What is fundamentalism?

What is fundamentalism?

In this series I tackle the sensitive issue of Islamist influences within Britain and their goal to see an Islamic state, or Khalifa. I contrast this with the Christian concept of the kingdom of God as a spiritual kingdom or the reign of God in our hearts through faith in Christ.In this third and final part I answer those who would reject both the Christian kingdom of God and the Islamist Khalifa as merely rival dogmas coming from two extremist or fundamentalist positions within these respective religions.

In today’s “secular society’ anyone who takes the Bible seriously is usually dismissed as a “religious fundamentalist’ and often grouped with other so-called fundamentalists, especially those who hold to radical Islam. In this way Bible believing Christians are said to be no different from the kind of Muslims who were responsible for the 7/7 bombings in London and those suspected to be behind the recent car bombs in London and Glasgow.

There have, at times, been Christian fundamentalists who resorted to violence in the pursuit of their cause. For example, some calling themselves Christians committed murder in their battle against abortion in the USA. The Oklahoma bombers of 1995 were said to have been influenced by extremist “Christian’ militia groups. Both Protestant and Catholic paramilitary organisations were involved in terrorism during the “troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

But those who do such things deny the clear and unambiguous teaching of Jesus who said, “My kingdom is not of this world, otherwise my children would fight”, and who also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” But the issue is not so clear when it comes to Islam whose founder declared in what is claimed to be a direct word from Allah in Surah 47:4, “So, when you meet those who disbelieve, smite (their) necks till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly (on them).”

If fundamentalism means taking a religious text seriously, then we need more Christian fundamentalism, not less, and the term should be used as a complement reserved for those Christians who are truly following Christ in today’s world. But the term is not used in this way at all.

Fundamentalism refers to a tendency said to be found in all major religions today which, not only interprets religious texts literally, but also seeks to implement religious teaching through aggressive political means – the very opposite to the teaching of Jesus who repudiated such politicising of the gospel.

The gospel is about proclamation and persuasion, not coercion or control. In Luke 20:22-25, Jesus separated the claims of church and state showing that state or government had no right to determine the religious views of its citizens.Whenever the church lost sight of this, disaster was not far behind – whether we speak of the efforts of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, or John Calvin and his attempts to introduce a form of theocracy in Geneva during the Reformation, or the botched attempts of more recent times, such as the efforts of the Right wing Moral Majority to “make society Christian’ through aggressive Christian political campaigning in the USA. Such an approach denies to people created with free will their God-given right to choose their religious beliefs according to their own conscience.

This is why the term “fundamentalist’ does not apply to us, or indeed, most evangelicals in Britain today. While we uphold the “fundamentals’ of the Christian faith, we are not fundamentalist in the modern meaning of the word.

The term “fundamentalist’ was first used of Christians at the beginning of the 20th Century when a group of evangelicals wrote a series of tracts opposing liberal theology and upholding fundamental doctrines of the New Testament. It was a valid defence of the gospel against the onslaught of the liberal school of theology.

Liberals were the product of the Enlightenment of the 18th Century in which rationalism (or reason) was asserted as the prime means of determining truth. In its extreme forms rationalism meant that there could be no God and no revelation from him and faith was re-defined or limited to belief in that which could be demonstrated rationally.

By the 19th Century this approach had influenced Christian theology to the point that the Bible was stripped of its supernatural content and treated as nothing more than literature or the construction of human beings who were seriously and negatively affected by an outmoded and erroneous, not to say, superstitious, world view.

The Bible had to be re-interpreted in the light of recent theories of science, geology, biology and philosophy, particularly rationalistic philosophy. The Bible was subjected to a ruthless and philosophically-driven critique through the process of “higher criticism’.

Liberal theology (also called modernism) denies:

  • Creation in favour of Darwinian evolution
  • Inspiration, authority and, especially, infallibility of Scripture
  • The Virgin birth
  • The Deity of Christ
  • The Trinity
  • The Miracles of Jesus
  • The bodily Resurrection of Jesus
  • Original sin
  • The substitutionary Atonement
  • The wrath and Judgement of God
  • The re-birth
  • The reality of Hell
  • The literal Second Coming of Christ
  • That some will be eternally lost and that not everyone will be saved.

In the beginning, Christian fundamentalism might have been seen as a positive and welcome movement – although it was treated with derision by liberal academics especially with respect to Creationism and belief in miracles.

Over time, Christian fundamentalism became associated with a negative, over-literal interpretation of Scripture and this, in turn, led to Christian fundamentalism becoming essentially a negative and reactionary movement.

Features of Modern Christian Fundamentalism

  • Anti-intellectualism and a reluctance to examine the

Christian faith and its sources in an historical-critical context.

  • Isolationism based on a wrong view of separation from the world
  • Reluctance to engage with society culturally
  • A strong, rigid and simplistic approach to moral issues
  • A confusion in the matter of church and state seeking to enforce Bible standards on society as a whole
  • Strong, vocal and sometimes violent protests
  • Opposition to liberal values

The press, media and politicians began to use the term “fundamentalist’ as a derogatory term of all evangelical Christians assuming that anyone who believed the Bible was literally true or who believed the Bible version of the origins of the universe was a fundamentalist and “guilty’ of all the above. They failed to distinguish between those who where sincerely and responsibly seeking to follow the teachings of Christ and those who abused or distorted these teachings in the name of “fundamental Christianity’.

Fundamentalism is now associated with those from all religions who hold to a literal or dogmatic interpretation of their beliefs and who are aggressively political, highly vocal, or violent in the cause of spreading and upholding their beliefs.

Interestingly, the word is also now being used of those who do not hold to religious belief at all and are fundamentally opposed to all religion. It is admitted that there are now fundamentalist atheists, such as Richard Dawkins the evolutionary biologist and author of the infamous The God Delusion, and fundamentalist secularists like the journalist and columnist Polly Toynbee, who are aggressive in their bid to rid society of all expressions of religion in public life.

The tell-tale feature and the common factor in all forms of religious fundamentalism is said to be the literal interpretation of their respective religious texts.

Two points are worth making here. First, this simplistic approach is still hide-bound by rationalistic presuppositions. Therefore, if a text contains elements that do not fit into the framework of a rationalistic worldview, then those who believe these texts must be ridiculed and exposed as irrational and unreasonable, if somewhat harmless. But if these religious believers step out into the public arena and try to influence society according to their views whether in terms of law, politics, art or education, then they are automatically termed “fundamentalists’ or “religious bigots’.

The intellectual dishonesty here is staggering. To insist and ensure that only religious people should keep their ideas, beliefs and values to themselves is nothing short of bully tactics on behalf of those who themselves very often rigidly hold to fundamental belief systems which influence how they act in the world, respond to it and shape it, and whose own beliefs are often based on unproved philosophical theories (such as rationalism).

Furthermore, there is a world of difference between those who seek to influence society according to their beliefs, which is reasonable and to be expected in a democratic society, and those who would enforce their dogma on others whether directly in terms of political control or indirectly through manipulating the political process which frequently happens even in democratic societies. Such people, perhaps, deserve the appellation, “fundamentalist’.

A second objection to the simplistic labelling of anyone taking their religious texts literally, or any way seriously at all, as a “fundamentalist’ is that this approach does not take the time to examine the religious texts themselves.

If a Christian is to be called “fundamentalist’ with all the intended negative and derogatory overtones of the word, simply because he or she takes the words of Christ in the Gospels literally, is it right to place that person in the same category as a Muslim “fundamentalist’ who takes the teaching of Muhammad and that of the Qur’an equally seriously?

The issue here is not merely that of sincerity.We ought to give the benefit of the doubt to all so-called fundamentalists and be ready to believe that they may be sincere, at least, even if they are wrong or misguided. But the issue is concerning the truth or viability of their views when tested and subjected to close scrutiny. I would suggest that, without hesitation, any rightminded person would respect the “fundamentalist’ Christian who seeks to take literally the words of Christ where he says,

“…love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you…” (Matthew 5:44).

Or, for that matter the words of St Paul who in Romans 11:14 & 17-19, echoes Christ’s teaching,

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse….Repay no one evil for evil… do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to God’s wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. “

Surely, the same amount of respect should not be shown to those who seek to live their lives by the literal, and natural, understanding of such texts of the Qur’an as, “Those who reject Islam must be killed. If they turn back (from Islam), take (hold of) them and kill them wherever you find them…” Surah 4:89.

This shows that the indiscriminate use of the term “fundamentalist’ to apply to all people of faith who take their religious texts seriously is so superficial as to be intellectually lazy, if not downright dishonest.

These issues are being hotly debated today.With the rise of modern Muslim fundamentalism and its connection to global terror, many both from within Islam and external commentators on these events are at pains to disassociate Islamic extremism from the “true nature of Islam’. But, as we saw in last month’s article, moderate Islam has yet to rise up and prove itself to be the “true Islam’ of the Qur’an and of Islamic history.

This leaves us with the stark differences between Khalifa of Islamist ideology or the kingdom of God as taught by the Christ of the gospels. The choice is simple – you can accept or reject either one or both of these alternatives, but one thing is sure, you cannot with integrity dismiss them both as the empty claims of fanatical or fundamentalist religion.

For my views on the Norway killer Anders Breivik read my article here called “Radical Christians”


Colin is always on the move, so keep up to date, interact with him and pray for him.