Published: April 1, 2008
(ABP) -- Despite all their theological and cultural differences, fundamentalists of every faith share at least one common characteristic: resistance to modernity.
That’s the assessment of scholars and firsthand observers who have evaluated the varieties of religious expression.
“Fundamentalism worldwide is religious anti-modernism,” noted Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
“Fundamentalism reacts against various types of modernity,” echoed Bill Leonard, a church historian and dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School.
Whether it’s Baptist preachers J. Frank Norris and Jerry Falwell calling America to return to pre-scientific Christianity or Ayatollah Khomeini and Muqtada al-Sadr calling Muslims to resist the intrusion of Western decadence, fundamentalism finds a home in most major faith groups.
“In Christianity and Judaism, the battle with modernity in terms of elaborate militancy is the battle against pluralism -- the idea there are multiple ways to come to faith and that a given religion must come to terms with, and indeed conform to, society,” Leonard explained.
The battle extends all the way back to 17th-century England and “a very painful process in the struggle between religious establishments and religious dissenters,” he said, an observation affirmed by Olson.
The battle raged on American soil about a century ago, when Protestant fundamentalism resisted “the liberal modernist effort to change theology in light of new scientific and rationalist theses,” Leonard added.
So, the more recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism is neither unique nor surprising in the relatively younger faith, he added. “Militant action against dissent and pluralism and certainly modernity has worked itself through major elements of Christianity worldwide. … The Muslims are just now confronting that.”
And Muslims aren’t alone, said Rick Shaw, a former missionary who now is dean of Wayland Baptist University’s Kenya campus. He has seen radicalism not only among Christians and Muslims, but also Hindus.
In addition to the common denominator of anti-modernity, multiple factors or impulses transcend theological boundaries and propel adherents toward fundamentalism or militant religion. They include:
-- Dogmatic faith: “Fundamentalism begins not with militarism, but with a particular dogmatism about defining the nature of faith over against heresy and secular unbelief,” Leonard stressed. “That then often, though not always, can lead to militant terminology and sometimes militant action.”
It’s like a theological call to arms, added Rob Sellers, professor of missions at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology.
“When the guardians of orthodoxy begin to feel as if ‘heretical’ views are growing in popularity, the defense mechanisms begin to set in place,” the Baptist professor said. “One has to defend one’s own interpretations or faith and, consequently, one has to speak with certainty to the point of ‘unassailable’ authority.”
Entitlement to authority is easy to justify if you’re defending the Lord of the universe, noted Dan Stiver, a theology professor at Logsdon.
“God is an ultimate value that calls for ultimate commitment,” he explained. “If this ultimacy becomes focused outwardly rather than inwardly, it can easily be seen as divine permission to attack and destroy someone else.
“Ironically, the faith that should elicit a higher form of morality easily descends into giving one permission for the ends to justify the means, because one is fighting for God.”
The distinction between healthy faith and militant religion is narrow, Stiver acknowledged. “There’s a fine line between someone who’s a crusader for a cause that we see as healthy and admirable and someone who is single-minded, has a target and [is] determined -- and how that could turn into being militant and fundamentalist.
“A healthy crusader is focused and aggressive but is not so willing to let the end justify the means, keeps loving the enemy at the forefront -- like Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and more quickly can identify with and have compassion even for the opponent.”
Religious people who make the shift toward extremism often do so based on how they read their holy writings, Shaw observed.
“A common element is hermeneutics -- interpretation of scriptures,” he said. “I’ve seen this in radical Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It’s how they interpret the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas.”
Ironically, moderate followers of those religions consider themselves no less faithful to their scriptures, he said. But the distorted, extreme interpretations propel some adherents to radical faith.
That’s not so surprising, given the power of faith on people’s lives, Stiver reported.
“One of the aspects of religion is it’s very powerful, and people come to religion because they have legitimate needs that are met,” he said. “You would want to fill the God-shaped void in a positive way and not in a way that looks like hating your enemy instead of loving your enemy. But it can get circumvented.”
-- Identity: People of faith often gravitate to extreme positions because of what they seek in and for themselves, the scholars stressed.
An external focus on “being against something” provides longed-for identity, Stiver noted. “It’s a defensive posture in the sense of often ‘circling the wagons.’
“It’s usually defined by a pretty tight system of labeling what’s right and wrong -- black-and-white thinking. There’s good, and there’s evil,” he said. “Out of that comes a great deal of energy that motivates one to fight. The sense is you get a lot of fulfillment, identity, purpose and meaning in one’s faith from fighting this good fight.”
That reflects a “separatist mentality,” Olson added. “If you’re authentic … you’re with us,” he said.
Shaw saw this firsthand in Eastern Europe, most specifically ministering in Bosnia. Islamic extremism is “an identity people take upon themselves in contrast to another religion, in this case, [Eastern] Orthodoxy,” he recalled. While extremism represents a relatively minor segment of the Islamic population, “it is present-- but not part of mainstream Muslims.”
And although such behavior manifests itself as theological, Stiver asserted, “it’s more psychological or sociological.”
“Such an outwardly aggressive orientation contrasts with those with an inner peace, who are more secure within themselves,” he said, addressing the psychological dimension. Secure people of faith who are not radical “trust in God ultimately to be vindicated, and … because of that faith are less likely to cut corners and let the end justify the means.”
Similarly, Shaw pointed to one dimension of psychology – personality -- as a contributor to radical religion.
“Among Muslims and Hindus, there is one subpopulation attracted to [radical] faith disproportionately: young men,” he explained. “It is rare that I’ve ever met a young woman who is a radical Muslim or Hindu.”
In the United States, young African-American males are disproportionately attracted to militant forms of Islam, he added.
In all the groups, “young men are attracted to masculine structures and disciplines that have been absent in the clan or extended family,” Shaw observed.
In a related way, defining itself in opposition to a prevailing culture also provides a dimension of radical religion’s identity.
“The culture clash is a major issue,” Leonard said. “That still goes on. Particularly in Christianity in America in the last 30 or 40 years, you can see how that culture clash has surfaced-- still opposing the world, but letting it in the back door.”
He recalled growing up with such Baptist taboos as going to the movies and women wearing makeup, jewelry and short skirts. He also remembered when “worldly” music performed on guitars and drums was not permitted in church. But most conservative Protestants let those cultural barriers fall “in order to keep their statistics up and compete with the secular world,” he said.
Today, Islam is fighting a cultural battle -- but even more intensely. Leonard recounted an article by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in which she told about receiving a citation from the Saudi Arabian “dress police” for not having her head covered. “They wrote the ticket standing in front of a Victoria’s Secret store in Riyadh,” he said.
“The people who flew those planes into those buildings [on Sept. 11, 2001] convinced themselves they were the defense of God on the evil culture of the world,” he added. “They were saying, ‘We’re not going to let you destroy our culture or destroy our faith.’”
Sometimes, militant religion seeks to recreate a culture that never truly existed, Shaw said.
“Perhaps there’s an element of nostalgic longing for a collective memory,” he said, noting that memory often is selective. “There is desire for restoration, often for an empire that never existed in the first place.”
-- Fear: “Fear is the basis of many forms of fundamentalism,” Sellers stressed, citing “fear of difference, of change, of ambiguity or not having all the answers, of ‘worldliness,’ of radicality, of the future, of those who are different.”
He continued: “This fear causes some other typical characteristics -- a glorification of the past or of orthodoxy, a certainty about one’s own faith or interpretation of one’s own faith; an entrenchment mentality, a feeling that ‘truth’ must be guarded against encroaching heresy and difference, an unwillingness to fellowship with/cooperate with/tolerate those who see faith issues in another way.”
Fear helps fuel another common aspect of militant fundamentalist groups: A tendency to focus their disdain on what Stiver calls “externals.”
“Perhaps this is easier than dealing with the hard work of inner transformation,” Stiver said. “Jesus seemed to be criticizing just such a tendency in the Sermon on the Mount where he kept pointing back to inner transformation, which, of course, does ultimately result in change in the outer world.
“This outer focus, however, also can be turned toward attacking or eliminating threats to one’s religious beliefs …. The problem is that the inner quest for peace can never be satisfied without inner transformation. Hence, the pattern of defeating one enemy only to find another enemy as an outlet for religious zeal.
“There will never be an end of outward enemies in this cycle, because the religious quest is displaced from oneself to someone else. Ironically, such an obsession with defeating outer foes reveals a lack of faith in God … that vengeance is God's. Rather, militants have to do the work of God themselves.”
-- Politics: Radical religion “often is coupled with a political agenda,” Shaw said. The pressure can come from the right or from the left, and often it targets “present political structures,” he added.
And sometimes, Leonard observed, religion provides a political excuse for more self-serving interests.
“Some may have [adopted radical faith] because they didn’t get a piece of the culture,” he said.
Leonard cited work by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who contrasts the political/religious environment of the Middle East with Asia, particularly economic giants India and China.
“The economic pie is getting shared with the grassroots folks” in Asia, he noted. “But the chief export from Egypt is rugs -- not electronics or 21st-century technology, where the money is. So, you can make a case that while Muslims cite religion, another reason for their militancy is they don’t have a piece of the global pie.”
This is the first in a series on Fundamentalism.