• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Fundies? What Fundies?

Fundamentalism is on the way out, according to the NY Times (link from The Revealer):

The world’s fastest growing religion is not any type of fundamentalism, but the Pentecostal wing of Christianity. While Christian fundamentalists are focused on doctrine and the inerrancy of Scripture, what is most important for Pentecostals is what they call “spirit-filled” worship, including speaking in tongues and miracle healing. Brazil, where American missionaries planted Pentecostalism in the early 20th century, now has a congregation with its owns TV station, soccer team and political party…In the United States today, most of the Protestants who make up what some call the Christian right are not fundamentalists, who are more prone to create separatist enclaves, but evangelicals, who engage the culture and share their faith…The word “fundamentalist” itself has fallen out of favor among conservative Christians in the United States, not least because it has come to be associated with extremism and violence overseas.

The shortcomings of fundamentalist trends within other religions are also noted. But this analysis (drawn from such luminaries as Martin Marty, R Scott Appleby, and Philip Jenkins) implicitly argues that while one can find fundamentalist Muslims or fundamentalist Hindus, fundamentalism in Christianity is completely distinct from the Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions, and confined to the separatist, Bob Jones tendency. So we can call the Taliban “fundamentalist”, even though “fundamentalist” is a Christian term, but we can’t call Pat Robertson a “fundamentalist” because he is a Pentecostal.

The problem (which others have noted before – I find Martyn Percy’s work particularly useful) is what is meant by “fundamentalist”. Clearly, in its general meaning it applies to both the Taliban and Pat Robertson, even if Robertson is not a “classical” fundamentalist. The term might also be applied to a compartment within someone’s thinking, without necessarily reflecting their whole personality. It is true, as the NY Times argues, that Evangelicals and Pentecostals are not focused exclusively on Scriptural inerrancy, but it is sometimes a focus. When Evangelicals and Pentecostals embrace Creationism and reject Biblical scholarship out-of-hand, they are being fundamentalistic, even if their tradition is more nuanced than this and they do not share other fundamentalist attitudes.

Where Christians live in contexts in which these questions have not been raised, simple faith in the Bible as a literal narrative cannot be classed as fundamentalism (it would be a blunder to call the Amish “fundamentalist”, for example). But identifying these inappropriate contexts is not always straightforward. As I noted on this blog a while ago, last year’s Nigerian Muslim opposition to polio vaccines was driven by certain individuals misrepresenting science for their own ends. This then, can be seen as a manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism, and if there can be African Muslim fundamentalism there can also be African Christian fundamentalism. But in Africa, where that fundamentalism appears, it is likely to be garbed in Pentecostalism.

But perhaps a better way forward is to ditch the concept altogether as too confusing and polemical…

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