17 August 2006

What is 'Christian fundamentalism'?

During an interview with Der Spiegel, former president Jimmy Carter said, regarding ‘Christian fundamentalists’:

The fundamentalists believe they have a unique relationship with God, and that they and their ideas are God's ideas and God's premises on the particular issue. Therefore, by definition since they are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong. And the next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases -- as is the case with some fundamentalists around the world -- it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant. Another thing is that a fundamentalist can't bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality. And so this administration, for instance, has a policy of just refusing to talk to someone who is in strong disagreement with them -- which is also a radical departure from past history. So these are the kinds of things that cause me concern. And, of course, fundamentalists don't believe they can make mistakes, so when we permit the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, it's just impossible for a fundamentalist to admit that a mistake was made.

Very little of what he says about ‘Christian fundamentalists’ is correct.  The reason is that he uses the term ‘fundamentalist’ incorrectly when applied to Christians.

The term ‘fundmentalist’ as it pertains to Christianity is something of a term of art.  Christian ‘fundamentalism’ is a response to the Christian ‘modernism’ of the early 20th century, several tenets of  which, according to ‘fundamentalists,’ are essential to orthodox Christianity.

The ‘fundamentalists’ asserted that there were certain beliefs which were essential—or ‘fundamental’—to Christianity.  The denial of these ‘fundamental’ beliefs was tantamount to a denial of Christianity and made one a non-Christian for all intents and purposes.

Now, what were these strange doctrines believing which makes one so odious to President Carter?  Namely these: the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the  bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of his miracles.  According to the ‘fundamentalists’ (and this was not an adjective which they chose for themselves), the ‘modernist’ Christians clearly (when their teachings are examined closely) held to a religion which was different, even if true, from orthodox Christianity.  And the fundamentalists were correct: the upshot of ‘modernist’ Christianity was the ‘Death of God’ theology of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Just to show how far back Christian ‘fundamentalism’ goes allow me to quote in their entirety two ancient summaries of Christian belief.  Included in square brackets are those ‘fundamental’ beliefs.

I believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary [virgin birth of Christ]: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried: he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead [bodily resurrection of Christ]: he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Ghost: the holy Catholic Church; the communion of Saints: the forgiveness of sins [substitutionary atonement]: the resurrection of the body: and the life everlasting.  Amen.  (The Apostles’ Creed)

In believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible: and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made  [the authenticity of His miracles]: who for us men and for our salvation [substitutionary atonement] came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary [the virgin birth of Christ], and was made man: and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried: and the third day he rose again [the bodily resurrection of Christ] according to the Scriptures: and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father: and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.  And I believe in the  Holy Ghost, the Lord, and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets [inerrancy of the Bible]: and I believe one catholic and apostolic church: I  acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins: and I look for the resurrection of the dead: and the life of the world to come.  Amen.   (The Nicene Creed)

Now, no doubt President Carter might wish to say that it is precisely because they believe in the innerancy of the Bible that his claim is justified that “their ideas are God's ideas and God's premises on the particular issue.”  But so what?  That has virtually no bearing on politics—which seems to be his primary concern here—because while these ‘fundamentalists’ may believe that they have God’s premises on a particular issue, what is missing is a mandate such as one finds in the Quran to bring under submission to Christianity whichever nation on earth Christians may find themselves.  Now some ‘fundamentalists’ may believe that, but it isn’t deducible from Scripture.  And it should be noted that most of those Christians who believe in such a mandate do so because they believe that this mandate is rooted in our nation’s being founded as a ‘Christian nation’—a subject I shant deal with here, if ever.  The point is simply this: what President Carter criticizes about ‘fundamentalists’ is not ‘Christian fundamentalism.’  The ‘fundamentals’ do not comprise a set of propositions on social issues.

I suppose one could say that ‘fundamentalism’ as Carter here uses the term is simply an attitude, a disposition of mind, specifically of not being wrong.  But I would only point out that his generalizations here can be made of virtually anyone.  Nothing about having ‘fundamental’ beliefs makes one the sort of person President Carter describes here.  A lot of liberals exhibits the traits the President describes here; they are by no means ‘fundamentalist’ Christians.

For example, Carter asserts that a fundamentalist believes he is in a unique relationship with God.  Well (follow closely) so does an atheist: his unique relation to God is that he exists while God does not (i.e., the relation of an existent to a non-existent).  Besides, virtually any relation is unique.  If you and I are sitting on the same sofa watching the same television, we each are in a unique relation to the television set: we cannot inhabit the same point in space.  And even if this were not the case we would each still be in a unique relation to the television set if you are interested in the television program and I am not.  One reason why Christians are in a unique relationship with God compared to an atheist is that the Christian believes in God and the atheist does not.  That is hardly the Christian’s fault.

It is interesting to hear Carter criticize ‘Christian fundamentalists’ by asserting of them that they believe “by definition since they are speaking for God anyone who disagrees with them is inherently wrong.”  Upon reflection, one has to wonder how it could be otherwise.  Regardless the premises from which one reasons, once one arrives at a conclusion it is quite logical that if one’s conclusion is true, then denials are false.  When I was an atheist,  I certainly believed that Christians, and all other theists, were wrong.  (I don’t know about ‘inherently’ wrong.  Carter’s use of that adverb here baffles me.  ‘Inherently’ would mean that one is wrong at the outset just by virtue of not being a ‘Christian fundamentalist.’  But that doesn’t follow even from his own premises.  All that does follow is that if one does have God’s perspective on an issue—and assuming that God’s perspective is true—then a denial of that perspective is false, not ‘inherently’ so, merely logically so.)  And I certainly didn’t apologize to anyone, especially Christians, for believing that they were wrong.  It is not a matter of being ‘inherently’ wrong; it’s a matter of simple (one could say elementary) logic.  If—and I do say If—I assert something that I believe to be true then I must hold that denials of the proposition are false.  Even non-fundamentalists do this.  Heck, liberal Democrats do it; and I don’t hear them apologizing for it either.

And so it just is not true, as he claims that “[T]he next step is: Those who disagree with them are inherently inferior, and in extreme cases -- as is the case with some fundamentalists around the world -- it makes your opponents sub-humans, so that their lives are not significant.”  Keep in mind that he is talking about ‘Christian fundamentalists’ here.  How many terrorist acts have ‘Christian fundamentalists’ committed?  At some point one has to move beyond the fact that the same term (i.e., in this case, ‘fundamentalist’) is used with reference to two groups, Christians and Muslims.  It has to be an important fact that while Christians and Muslims can both be ‘fundamentalists’ they are not so with respect to the same things: the ‘Christian fundamentals’ are hardly identical to the ‘Muslim fundamentals’ – whatever those are.

Note also that President Carter makes a subtle shift in his use of the term ‘fundamentalist.’  He was asked by Der Spiegel specifically about ‘Christian fundamentalism.’  By the time he gets to this point in his response he is talking about ‘fundamentalism’ as if it were a term that ‘inherently’ (to use his favorite word) means that anyone who is a ‘fundamentalist’ anything is fairly well the same thing as an ‘Islamic’ fundamentalist; just having ‘fundamental’ beliefs means that you consider others who do not hold those fundamental beliefs to be ‘sub-human.’  And, as I’ve already shown, ‘Christian fundamentalism’ is not the same as ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’  Show me a group with no ‘fundamentals’ and I’ll show you a group with no beliefs.  Even secular humanists have ‘fundamentals.’  Is President Carter making the same assertions about secular humanists?  The issue is not:  Is this or that person a ‘fundamentalist’?  The issue is:  What are his ‘fundamentals’?  Believing in the ‘inherent inferiority’ of those who disagree with you is not a Christian ‘fundamental.’  Bear in mind that in keeping with the so-called Great Commission (see Matthew 28.18-20), the Christian is under obligation to view every human being as potentially a future brother in Christ.  That is a ‘fundamental;’ and it rules out viewing opponents as sub-human.  Now, some ‘fundamentalist’ Christians may take that view, but that doesn’t make the view ‘fundamentalist.’  (All of this fairly disposes of his asinine assertion that, “Another thing is that a fundamentalist can't bring himself or herself to negotiate with people who disagree with them because the negotiating process itself is an indication of implied equality.”

I am old enough to have watched the term ‘fundamentalist’ undergo the shift in meaning that now equates a Christian ‘fundamentalist’ with an Islamic ‘fundamentalist.’  For the most part, it acquired it’s present pejorative use (when applied to Christians) during the 1980s.  Being the teenage son of parents who converted to ‘fundamentalist’ (we prefer the term ‘orthodox’) Christianity in 1980 I was introduced to the term ‘Christian fundamentalist’ over twenty years ago.  And it had the meaning which I explained above.  But during the holding of a number of Americans hostage in Lebanon, some members of the press began referring to the Islamic Hezbollah captors as ‘Islamic fundamentalists,’ and consequently the term has increasingly come to have pejorative connotations of  extremism.  It was later that I observed the term ‘fundamentalist’ used by the press with respect to Christians in much the same way that they had previously used the term with respect to Islamic ‘fundamentalists.’

The term ‘Christian fundamentalist’ now seems primarily to refer to a Christian who is, among other things I’m sure, opposed to gay rights, abortion, women rights (or just freedom in general), the teaching of evolution alone and so forth.  There’s just one problem.  Many Christians who are not opposed to any of those things also just happen to be, in the correct sense of the term, ‘Christian fundamentalists.’  I give you, as just one example, The Metropolitan Community Churches, called pejoratively by some The Gay  Denomination.  While their beliefs regarding the status of homosexual acts is one with which I disagree, their theological beliefs are orthodox, or in other words ‘fundamental.’  Some Christians who hold to the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith (i.e., again, the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the  bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of his miracles) also believe in abortion rights.  A person who behaves as President Carter outlines here may be a ‘Christian fundamentalist,’ but he doesn’t behave that way because he’s a ‘Christian fundamentalist.’  He behaves that way because he’s a jerk, something which afflicts a great many humans who are not ‘Christian fundamentalists.’

President Carter is free to hold whatever opinions he wishes, but as far as I’m concerned his description of ‘fundamentalists’ is just as applicable to (‘fundamentalist’) liberal Democrats—like himself—as it is to ‘fundamentalist’ Christians.  Tu quoque, Mr. President.  Tu quoque.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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