Published: April 1, 2008
(ABP) -- Were the 9/11 terrorists who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers fundamentalists?
“Fundamentalism” specifically refers to a conservative movement within U.S. Protestant Christianity that began about a century ago, according to religious scholars. But they concede the term has become a useful -- although disputed -- label for various expressions of militant religion.
“‘Fundamentalist’ has been applied to different groups with different agendas across the world,” reported Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. “It’s an essentially contested concept, with no universal definition.
“But as far as I know, only Christians call themselves fundamentalists,” he continued. “The media and some scholars of religion have taken ‘fundamentalism’ from the American ultraconservative Protestants and projected that onto other groups that scare us.”
Fair enough, said Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, who contended that wider use of the term is both acceptable and helpful.
“‘Fundamentalism’ can be used broader than Protestant Christianity,” Leonard said. “We’re at a point where terms in the public square don’t just belong to a particular kind of Christian unless you want to be very technical.”
Rob Sellers, professor of missions at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology, offered a definition of fundamentalism flexible enough to accommodate multiple religions: “a defense of the faith, whatever that faith might be, against whatever is perceived to be a threat or a challenge, or against whatever is judged to be heretical or ‘liberal.’”
And now fundamentalism can even tilt in the opposite direction, added Sellers’ colleague Dan Stiver, a theology professor at Logsdon. “Of course, you could have a liberal fundamentalist -- [someone] not usually seen as a fundamentalist, but who acts in a fundamentalist or militant way.”
That’s true across the globe, observed Rick Shaw, a former missionary in Eastern Europe and now dean of Wayland Baptist University’s Kenya campus. Fundamentalism does not always tilt “to the right,” he said, basing his assertion on experience with Christians, Muslims and Hindus. “I’ve experienced that vehemence to the left.”
In the beginning -- around the turn of the 20th century -- fundamentalism originated among militant-but-nonviolent conservative American Protestants. They were primarily Presbyterians and Baptists in the North who resisted modernism, Olson said.
“What they did was network with each other to oppose the rise of liberal theology in mainline Protestant seminaries,” he explained. “They were afraid of a lack of doctrinal concern among liberals. They believed it was important to regain the seminaries or separate from them.”
To chart their course, “they wrote up lists of the fundamentals of the faith” that, they believed, formed the bedrock of genuine and true Christianity, he recalled.
Fundamentalism takes its name from those lists, published between 1910 and 1915 in a 12-volume series of articles called “The Fundamentals.” Collectively, they encompassed scores of essays, written by conservative leaders from several Protestant denominations.
“They were trying to find the boundaries of authentic Christianity,” Olson said. The list of key Christian doctrines primarily focused on Christ’s deity, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, substitutionary atonement and biblical miracles, he added, acknowledging, “The list varied somewhat.”
Even those variations carried consequences, he noted. For example, Baptists in the North who agreed on a long list of fundamentals nonetheless split over differing interpretations of the Bible’s teachings about how the world will end.
But until that day, the scholars agree, adherents of radical religion -- no matter what their faith tradition -- are likely to be tagged as fundamentalists.
This is the second in a series on Fundamentalism.