Closing the three-day National Conservatism Conference, in Miami on September 13, 2022, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argued that the great divide in the United States is now between Christian theology and a “woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,” adding that “insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.” 

“Theological claims” of course caught my attention.

Mohler is a “young earth creationist.” He maintains that our Earth and its lifeforms were created by the Abrahamic God, just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Mohler is an ardent fundamentalist.

My point today is not to get into a discussion about the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky but to share some thoughts about fundamentalism, because it underlies so many contemporary religious – and political — movements. On both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe: Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and now Italy, by way of examples.  

The word “fundamentalist” was first used in print in the United States, in 1920, by Curtis Lee Laws, editor of The Watchman Examiner, a national Baptist newspaper. He proposed that Christians who were fighting for the fundamentals of their faith should be called “fundamentalists.” But the term “fundamentalism” was extended to other religious traditions around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1978-79.

In general all fundamentalist movements arise when people are confronted with an unsettling disruption of their “normal” way of life. Sensing societal chaos, they develop strong feelings of anxiety and fear about losing control over their lives and losing personal and group identity. 

Regardless of the religious tradition to which they belong, all fundamentalists follow certain patterns: 

• Religious ideology is the basis for their personal and communal identity.

• They insist upon one statement of truth that is inerrant, revealed, and unchangeable

• They see themselves as part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. 

• They seize on historical moments and reinterpret them in the light of this cosmic struggle. 

• They demonize their opposition. 

• They are selective in what parts of the religious tradition and heritage they will stress. 

Although we have not usually thought of Roman Catholics as fundamentalists, the term can certainly be applied to a number of Roman Catholic individuals and movements. Certainly more than a few of today’s U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are starting to resemble fundamentalists in their words and actions.

Religious fundamentalists place such a high priority on doctrinal conformity and obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons that they end up sacrificing values basic to all the great religious traditions: love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and caring.

When Christian belief becomes highly fundamentalized, churches start to become repositories not of grace but of grievances. They become places where something like tribal identities are reinforced, fears are nurtured, and aggression and nastiness become part of a holy cause. In their overwhelming seriousness about “their” religion, fundamentalists do not hesitate to intervene in political and social processes to ensure that society conforms to the values and behaviors required by their fundamentalist worldview. Fundamentalists become their own justification.

Fundamentalism appeals for a variety of reasons: 

  • For people who feel unimportant or insignificant, fundamentalism says you are important because you are God’s “special messenger.” 
  • For people who are fearful, fundamentalism says “you can’t be saved without us…join us and be saved.” 
  • For the confused, fundamentalism says one doesn’t have to think about doctrine nor even be educated in it. Just believe what we say.
  • Fundamentalism makes the fundamentalist feel good about himself or herself. It is self-stroking.
  • Fundamentalism justifies hatred of one group of people for another, because it believes that God hates those who do not conform to the fundamentalist worldview.
  • Fundamentalism appeals to people burdened by guilt and shame because it exempts them from responsibility for situations or actions that cause guilt and shame. Fundamentalism says…if you are one of us, you are OK.
  • Fundamentalism excuses people from honest self-examination; and it justifies their prejudices, zealotry, intolerance, and hatefulness.

What does one do about fundamentalism?

  • The best way to confront the narrow vision of fundamentalism is through broad-based education that emphasizes critical, analytical thinking skills.
  • Broad-based education emphasizes the importance of gathering evidence and then proceeding to conclusions. Fundamentalists work in the opposite fashion. They begin  with their conclusions and then search for arguments to support them.
  • We need to establish channels for dialogue and support those institutions that promote multi-cultural knowledge and understanding.
  • We need to courageously work against ignorance and speak-out about dishonest or faulty information. And speak-out about those who advocate and publish it.
  • We need to humbly realize that we too are still on the road to discovery. We cannot fall into the trap of many fundamentalists who have become self-centered know-it-alls.


“Truth is always complicated by the human envelope in which it is enclosed.
It’s not only an intellectual problem, but one at the heart of the gospel itself. It was not sinners who turned Jesus off. It was the righteous religious types who felt they had all the answers.”- Rev. Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Catholic biblical scholar

9 thoughts on “Fundamentalism

  1. Dr. Jack, so many key phrases in your piece today, thank you.

    “Repositories not of grace but of grievances” struck me hard, like being side-swiped in vicious traffic on the beltway here, a forever-road-rage combat ring. when I drive anywhere now, I fear for our lives, for the fragile “human envelope” of skin inside a stampede of hurtling machines. The automobile itself is more than a metal metaphor, and maybe more than some churches: it is a physical repository of grievance, a personal weapon of selfish revenge, loaded and primed. For what? The absurdity arising from conflict in what feels like a losing battle, a futile struggle for living a worthless life in a world without goodness, rotting from evil? This is a narrow Augustinian perspective, real, but on the far-end of an axis off balance.

    Yes, in a “cosmic struggle between good and evil” absurd nihilism arises. Perhaps such a narrow focus or rigid fixation abstracts me from the reality of what to do next. The abstraction resides in the imbalance between dueling “beings” of light and darkness, the stuff of mythology and magic, spheres of competing “powers” that get personified as demons or angels. Archaeology as well as literature attests that this is a very old human mental compulsion, totems and tracts reifying deep angst about the inhuman, the immaterial, the restlessness of the heart, wrestling with no “thing,” a “cris de coeur” seeking balance– the measure of inclusiveness that reveals the universality of suffering, and the limits of “the human envelope.”

    Everybody is enveloped in a “situation,” a term that often means a quandary, a conflict, clawing my way out or through. When I really see, eye to eye, a person “in context” of suffering or pain, for example, I too am there, not abstracted from it, regardless of ethnicity, status, or beliefs. This might be the moment of grace, the “all of a sudden” of which WCK’s Chef Andres speaks: “So many unknown, unsung heroes—all across the world… are people of faith… All of a sudden, they are not only the church that feeds your soul and your spirit, but also a church that, all of a sudden, becomes one that also feeds the needs of the people with a humble plate of food.” Chef’s approach is far from the brutality of the coded phrase that messianic politicians have siezed upon to entice fundamentalist votes, “In times like this” (Esther 4:14), historical moments out of whack, and quoted out of context.

    My wife, a Montessori teacher in public schools for decades, testifies often to the difference a plate of food in the school cafeteria means to so many of her children– for some, twice a day– before any instruction in “critical, analytical thinking skills” commences, day by day. Compassion, attention– to hunger and discovery through education, two of the fundamental human needs– is the contact point for liberation in balance, one day at a time. To quote Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen, “Charity in the 21st century should be about the liberation of the receiver,” not of the self-stroking giver.

  2. Would be great to read you further develop this theme with major examples of how it plays out in the world we know. Perhaps you could start with Royal Oak, MI ‘favorite son’ Father Coughlin?

  3. Dear Jack,
    I continue to welcome your insights into today’s world of “religion.” I had the privilege of being in a class taught by Revered Ray Brown in the ’70’s. Thank you for his quote.
    And thank you for being Another Voice.

  4. A great quote from Raymond Brown. It reminded me of Saint Paul’s observations about “boasting,” the mentality they he himself had until he realized that it was all “garbage.” After that, all he wanted to know was the meaning of the Resurrection.

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