Fundamentalism: Theirs and Ours[1]

Each Sunday, my typically uneventful hike from the suburbs into Philadelphia for church is given food for thought by the notice board of the Unitarian church that I pass en route. Rounding the bend just before the church, I’m always eager to know what’s the diet of the day. My interest is twofold: that of a preacher keen to know what others are taking up for the day, and that of an orthodox (Trinitarian) Christian, intrigued to discover what the “faithful” imbibe once the heart of the faith has been cut out.

This particular Lord’s day, flashing past my vision were the words “Fundamentalism: Theirs and Ours.” My heart sank as I realized that, at least in the Northeast of the country, the brief post-Sept. 11 letup in the unabashed silliness of political correctness was over, and so soon at that.

Rocked back a little by the difficulty of explaining how the liberal drive for tolerance could cope with an insane Islamic jihad, this particular Unitarian congregation, apparently echoing the sentiments of the left wing of American thought, hints that fundamentalism is the evil, be it Islamic or Christian.

What appears immediately ironic is the implicit attack upon Christian fundamentalism in reaction to an atrocity by Islamic fundamentalism. What is more, their attack was directed against a pop culture driven by a woolly liberal political, religious, and social agenda. Furthermore, you can be sure that among the victims in the World Trade Center collapse were fundamentalist Christians. They died for a culture they were seeking to remedy by divine imperative amid the fulfillment of their earthly vocations. There’s little surprise, then, that the idea of Christian fundamentalism as the enemy within sticks in the gullet; sufficiently so to elicit a defense of what the thought police deem the indefensible.

Fundamentalist Christianity ~ typically an American nomenclature synonymous with Evangelicalism ~ comes in many shapes and sizes. For some, it involves simply an adherence to five fundamental tenets of the faith: the inspiration and infallibility of the Holy Scriptures, the deity of Christ, His virgin birth and miracles, His penal death for our sins, and His physical resurrection and personal return. For others, it describes additionally a life of abstentions built upon a principle of “safety first”: no drinking, smoking, dancing, etc.

Speaking personally, my acceptance of the epithet “fundamentalist” is conditional on its former definition, the embargo on smoking excepted (for I struggle to understand this as an issue of Christian liberty). I qualify the use of the label Fundamentalism not only because I am British, and thereby historically removed from some but by no means all of the historic polarizations of Fundamentalist/liberal controversies; but because the Apostle Paul tells us that it is the weaker brother who struggles to handle a fulsome liberty in Christ (Romans 14). In other words, the more mature a person becomes in their faith the fewer abstentions predominate their lives. Focused supremely on Christ, they not only distinguish matters indifferent from those which are vital, they understand John Calvin’s point that matters are only indifferent if we use them indifferently.

All this said, the parsing of the term “Fundamentalism” does little to close today’s theological and ideological conflicts. The aforementioned parsing is an exercise within Christianity, which happens to be but one major tribal grouping within postmodern society. It’s the very presence of multiple competing tribal groupings in society which has led to the concept of the culture war. All but the most oblivious are involved in this conflict.

What liberals storming the high ground fail to confess is that they are regularly the first to fire the shots. Whether it be Peter Tatchell, prominent spokesperson of the gay lobby in Britain, invading the Archbishop of Canterbury’s pulpit to denounce the prelate’s supposed homophobia, or the liberal publisher SCM putting out a treatise on the evils of fundamentalism titled F-Word, you scratch a liberal and you get a militant.

Of course, Christians who embrace the fundamentals of their faith are far from perfect. Yet, it’s precisely this imperfection which leads us to cling to the unique merits of Christ. As soldiers in his army we’ve been given weapons, but they’re different. They are, says the apostle Paul, “not carnal.” We opt not for  hijacked planes, car bombers, Semtex, or the poison pens of other tribal groupings. Rather, our captain Christ Jesus has called us to a bold love.

We likely don’t think this love is much of a weapon. Yet, says the apostle, we are “mighty in God for the pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Not only may we confront Islam by demonstrating a better way than that of violence, we are equipped to chop through the logic of liberalism. In this logic liberalism argues that the best way to keep the peace in the west is to imply or to say that Christian Fundamentalism is as culpable for the present troubles as is its Islamist counterpart; and that if we’re going to get rid of one Fundamentalism we have to get rid of both.

Forgive us Christian ‘fundamentalists” if we refuse to lie down under the sword of this innuendo. Doubtless, our Fundamentalism can improve. We must keep examining it under the light of Scripture, maintaining our pursuit of Christ’s perfect balance of grace and truth, preserving our Fundamentalism disconnected from the actions of western governments. But to jettison our Fundamentalism altogether, simply because a new liberally-minded Fundamentalism tells us to, is not happening. Christian fundamentalists won’t blow up World Trade Center towers, but neither will we implode like them. In this sense there is a “Fundamentalism: Theirs and Ours,” and how glad the world can be for the difference.


[1] First published as a guest column titled, “Not all the ‘fundamentalisms’ of the world are created equal”, in The Dallas Morning News, Saturday January 19, 2002, 4G. The piece has been edited for publication here.

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