What is fundamentalism?

What is “fundamentalism?”

The question arises for us this season in the context of Rod Dreher’s quest to imagine an outline for the life of the church in the United States in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefel  and the sea change in popular attitudes toward Christian morality and the Christian faith that precedes and undergirds that ruling.

Dreher  is concerned that with the erosion of any semblance of support for Christian morality in the culture at large and in the institutions that reflect that culture – such as government, such as the Supreme Court – we are at risk of losing the sort of structure that helped to encourage morality in the past.   He thinks that the church will have to change its strategy if it is to preserve the faith and pass along the Christian perspective and way of life.

He talks about the “Benedict Option,” an idea he bases on the example of Benedict of Nursia, who established monasteries throughout Europe during the dark ages and kept alive Christian teaching and practice as civilization collapsed.  Dreher says from the get-go that he is not advocating monasticism and that he does not himself know the details of the plan or how it might be implemented in practice.  As he researches in the process of writing his book on the subject, he has undertaken to meet with laity and leaders from the Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches in the United States.

In meeting with and discussing the notion of the Benedict Option with Evangelical folks – most particularly Southern Baptists, he finds a real resistance to the idea.  He says folks in the Southern Baptist Church say that the idea sounds to them like a return to the Fundamentalism that they suffered through as youth in their Southern Baptist Churches in the 1980s.

We’ve all heard the word “fundamentalist’” and I guess that we all have some notion of our own about what it means.  Today in class Joe Bird defined the terms as meaning one who clings to a literalistic interpretation of Scripture.  Given that, we proposed that the first fundamentalists might have been the Ecclesiastical Court that considered Galileo’s case in 1633:

  • Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the center of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to “abjure, curse, and detest”those opinions.[51]

  • He was sentenced to formal imprisonment at the pleasure of the Inquisition.[52]On the following day this was commuted to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life.

  • His offending Dialoguewas banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.[53]


So much for the fundamentalism of the seventeenth century.  What is fundamentalism today?  Where have we run into trouble with it?

One place, for sure, is with regard to the question of the age of the universe and, after that, the whole notion of evolution.  This subject is so complicated and emotionally charged that we could get caught up in it and lose sight of anything else we are considering.  We spent a great deal of time on it a few years ago when we studied Francis Collins’ book The Language of God.


You will recall that Collins is a devout, Evangelical Christian who was the chief scientist in the monumental project of decoding the human genome.  Collins presents a theory that is commonly referred to as “Biologos” that accepts the rather stout scientific evidence that the Earth has been around for a lot longer than the few thousand years allowed by the “fundamentalists” who hold that human beings and dinosaurs were contemporaneous and that any other theory of history and time is contrary to Scripture.

In that book, Collins had an amazing quote from Saint Augustine where he warned about premature and unduly narrow interpretations of Scripture.  I wanted to include that quote in this post, but, as happens all too often, I can’t put my hands on the book right now.


3 thoughts on “What is fundamentalism?”

  1. Do you have the Collins book? The Language of God? I am scrambling, trying to find my copy. The Augustine quote was just great. It had to do with avoiding overstating our understanding of scripture since new discoveries were coming along every day and we might look like fools. It was so good that if I can’t find the book, I might actually buy it again, just for that. I confess I get a jolly kick out of pointing to the seventeenth century eccelsiastical court as a bunch of fundamentalists, but if you abide by what I think is a fair definition, the shoe fits. They were a bunch of book burners, just like the idiots in Lincoln County thirty-five years ago.


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