Paragon House, 1988, p. 111.


Update August 30, 2011. We hardly need more proof for the liberal calumny that there’s no fun in fundamentalism, but I could hardly pass up this little gem from Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast. Goldberg wishes to tar and feather Republican presidential candidates Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry with the dreaded “Dominionist” label. What’s so bad about Dominionism? Well, it’s akin to fundamentalism, and we should all fear fundamentalism, right? Look at how Goldberg draws the analogy:

In many ways, Dominionism is more a political phenomenon than a theological one. It cuts across Christian denominations, from stern, austere sects to the signs-and-wonders culture of modern megachurches. Think of it like political Islamism, which shapes the activism of a number of antagonistic fundamentalist movements, from Sunni Wahabis in the Arab world to Shiite fundamentalists in Iran.[i]

By the way, Goldberg was simply adding to an article by Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker, who also described Bachmann as a Dominionist.[ii]

In less than 700 words, Douglas Groothuis unpacks the whole mistaken, guilt-by-association game over at the inter-faith Patheos web site.[iii] The tag line says it all: “Once again the popular media demonstrate how woefully poor is their understanding of American evangelicals.”

[i] Michelle Goldberg, “A Christian Plot for Domination?,” The Daily Beast, August 14, 2011.

[ii] Ryan Lizza, “Leap of Faith,” The New Yorker, August 15, 2011.

[iii] Douglas Groothuis, “Michele Bachmann and Dominionism Paranoia,” Patheos, August 25, 2011.

© 2010 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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