…Don’t we all have 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦 fundamental beliefs?

by K.W. Leslie, 16 December 2020
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] Has to do with 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 from time to time. But I need to explain what I mean by the term. Too many people use it, and use it wrong.

For most folks fundamentalist is just another word for conservative. Not just sorta conservative; super conservative. If you’re a fundamentalist Christian—or fundamentalist Muslim, fundamentalist Jew, fundamentalist Mormon, fundamentalist Republican—they 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 frequently are super conservative. Some of of ’em pride themselves in just how conservative they can get. Feels sometimes like they’re trying to play a game of conservative chicken: “You might claim to be prolife, but I’m willing to blow up clinics. How prolife is that?” Um, not at all. 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. My church’s Fundies recognize women can minister. Recognize Jesus came to save everybody, not just Christians. Recognize miracles still happen, whereas other Fundamentalists are absolutely insistent they stopped. Yet they’re still Fundamentalist.

’Cause properly a fundamentalist is someone who believes there are fundamentals—non-negotiable doctrines which people have to adhere to. Christians who have no fundamentals, who think absolutely everything is open for debate, who even deny some of those things you’d reasonably expect a Christian to believe (like, say, in Christ!) can’t legitimately call themselves Christian.

Wait, don’t we all do that?

Well, most of us. There actually are some folks on the fringe who claim they’re Christian, but it turns out they don’t believe in Christ. Or they’ve mangled his teachings so bad, they’ve basically nullified them all. Or instead of Jesus, they believe in Historical Jesus, but ironically their idea of Historical Jesus is total fiction. Or they like Jesus a whole lot, but in practice they follow Deepak Chopra more. They assume they’re Christian because they were baptized Christian, but they’ve never really followed Jesus, and there are a lot of fake Christians out there.

Fundamentalism is meant to be the antidote. Capital-F Fundamentalists are pretty sure there are churches who don’t recognize Jesus as Lord and God. Don’t believe God’s a trinity. Can’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, raised from the dead, or is coming back. Don’t trust the bible. Don’t really trust Jesus to save them; they gotta merit salvation with their good karma. In contrast, they have fundamental truths, and require them of all their members.

Which “fundamental truths?” You know, the basics. Stuff which defines orthodox Christianity. Stuff you find in the Apostles Creed, plus a few other things like the bible’s authority. Fundamentalists worry these ground-floor ideas have been compromised in 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 is conservative. The very definition of conservatism is to point backwards to the tried-and-true as our objective standards.

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. Or to the creeds which the ancient Christians sorted out. Sometimes to the beginnings of my own denomination.

And another is pointing back to “the way we’ve always done things.” Which really means the way they remember they’ve always done things; some of those traditions only go back 20 or 40 years. Or two generations. Or a century, like my denomination. The Pharisees’ “tradition of the elders” only extended back about 50 years before Jesus began to critique it. Hardly that ancient.

Way too many of these traditions date back… to the upper-class customs of the American South during the Jim Crow segregationist era. In other words, not pointing to Christianity at all, but 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. Not the folks who wanna keep Christianity orthodox, who wanna make sure we follow Jesus, know our bibles, believe the right things, and do good deeds for the right reasons. I’m all for that. I’m not for the false religion of conforming to a social standard which only appears moral, and is really patriarchy, racism, earthly power, control, greed, 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 Biola University) published 12 volumes of 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 isn’t a trinity, or Jesus isn’t God, or his virgin birth didn’t literally happen, you could whip out The Fundamentals and prove ’em wrong.

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

But many Fundamentalists add a few other ideas to the stew:

If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Most Fundamentalists avoid cooperation with any non-Fundies. Or any Fundies who aren’t as cautious as they. The devil is behind anyone or anything which teaches different than Fundie churches, so this includes “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. Every last one of these things are “cults” and unclean; stay away or you’ll catch their heretic cooties.

Extra-extra-high view of scripture. The bible is word-for-word inspired by God, and contains no errors. It should be interpreted literally whenever possible.

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

Don’t believe science. Modern science is also a devilish plot to undermine our trust in the bible. 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 you can’t trust anything scientists teach us about creation, cosmology, evolution, climate change, medicine, anything.

We live in a Christian nation. In the United States, the myth of American exceptionalism is a huge part of Fundamentalism.

So to Fundies, the U.S. was founded by God’s new chosen people—us Christians—to be a particularly Christian nation: Created by devout Christian founding fathers, miraculously rescued from the might of the British Empire, established on Christian principles, and rewarded for all this with economic prosperity and military might.

But. Somewhere in the 1950s the U.S. really went astray, replacing 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 go back to those ’50s values. Even though the ’50s were a really awful time for anyone who wasn’t white.

Independence. Connected to exceptionalism is this idea in all things—particularly in religious accountability—no one but Jesus should be able to tell a Christian man what to believe, how to behave, or how he should run his households. And ideally churches should be just as independent: Sovereign from one another and their denominations. Run democratically (or at least appear so, according to their bylaws) when possible. You’ll find a serious libertarian streak among Fundies.

Yet this libertarianism begins and ends with adult men. Women and children are still expected to conform.

And for that matter, some Fundie churches expect men to conform to church leaders’ standards, at least in public. They do believe in fundamentals after all. And some of those fundamentals are expanded to include conservative or libertarian politics, Darbyism, anti-intellectualism, 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. 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 legalists.

When rules turn into fundamentals.

For the legalistic sort, the fundamentals begin with orthodoxy… then spread to anything and everything. Because, as they’re fond of teaching, the bible has answers to anything and everything! How are we meant to live? Bible has the answer. You just have to find the right proof-texts, and 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 they prefer the idea of husband as boss (and you’d be surprised how many women are actually willing to go along with this), they conclude it’s the second one. With bible verses to back ’em up. And since it’s a proven biblical hypothesis, we have to live our lives by it. It’s God’s will. His will is our command.

This thinking applies to everything. What social activities or entertainments may Christians do?—can we watch movies, listen to pop 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 deduced ten thousand more, and follow them just as devoutly. Considering how many Fundies love pork chops and bacon regardless of the Law, Lv 11.7, Dt 14.8 more devoutly.

Bad enough that they overburden themselves: Like every legalist, they 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’ll even encourage the dark Christian belief that any day now our government will crack down on us for being Christian. (In fact they actually have a valid reason to fear the government: It may someday crack down on ’em for being abusive. And kinda needs to.)

But don’t get the idea all Fundamentalists are legalist. I grew up among Fundies on the other end of the spectrum: The libertines. They 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. But 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 awful 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 about which doctrines are really fundamental.

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 the bible (with nary a question as to whether they themselves understand the bible correctly!), 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 they call ’em that or not—which were handed down to them. Pagans were raised racist, or not, and assume that’s right, and the way things oughta be for everyone. Pagans were raised with a particular view on how government works, and 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 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.

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 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 start by recognizing Fundies, for the most part, have good intentions. They really 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.