Fundamentalism has never enjoyed favorable press. In the 1920s, H.L. Mencken, who was as vituperative as he was funny, said that fundamentalists “constituted, perhaps, the most ignorant class of teachers ever set up to lead a civilized people; they are even more ignorant than the county superintendents of schools.” Since the Scopes Trial, fundamentalism has been synonymous with obscurantism, provincialism, and intolerance. Yet during the 1970s and ’80s the scholarly assessment of fundamentalism changed. A number of historians attempted to understand fundamentalism on its own terms. This scholarship showed that militant evangelicalism was not nearly as anti-intellectual and anti-modern as previously imagined. In fact, fundamentalists emerged as befuddled but nonetheless sympathetic believers who endeavored to maintain Christian faith and practice in the face of overwhelming odds.
Ironically, after two decades of sympathetic reassessment, current studies of fundamentalism return to the outlook that characterized academic and journalistic attitudes during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Fundamentalist Project at the University of Chicago, which has been generously funded by the MacArthur Foundation and sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, views fundamentalism as a global phenomenon—from Christian Adventism to Therevada Buddhism—and tries to describe these diverse religious traditions in terms that the believers themselves would recognize. The project’s overriding concern is to explain why fundamentalists are hostile to modern society, that is, society characterized by secular rationality, religious pluralism, and individualism.
Rather than leading to greater understanding, the project actually confirms the worst fears of those for whom it was written. The volumes published thus far rarely look beyond the politics of fundamentalism, which are viewed as a menace. In fact, what emerges implicitly from many scholarly treatments of fundamentalism— the Fundamentalist Project being just one example—is a deep antagonism between modernity and traditional religious faith and practice. Just as fundamentalists fear the acids of modernity, so professionals and academics fear religious convictions that go beyond bland expressions of good will.
To understand fundamentalists, at least of the American Protestant variety, it is necessary, first of all, to have some historical perspective. A common observation and tacit complaint about militant evangelicals is that they seek to make all aspects of society conform to their religious convictions. This desire threatens the very fabric of modern society, which compartmentalizes law, polity, culture, economy, and religion. But fundamentalists are by no means the first believers in modern times to apply the truths they profess to the workings of society. A similar impulse has motivated and still informs mainline Protestants, who previously rallied under the banner of Christian America but now promote world peace and “justice-love.” Fundamentalists are hardly the first Protestants to worry about the effects of religious pluralism and moral decay.
Understanding fundamentalism also requires some recognition of the genuine perils that modern nation-states and international capitalism pose to religious communities. Centralized government and large-scale capitalism are two of the primary forces of modernization which social scientists have long used to explain the erosion of religious and ethnic identities. Where in traditional societies the family was the fundamental unit of socio-economic and cultural life, modern society replaces the services provided by families with the labors of large impersonal bureaucracies, thereby undermining the importance of such mediating structures as families, neighborhoods, and churches.
Fundamentalism needs to be seen from this perspective. It is not strictly about interjecting religious principles into public policy. It is also an expression of discontent with social arrangements that often, in the name of freedom, rob individuals and families of autonomy and identity. Take the examples of abortion, public education, and funding for the arts. Fundamentalists object to these aspects of public life, not simply because of certain moral convictions, but also because the organization of modern society requires them, whether through taxation or the general interdependence of a global economy, to support and tolerate practices which they find wicked. The problem then may not be with religious zealotry but rather with the increasing centralization and standardization of modern society.
In addition, fundamentalist efforts to break down the compartments of modern society, to see life whole, is not as odd as some scholars let on. For the very trend of modernization has been to weave the different strands of individual and social life into a seamless web for the purpose of greater economic expansion and political efficiency. From this angle fundamentalism may be seen as a religious defense of local rights and practices fully in line with republican notions of limited government, as well as a protest against the dehumanizing trends of modern life. Yet, to academics who in their professional lives depend upon the forces of modernization for sustenance and advancement, fundamentalism is a menace which threatens the productivity, efficiency, and civility that modern society requires.
In the end, a basic question remains: is fundamentalism an abnormal expression of religious enthusiasm or is it a legitimate form of political protest? Unfortunately, the newest literature on fundamentalism begs the question. By lumping together all conservative religious movements under the heading “fundamentalist,” the modern academy presumes that any religious objection to modernity by definition deviates from the mainstream. What is needed in the study of these groups is humility, not condescension. Fundamentalists have legitimate concerns about how to practice and perpetuate their beliefs in a society that, on the one hand, seems to encourage greater freedom of expression, and on the other treats dissent as an impediment to social harmony and efficiency. But as long as scholars and journalists fail to consider the price that modernity exacts from conservative believers, they will continue to regard fundamentalism merely as an aberration.