Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Understanding Fundamentalism

Any discussion of fundamentalism runs head long into the problem of definition. For example, if we were to define fundamentalists as “those who are willing to use force to establish the sovereignty of their religion, then there are virtually no Christian fundamentalists today, though there are millions of Muslim fundamentalists who might fit that description. For example, President George W. Bush, misguidedly wanted to establish Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he most certainly was not out to establish Christianity as the supreme religion.

Failure to define terms allows Hollywood elites like Rosie O’Donnell, for example, to make ridiculous statements equating Christian and Muslim “radicals,” i.e. fundamentalists. As far as I know, she didn’t define what she meant, but my guess is that if she and many others who share her view, were pressed for a definition they might define Christian fundamentalists as any Christian who doesn’t go along with the politically correct ideology of most mainline churches, e.g. acceptance of abortion, support for homosexuality and gay marriage, tolerance and even acceptance of all other religions, etc.

While this may or may not describe Christian fundamentalists, it is not a historically accurate definition. In its broad sense, the essence of religious fundamentalism is absolute devotion to one’s religious founder and the desire to interpret one’s sacred books as they were originally intended to be understood.

Fundamentalism, as discussed in this chapter, deals only with this broad sense of the term. There is also a more narrow sense in which Christian fundamentalism, in particular, began to be characterized by narrow sectarianism and doctrinal disputes over such issues as the meaning of end-time prophecies and personal application issues such as drinking, card playing and attending movies. In this narrow sense, Christian fundamentalists had an unfortunate tendency to be intolerant, petty, and self-righteous as they focused on more and more hairsplitting doctrinal differences.

This chapter is not concerned with this narrow sectarianism but deals only with the broad historical sense of the term “fundamentalist” which would include most of the Christians who call themselves “Evangelicals” as well as fundamentalist Muslims regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shiite, etc.

Christian fundamentalism

The origin of the word “fundamentalist,” dates to the publication of a set of essays in 1909 entitled, The Fundamentals. These essays defended what the fundamentalists, as they came to be known, believed to be core, non-negotiable elements of the Christian faith. The “fundamentalists” were responding to those known at the time as “modernists” (i.e. progressives) who denied these doctrines and tended to deny the fundamentalists’ “literal” interpretation of the Bible.

These modernists (like many progressive biblical scholars today) were almost all white, male, Eurocentric, academic elites who found many of the stories in the Bible contrary to their “modern” (19th and 20th century) politically correct sensibilities. As a result, they tended to re-interpret such stories as allegories or metaphors.

By contrast, “fundamentalists” argued for a “literal interpretation” of the Bible. The phrase “literal interpretation” was rather unfortunate, however, because it left the impression that fundamentalists denied all symbolism or figures of speech in the Bible. That perception is factually in error. Christian fundamentalists fully acknowledge the presence of figures of speech, symbols and parables in the Bible. The phrase “literal interpretation” was only used in contrast to the more wildly allegorical interpretation used by the Modernists.

By “literal” interpretation, the “Fundamentalists” believed that the Bible should be interpreted by attempting to determine what the original authors of the biblical writings were trying to communicate to their original readers. This is done by interpreting these biblical writings just like any other ancient documents, i.e. by taking such matters into consideration as genre, grammar, figures of speech and historical background.

An example of literal interpretation from the Old Testament could be regarding the commands to drive out the Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, etc. from the Promised Land.

“When my angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites and the Hittites, and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I blot them out” (Exodus 23:23).

And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. (Exodus 23:28).

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (Exodus 34:11).

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, (Deuteronomy 7:1).

“but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, (Deuteronomy 20:17).

As repugnant as these commands may be to modern Western sensibilities, Christian fundamentalists would refuse to interpret such stories as if they were allegories or symbolic narratives. Fundamentalists would insist, rather, that these commands, understood literally, were directed to specific people (Hebrews) at a specific time, under specific circumstances and were never intended as universal commands to kill all the infidels wherever you find them. Christian fundamentalists who follow in the intellectual tradition of 1909 Fundamentals, therefore, have never promoted violence in an attempt to coerce people into submission to Christianity.

On the contrary, based on the commands of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, fundamentalist Christians believe they have a mandate to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” that is, to tell people that all have sinned against God and stand condemned before him, but that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ to die an atoning sacrifice for the sin of all who turn to him in repentance and faith.

Following Jesus’ teachings the overwhelmingly vast majority of Christian fundamentalists oppose vengeance and personal violence. In other words, while they support the lawful use of violence by police when necessary (Romans 13:4-5), and while many (though not all) may support the just use of military force (Hebrews 11:32-34), they do not believe in violently taking the law into their own hands, and those who consistently follow Jesus do not use force to retaliate for wrongs done against them (Matthew 5:39, cf. Romans 12:19; Hebrews10:30).

Opponents of Christian fundamentalism would point out the examples of Christian violence—like the crusades, the inquisition, the IRA, and those who commit violent acts against abortion workers and abortion clinics. Most Fundamentalists would say that those who commit such violent acts were certainly not following Jesus and, with the possible exception of some perpetrators of abortion clinic violence, they were not true Christians at all—at least not in the historical fundamentalist sense described above as found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, i.e. those who have truly recognized and repented of their sin, turning to Jesus Christ in loving devotion (faith).

While some of those who perpetrate abortion clinic violence may be Christian fundamentalists, they are universally condemned by the overwhelmingly vast majority of Christian fundamentalists and represent only a very tiny fraction of the whole.

To illustrate this point, it could be noted that most people would insist that Muslim fundamentalists comprise only a small fraction of the total number of Muslims. Yet this small fraction have killed literally millions of people since 1993. By contrast, the National Abortion Federation provides a list of all those murdered for their involvement in the abortion industry since 1993 along with the names of the murderers. There are exactly five murderers: James Koop, Eric Randolph, John Salvi, Paul Hill, and Michael Griffin. Together they killed exactly 8 people since 1993. Muslim fundamentalists kill millions.

The five murderers assumed to be Christian fundamentalists, kill exactly eight people. Yet Christian fundamentalists have been compared with Muslim fundamentalists! The only possible explanations for this is either remarkable ignorance or anti-Christian bigotry and hate.

Unfortunately, it is this tiny fraction of abortion killers that get all the press—after all, it is news when some hateful individual claiming to be Christian kills an abortion doctor or a gay person. It is not news that hundreds-of-thousands of fundamentalist Christians went to church that week to worship and to give generously of their time and money to serve others. Nor is it news that the vast majority of Christian fundamentalists see such violence as a direct violation of James 1:20, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

While Christian fundamentalists are often attacked for their political activism (i.e. exercising their Constitutional rights), for every fundamentalist who is politically active there must be a hundred, if not a thousand, who believe that their primary task is to bring glory to God or to preach the gospel.

Contrary to some impressions, the fact is that it is a real challenge to get most fundamentalists to do anything political beyond voting. Christian fundamentalists—in the broad sense of the term--are such a huge group that if even half of them became politically unified and serious about political action, the result would be political earthquake.

There is little chance of that happening, however. Several years ago when an artist used public funding to depict a crucified Jesus dipped in urine, most fundamentalists were mute. If the spending of tax dollars to portray a crucified Jesus in urine didn’t motivate fundamentalists, nothing will (it is not hard to imagine what would happen if an artist publicly displayed a picture of Muhammad Qur’an dipped in urine)!

The vast majority of Christian fundamentalists, however, believe they are following Jesus when they quietly pray, worship, engage in outreach programs and give lots and lots of money to their churches and various charitable causes.

Muslim fundamentalism

Just as Christian fundamentalists point to the Bible, Muslim fundamentalists point to the Qur’an:

“…But if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith” (Sura 2:191).

“And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression” (Sura 2:193).

“Soon shall We cast terror Into the hearts of the Unbelievers (Sura 3:151).

“I will instill terror Into the hearts of the Unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks And smite all their Finger-tips off them. This because they contended Against God and His Apostle: If any contend against God And His Apostle, God Is strict in punishment” (Sura


“Against them [Unbelievers] make ready Your strength to the utmost of your power, including Steeds of war, to strike terror Into (the hearts of) the enemies Of God and your enemies…” (Sura 8:60).

“Apostle! [i.e. Muhammad] rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are Twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will Vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, They will vanquish a thousand Of the Unbelievers: for these Are a people without understanding” (Sura 8:65)

“But when the forbidden months Are past, then fight and slay The Pagans wherever ye find them, And seize them, beleaguer them, And lie in wait for them…” (Sura 9:5).

“Fight those who believe not In God nor the Last Day…” (Sura 9:29)

“O Prophet! [Muhammad] strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites And be firm against them. Their abode is Hell…” (Sura 9:73).

“O ye who believe! Fight the Unbelievers who gird you about…” (Sura 9:123).

“And for those who reject Faith And deny Our signs, There will be a humiliating

Punishment” (Sura 22:57).

“Those who annoy God and His Apostle—God has cursed them In this world and In the Hereafter, And has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment” (Sura 33:57)

“Truly if the Hypocrites, And those in whose hearts Is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, Desist not…They shall have a curse On them: wherever they Are found, they shall be Seized and slain (without mercy)” (Sura 33:61).

“Therefore, when ye meet The Unbelievers (in fight), Smite at their necks…” (Sura 47:4).

While both moderates and fundamentalists in Islam take seriously Muhammad’s claim to be the last and greatest prophet, and believe that the Qur’an was revealed by God, Muslim moderates are not entirely comfortable with all the commands to violence in the Qur’an or ahadith. Muslim moderates, therefore, tend to emphasize the parts of the Qur’an about compassion, mercy and peace. They may argue that Muhammad was just fighting defensive battles and that everyone has the right to defend themselves…and indeed, some of the passages cited above do appear in defensive contexts.

Some moderates may dismiss the commands to violence as part of seventh century Arabic culture that is no longer relevant today. Or they may spiritualize Muhammad’s life and call to violent jihad as if he were only calling for an inward struggle against sin.

Muslim fundamentalists, on the other hand, point to the life of Muhammad as their example. They are likely to point out that many of Muhammad’s battles were offensive, not defensive. After Muhammad left Mecca for Medina, he was no longer persecuted but became a powerful warrior who went on the offensive. He ordered executions, fought battles, and fought the infidel wherever he found them, just as he believed Allah had commanded.

Muslim fundamentalists may even argue that Muhammad’s later commands to violent jihad and to kill the infidel abrogate or overturn his earlier, more peaceful sayings. Some believe the commands to be merciful and hospitable extend only to other Muslims and to not apply to relations with “infidels.”

Indeed, Muhammad’s last command to leave no two religions in Arabia was a command of conquest, not defense. Beginning right after Muhammad, Muslim warriors—believing they were following Muhammad—extended the control of Islam by the sword all the way from southern France to Indonesia.

Unlike the commands to violence in the Old Testament which were given to a particular people at a particular time and place, commands to violence in Islamic texts are often broad enough and sufficiently vague to be applied to infidels at any time, in any place.

The Qur’an commands to “fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression” (Sura 2:193). It is always easy for Muslim fundamentalists to imagine some kind of “tumult or oppression” to use in justifying violent Jihad or to argue that they are fighting a defensive war. After all, the Qur’an forbids Muslims from killing other Muslims and yet that has not kept Muslim fundamentalists from killing other Muslims. The Muslim fundamentalists simply declare that the Muslims they are killing are not really Muslim at all. In the same way, it is relatively easy for Muslim fundamentalists to say they are fighting a defensive war against Infidels based on all kinds of imagined offenses.

Muslim fundamentalists would say that Muhammad’s commands to fight infidels was universal and cannot just be relegated to the seventh century but is an obligation for all Muslims at all times and in all places. They would insist that the call to Jihad is not just a call to spiritual struggle but is primarily a call to violent military struggle. The entire world must be brought into submission to Allah, peacefully if possible (i.e. if the infidel will convert to Islam) but by absolutely any and all means necessary.

As the Ayatollah Khomeini once said,

Islam makes it incumbent on all adult males, provided they are not disabled or incapacitated, to prepare themselves for the conquest of [other] countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world. . . . But those who study Islamic Holy War will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. . . . Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all!


Muhammad was a military and political leader whose armies struck terror into the hearts of non-Muslims in Arabia as he battled, captured, enslaved and executed his opponents. Muslim fundamentalists interpret the life and words of Muhammad in historical, literary context and conclude that in order to be faithful to Muhammad their mission is to bring the world into submission to Allah, peacefully if possible, but by absolutely any and all means necessary.

As a result they follow the example of Muhammad waging violent Jihad in their attempt to force the world into submission to Allah. In modern times, these fundamentalist jihadists capture, enslave, decapitate and slaughter innocent people by the millions following the example of Muhammad.

Many Americans argue that Muslim fundamentalists are only a small percentage of the total Muslim community but even if only 1% of Muslims were fundamentalist, 1% of a billion Muslims is ten million people who think the world must be brought under submission to Allah by absolutely all means necessary (and some estimates range as high as 10% or more). These Muslim fundamentalists are often the worst oppressors of Muslims who do not share their interpretation of the Qur’an.

By contrast, the Jesus of the Gospels was an itinerant prophet who traveled from village to village healing the sick and disabled, casting out demons, and even occasionally raising the dead. He rejected all efforts to make him king.

According to the Gospels, Jesus taught that he could personally forgive sin, that he had the authority to overturn Jewish dietary laws, that he was lord over the Sabbath, and that he would be the final end-time judge—things in a first century Jewish culture believed to be true only of God. Such things would certainly explain the fact that he was charged with blasphemy by his enemies. When his earliest followers became convinced that he had actually come back physically from the dead, they believed him.

Christian fundamentalists interpret the New Testament in historical, literary context and conclude that in order to be faithful to Jesus Christ their mission is to go into all the world and preach the gospel of repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ, showing love and compassion even to their enemies, as Jesus taught.

As a result, these Christian fundamentalists have spent millions and millions of dollars sending people into every area of the earth to proclaim and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. These missionaries have often given up virtually everything, risking their lives to start and run clinics, orphanages, homeless shelters and schools all over the world.

Christian fundamentalists have rescued people from forced prostitution, sexual slavery, and domestic abuse. They’ve provided food, shelter, comfort, education, medical care, and other assistance, not just to Christians, but to people from nearly every tribe, race, nationality and religion on the face of the earth. In fact, many Christian fundamentalists have been murdered by the very groups of people they came to serve.

Undeterred, they still continue to go, while other Christian fundamentalists stay behind collectively giving millions to support these efforts and to work tirelessly in their communities through church and para-church ministries as well as community charities.

Fundamentalism, or absolute dedication and devotion, is not necessarily a bad thing—it all depends on to whom or to what cause one is dedicated.

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