Fundamentalism Reclaimed

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One would be hard-pressed to find a term more frequently abused in recent years than ‘fundamentalism’. More often an insult than anything else, it’s been used to describe figures ranging from Pope Benedict XVI to Richard Dawkins to Osama bin Laden. One refreshing exception to this imprecision is Cardinal George of Chicago, who offers what I think is a fairly useful definition in his recent book:

“Fundamentalism is a self-consciously noncritical reassertion of identity and autonomy by selecting certain antimodern, antiglobal dimensions of local (especially religious) identity, and making them both the pillars upon which identity is built and the boundary against further global encroachment.”

What I like most about this definition is that it is descriptive rather than pejorative. It restores a content to the word beyond lazy journalistic slang for ‘someone I don’t like.’ For instance, Richard Dawkins is not a fundamentalist. He may base his identity on what appears to me to be an insufficiently self-critical foundation, but he is neither antimodern, nor antiglobal, nor entirely noncritical. Similarly, as any familiarity with his writings will attest, neither is Pope Benedict XVI.

By the same token, this definition is useful for describing traditional fundamentalism of the Muslim and Christian varieties. For instance, a great deal of Muslim fundamentalism is a reaction to Western imperialism and cultural decadence (real and perceived). Fundamentalism is often a reaction to real harms; Western and Russian interference in the Middle East has often been anything but beneficial. And Western cultural norms are a threat to the Muslim way of life (although, granted, there are many aspects of Muslim culture that could use modification).

Less seriously, this definition also captures neatly the tendency among many U.S. evangelicals to insist on a literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis. While this strand of fundamentalism developed in an entirely different context, it likewise involves a noncritical and distinctly antimodern (it’s anti-ancient also, but that’s a different story) insistence that there is only one sense to Scripture, and further that scientific knowledge is to be rejected as an infringement on religious and personal identity.

It’s possible, of course, that the term ‘fundamentalism’ is more or less irretrievably lost at this point to the realm of playground insults (Andrew Sullivan, call your office), but it’s nice all the same to see Cardinal George using the term in a manner that furthers discussion. Hopefully others will follow suit.

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  1. Western and Russian interference in the Middle East has often been anything but beneficial.

    I’ll grant your premise about the Russians. However, until a lot more Middle Easterners take up a Bedoin lifestyle circa the 19th century the complaints about “Western interference” are a sham.

  2. Micha,

    Of course a lot of the complaints of fundamentalists are a bit of a sham, or hypocritical, in that they are not consistent with their rejections of modernity.

    John Henry, thanks for the sneak peek into Cardinal George’s book. It’s on my Amazon wishlist, but your excerpt of it and the subsequent discussion have caused me to move it to the top.

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