RFE/RL, Feb. 19, 2003
By Don Hill
Among Christians, the word “fundamentalist” originally referred to members of a Christian religious movement that developed in the United States. Since the 1950s, writers and scholars have expanded its meaning to apply to other strict and absolutist religious believers as well. In this second part of a three-part series, a Christian theologian and an interfaith scholar look at the nature of Christian fundamentalism.
Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — There’s a joke that has been circulating for many years among members of the Christian fundamentalist religious movement. A fundamentalist minister ends a long debate with a religious opponent by saying: “Very well. I will uphold your right to worship God in your way, if you will uphold my right to worship God in God’s way.”
But wait. To the most fervent of Christian fundamentalists, it may not be a joke.
Using the English word “fundamentalist” in a religious context first happened in the United States in the 1920s. It described a conservative religious movement that became active among various Protestant bodies after World War I. “Protestant” refers to any of the Christian denominations that formed as a result of the 16th-century revolt, known as the Reformation, against the Roman Catholic Church.
David Beale of Bob Jones University in South Carolina is the author of a history of Christian fundamentalism. To him, a fundamentalist is someone who has remained faithful to that early movement. A fundamentalist, Beale said, “just knows” that the Bible is the only authoritative word of God, and contains no errors.
To Beale, any deviation from what the early Christian fundamentalists considered the basic teachings of the church — from the inerrancy of the Bible to any accommodation of other beliefs, even those of other conservative Christians — excludes a person from the ranks of true fundamentalists.
This definition, Beale says, excludes many well-known U.S. religious leaders who often are lumped together in the public mind-set as fundamentalists — Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others. These three are remarkably well-known in the United States and beyond because of their public evangelism, involvement with TV, and other mass media and political activism. But, Beale said, they are not evangelists in the true sense of the word. “Some fundamentalists — Billy Graham, people around him — began to take a different approach in the late 1950s. And he started what they called an ‘ecumenical evangelism,’” Beale said.
Ecumenical evangelism suggests the practice of ardently preaching Christian doctrine that aims to unite different branches of the faith.
Some of these same people, Beale said, also adopted a special point of view called “Christian Zionism.” They call for active support for the establishment of an Israeli state in Palestine on the ground that it is prophesied in Judeo-Christian scripture. True fundamentalists disagree, Beale said. “We say, ‘Hey, you can’t make it happen. You just have to let God’s timetable unfold according to his plans. You just do the work of the evangelist. Get the good news out. And let God take care of Israel.”
John Esposito is the founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a number of books on relations between the two faiths. He said that often, fundamentalists of different faiths have characteristics in common. “It’s a very exclusivist, antipluralist, intolerant world view. [This] is true for, I’d say, all fundamentalists, Jews, Christians, Muslims. They’re the kind of people who wind up, in effect, saying — you know, if you press them — ‘Oh, God is a god of compassion, mercy, and love.’ What they mean is, ‘God is all of that for people like me,’” he said.
Esposito described what he said is a notable difference between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. Many Christians are sure they are not fundamentalists, but adhere to a more flexible, more liberal tradition. Most Muslims, however, consider themselves adherents of the fundamentals of their faith — and from that point of view are fundamentalists.