…Don’t we all have 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 fundamental beliefs?

by K.W. Leslie, 02 April 2024
FUNDAMENTALIST fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪst adjective. Adheres to certain beliefs as necessary and foundational.
2. Theologically (and politically) conservative in their religion.
3. [capitalized] Related to the 20th-century movement which considers certain Christian beliefs mandatory.
[Fundamentalism fən.də'mɛn.(t)əl.ɪz.əm noun, Fundie 'fən.di adjective.]

I grew up Fundamentalist, and refer to Fundies a bunch. But I need to explain what I mean by the term. Too many people use it too, but use it wrong.

For most folks fundamentalist is a synonym for “super conservative.” If you’re a fundamentalist of any stripe—fundamentalist Christian, fundamentalist Muslim, fundamentalist Jew, fundamentalist Mormon, fundamentalist Republican—people assume you’re extremely conservative. Or at least more conservative than they are: “I may be conservative, but you’re fundamentalist.” It picked up this definition for good reason: Fundies typically are super conservative. And a number of ’em pride themselves on this. It often feels like they’re trying to play a game of conservative chicken: “You might claim to be prolife, but I’m willing to dynamite clinics. How prolife is that?” Um, not in the slightest. But let’s not go there today. (I wrote on the topic elsewhere.)

But Fundamentalist isn’t synonymous with conservative. Fr’instance my church has its Fundamentalists… who aren’t anywhere near as conservative as other Fundamentalists might demand they be. My church’s Fundies recognize women can be in church leadership. Recognize Jesus came to save everybody, not just Christians. Recognize miracles still happen… whereas other Fundamentalists are absolutely insistent they don’t; they stopped. Yet they’re still Fundamentalist.

’Cause properly any fundamentalist is someone who believes there are fundamentals—meaning non-negotiable doctrines which people have to adhere to. Christians in particular: At the very least, we gotta believe in God the Father, in Christ Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, and all the Nicene Creed stuff which spells out the basic stuff. We can’t do as those pagans who call themselves Christian yet don’t even believe in Christ. Or they’ve mangled his teachings so bad, they’ve nullified all of them. Or instead of Jesus, they believe in some form of Historical Jesus which ironically is total fiction. Or they like Jesus a whole lot, but in practice they follow Deepak Chopra or Ayn Rand more. Or assume they’re Christian because they were baptized Christian, but they’ve never followed Jesus. There are an awful lot of fake Christians out there, trying to blend in.

Fundamentalism is meant to be the antidote to all the fakery. Capital-F Fundamentalists believe plenty of churches and denominations don’t follow Jesus at all; don’t recognize him as Lord and God, don’t believe God’s a trinity, don’t trust bible, don’t expect Jesus to save ’em (they gotta earn it with good karma), don’t even try to be good and moral people. In contrast they, the Fundamentalists, have fundamental truths. And require ’em of all their members.

Which “fundamental truths?” Well, I pointed to the Nicene Creed—and nearly every Fundie believes everything we find in that creed. Thing is, nearly every Fundamentalist is anti-Catholic, wrongly believes the creed is “a Catholic thing,” and is automatically prejudiced against it. While agreeing with it. Go figure. But instead of the creed, they have their own creeds—their church’s faith statements, which contain all the things they consider vital to Christianity. All of ’em go further than the creed—obviously, because the creed never mentions bible, and Fundies definitely trust bible. (Sometimes too much, but I already wrote about that.) Some of ’em go way further than the creed, and some of ’em go overboard and are straight-up legalist.

Fundamentalists worry Christianity’s ground-floor ideas have been compromised in way too many churches, among too many Christians. They want no part of any Christianity which won’t defend ’em. Real Christians embrace the fundamentals. So it’s not wrong to say fundamentalism of any sort is conservative; the very definition of conservatism is to point backwards to the tried-and-true as our objective standards.

But here’s the catch; here’s why Christians and pagans alike are confused as to what a Fundamentalist is: Not every conservative is pointing back to the same past. Me, I point back to the first-century apostolic church of Christ Jesus, and to the creeds of ancient Christianity. Sometimes to the beginnings of my own denomination.

Whereas other Christians point back to “the way we’ve always done things.” Which really means the way they remember they’ve always done things; some of these traditions only go back 20 or 40 years. Or two generations. Or a century, like my denomination. The Pharisee “tradition of the elders” only extended back about 50 years before Jesus began to critique it. Some traditions are hardly that ancient.

And way too many conservative American traditions date back to the upper-class customs of the American South during slavery, or during the Jim Crow segregationist era. In other words, they’re not pointing to Christianity at all. Just a particularly heinous form of Christianism… which they remember fondly only because it wasn’t persecuting them.

That is the form of fundamentalism I object to most. Not the folks who wanna keep Christianity orthodox—who wanna make sure we follow Jesus, know our bibles, understand him to the best of our ability, and strive to do the good deeds God laid out for us to do. I’m all for that! What I’m not for, is the false religion of conforming to a social standard which only appears moral, but is really patriarchy, racism, political control, Mammonism, and hypocrisy.

The capital-F Fundies.

When we’re talking Fundamentalist with a capital F, we properly mean someone connected to a popular Protestant movement which began in the 1910s.

The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now called Biola University) published 12 volumes of 90 doctrinally conservative essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Free copies went to Protestant ministers all over the United States. The goal was to encourage Christians to defend orthodoxy from those modern philosophies and teachings which Fundamentalists found unacceptable. Whenever someone claimed the bible isn’t God’s word, or God’s not a trinity, or Jesus isn’t God, or his virgin birth didn’t literally happen, you were meant to whip out The Fundamentals and prove ’em wrong.

Obviously this form of Fundamentalism is basic orthodoxy: God is a trinity. Jesus is God incarnate, born of a virgin, really died, really was resurrected in a real body, really ascended to heaven, really is coming back. He really did the miracles the bible records. Hell’s real too—but Jesus’s death bails us out, so when we trust him we’re not going there. No works necessary! (Not that we really shouldn’t do good works just the same.)

But many Fundamentalists add a few other ideas to the stew, which I summarize thisaway.

IF YOU’RE NOT WITH US, YOU’RE AGAINST US. Most Fundamentalists avoid cooperation with non-Fundies—or any Fundies who aren’t as cautious as they. They figure Satan’s behind anyone or anything which teaches different than Fundie churches. So this’d include “dead-religion” churches like Catholics and mainliners, heretic churches like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, other religions like Islam or Buddhism, and secular philosophies like postmodernism or evolution. Fundies consider every last one of these things “cults” and unclean. Stay away or you’ll catch their heretic cooties!

EXTRA-EXTRA-HIGH VIEW OF SCRIPTURE. To Fundamentalists the bible comes, word-for-word, from God. Therefore it contains no errors, and oughta be interpreted literally whenever possible.

That also means it’s historically and scientifically accurate: You oughta consider the creation stories the literal history of the universe, and teach ’em in science classes. Textual and higher criticism is actually a devilish plot to undermine our trust in the bible, so ignore the textual scholars: What the Textus Receptus and our King James Versions have in them is authentic bible. Plus Moses personally wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy; Isaiah is the one and only author of Isaiah; Matthew wrote Matthew; etc.

DON’T BELIEVE SCIENCE. The creation stories aren’t foundational archetypes meant to teach us God created all, and created us: They’re literal. The universe was literally created 6 millennia ago. Anything in nature which says otherwise is deception meant to conceal God’s majesty from people who lack faith. So modern science is also a devilish plot to undermine our trust in the bible. You can’t trust anything scientists teach us about creation, cosmology, evolution, climate change, medicine, anything. Therefore it’s okay to believe the earth is flat, vaccines don’t work, magnets and silver cure illness, and chemotherapy should be ignored in favor of radical vitamin therapies.

CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM. Fundamentalists tend to believe their country—whichever country they live in—was somehow founded by Christians for Christians. (Even in countries which were clearly founded by pagan conquerors; they like to rewrite history and turn their founders into good devout Christians.) Therefore the country oughta be officially Christian. And, argue the racists among them, oughta be ethnically pure too.

Hence in the United States, the myth of American exceptionalism is a huge part of our Fundamentalism. The States were founded as God’s new chosen people, meant to be particularly Christian. Created by devout Christian founding fathers, miraculously rescued from the might of the British Empire, and established on Christian principles. (With various excuses made for Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, James Madison, and the many other deists among them; George Washington is wholly rewritten to be a devout Christian instead of a Anglican Church attendee who never took holy communion.) Oh, and rewarded for all our devotion with economic prosperity and military might.

But. Fundies tend to teach that somewhere in the 1950s the U.S. really went astray. We replaced good old-fashioned American values (i.e. segregation, sexism, conformity, looking the other way when boys would be boys) with secular humanism and political correctness. So we need to “make America great again” by going back to those ’50s values. Even though the ’50s were a profoundly awful time for anyone who wasn’t white.

INDEPENDENCE. Connected to exceptionalism is this idea that in all things—particularly in religious accountability—no one should be able to tell a Christian man what to believe, how to behave, or how he should run his households. (No one but Jesus… whom they’re pretty sure thinks exactly like they do.) Ideally churches should be just as independent: Sovereign from one another and their denominations. Run democratically (or at least they appear so, according to their bylaws) when possible.

Hence you’ll find a serious libertarian streak among Fundies. But you’ll also find this libertarianism begins and ends with adult men. Women and children are still required to conform.

And for that matter, some Fundie churches expect men to conform to their church leaders’ standards—at least in public. They do believe in fundamentals after all. Some of those fundamentals are also expanded to include conservative or libertarian politics, Darbyism, anti-intellectualism, various out-of-context interpretations which support the leaders’ beliefs, control systems, disciplinary and penal systems, cultish control-freak behavior, racism, sexism, legalism, gracelessness, and fruitlessness.

To be fair, not all Fundies are this way. At all. I know plenty of Fundamentalists who are lovely people, who reject legalism and sexism and nationalism and all the things Christians oughta. Clearly those Fundamentalists know the Holy Spirit, and produce his fruit. But it’s way too easy to fall into the other behaviors, and I likewise know plenty of Fundies who do.

Of all the additions I listed above, only biblical inerrancy is found in The Fundamentals. But way too many of them have become part of the package. As a result Fundies have a popular reputation as graceless legalists.

Once human rules turn into fundamentals.

For legalistically-minded people, the fundamentals begin with Christian orthodoxy. But then they spread to anything and everything in their lives. Because, as they’re fond of teaching, the bible has answers to everything in life. How are we meant to live? Bible has the answer! You just have to find the right proof-texts. From them we can deduce all the “biblical principles” which’re meant to govern our lives as if they’re biblical commands.

So, who’s the boss in a household? Is it a partnership between equal spouses, or is the husband in absolute command? Well, if you’re a man who really prefers the idea of husband as boss (and you’d be surprised how many women prefer this idea too, ’cause now they don’t have to responsible for anything!), they conclude it’s gotta be the husband in command. With plenty of bible verses to back ’em up; after all, the early Hebrews lived under patriarchy, so it’s all over the Old Testament. And since it’s therefore “a proven biblical hypothesis,” we have to live our lives by it. It’s God’s will, and his will is our command.

This thinking applies to everything. What social activities or entertainments may Christians do?—can we watch superhero movies, listen to popular music, play card games? Even card games which don’t involve gambling? What clothes and makeup and jewelry may we wear? What sort of relationships, between boys and girls, between Christians and pagans, between different races (no, I’m not kidding), are permitted? And so on. The 613 commands in the Law simply aren’t adequate for Fundies’ needs, so they deduce 10,000 more. And follow them more devoutly than the original 613, as you can see by how many Fundies love pork chops and bacon regardless of the Law’s condemnaton of ritually unclean animals like pigs. Lv 11.7, Dt 14.8

Bad enough that they overburden themselves: Like every legalist, Fundies figure it’s just as much their duty to enforce these rules on their wives and kids, lest they sin. It gets pretty cultish pretty quickly, and pretty often.

And pretty paranoid. So many Fundies live in fear. They even encourage the dark Christian belief that any day now our government will crack down on us for being Christian. (I should point out they do in fact have a valid reason to fear the government: It may someday crack down on ’em for being abusive. And kinda needs to.)

But again: Don’t get the idea all Fundamentalists are legalist! Because I grew up among Fundies on the other end of the spectrum: The libertines. These Fundies have a lifestyle which is little different from pagans. They wear all the same clothes, consume all the same media, have all the same hobbies, everything. The only way you’d ever know they were Fundies is when you ask them what they believe about Jesus. Then their Fundamentalism comes out: They adhere to all the Christian orthodox beliefs, and list all sorts of sinful behaviors as very, very bad. They’ll vote against such sins in every election. They get just as nationalist as the legalists. So, what about their own personal sinful behavior? Well, that’s where cheap grace comes in. “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” And all the other common excuses for an irreligious lifestyle.

I got to observe both extremes: Fundies who were no different from pagans (myself included), and Fundies who were legalistic cultists (i.e. friends of mine, whose parents didn’t know me well enough to disapprove of my corrupting influence).

Yeah, some Fundies are no fun. Too worried about getting every single last behavior and belief correct. Too likely to shun you when they discover you don’t live up to their standards. The libertines have their own problems: They’re fruitless, act like Christianity only consists of beliefs, and assume their rotten lifestyle will magically change once they get to heaven.

Tons of Fundamentalists live in between these extremes… pursuing Jesus with all their hearts, loving their neighbors, loving their enemies, yet holding to a strict interpretation of their doctrines and the bible. In other words, they’re totally Christian. We’re just gonna disagree a whole lot with them about which doctrines are actually fundamental ones.

But they’re family. Love your family.

Non-Fundies tend to use fundamentalist as a pejorative: It’s either a synonym for “conservative” or “legalist” or “over-literalist.”

Or often “anti-intellectual.” Because so many Fundies refuse to believe in science or logic or anything which appears to contradict their spin on the bible (with never a question as to whether they understand the bible correctly; they simply presume they do), non-Fundies assume Fundies are willfully ignorant. “These people don’t examine their faith. They just accept whatever’s handed to them, simply because they’re told it’s orthodox.” Yeah, there’s a bit of intellectual snobbery in this assumption.

And a bit of intellectual dishonesty. Because everybody accepts certain fundamental beliefs, whether we call ’em that or not. Everybody swallows things which were handed to them, like kids taking the gummy vitamins Mom gives ’em. When pagans were raised racist, they usually unquestioningly assume that’s right, and it’s the way things oughta be for everyone. Or when pagans were raised with a particular view of why government exists, they likewise assume it’s right, and everyone oughta think likewise.

Those Christians who weren’t raised Christian (or who studied theology) understand all beliefs are learned. All of us have unexamined assumptions. Fr’instance, when God initially offered you grace and salvation, did you spend a few months analyzing his motives, or did you simply embrace him? (And those of you who held off for a few months while you thought it over: Don’t you feel dumb for delaying so long? If not, you really oughta.)

Look, considering how far God is beyond the average human, intellectual snobbery has no place in Christendom. We need to be humble.

Fundamentalists often do the very same thing those snobs do. They embraced what they were told. Might’ve studied it in greater detail later, or not; though in my experience Fundies know a lot more about the bible and what’s in it, than your average Christian. They put a lot more memory verses into their brains. They pray more. They have stronger devotional lives. Start with getting to know your bible to their level, and maybe then we can really talk about who knows best.

But the reason they’re “anti-intellectual” is usually because of the literalist way they view the bible: They don’t feel free to interpret it any other way, and therefore can’t accept science, progressive politics, egalitarianism, freedom, and grace. They’re boxed in.

Since we gotta love our Christian sisters and brothers, 1Jn 3.23 let’s start by recognizing Fundies, for the most part, have good intentions. They really do wanna follow God. They wanna be saved. They’re just going about it along a wayward route. Be patient. Be loving. We’re all on the same team.

And don’t call just any conservative a Fundamentalist. Best rule of thumb: Call ’em a Fundamentalist only when they describe themselves as one.