This Week’s Mtg: Fundamentalism And Modernity

This one was Steve’s idea and I’m trying to get him to come and run the show.  [UPDATE:  He’ll be there and suggests you read something on the radical doctrines called Dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism.  Try this and, for far more detail on the Christian Right in general, this.]

Didn’t we just talk about fundamentalism?  Yeah, but mainly about Islamic fundamentalism, the  politically active — and sometimes violent — religious fundamentalism in far away lands.  What about here?  I suggest, for variety’s sake, that we spend the evening focusing on fundamentalism here at home.  This for all practical purposes means Christian fundamentalism, a version of fundamentalism that is often political but seldom violent.  Sionce it’s our countrymen (and some of our relative sand friends, probably), hopefully we can do a better job understanding this phenomenon’s causes and future.

As background, here are a few facts about American fundamentalism, a few thoughts on how reaction to modernity may have spurred fundamentalism’s growth, and some discussion questions.

A new topics list for the summer months will be available Thursday, too.


Fundamentalist does not equal evangelical!  Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists and not all fundamentalists are evangelicals.  Here are some interesting data comparing evangelicals to religious Americans as a whole and to other religious groups.  Pulling a few numbers out gives us a sense of who evangelicals are and how many of them are fundamentalist.

  • Numbers/Beliefs:  60% of evangelicals say they believe that every word of the Bible is literally true — the very definition of fundamentalist.  This is higher than for any other religious group, even Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Only 33% of all Americans believe this.
  • Similarly, 41% of evangelicals believe there is “only one, true way” to interpret their religion.  This is higher than for all Americans (27%), but much lower than for Mormons (77%) or Jehovah’s Witnesses (54%).
  • 80% of evangelicals say that religion is very important to their lives, compared to 55% of all Americans.
  • Sects:  There are many, many evangelical and fundamentalist sects.  But, Southern Baptists comprise about 40% of American evangelicals.
  • Catholics are not fundamentalists in the usual definition.  However, politically, conservative Catholics have united with the Christian Right to a degree thought impossible just a few decades ago.  So, many of the roughly one-quarter of Americans who are Catholic can be thought of as fundamentalists in a political sense
  • Regions:  One-half of (White) evangelicals live in the South; only one-third of all Americans do.

Also, here’s Wiki’s definition of “Christian fundamentalist.”


We’ve talked a lot about how Islamism is in part a reaction to the strains and disruptions of modernization.  Can we say the same about American fundamentalists?  Well, I think we can, especially if we look at the three “Great Awakenings” of religiosity in American history.  The most recent two centered around fundamentalism: (1) The early 20th century wave that crested with the 1925 Scopes trial, and the 1970s-80s wave that led to (and was led by) the religious right.

Arguably, as Steve has said, these waves were in large parts reactions to modernization, especially the parts of modernization that intruded on family dynamics and everyday life in ways that people could not escape, such as those involving the family or education.

  • Growing urbanization, then secularization of both culture and politics.
  • Women’s rights and civil rights and immigration.
  • Family breakdown among the working class.
  • Liberal social policies, such as legalized abortion, and the teaching of evolution in schools.
  • Economic changes; e.g., the loss of stable employment for non-college educated men.
  • World events: Opposition to Communism and opportunities created by America’s 20th century superpower status.

I hope we can look at fundamentalism in a sympathetic way and go beyond the political activities of the Christian Right to try to understand what drives fundamentalism and why it has taken the forms it has taken in this country.  Christian fundamentalism is not inherently militant or even political.  If many of its adherents have become that way, we need to try to understand what’s driving it, and that requires a bit of empathy with them.


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