History: The term "fundamentalism" was first used in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws in the Baptist Watchman-Examiner. It referred to a movement in Protestant Christianity that arose in response to modernism, which many felt was subverting traditional Christian doctrine. In 1910, the General Assembly of the Northern Presbyterian Church affirmed what they believed were the five essential beliefs—or fundamentals—of Christendom; they also identified a number of beliefs that were inimical to Christianity, including Darwinism, socialism, and atheism. By the First World War, the movement had spread to the Baptists and from there to a number of other Christian denominations. But then in 1979 a profound shift occurred in the use of the word "fundamentalism." The Iran hostage crisis prompted journalists to come up with a way to explain Ayatollah Khomeini's particular brand of Islam to a Western audience. What they settled upon was "Muslim fundamentalism," and the name stuck, introducing a violent, militant, and extremist component to the "fundamentalist" label.
Etymology: The root of "fundamentalism" is of course "fundamental," which comes from the Latin word fundamentalis, meaning "of the foundation." Thus, in a broad sense, the term denotes any point of view that harks back to the original principles informing that view, which is the way in which the Protestants of the early twentieth century used it. When the media applied the word to Islamist extremists, however, it took on a set of connotations that went beyond this initial definition. Suddenly, a "fundamentalist" was not only one who held fast to religious or ideological tradition, but one who also attempted to eliminate competing worldviews through force. Consequently, "Christian fundamentalism"—of both the present and past—is now tainted with these same associations. "Fundamentalism," regardless of its particular stripe, has become synonymous with radical intolerance, and primarily to the detriment of Western Christianity.
Effect: The effects of this shift in meaning can be seen most readily in the recent comments by Rosie O'Donnell, who argued on the daytime television program The View that "radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America." The term "fundamentalism" has made it possible for people such as O'Donnell—those who for political or ideological reasons dislike traditional religious adherents—to conflate the obviously evil actions of murderous terrorists with moral pronouncements on the part of Christian conservatives. These days, mere mention of the word conjures up images of crazed fanatics who are attempting to force others into conformity. The label "fundamentalist" is thus an easy way of discrediting the opinions of Christians who take a hard line on such issues as homosexuality and abortion. What was once a benign description has become a charged epithet that is now being projected back upon those with whom the term originated. •
If you enjoyed this article from Salvo magazine, please consider contributing to our matching grant fundraising effort. All gifts will be matched dollar for dollar! Thanks for your continued support.
© 2014 Salvo magazine. Published by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.