Fundamentalism involves attitudes and resulting behaviors as well as beliefs. That most-helpful insight was clarified for me years ago when reading the thorough and thoughtful theological treatment of the subject by Fisher Humphreys and the late Philip Wise in Fundamentalism (Smyth & Helwys, 2004).
This important distinction should keep astute persons from labeling all theologically conservative persons as Fundamentalists. That’s not fair, nor constructive in relating across theological lines as is necessary in most churches and consistent with the New Testament call to unity.
This helpful perspective also provides better understanding of how some otherwise nice people can become so mean-spirited when living out their religious mission that so clearly calls for gentleness, kindness and grace. (However, let me add quickly that mean-spiritedness is not the sole property of one theological perspective or religious tradition.)
Fundamentalism involves more than holding strong beliefs in some stated fundamentals of faith; it starts there but moves into attitudes and actions. Here’s how it happens logically — and the same pattern is followed in other faiths than Christianity.
Fundamentalists develop and affirm a narrow doctrinal definition of what it means to be Christian. (Hint: Though not confessed, that definition changes — whether the document does or not — as social/political issues ebb and flow.) This belief system is deemed truth — to be defended and dispensed as signs of faithfulness.
Those who do not embrace such narrow definitions of faith are considered not only misinformed, but lost for eternity. Therefore, anything done to advance this cause — even if harsh or hostile — can be justified as good intent since the purpose is to enlighten others and, most importantly, to keep them out of Hell.
It is common to hear a Fundamentalist say: “What could be more loving than to confront someone with the truth?” (That means, of course, their “truth.”) The end then justifies the means when one considers oneself the rare possessor of truth with an exclusive grasp on God’s way of reconciling sinners — and a charge to make that happen.
Therefore, behavior otherwise considered disrespectful or even deceptive gets defended as necessary to win souls and bring all minds in accord with one’s own version of truth. (There is great comfort in the idea of uniformity with one’s own perspectives and practices.)
Firm, doubt-free belief in and defense of such fundamental truths are highly honored. Critical analysis is unwelcomed and regarded as full-fledged opposition.
Therefore, pushing back on any who might criticize or reject such Fundamentalist beliefs and behavior is considered as much an act of faithfulness as one’s own embrace of the narrow doctrinal affirmations on which the process began.
The problem with Fundamentalism is not so much where it begins but where it so often ends.
Firm faith is admirable as long as it lets in enough light to allow for needed mystery and the humble possibility of being wrong on at least some matters. Sharing one’s faith is faithfulness indeed — when done in ways that don’t contradict the very Gospel at hand.
However, political, emotional or physical might and a strong sense of right form a dangerous, even deadly, combination. All persons, regardless of how faith is embraced, should be cautious of such a destructive pairing.
Now, to be introspective and confessional, it easier to observe, dissect and even oppose Fundamentalism than it is to examine such tendencies in our own lives. We all need reminders that Jesus called his followers to both belief and behavior that reflect his own.